Monday, September 10, 2018

Theatre of War

It's funny re-reading 'Theatre of War' after all these years, a bit like watching a recording of an old friend. You find yourself going back to the things that seemed so new at the time, so strange, but now are the old and familiar habits you've known forever. Sometimes you find yourself chuckling a little ruefully at their mannerisms, knowing that they haven't changed a bit in all these years. And of course, experience makes you appreciate everything you liked before in a new way as well.

I feel like that because when I first read it, 'Theatre of War' was the only novel from a young Justin Richards. It was before he became a reliable novelist for the Missing Adventures line, and well before he became something of a crutch for a BBC range of novels that was perpetually short on time and willing to throw commissions at someone who could write full-length books on laughably tight deadlines and come out with a result that was readable. And it was ages before he wound up the editor of said range of books, overseeing a late flowering of quality before the entire thing turned into a tiny adjunct to the most successful television revival in the history of ever. This was, in short, before we really knew Justin Richards as a writer.

As such, some of the things that seemed fresh and unpredictable then come off as a little shop-worn now. The intertwining of Shakespeare and science-fiction, which was startlingly strange on first reading, now stands revealed as one of Richards' stylistic quirks (and one that seems more than a little ironic in retrospect--in a story that revolves around a made-up civilization whose culture was never detailed beyond the bare minimum needed to fool people, it's more than a little amusing that the Heletian culture's obsession with theatre extends as far as Shakespeare, Osterling, and nothing else).

The functionality of the book also stands out more on re-reading as well; when I first read the novel, I was fascinated by the mystery of Menaxus and the clues scattered throughout the book, and charmed by the clever reveal at the end. Now that I know how it all turns out, it is hard to avoid noticing that the book functions more like a machine than a novel--everything intricately crafted to bring about the final conclusion, but very little done purely for humor and very few characters that function as more than plot dispensers. Even the scares are more a matter of disposing of people who've run out of usefulness to the story.

That said, the story retains its intricate craft; the scheme that Braxiatel lays out is ambitious and cunning, and the clues are laid out perfectly in a manner to keep you interested the entire way through. (This one is also particularly interesting to read in light of years of Bernice Summerfield spin-offs where Irving plays a major part; it's hard not to want to see a version of this from his perspective, meeting his old friend for the "first" time.) There are wheels within wheels within wheels in this story, revelations stacked on revelations that are in turn designed to disguise the big reveal in the third act.

A book this tightly-plotted demands discipline, and Richards is especially disciplined given that this is his first novel. There's not a slip or a misstep in his story, no anomalies that aren't planned with explanations already in mind. Every detail works towards the conclusion, every scene propels the plot forward with momentum, and the whole story races past in a matter of hours. It's a rare skill, and it's easy to read 'Theatre of War' and see how this particular writer was destined for greater things.

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