This is a book that, for me, ended up being more than the sum of its parts.
There was quite a lot here that I found disappointing, at first, but as McDonald interleaves the three different plot threads across three different worlds/times I found myself being drawn by the story and worrying less about the niggles.
Let me start by setting out the causes of my disappointment.
Once, not too long ago, I had an idea for an epic story set in Brazil that would spiral out from a favela through wealthy Rio and into the jungle. As a result I did quite a bit of research on Brazil, from the football through capoeira to religion, music, dancing and then the mythologies of the jungle. Of course being (i) a lazy bastard and (ii) a mentally constipated idiot, I never got beyond the planning stage of my epic. But I did have the background research, notes, a plot outline all in place. I knew my subject pretty well.
So, where McDonald’s last novel River of Gods took me to a nation I really knew very little about and amazed me with the wildness of it all, there was a sense when reading Brasyl that I could feel McDonald going over the same areas that I’d covered and not, necessarily, showing me anything I hadn’t have uncovered myself – I literally groaned when the “fateful final” entered the story as a plot point.
And I groaned slightly, too, when I realised that the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics was going to provide the “sf” element to the story. I might be jaded but – on the whole – I feel like I’ve read too many multiverse stories. The core problem is that in a setting where not only can anything happen but everything must eventually happen the author has too much room for a simple get-out-of-jail-free skip to the next reality. And McDonald’s treatment of his quantum universe full of assassins (some with Matrix-style kung fu moves others, briefly but memorably, with a quantum-arrowed bow in the mould of a Brazilian Hawkeye or Green Arrow) is a bit familiar.
But, as I said at the start, Brasyl is more than the sum of its parts and quite how McDonald suckered me into his story and won me over has been bugging me.
The first is the quality and enthusiasm of McDonald’s writing. I’ve heard some complaints that he occasionally stops everything for the sake of description, and I’ll concede that’s true. But I didn’t mind, perhaps because when he does indulge himself, he does it with such energy that I found myself caught up in his wonder. There is, sometimes, the sense of him setting out his research simply because he found it interesting, but so did I, so I forgave him for the most part. Perhaps my one exception would be the extraordinary perspicacity of his eighteenth century characters, who when presented with improbable technological marvels show a too remarkable an acuity in their ability to predict potential applications.
Another part of the appeal of Brasyl is the quality of his characters. I was particularly taken with the Jesuits, and Father Luis Quinn’s story (a cross between Apocalypse Now and The Mission) was the thread that most engaged me.
Quinn’s plot thread is the one with the most resonance and depth. The mixture of religious and political colonialism, of the struggle between Quinn’s violent nature and his desire to be a better man, and the conflict between Quinn and Father Diego Goncalves – the renegade priest he has been sent to bring to justice – contain all the novel’s core philosophical conceits. The struggle between predetermination and free will, the point of individual action in a universe where everything must happen, the struggle between a characters’s inclination and their “better” self are all most eloquently and effectively laid out in Quinn’s struggle through Amazonia, the discoveries he makes and the fight he puts up in defence of his city of miracles. In truth, I could happily have read the whole novel set in this time line and cast aside the others.
That said, however, the other stories are by no means make weights. The struggles of the cross-dressing, multi-faceted Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas in his futuristic Brasil constantly watched by the Angels of Perpetual Surveillance are well handled, and feature two of the novels best setpieces – the description of the vast dumping ground and a neatly concocted heist. If I found Marcelina Hoffman’s present-day Brasil the least gripping of the three segments, her story is ultimately the one that reveals most about the world McDonald has created and so can hardly be dismissed.
Finally, though, as an unashamed plot-junky, the reason I forgive Brasyl some of its relative shortcomings was because I enjoyed the pacing, the way it picks up a head of steam as it steamrollers toward its conclusion and the way the ends tie themselves up satisfactorily in the final pages. True only one of the story threads actually reaches what one might call a definitive conclusion – but the final page feels like the right place to stop.
Ian McDonald is an accomplished writer and to say that Brasyl is not quite as good as River of Gods (not as mind-blowingly alien, not as packed with future-shock moments and not as revealing about its characters or their world) is not to criticise it – Brasyl has faults (some in the book, some perhaps in the reader) but is still a very, very good and a proper page-turner.