Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Book Review: Kingdoms of the Wall

© 1992 by Robert Silverberg

Minor spoilers up to “MAJOR SPOILERS” point …

I wanted to like it, I really did. Really, really, really did.

And I kinda, sorta, did. Like it, that is. But ultimately it fell into that Dangerfieldian category “Even a mediocre book by Author X is better than 90 percent of the books out there.”

So I’m not disappointed I spent six or seven hours reading it. The pages turned, me glued to ’em. There was some interesting speculative dialogue, bits of horror, neat confrontational characterization, even an M. Night Shyamalan twist towards the ending. Kingdoms of the Wall is a good read. I think the problem is I’m rapidly getting used to supra-phenomenal Silverberg stories and went in full-force with greater expectations than I should have.

I mean, the novel’s set up holds lots of promise:

Every year forty villagers on an alien world compete from among thousands to make a pilgrimage up a towering, forbidden mountain, an Everest atop a chain of Everests. Few return, and those who do are changed in a kind of “attained-Zen-Satori” way. Most, however, are never seen again. The goal is to reach the summit and commune with the gods.

A lot can be done with that. And Silverberg does do a lot. As the pilgrims – very cleverly written as “shape shifters” – climb the mountain, various “kingdoms” are encountered. Some straight from Lovecraft (a deserted town populated with ghosts – prior climbers infested and controlled by fungus; a cave with a plant-thing parasite telepathically siren-calling its victims), some straight from witchcraft (an idyllic kingdom in a nook where bodies never age and no one need ever die). All signature stamped Silverberg. I enjoyed it …

… up to a point. Somewhere between the two-thirds to three-quarter mark I realized I didn’t like where the novel was heading. But I couldn’t put my finger on it, and still can’t. It’s a disconcerting feeling. Was it the sudden, never-explained disappearance of the protagonist’s main antagonist? Was it the sudden appearance of a mysterious stranger whose main function is to be a very vocal Debbie Downer? Was it the Shyamalan twist (revealed a chapter or two too early, by the way)? Or was it what happened at the summit?

Not sure, but I definitely didn’t like what happened at the summit at all.

Excuse me a moment:


OK, the warning’s been issued.

Our hero and the surviving pilgrims find a spaceship with a handful of Earthmen inside besieged by apelike savages. It’s discovered that the savages are descendants of a lost colony from Earth who’ve reverted over the generations due to the extreme radiation of the planet’s sun. The pilgrims butcher the entire group of savages and mercilessly hurl them from the mountaintop – including women and children. The Earthlings are grateful and promise never to return.

It was this out-of-character “purifying” of the mountaintop that turned me off. Expecting an audience with an alien Buddha but rewarded with small-scale ethnic cleansing. Also, the encounter with the Earthmen – a First Contact situation from the other side of the mirror – imparted no wisdom, no awe, no insight. I felt the ending sabotaged everything that came before. And what came before, I really enjoyed.

Oh well. Even a great tale with a weak ending from Robert Silverberg is greater than 95 percent of the SF out there.

Kingdoms of the Wall is a 370-page paperback divided into 25 chapters. It’s tough to give it a single grade; a single grade won’t reflect my reading experience, my own pilgrimage up the wall. So I’d rather do something like this:

Approximately …

Chapters 1-2 ... B+ 

Chapters 3-16 ... A

Chapters 17-22 ... C

Chapters 23-25 ... D

And that rounds out to a high B. Not quite a B+, but a strong B.

But that won’t deter me – more Silverberg on deck … 

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