The Seven by Peter Newman
Seven is a magical number. Indeed, a 2014 survey found that seven is the world’s favourite number.
Perhaps that is why the world of film and books has known so many sevens; from seven brides to seven brothers, from the secret seven to the magnificent seven, from the seven sons of Feanor to the se7en (deadly sins).
Newman’s The Seven deviates, however, from traditional motifs of a pure good opposing a pure evil. In The Seven there are moments where key players experience moments of doubt, as Newman expertly pursues the fractured story line he set out in The Vagrant and The Malice. It put me in mind of a Mitchell and Webb comedy sketch where two SS soldiers have an existential debate – as discussing the choice of a skull as a cap badge and collar motif makes them ask “are we … the bad guys?”
I will try – as ever – to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say there will be moments when readers may be surprised about who they are cheering for and at the times when cheers turn to jeers and vice versa. In short the interplay of factions is complicated. The political, social and species mix is embodied – quite literally – in Vesper’s part-demon, part-human lieutenant Samael and his dogspawn.
Vesper and her father, once again wandering and wondering as the Vagrant, share a duet in the limelight as this book merges the different approaches of its two predecessors.
One part of the story follows the mute Vagrant, a man whose thought processes are conveyed through gesture and action. Newman’s skilful writing again ensures that what could be a cumbersome artifice full of laboured descriptions is instead terse effective and at times amusing.
The other part follows Vesper and the Malice – the sword of Gamma the dead immortal. Vesper has grown older, but there is still the same determination, the courageous naivite that carries her into many a lions’ den. We see her thoughts and hear her voice, and know that charm and simplicity are no sure shield against self-doubt and uncertainty. Vesper strikes out for a new deal in a new world of new people (and things). After all, what is necrotech but a kind of generalised transplant surgery? Trust is all important, a fragile flower easily crushed, yet more powerful at driving change than any faith.
There is a third smaller strand to the story woven between the two. It is the thousand year old back story of Massassi, founder of the empire and perhaps more. The gifted but cantankerous woman who could see and manipulate the essence at the core of people, who could control others and who was totally consumed in her quest to protect the world against the denizens beyond the breach.
The backstory in The Malice carried us as far as the founding of the empire of the winged eye, an empire built on blood, a kind of enslavement and indoctrination in the ultimate manifestation of “the end justifies the means.”
In The Seven the backstory goes on to show us … the Seven. It shows where they came from. It shows Massassi striving to cope with how she could never live long enough to be there when the breach between her world and the demon’s broke. We know the Seven’s names, we always have. Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Theta and Eta. But here we discover how and why they are different in their drives and actions. We learn at last why, when the breach was opened it was the third of The Seven – Gamma – who rode forth to fulfil Massassi’s mission, and we learn why the others have done so little before or since besides cloak themselves in stony tears.
Reading about the Seven reminded me of my O’Level study of Charles Dickens “Great Expectations” – where Miss Havisham made the most impression on me. The magnificent waste of the bride jilted at the altar living her entire life in the dusty splendour of that wedding breakfast, clad in her wedding dress, surrounded by decayed trappings of celebration. I was struck by the hollow waste of such a life, not just lost in grief for the past, but obsessed by it. So too the Seven, for all their magnificence, have that same desolate descent into grief for the unrecoverable.
However, we have seen too often in the world how clinging to an imagined heyday, obsessing with the preservation of the past to the point of imposing it on the present, can lead beyond stagnation into violence.
And there is plenty of violence in The Seven, small tight personal struggles, men and monsters, men and men – appetisers for the great sprawling battle that spreads over almost the last two fifths of the book. The pacey tantalising writing sucked me in into a single final reading session through to the small hours of the morning. The battle is a siege of a sort, and in its ultimate desperate unwinnability it reminded me of the Matrix Revolutions and the final sentinel attack on the City of Zion.
And as the battle grows, as a reader you become increasingly fearful for people you have followed – some admired, some hated, through three books and I found myself remembering Randy’s message in Scary Movie Three about the rules of a bona fide trilogy. These include the existence of a superhuman killer and the prediction that anyone, including the main character, can die. I feared and I read, and I feared more, and I read still more.
It is almost three years since I first met The Vagrant and its author at a Grim Gathering event in a London Waterstones. The unique and imaginative story with its very different style quite captivated me then. Its grip left ephemeral impressions as well as clear memories. I am – as I have said – not a great re-reader of books. However, I have already gone back to The Malice and reread just the sections of Massassi’s tale – to see all those beads of story in sequence. I want to go back to The Vagrant next to relive those first encounters with Newman’s demonic inventiveness, both in the cities and their denizens and to the follow the whole braided path of The Vagrant, Vesper, The Malice et al all the way to the bitter-sweet end. It’s no mean feat for the ending of a trilogy to make you want to buy the first book all over again.
There are moments in every story where a reader may see something they think the author has written between the lines. For me, a winged figure plummeting earthwards from the highest sky and a description of a quality piece of work as “intelligent design” – resonated with a religious undercurrent. But that is not to say this is a religious piece, more a warning of the dangers of an intolerant faith, of the need to adapt to changed circumstance, of the fact that the world of The Seven, like our world has been built and is sustained by mortal engineers – not divine beings.
This review appeared first on Fantasy-Faction on April 28, 2017.