Sunday, April 22, 2018

Mists of the Ages by Sharon Green

I sighed as I closed my eyes, called up a picture of the man in his fighting leathers to look at, and spent some time wondering if I would ever see him again.
Years ago, at one of the flea markets or antique malls my wife and I stopped at on one of our days-long car trips, I purchased a copy of Sharon Green's Mists of the Ages, a 1988 paperback from DAW.  I remember vacillating over the thing--I was curious, but would I really read it?  The book was over 300 pages, a serious time investment, and it gave every indication of living on the borderline of pornography--the description indicated that it was about a woman spy who teamed up with a male gladiator to investigate a "pleasure planet," after all, and one of the ad pages in the back was devoted to John Norman's Gor books.  (In a 2012 blog post reviewing Green's 1982 novel The Crystals of Mida, tarbandu directly compares Green's writing style and subject matter to Norman's.)  Well, all those years ago my curiosity overcame my reluctance to invest a dollar in the book, and this week my curiosity finally overcame my reluctance to invest the time it takes to read 310 pages of what I expected to be silly fights and nonconsensual sex--let's see what Mists of the Ages is all about; I like sex and violence as much as the next guy and maybe I will be pleasantly surprised!

Dalisse Imbro is the best burglar on planet Gryphon!  She's the best because she was mentored by the best, Seero, her surrogate father!  But Seero is dead, killed by the Twilight Houses, and now Imbro (her friends call her Inky!) is on a campaign of revenge against the Houses.

Chapter 1 gives us standard crime fiction stuff, starting in medias res with Inky in the middle of a burglary job, overcoming security systems and picking locks and stealing a document out of a hidden safe, and then we get all the background exposition at a bar, where Inky talks to her friends about Seero's demise and warns them not to help her on her campaign against the Twilight Houses because it is too dangerous.  Inky narrates the novel, and in these early chapters on Gryphon Green emulates the style of a hard-boiled detective story:
Getting out of my transportation brought me the stale but familiar smell of the air in that district, air that seemed to be holding itself as still as possible to avoid being noticed.  It was an attitude that seemed to be shared by a lot of the denizens of the area, and one that never failed to annoy me.
"I'm trying to say they weren't there," I answered, reaching for my cup of javi.  Black was the way I drank it, as black as my hair, and preferably as strong as my resolve for revenge.
Of course, instead of New York or L.A., Mists of the Ages is set in a space empire future where you ride your personal hover car to a night club and sit at a table drinking "javi," your privacy ensured by a "distortion field" that surrounds your table. 

In Chapter 2 we learn that Inky's method of taking down the Twilight Houses is to work with the local branch of the space empire's intelligence service: because the Gryphon courts are corrupted by bribes from the Houses, said Houses can only be successfully tried in Imperial Courts, and Inky steals the evidence that Imperial prosecutors need to make their case--Imperial prosecutors are permitted to use evidence obtained without a warrant or via a criminal act.  (Obviously the ACLU hasn't opened any offices in this space empire.)  When she goes to the intelligence service's HQ to deliver her latest burgled document, the intelligence people blackmail Inky into leaving the planet to join a team investigating weird goings on over on planet Joelare.  One entire continent of Joelare is covered in mists, and this continent has been turned into an amusement park called "Mists of the Ages" where wealthy people can spend time in recreations of cities from the past.  Lately people have been getting killed in mysterious accidents in the amusement park, and the Imperial cops think Inky's skills at stealing documents will be of service to them in their investigation--why bother with subpoenas and lawyers when you can just steal a company's records?

Chapter 3 covers an additional briefing Inky receives from an intelligence agent who flirts with her, and is a good example of the form most of this book takes.  Mists of the Ages is a talky book, and a typical scene consists of a long conversation larded with verbose descriptions of the furniture where the conversation takes place, the attire of the participants, and what my guide to the world of the legitimate theatre, Bertie Wooster, calls "stage business": what the talkers are doing with their eyes and what they are doing with their drinks--"I handed him a cup of javi," "he raised his cup of javi," "I sipped my javi," etc.  Green really wants you to know what a conversation between people drinking coffee looks like. 

In Chapter 4 Inky gets on the space liner to Joelare, and Green shifts gears; the noirish tone is abandoned and in its place we find the letter and spirit of one of those romantic comedy movies that infest our cinemas and cable networks.  On the liner Inky has her "meet cute" with the gladiator mentioned on the book's back cover--walking in a crowded corridor he is looking at a hot chick and Inky is looking at the hot chick's jewelry, so Inky and the muscleman blunder into each other and each blames the other for the collision.  Inky is told that this dude is Serendel, the most popular gladiator in the galaxy, and Green tries to wring some comedy out of the fact that Inky's fellow secret agents, female electronics expert Lidra and medical man Chal, are star struck at the sight of him while Inky finds him oafish and exasperating.  Of course, by the end of Chapter 5 Inky and Serendel are already softening towards each other after, in the liner's gym, he shows signs of being not a meathead but a gentleman, and she shows signs of being not a ditz but a talented athlete.

