The second mind-bending installment of The Mysteries of New Venice.
Valtat’s (Aurorarama, 2010, etc.) second entry in his series beggars description; it can loosely be classified as steampunk due to its Victorian-era setting and fascination with fanciful technology, but its literary ambition, dazzling stylistic panache and richly drawn characters elevate it beyond the bounds of genre fiction. The action concerns the efforts of Brentford Orsini, former regent of the polar utopia New Venice, his louche confidant Gabriel d’Allier and a small band of colorful associates who return to their beloved home after a mysterious diplomatic mission goes awry and strands the group in 1895 Paris, dislocated in time, years before the founding of their mysterious city. Paris proves most inhospitable, ravaged by apocalyptic winter weather and beset by political unrest, scheming occultists and dangerous gangs of killers attired alternately as ravens and wolves. Valtat complicates the story deliciously, limning (in prose that is by turns lyrical, arch and earthily witty) a complex society built on secret alliances and technological marvels that give the characters endless opportunities to discourse on art, science and mysticism while engaging in all manner of classic adventure-story intrigue and action. Characters who include a dyspeptic disembodied head, a willful Eskimo mechanic, a half-mechanical ex-military man, and a guillotine-toting, wheelchair-bound refuse baron are the order of the day, but Valtat’s intellectual excitement and clear affection for his creations prevent the proceedings from ever devolving into merely clever conceits or sci-fi silliness. The novel demands close attention and real work from the reader; there is an elusive quality to Valtat’s worldbuilding, a sense of much left unexplained just beneath the surface of his beguiling tale. The luminous chaos of the title refers to the amorphous bodies of light that can sometimes be perceived when one’s eyes are shut tightly, suggestions of shapes that, with some imagination and concentration, can be forced to cohere into recognizable objects. Not a bad metaphor for the experience of entering Valtat’s allusive, evanescent world.
A sui generis contraption, rhapsodic and strange; a breathless adventure for bent intellectuals.