Geo, a poet, his friend Urson, and a four-armed boy named Snake find themselves tasked by the White Goddess Argo Incarnate to travel from their home in Leptar to the dangerous island of Aptor, to rescue her daughter (also Argo Incarnate) and retrieve the last of three jewels belonging to the dark god Hamas. It is one of those old fashioned post-apocalyptic sci fi adventures, really. The setting is an unrecognisable earth 1500 years after nuclear war; cultures and countries are entirely transformed. Mutants are common, and strange mutant species abound on the island of Aptor. There are hidden cultures that still use and understand technology, while the protagonists are unfamiliar with words like “radio”. In much of this it’s similar to books in the “Dying Earth” genre, named for Jack Vance’s work.
Delany’s descriptions are sparse: often he gives only the barest details, enough to allow the reader’s mind to fill in the rest of the image. When Urson and Geo first appear, for example, this is how Urson is described:
The bigger one threw a great shadow that aped his gesticulating arms on the crowded buildings. His bare feet slapped the cobbles like halved hams. His shins were bound with thongs and pelts. He waved one hand in explanation and rubbed the back of the other on his short, mahogany beard.
Delany builds a picture with a few short lines, of both Urson’s appearance and his character. There are other times, as well, where he eschews unnecessary detail: When a character loses an arm, we are never told which arm it was.
Though there is plenty of action and fantastic sights on their adventure, what makes this story tick is the mystery it is built around. Right from the beginning, it is unclear who can be trusted. Argo’s motives seem suspect. Snake, a mute, showed up too conveniently for Geo and Urson to believe it was chance. And the first mate of the ship they travel on seems to be out to kill them. As they uncover more groups working on and around the island itself, the question of who is working with whom and to what purpose only gets bigger. The first mention of the White Goddess Argo and the Dark God Hamas seems to set you up for a black-and-white morality, but nothing is so clear cut.
Much of this mystery arises from Geo himself, who rarely takes things on face value and will readily deduce some alternate explanation for what he has just seen – at times the ease of his logic is a little hard to believe. Also somewhat hard to swallow was the final revelation of the book, which seemed to centre on the idea that a religious experience could be induced fairly reliably by simply traumatising a person then exposing them to tranquility.
The book is a clever one, though, and Delany’s refusal to ever take the easy or obvious answer makes it all the better. It’s not a book I think will particularly stand out for me, but it was an interesting one, and worthwhile.