On My Bookshelf: In The Lion’s Mouth

Michael Flynn serves up enjoyable reads, if you like science fiction with great characters to accompany world building and slowly-unfolding plots that surprise. His latest, In the Lion’s Mouth, is the third novel set in a series that explores intrigue and human adventure thousands of years in the future. It strikes me as his most accomplished book to date, and the best in an ottherwise very good series.

Flynn’s human future includes the adventures of operatives of two interstellar empires. They battle it out, sometimes in space with ships, more often in hand-to-hand combat, and occasionally in the living room while attended by a butler. This book opens in the latter setting. Super-agent Bridget ban, a junior associate named Graceful, and Bridget’s daughter Méarana await the homecoming of the Méarana’s father, another agent/double-agent. What they get instead is an agent from a rival empire, who tells how the missing man has got himself embroiled in a power struggle. They and the readers are drawn into a story with enough plot twists and intrigue to keep everyone guessing until the second-to-last page. Then we are given a cliffhanger, and now a two-year wait for the next story.

I recommend reading these books in order. The current read does stand alone. But I would start with The January Dancer (2008) and proceed Up Jim River (2010). The first book is an excellent read, lots of space and shooting and stuff. What some call space opera (think soap opera), and much beloved by fans. I think I was less impressed with the second book, in which Méarana and her father go in search of her then-missing mother. I’ve sort of spoiled the plot point, but just erase from your brain what I wrote and read the book anyway. In the Lion’s Mouth is a superior sf novel. The pace is slow and steady, but the action unfolds well. The settings are fantastic, but believable. It’s nice to have a hard-to-put-down book in one’s hands.

Two observations. One is about world building. This is the craft by which a writer creates a world (or in this case, a region of the galaxy) and develops a culture complete with history, technology, politics, maps, and characters. The stars are vaguely familiar, Edacass is Eta Cassiopeia, 19 light years away; the Century Suns are nearest stars Alpha Centauri A and B and maybe C; Epsidanny is Epsilon Eridani; Serious is the Dog Star, Sirius. Tsol is our own sun. But Terrans (Earthlings) have become the riff-raff white trash of the galaxy. Book four promises a trip to Old Earth–I can hardly wait.

More on world building and especially language–there’s a lot of Celtic people in space in ten thousand years. In their empire, they speak Gaelactic. Cute. Law enforcement folks are magpies and riffs (sheriffs). Some Chinese stuff is going on, too. As is the serving of an ancient dish, hoddawgs and zorgrot. (Get it?) Flynn has a fascinating universe and plays around with language enough to distract me.

Second observation: religion is absent here. I guess the Irish bishops crisis of the 21st century was enough to drive every Celt out of the Church by the 121st. Not many sf writers handle religion well. Most, including the more conservative folks, tend to avoid it entirely. Maybe we’re better off for it. But it makes for an intriguing thought. Suppose you were transported to the far future, ten or twenty thousand years. And you found no Christianity there. What would you make of it? Would you still read the Bible and pray the Hours? Would you attempt to evangelize? Would you look for an underground and hidden Church? Would you give up?

One of the things I’ve done since I was a boy was to put myself in the setting of the stories I read. I’ve imagined myself a Borrower, in Middle Earth, and living in the Foundation. Easily enough, I can imagine myself making and serving food with the elusively rare spice coriander in Flynn’s future. But I always come up short with wondering about how I would live my faith if I were the last Christian in the universe. Maybe that’s a worth a book.

Meanwhile, read Michael Flynn’s books. I really enjoy this series. In order, I would rate these books four stars, three-and-a-half, and four-point-five in that order.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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6 Responses to On My Bookshelf: In The Lion’s Mouth

  1. sd says:

    I’m not a big fan of “pure” sf so I’ve stayed away from Flynn’s general output. But his Eifelheim (sp?) is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read. Wildly entertaining, touching, unique, somewhat thought-provoking. Takes Catholicism seriously and presents it in a good light but is also realistic and un-sentimental. Takes the Middle Ages seriously and presents them in a good light but is also realistic and un-sentimental. I wish there were more books like this (I like Canticle for Leibowitz but its not as good overall).

    He also runs a great blog.

  2. crystal says:

    Thanks for the recommendation.

    When I think of other books that world-build, I think of David Brin’s Uplift series or David Weber’s Safehold series … I liked them fairly well.

    If I went to the future and there were no Christians – imagine the performance anxiety of being the first evangelist! I’d probably only tell people close to me about what I believed, especially if there were no arifacts left by then. It would be scarier in some ways if the future still had Christianity but it was almost unrecognizable, like the Fosterites of Stranger in a Strange Land :)

  3. MikeFlynn says:

    There are certain hints here and there. If the emergence of science needed certain mental prerequisites from medieval Christianity, then a future in which science has been reduced to rote memorized engineering, won’t have much of an overt Catholic presence. But recall that Little Hugh in THE JANUARY DANCER was rescued from a childhood on the streets by those he called “the Robes.” UP JIM RIVER features the following byplay between Mearana and the Emperor of the Morning Dew:
    “World hopeless. Keeps breaking.”
    “And yet you persist. My mother always said courage was one of the Four Great Strengths.”
    “You mother. Yes. What other three?”
    “Prudence, justice, and moderation.”
    The emperor nodded. “Those good strengths for ruler.”

    and later
    It is the nature of man to be selfish, Mother had said. (And Méarana remembered a much younger self, sitting by Bridget ban’s knee before a great fierce fire in Clanthompson Hall, while certain wounds of her mother healed.) It is a weakness passed down from our uttermost ancestors, the original sin from which all others arise. It emanates from the ancient brain stem and spreads by electrical synapses to the cortex, establishing by repetition its debilitating pattern.
    The more these patterns of self-indulgence dominate, her mother had cautioned her, the less your capacity for reason. The brainstem is not in the final analysis a thoughtful companion.
    But her mother rejected predestination. Whether the curse is carried in the genes, as the Calvinist prophet Dawkins had claimed, or whether it involves apples and serpents, as still older allegories run, a man can school his soul to a “second nature” and so overcome the curse. By diligent exercise, he can establish habits of thought that temper or block these signals with neural patterns of their own. With prudence, justice, moderation. And courage.

    There is also Bridget ban’s base name: Francine Thompson, which ought to remind one of Francis Thompson and his poem “The Hound of Heaven.”

    • Todd says:

      Francis and the Hound. Of course. Brilliant.

      Thanks for visiting, Mike. It’s been awhile since I read those other two books, so these other details, especially the Robes, were lost on me. Or forgotten.

      This in contrast to my current sf read, which is nowhere near this standard.

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