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“Brasyl” by Ian McDonald

McDonald’s next novel, 2007’s “Brasyl” has some similarities and quite a few differences to its predecessor, “River of Gods”. The similarities are in the formula of the novel – again there are multiple main characters and plot threads, an exotic locale (Brazil in this case), a twisting, convoluted plot and some intelligent, complex science underpinning the premise. Despite the similarities in formula, the books are still very different when the details are considered – the setting, structure, characters and scientific concepts all being completely different to “River of Gods”.

The novel takes place in three different time periods. In the 18th Century Jesuit priest Father Luis Quinn is sent from Portugal to Brazil to act as an admonitory – his mission to stop (by any means necessary) a mad former Jesuit who has established a bizarre and deadly religious cult in the “City of God” he has established deep in the Amazon rain forest. Accompanied by French geographer Dr Robert Falcon (on a quest to measure the shape of the Earth) he travels upriver deep into the Amazonian heart of darkness where Portuguese enslavement and rampant diseases are devastating the native tribes of the Amazon. In 2006, trashy reality-TV producer Marcelina Hoffman lives a glitzy, shallow life of partying, drugs and martial arts in the bustling metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. Her latest program idea sends her on a quest to find an elderly former goalkeeper, intending to put him on mock-trial in a TV show to decide whether he should be forgiven or publicly humiliated for losing Brazil a World Cup. Her seedy quest takes her to a fashionable cult based around hallucinogenic drugs produced from an Amazonian plant, but she soon finds her life in turmoil after discovering a seeming doppelganger is trying to ruin her life. Thirty years later, former gang member turned entrepreneur Edson De Freitas dreams of earning enough money to one day escaping his poor existence in a Sao Paulo where government surveillance is everywhere, but the biggest threat is from vigilante gangs armed with quantum knives that will cut through anything. After his foolish older brother steals a handbag encoded with a seemingly unbreakable tracking system, Edson is forced to hire a specialist criminal gang to use their illicit quantum computers to break the tracking system. While there he meets, and falls in love with, fugitive quantum computing specialist Fia, but he soon finds out where quantum technology is involved things can get very, very strange.

As unlikely as it may seem, all the plots eventually intersect, courtesy of some audacious and unpredictable plotting. Each of the plots ultimately hinges on the science of quantum mechanics and its bizarre and frightening consequences. The science is clearly explained and mostly consistent with current scientific theories, and although there is occasionally some slightly clunky exposition required to explain the science it is mostly handled fairly well. The scientific (and philosophical) concepts and the consequences of them are interesting and thought-provoking, although there is much more to this novel than just the science. The plotting is very original with three interesting and compelling main plot lines all coming to a largely satisfying (although not necessarily final) conclusion and all of them combining to ultimately form one epic, although ultimately unresolved plot that is much bigger than the confines of one country. The ending does not tie up all the plot threads, although many things are resolved there is plenty of scope left for sequels, although the very nature of the overall plot means that it would be a story very difficult to ever entirely finish. The plot is mostly fairly convincing, but occasionally some bits of plotting do seem a bit implausible (for example, the actions of Marcelina’s doppelganger don’t entirely make sense) and it can sometimes feel a bit contrived.

The characterisation of both the main and minor character is usually strong. The complex character of Luis Quinn, a man of deep principles but also someone atoning for past crimes, is particularly interesting. Marcelina Hoffman is not a likeable character, some of her actions are contemptible, but she has enough self-awareness of her own flaws then when her life starts to fall apart it is possible to feel some sympathy for her, even if a lot of her problems are ultimately self-inflicted. Edson is probably the most superficially likeable of the main characters, although he too has a fairly complex character. There are a number of interesting minor characters in the novel and even some that appear very briefly end up being memorable. On the other hand some of the significant minor characters do feel a bit under-explored – principally Edson’s sort-of-girlfriend Fia.

As in “River of Gods” one of this novel’s best aspects is the fascinating portrayal of the exotic cultures of past, present and future Brazil. McDonald has obviously studied Brazil extensively and the novel is packed with Brazilian words and terms and cultural references. To someone not familiar with Brazilian culture this might make the book a bit difficult to follow at times, because McDonald rarely explains the foreign terminology and although there are little pieces of cultural exposition scattered throughout the book, a lot if left for the reader to work out from the context. There is a glossary of Brazilian words included at the end of the book, but I did not find it necessary to use it, since it was usually possible to figure out what the Brazilian terms meant from the context. This does help give the novel a convincingly exotic feel when combined with some very evocative writing about subjects as diverse as exploitive reality television, religion, football, the natural wonders of the rainforest, quantum computing, the cruelty of slavery, the oppressiveness of a surveillance society, the danger of the favelas and, of course, the country of Brazil itself. The quality of the prose is consistently high, and it also features quite a lot of variation of writing styles from the precise, analytical writings of Dr Falcon to the fast-moving sometimes deliberately ungrammatical prose used to describe Marcelina’s misadventures.

In summary, this is another hugely impressive novel with an ambitious, distinctive plot, intelligent, thought-provoking science, good characterisation, excellent writing and a fascinating portrayal of a foreign country. Occasionally the usually-excellent plotting does seem a bit implausible, but that’s about the only major flaw.

Rating : 9/10

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