In Chapter 6, a third of the way through the novel, our three government spooks, undercover as tourists, and their new buddy, stud and arena star Serendel, arrive at Joelare and don the costumes they will wear as roleplayers in the amusement park.  The middle third of Mists of the Ages almost entirely ignores the espionage/law enforcement plot, and is instead about the relationships among our four protagonists, the development of which we directly observe and indirectly learn of via tediously long conversations.  We endure page after page of flirting and lovers' spats as Inky and Lidra play hard to get and try to maintain their independence in response to Serendel and Chal's pursuit of their favors, and page after page in which Chal or Lidra talks to Inky about the absent characters behind their backs.  These conversations are the same cliched glop you can hear on the TV every single night: Chal wants to "make a life together" with Lidra, but fears Lidra is reluctant because "she's been hurt in the past;" Lidra and Chal make each other jealous by flirting with Serendel and Inky; Lidra eventually explains that what she is really worried about is getting involved with men she works with; Lidra and Chal urge Inky to be more open to the gladiator's advances, etc.  Mind-numbing!

Independence is a theme of Mists of the Ages and we see it not only in how vigorously the ladies resist the men's advances.  Inky reminisces about refusing to join a clique in high school; Inky tells us how she doesn't care that the average person thinks that stealing is wrong (halfway through the book we learn that Seero and Inky aren't really thieves anyway, but more like vigilantes because all their breaking and entering is of the properties of bad people); when a member of the amusement park staff warns our four heroes to obey his advice in the interests of safety, they object: "Paying for the privilege of being bossed around isn't my idea of a fun vacation" says Lidra, and Serendel adds, "I don't obey anyone without question."  Serendel repeatedly complains about the burdensome responsibilities and limits put on him by his fans and trainers.

Over the course of Chapters 7 through 15 our heroes visit two of the amusement park's historical recreations.  The first of the two milieus the characters explore is ancient Llexis, where lords compete over women through the medium of their magicians.  Inky objects to roleplaying a woman subordinated to a lord, and decides to go off by herself; when she gets scared by some of the park's simulated dangers (actors in monster suits), Serendel appears and comforts her.  When another tourist's magician defeats Serendel's magician and, by the rules of the game, Inky is supposed to have sex with this guy, she and Serendel simply refuse to follow the rules.  I have to wonder why Green bothered with this whole "amusement park recreating many strange cultures" gimmick if 1) there are only two cultures represented in the book and 2) the characters just ignore the customs of these places that are actually strange and might present the reader with some kind of entertainment. 

As the final third of the novel begins, Inky and Serendel declare their love for each other and consummate their relationship.  It's the best sex of Inky's life!

Because tarbandu tells us The Crystals of Mida includes nonconsensual sex, I was expecting some nasty sex scenes in The Mists of the Ages, but, in fact, Green in this book practically fetishizes consent.  When trying to comfort her, Serendel asks Inky if he can put his arm around her shoulders and she rhapsodizes over how wonderful this is in comparison to all the times men in the past put their arms around her without asking first.  (Does this milquetoast attitude about sex really sit comfortably next to the novel's Death Wish/Dirty Harry attitude towards vigilantism and the use of illegally obtained evidence?)  Maybe in The Crystals of Mida Green was answering John Norman's Gor books by having women sexually exploiting men instead of the reverse, and here in The Mists of the Ages she is doing the same by having nobody exploit anybody and instead portraying safe space sex.

The characters move to the next recreated historical society, Bulm, where the crime story rises from the dead.  Inky and Serendel are to roleplay out a game in which she is chained up as a sacrifice to a monster and the gladiator is to rescue her, but instead of an actor in a suit a real monster shows up.  Fortunately Serendal has been carrying his gladiator sword with him all this time--it's essentially a light saber, a hilt that generates a force field blade when he turns it on--and our heroes kill the creature in a long fight scene in which we get detailed descriptions of the box Inky climbs up on and the chandelier she hangs from so she can wrap a chain around the towering monster's neck.

In the last 40 or so pages of the book our heroes sneak into the amusement park's HQ to seize the evidence they need and learn that the Mists of the Ages management are drug dealers who are spreading a powerful new drug throughout the galaxy by addicting tourists.  Inky distracts guards so her friends can escape, and is captured and tortured.  Luckily Imperial soldiers rescue her before she is actually killed.

The real climax of Mists of the Ages isn't this police stuff, but the fact that when Serendel realizes Inky isn't a full-time secret agent, but in fact a thief, he breaks up with her because he hates thieves!  A thief killed his sister!  Wait, how can a romantic comedy end with the main characters broken up?  Because Mists of the Ages is the first of an aborted series about Inky and Serendel's relationship!  The novel ends in a cliffhanger when Inky refuses to go on a second mission against the drug dealers for the intelligence apparatus and they threaten to haul her off to prison.  Presumably in volume two of the series, which was never published, Inky would win Serendel's love again (and continue the whole Twilight Houses plot.)

At the level of the individual sentence and paragraph, Mists of the Ages is more or less competently written, and some may appreciate its message about women's independence and the ability of women to steal and spy just as well as men, but I cannot recommend it--it is long, boring, and lacks originality.  It is only nominally a science fiction story--SF elements like the gladiator sword or the properties of the mist are essentially superfluous--or an adventure story--the pace is slow and there is very little excitement or suspense.  This is a comedy about meeting your soulmate hung on the skeleton of a detective story, but the characters are bland, their relationships conventional, and the jokes anemic, so Mists of the Ages fails in its real purpose as well as its ostensible one.     

1 comment:

  1. Like you, I'm leery of long DAW novels from that era. I like the cover on MIST OF AGES, but I'm not going to slog through 300 dull pages.