In his debut novel Ventus, Canadian Karl Schroeder has attempted to combine hard SF with high fantasy. The result is a hung jury. In one sense it's a fascinating narrative conceit, as it allows the novel's characters to react to concepts like AI's and nanotech as if they were magic, thereby nicely dramatizing Arthur C. Clarke's popular quote about sufficiently advanced technologies. On top of that, Schroeder gets to have battle scenes featuring men in armor on horseback wielding swords and call it SF.
Then again, for all its author's imaginative fecundity, Ventus often feels overburdened and aloof. In a fashion typical of authors who want to pack every great idea they have into their first book, Schroeder has a lot to convey, but lacks a sure and consistent hand in conveying it. Thus some ideas are beautifully rendered while others are less so. And Schroeder doesn't really give us any wonderfully memorable characters to root for, either. Ventus ends up being a pretty good book that could have been great but for the fact that its execution never fully satisfies its ambitions.
Backstory: the titular planet was terraformed a millennium prior to the novel's opening by the Winds, self-replicating nanotech machine intelligences that reformed the planet's surface completely for human habitation, investing themselves in the soil, the rocks, the water, and even controlling the planet's weather. The Winds are Schroeder's best concept. Somewhere along the line a glitch in programming caused the Winds to view the human settlers as invaders rather than as their masters; in response the Winds destroyed all human technology, leaving the colonists' descendants in a sort of quasi-medieval state, the better to allow the novel's fantasy aspects to manifest. Not surprisingly, the current inhabitants of Ventus view the Winds with a kind of religious awe.
Jordan Mason is an adolescent boy following in his father's professional footsteps (yes, he's a mason), working on the estates of aristocrats. But he is plagued by frightening hallucinations, the feeling that he is, without warning, somewhere else, inhabiting another man's body. An encounter with the enigmatic Lady Calandria fills him (and us) in: Jordan's mind has been implanted with chips by one Armiger, an offworld emissary from a powerful and out of control AI known only as 3340. 3340's intent was to wrest control of the Winds and dominate the planet, and Jordan was among many local inhabitants secretly implanted to serve as Armiger's eyes and ears, gathering information about Ventus' cultures and the Winds themselves. But 3340 is no more, destroyed by Lady Calandria herself, whom we now learn is a heavily nano-enhanced cool secret agent/assassin chick (she has a layer of something like kevlar beneath her skin). Now Armiger is alone and, quite possibly, coming unglued; could he attempt to take over the planet for himself?
Right away we run into Problem #1: Jordan. He may not be as much a nonentity as, say, Rand al'Thor from Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time saga, but boy, there isn't much to him, a common problem among characters who are so broadly archetypal. Frankly, we've all seen the "Callow Youth Destined for Big Things" variant on Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces a gazillion times, and Schroeder's characterization of Jordan is so locked into that mold that the poor boy takes forever to develop a distinctive personality.
When he does, the novel picks up markedly. Through the implants in his head, Jordan frequently sees and hears what Armiger experiences, and this leads him to think that Armiger — who has just nearly been completely destroyed in a recent battle — is developing more altruistic, human thoughts and feelings. Becoming one of the good guys, as it were. Armiger is allying himself with a besieged queen who is thought to have been chosen for her rule by the Winds themselves. But what are his purposes, really? Jordan decides he has to reach Armiger.
The further the book progresses, the more you warm to Schroeder's concept and the whole thing becomes better and easier to take in. I really am impressed by the canvas Schroeder has drawn here. But though it's obvious he would like for it to be more, Ventus is really best appreciated on the level of Star Wars — pure escapism with just a bit more heart and inventiveness than most. Its length is a problem, at just over 660 pages in paperback. About 100 of these could have been shaved to the novel's overall benefit, particularly in the early chapters where it is evident that Schroeder is still fishing for the most suitable style to convey the tale. (One odd scene in a crypt depicting Armiger's revival after his near-death reads like Clive Barker popped by to dash off a few pages while Schroeder was out to lunch.) And yet, though Ventus borrows from everything everywhere, what it amounts to in its own right isn't quite like anything else you might read on the stands today. And that's a rare enough feat to earn a recommendation.