Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett (2015) 468 p.
Chris Beckett’s award-winning novel Dark Eden was one of the best books I read in 2013: an inventive, enthralling tale of the five hundred inbred descendants of a pair of stranded astronauts on a rogue planet drifting through space, their world an enclosed little valley of eternal night-time, bioluminescent trees and hostile alien fauna. It begins with John Redlantern questioning the stultifying rules and customs of the Family, and taking a band of followers with him out of Circle Valley and across Snowy Dark to further explore Eden; it ends with a violent schism within the Family, and Redlantern’s followers retreating into the much larger wilderness they have discovered.
As much as I liked Dark Eden, I wasn’t particularly interested when I read that Beckett had planned a trilogy. John Redlantern’s story had wrapped itself up very nicely, I thought, and I wouldn’t be interested in reading any further about him. Fortunately, Mother of Eden takes place many generations after the events of Dark Eden, with the descendants of Family having spread further across the planet, founding towns and settlements, introducing things like metalworking, currency, feudalism and slavery; a warped re-enactment of the bleak eras humanity went through on the way to civilisation. Characters from the first book – John, Jeff, Tina and David – have become legendary historical figures to the people of Eden, just as the original astronauts Tommy and Angela were to the characters in the first novel. All of this makes Eden a fascinating place to revisit.
Starlight Brooking, a young girl from an isolated fishing village, is spotted by a prince named Greenstone Johnson while on a rare trip to a bigger town. Greenstone is the great-great-grandson of John Redlantern himself, who fled with his people across the dark sea to a new land after the schism. Smitten with Starlight, Greenstone takes her as his bride, back across the sea to the grander civilisation John Redlantern founded.
And so the story follows that familiar trope, of the country kid suddenly elevated to a position of power, learning to cope with all the wheelings and dealings of political intrigue. It’s Beckett’s fantastic setting that lifts this story above its old pattern, and his thoughtful way of dealing with his themes and concepts, as the long-lost children of Eden struggle to regain some semblance of civilisation. As with Dark Eden, Beckett employs multiple first-person viewpoints, giving us insights into characters who are more complex than they might first appear.
Mother of Eden isn’t quite as subtle as its predecessor. It can feel a little on the nose sometimes – the dialogue somewhat YA, the plot somewhat forced. It’s not quite as good as the more self-contained parable story that Dark Eden was. But it’s still an enjoyable return to one of the most creative fictional worlds of the last few years, and I look forward to the third and final instalment of the trilogy.
(Sidenote: I complained in my review of Dark Eden about the publisher’s miserly decision to switch from a black cover to a white cover for future printings; since then I’ve seen the American covers, which are terrible. This is clearly just a photo of a birch forest with some colour overlays. Chris Beckett’s tremendously creative alien world deserves far better than that.)