Irenicon is the debut novel by Aidan Harte and is the first part in a trilogy of historical fantasy novels. It's a very suitable title for a book where family feuds and hatred are core concepts. Ever since Concordian engineers divided the city of Rasenna into two parts with an enormous wave, Rasenna was at war with itself. I'm quite excited about Irenicon, it's one of the first books from Jo Fletcher Books, a new alternative fiction imprint from Quercus. Thank you Jo Fletcher Books for providing me with a review copy of Irenicon.
There are two ruling families in Rasenna, the Bardinis in the south, and the Morellos in the north. Like the mafia, they fiercely protect their territories and expect to be paid by the lesser families for their protection. The endless fighting has left Rasenna poor, with many of the once busy factories empty, apart from the deserted machines, and the dust covering them. At least the rulers of Concord sees no reason to quarrel with the broken city, only taking a tribute each year.
The only thing keeping the city from tearing itself apart is the last surviving heir of the old ruler, Contessa Sofia Scaglieri. The young Contessa is looked after by The Doctor, the head of the Bardini family. Until she is of age, she is a Bardini, not a Scaglieri. To prove herself she has trained hard, harder than anyone else, and she is now one of the best fighters. Rasenna is famous for its martial prowess, and their unique fighting style, using their family banners as weapons.
One day, a young engineer from Concord arrives. He is there to build a bridge across the river, Irenicon. To him, the bridge is not just for crossing a river, it's also a way to bring an end to the feuds and unite Rasenna again. This is not quite what his masters had in mind, and they take action to prevent it from happening.
The Contessa and the engineer now have to face the might of Concord, with its armies and strange machines. They are also up against the endless intrigues in Rasenna, can love conquer hatred?
Aidan Harte impressed me with his world building in Irenicon. It's an alternative version of Europe, so the geography is similar to what we know today, at least as far as I can tell. What has changed is the history of the world, drastically so. Technology is more advanced, and science never replaced Natural Philosophy, which now has almost magical applications. It’s well thought through and also interesting to read about. A solid foundation for the story.
Hatred plays a central role in the plot, and Aidan Harte dedicates quite a few pages to establishing just how much of it there is in Rasenna. Irenicon, I felt, is off to a slow start. A lot of time and energy is spent in Rasenna following the two families plotting. Allegiances change back and forth, and the poor Contessa doesn't know who to trust. More elements are brought into the plot, a mysterious nun, malign river spirits, and scheming merchants. You would think so many things going on at once would be interesting, but instead it feels like nothing happens. There is no escalation of conflict, only more of the same, and for a while I was worried Irenicon would be another don't read. Then, the plug was pulled out of the bath tub, and like a rubber duck, I was swept away by the rest of the story. The change of scenery felt refreshing, the danger facing the protagonist was escalated, I was seduced. Characters, who I previously could not see what motivated them, now made sense.
In general I liked Aidan Harte's prose, but there is a lot of Italian words in the text, and their meaning was not always clear from the context. Sometimes it was difficult to follow what was going on, mostly when a character's action in one paragraph seemed unrelated to whatever they were doing in the previous one.
It’s a ambitious project by Aidan Harte, and it’s a shame the book is such a slow starter. On the positive side, the two main characters are likable and well rounded. What’s more unusual is the strength of the supporting characters, which are all interesting and genuine. It’s almost an insult to call them supporting characters.
There are a few things I did not like about Irenicon, but the last third of the book turned things around quite drastically,and left me with a positive feeling. At almost 600 pages Irenicon is a brick of a book, but it is fastidiously written brick. It stands out with its, somewhat surreal, world building and well rounded characters. If you want something a bit different to your traditional fantasy Irenicon might just be the book for you.
Irenicon weighs in at 592 pages and is published by Jo Fletcher Books.