It’s pretty well known that middle books in series are tricky customers, providing neither a beginning nor an end to a story in which one is already invested. It’s admirable indeed, then, that The Empyreus Proof is a remarkable book. It’s a book that adds not only depth and profundity to its characters but also its world. It becomes clear quite early on that we are dealing with a highly complex universe that seems to be tethered to our world by some manner of psychic strings, and the multiple layers of meanings, contradictions and conflicts feels extremely well thought out and essentially real.
The Goddess Project was a rich, enjoyable book, extremely polished in its execution and dealing with interesting topics, but TEP really demonstrates the scale of Wigmore’s ambition, both in terms of scope but also thematically. There is a strong theme of sacrifice running through the book, as well as deception. Multiple characters are deceiving each other, sometimes for nefarious reasons, but possibly sometimes as a kindness. Even the greatest cruelties are not viewed with binary clarity; Orc’s (view spoiler)seem cruel, but as Orc grows his decisions do attain a sort of retrospective benevolence. Likewise, as the curtain is slowly drawn back upon the truth, perhaps those who seem the most malignant are not as terrible as they seem. We shall see.
Despite the complexity the plot (actually multiple sub-plotlines) is fairly simple. After the catastrophe on the Hidden Islands Orc and Cass try to rescue Tashi from his altered state by taking him to a magical college. From there they attempt to solve the twin problems of their own past and stopping the attack planned by the kingdom of Kurassia on Highcloud. This means navigating through (and escaping from) a magical city Bismark. Other characters seek to rescue Geist from captivity. And that’s pretty much it. But the amount of drama and incident and layers derived from this deceptively simple set up is incredible.
We are introduced to the same characters from TGP: the amnesiac freedivers Orc and Cass, who piece together more of their shattered and shared memories; the tragic figure of Tashi, the fallen novitiate warrior who is riven with internal conflict between the emotionally closeted tenets of his Buddhistesque religion and the physical and emotional desires of the lower world; the mysterious Geist, who taught Orc about shamanic practices, and a host of others. Not least of these is the shadowy cabal known as The Kings behind The World (Kaybees for short), who were too far removed in TGP to be made any real sense of. Here at least a couple of their layers are stripped away, and when we are given a shocking revelation at the very end of the book it possibly changes the way in which we view the entire series.
In fact I came away from the book with the sense that here is a world that is full of possibility and intrigue; it offers the reader a tantalising and sometimes frustrating spiderweb of breadcrumbs and challenges us to fathom it. Conspiracies abound, from the possibility that Geist is possibly not as benevolent as he seems, to the fascinating seance scene in the middle of the book, when a very famous and recognisable Thing from our world encroaches on this most magical of places. At the time this feels like it’s revealing too much, but in fact does nothing of the sort, and by the end feels, like a classic piece of misdirection. Talking of which, and along the same conspiratorial lines, in TGP the Kaybees come off as almost a throwaway cliche, a faux-comic council of anonymous bad guys, like SPECTRE or whatever. But here they are given unexpected depth, even tragedy, and the series if lifted by their desperate, inveigling presence.
I can’t remember feeling this excited and puzzled and intrigued by a series since reading the first three books of A Song Of Ice And Fire, Seriously. The main frustration is that more people aren’t talking about it online, and that we may have to wait some time for Book 3.
The book is weighty, at 650 pages, and as a result it does not always rattle along at 100mph. There is arguably more exposition about the world at large in this book, perhaps because we are already immersed in it. This makes the middle section, where several of the main characters are escaping from the city of Bismark and trying to commandeer an aircraft by possibly illicit means perhaps slower than it could be.
No matter. Wigmore’s confident enough in his creation that he demands we invest in it thoroughly, and we should, because it rewards consideration, and I’ll be returning to the book at some point to see what else I can glean from it. It’s a remarkable achievement.