Publisher: Orbit (1994)
ISBN: 1 85723 235 6
Précis: Count Sessine is about to die for the very last time...
Chief Scientist Gadfium is about to receive the mysterious message she has been waiting for from the Plain of Sliding Stones...
Bascule the Teller, in search of an ant, is about to enter the chaos of the crypt...
And everything is about to change...
For this is the time of the Encroachment and, although the dimming sun still shines on the vast, towering walls of Serehfa Fastness, the end is close at hand. The King knows it, his closest advisers know it, yet still they prosecute the war against the clain Engineers with increasing savagery.
The crypt knows it too; so an emissary has been sent, an emissary who holds the key to all their futures.
Summary: Count Sessine, while leading an expedition against the Clan Engineers, is killed by one of his own troops in somewhat mysterious circumstances. As this was his eighth, and last, life his personality is now confined to the cryptosphere to live out eight lives in there. Meanwhile Bascule, a Teller (someone who specialises in delving into the cryptosphere for information), loses his friend, Ergates, the talking ant to a bird seemingly controlled by someone through the Cryptosphere.
Slightly miffed at this Bascule embarks on a journey into the Cryptosphere to find out who has taken his friend, and why. At the same time Chief Scientist Gadfium has received messages from the unreachable levels of the Fastness that warn of an increasing need to deal with the threat of the Encroachment and that some subsidary system of the Cryptosphere is liable to try and release information on how to avert the coming disaster.
Recently released from the crypt, Asura, begins her journey to the center areas of the Fastness. Somewhat innocent and as yet unaware of the malicious traps the Fastness has inside it she begins a journey to the central keep of the Fastness to deliver some message, exactly what she doesn't know. However the King, and the ruling body known as the Consistory, realise what Asura is and are less than keen for her to complete her task. Capturing Asura they begin to interrogate her trying to discover what her message is.
Bascule, while returning home to his clan, realises that something is wrong and that people are after him. His experiences in the crypt make him aware that some big power game is underway and that for some reason he has attracted the attention of the players. So he begins a tour of the less well known sections of the Fastness as he tries to avoid being captured. Helped by talking sloths and flying creatures he eventually ends up in the higher reaches of the central Fastness.
Count Sessine, barely begining his crypted life finds out that whomever had him killed in the real world is now working extremely hard to kill him in the crypt as well. In rapid succession he dies seven times, leaving him on his last life. Unknown to even himself he discovers that a younger and more paranoid incarnation of himself laid down contingency plans for some event similar to this, including a self aware copy of that younger self who has been exploring the crypt for sometime. With the aid of that younger self he finds that it is the King and the Consistory that had him killed, for reasons not entirely clear. In order to remain beyond the reach of those most anxious to kill him the last incarnation of Sessine begins a journey in the lowest reaches of the cryptosphere, not so much looking for answers but staying away from them and hopefully from his attackers. His younger incarnation, more experienced in the ways of the crypt, begins to do some digging.
Back outside the crypt things are not going well for the King and the Consistory. Their surprise weapon in the fight against the Clan Engineers has been discovered and rendered useless. Negotiations begin to end the war, while the King clamps down on the conspiracy Gadfium is involved in to contact the upper reaches of the Fastness - which have been closed off and uncommunicative for some time. Gadfium, unaware that people have been sent to kill her, has a construct of herself released into the crypt - just as people come into the crypting terminal to kill her.
With her constructs help she escapes the killers and begins to elude Security while discovering that all the carefully laid plans of the conspiracy have been rendered null and void. In discovering who betrayed her and why she discovers that the whole reason for the war with the Clan Engineers is because there is some method of escaping the Encroachment in the areas that the Clan Engineer's control. The King would like full control of that escape route. It is also discovered that Asura is a construct sent from some of the subsidary systems of the Fastness with the brief of activating some defensive system left behind in the Great Diaspora that can, possibly, do something about the Encroachment. Gadfium, with the aid of some friends she encounters, goes to rescue the Asura from Security where she is still being, unsuccesfully, interrogated.
Bascule, after having been pushed down the central lift shaft of the Fastness, is rescued from certain death and given a mission. Using a vacuum balloon he is asked to go to the upper reaches of the Fastness and deliver a package there. He agrees and begins his ascent to the upper levels. Security tries to shoot him down with rockets, but forunately he manages to get out of range before they can succeed with that plan. Upon reaching the upper levels he begins climbing the staircase into the upper levels, steadily running out of air.
Gadfium's raid on Security has worked well, and with the Asura rescued she actions a public meeting via the cryptosphere to reveal exactly what the King and Consistory are up to. Using that meeting as a diversion she and Gadfium manage to escape away into regions that Security are unaware of. Bascule, barely alive, manages to deliver the package to the upper levels of the tower. This wakes up the tower systems, via a message that Ergates the ant was carrying, and allows Asura and Gadfium to ride a lift up into the upper levels.
Asura reactivates the tower and actions the defensive system, exactly what it is still being unclear. Although that it is tied to sun is clear when, 16 minutes after activation, the sun dims to 7/8's of its normal brightness - creating panic in the lower levels of the Fastness. With Asura's help general order is restored and the King is kept in check when it is pointed out what the Tower has in it and what can dropped down onto the lower regions.
After a month the effects of the defensive system become visible, with the Encroachment seemingly going into reverse. With no small amount of surprise astronomers on the ground discover that, over a month, the positions of the all the stars have moved...
Comments: This is an extremely fun book to read. Not being set in the Culture universe, at least not directly anyways, you don't have all the cues and nuances built up over the books to help you understand what is going on. Also he has revived, from 'The Bridge', the trick of a character who has completely alternative spellings for most every word. While this can make reading the book a touch slower you find that you get used to Bascule's idiosyncratic writing style fairly quickly and in a lot of ways it helps draw you into the mind of the character.
Also, like 'The Bridge' and 'Walking on Glass', the story has about three to four major threads running through it that all come together towards the end to make a degree of sense. Although exactly what the fearsome engine is, referred to by the title and Bascule's last lines in the book, is slightly unclear. So for that matter, is the Encroachment itself. Still that adds to the fun slightly as you re-read the book to get more clues as to exactly what is going on.
He also manages to convey the almost incestuous and baroque nature of life, among what are the leftovers from the great Diaspora, in a nicely understated way. This isn't revealed in one slap bang go, but more over the whole course of the story as you learn more of how the society functions - and what purpose the crypt serves as well. Which is, of course, exactly how it should be done.
Even though this book is set on Earth, Iain still had to get a massive structure in there somehow. It seems to be a trademark of his science fiction to have at least one kilometres long/wide/tall object in there somehow. In this case the Fastness itself serves that purpose with it's truely stagering size conveyed quite well. Although you could argue that that isn't the largest structure being played with in the book. After all he does postulate the fearsome engine as moving the entire solar system out of the way...
However one major trademark of his Culture novels is missing from this. There is no big question being explored by the book, no psychology being analysed. It simply is a rollocking good tale, told well.