Sprawling but still strong, A World Too Near continues Kay Kenyon's ambitious tetralogy The Entire and the Rose in good old-school white-knuckle style. With the establishment of the gloriously baroque artificial universe the Entire fairly well dealt with in Bright of the Sky, A World Too Near gives Kenyon more room to keep the story's forward momentum in play. The rest of this review will spoil a lot of revelations in the first book, which means all of you who haven't read Bright should take a hike, go read it, and come back here when you're done.
The climax of Bright involved Titus Quinn's discovery that the stupefying achievement of the Entire's very creation was indeed too good to be true: so much energy is required to keep the Entire running that the Tarig have had to construct a device capable of nothing less than the complete absorption and collapse of our own universe, in an event that will transcend physics itself. The machinery has already been tested, sucking a few stars out of the cosmos in preparation for the upcoming Big Crunch. All this being a bad thing, Quinn — who give up his mission to rescue his daughter Sydney and returned to the Earth with the dire news — comes back to the Entire yet again, this time bearing a destructive nanotech device from his employers at Minerva to take out the Tarigs' universe-destroyer. But along for the ride, much to Quinn's profound chagrin, is Helice Maki, a ruthlessly ambitious young executive who quite literally knows no ethical restraint in her single-minded push for advancement and personal fulfillment. She has plans of her own in the Entire, and they don't involve Quinn.
A lot of Kenyon's past work has had environmental themes, but I've never known her to be a writer who trades in overt social or political commentary. Still, now that I think about it, I suppose there is room to interpret the unfolding narrative of this series as a parable of our own fears about ecodisaster: the threat of global warming, or of peak oil resulting in a dwindling of precious resources on which we're already too reliant, followed by Malthusian freefall.
Mostly, though, Kenyon keeps A World Too Near focused squarely on suspense, avoiding any overt polemical tubthumping. Her large cast of supporting players are given more breathing space here. With the burning question being to which universe are you loyal, if one has to die so the other can survive, characters don't always fall into the expected camps. Anzi, Quinn's traveling companion from the first book, has thrown her lot in with our universe, the Rose, while Helice would happily see the Rose collapse into oblivion simply so that she can enjoy the extended life expectancy of living in the Entire. Other supporting players reveal their own hidden agendas. Cixi, a chalin high prefect helping the Tarig to run their affairs from their floating city, secretly plots treason, manipulating Quinn's daughter Sydney (with whom she's in love) into a leadership position among the Inyx, in the hopes she'll rule as queen following the inevitable rebellion. Quinn's wife Johanna, long thought dead but in fact a concubine of a Tarig lord, works behind the scenes to get messages to Quinn, to help lead him to his goal. And even among the Tarig high lords, there is one traitor who repudiates the planned destruction of the Rose, and has unthinkably turned against his own kind.
So there's more dimension to the characters and the narrative in this second volume. And there's a climax that's literally pulse pounding. It is true that, overall, the way in which Kenyon is splicing the ideas of SF onto the action and epic scope of high fantasy here results in a story that is best appreciated as pure escapism, without as much intellectual substance as you'll find in her earlier stand-alone novels. (Especially as there's enough indistinguishable-from-magic stuff going on the hard SF junkies might sneer.) The way Kenyon has Quinn and Anzi trudging wearily across the bleak alien landscape towards the citadel at Anhenhoon, where the device Quinn must destroy is housed, recalls all too vividly Frodo and Sam's trek across Mordor to destroy the One Ring, and the similar lonely quests of a hundred desperate epic fantasy heroes in a hundred knockoffs. So it must be said that at the end of the day, this series, exciting as it's turning out to be, is in many ways pure fantasy formula — just tricked out in the most gorgeous production values imaginable.
But who cares if it's formula as long as the entertainment value is blowing your doors, right? A World Too Near is sweet, splendid entertainment. Kay Kenyon will have you solidly hooked with this series, and if you've never had her name down on your reading list before now, it's way past time you added it.