review: the lazarus gate

The Lazarus Gate by Mark A. Latham (2015)

While haunting the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore a couple of weekends ago, I picked up the second book in this series–The Iscariot Sanction–and was intrigued enough to seek out the first book, The Lazarus Gate.  This year has been about completing and catching up on some book series I have been reading, but now that the year is almost over and I’m starting to build my reading list for 2017, I’m looking for new authors and new series to sample.  Enter The Lazarus Gate by Mark A. Latham.  I call this a series because each one appears to be part of a greater whole–The Apollonian Casefiles.  One thing that is still to be determined is if these books necessarily have to be read in order of publication.  Based upon the blurb on the back cover of the second book and after completing the first book, my initial thought is that they can be read in any order.

The story is set in London, 1890.  The main protagonist of The Lazarus Gate is Captain John Hardwick.  He has recently returned to London after serving for six years in the Far East in Her Majesty’s Army.  At the start of the book, John has been released from his captivity as a prisoner of war. During his captivity, he was subjected to torture and turned into an opium addict.  Upon his return to London, he is certainly not the man he was when he left, and with no family or real home to return to, he is adrift and uncertain what the future holds after being honorably discharged from the Army.  He has only been home a week when he receives a letter from Sir Toby Fitzwilliam to join him at the Apollonian Club.  John accepts the invitation and after listening to Sir Toby’s pitch, becomes initiated into the inner sanctum of the club that operates as a secret service that identifies and eliminates threats to the Crown and the British Empire.  John’s first assignment is to uncover the perpetrators of dynamite explosions that have shaken the city in recent weeks.  As the story unfolds, John learns that those responsible for the attacks are from an alternate universe, that his version of London is only one in a multiverse.  Though there are some elements of the supernatural–psychic visions and apparitions, primarily–the story leans more toward science fiction than the paranormal/supernatural.  Indeed, one of the characters in the novel is philosopher William James (yes, brother to Henry James).  James’ character endeavors to explain the existence of alternative universes and the idea of a multiverse, using science and the scientific method to support his theories and conclusions. Latham is careful to include a conflict between science and religion during James’ explanation, as would be appropriate to the late Victorian era, and it is one of only many details that give the novel the feeling of authenticity in terms of portraying the time period.  One of the other details is the emphasis upon the Apollonian Club’s mandate to protect the Empire against all enemies, foreign and domestic, if you will.  In this story, the Empire is under attack, and the attack is carried out at the very heart of the Empire–the capital of the metropole and, in the eyes of the British at least, the center of the world. The way that Latham characterizes the fear of an invasion of London by outsiders illustrates the fears that Londoners and Britons had during the late Victorian era that enemies of the Empire would strike against them in the very place where they felt the safest and least threatened by the strife and unrest that existed on the farther reaches of the Empire. The fear of reverse colonization radiates through the narrative, as well as all of the questions attendant to empire-building and colonization.  Because my academic research interests lie so closely to this time period and the implications of Empire, I love this particular aspect of the novel and it alone will bring me back for additional installments of this series.

John is a character that engaged my interest from the beginning.  The narrative is told from his first-person point of view, and it is framed as a journal account that he is writing from the distance of time.  He is likable and fallible and goes through what would be expected of a man who is taking on the role of covert spy for the first time.  As he moves through his character arc, he questions who he can trust, faces temptation and struggles with his addiction, and eventually, for Queen and Country, evolves into the man who can defeat the Empire’s enemy and prevent the invasion from succeeding.  Without spoiling the end, at the close of the novel John is certainly not the man he was when we first meet him.  Though he does not seem to lose his loyalty to his country and its protection, things are not nearly as black and white as they were at the start of his journey, and there are greater shades of moral ambiguity visible in him.

I would comment on the world-building of the novel, and yet it appears that the world that Latham builds in The Lazarus Gate will be slightly different from but slightly the same as the one that we will discover in The Iscariot Sanction.  Again, not to spoil anything, we are sure to definitely find at least one character we met in The Lazarus Gate in The Iscariot Sanction, and yet it will clearly be a different version of the individual.  For me, this is one of the things that can keep the series fresh and make it fun–seeing characters you have met before but at the same time knowing that these are not the same characters.  They will, I presume, feel familiar but also wildly different.  In this sense, the series has the opportunity to explore paths not taken, how lives could truly be different had not one choice been made or one event not occurred, even as it offers the opportunity to consider how who we are, at our core, influences us to the extent that even if there are infinite possibilities, we are in a sense hardwired to make the same choices regardless of which universe we inhabit.

In short, The Lazarus Gate does many of the things that we expect from our science fiction.  It questions the universe in which we live, it uses science to help us understand the nature of our world, and it looks at the capacity individuals have to be good, evil, or somewhere in between.  It makes us question what would we risk, what consequences and actions would we accept, if our very survival were on the line? The book does have its flaws–it starts a little slowly, and for this reader the pace is also a little slow, and there is a section of the novel, primarily in Part 2, that is a kind of pastoral interlude that takes a bit too long in revealing why it’s important and relevant to the story as a whole and John’s character arc–but it was a good read, and I’m interested in seeing where it goes.  If you are a fan of Fringe, alternate realities/alternate universes, and/or the late Victorian era, I would recommend giving The Lazarus Gate a try.

 

 

 

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