Evensong by John Love

EvensongEvensong, John Love, Nightshade Books, 2015

John Love
Night Shade Books
January 6 2015

Full Disclosure: A review copy was received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Evensong is the second novel from science fiction writer John Love. Set in the year 2060, it follows the latest mission of Anwar Abbas, a member of a special agency of the United Nations Executive branch (UNEX) nicknamed The Dead. Officially known as Consultants, members of this organization are cybernetically enhanced upon recruitment. Their purpose: to do the impossible.

But this time Anwar’s mission is much more mundane: he is to act as a bodyguard for Olivia del Sarto, Archbishop of the massive New Anglican Church. Sometimes more of a corporate or political organization than a religious one, the New Anglicans sprouted from the original Church of England and have flourished under del Sarto’s leadership since she took up her post five years before. Olivia herself is the root of much controversy, both inside and outside the church. She is loud, opinionated, and ambitious, qualities that often unnerve those around her, including Anwar.

Olivia specifically requests the protection of a Consultant for the upcoming United Nations conference on water rights she is hosting at the New Anglican Cathedral Complex in Brighton, England. Anwar initially considers this assignment to be one that is well below his abilities, but when his friend and fellow Consultant disappears on a seemingly unrelated mission, he begins to wonder if there isn’t a larger conspiracy at work.

Overall, I enjoyed Evensong. I was initially put off by its mild pretentiousness (names and titles are dropped frequently, like inside jokes for the elite and educated) but it became clear that the main character is very pretentious. I suspected this novel to be just another wish fulfillment trip, but I was pleased to discover that, despite possessing superhuman abilities, Anwar is believably flawed. He is quick to judge and condescending to those who don’t meet his exacting standards. Though I’m sure these qualities are due in part to his training, it is clear that the process of creating Consultants does not have a huge impact on personality, and it is likely that he was just as proper before he began work for UNEX. While this makes him somewhat difficult to relate to personally, it is refreshing to read a superhuman character who is so frustratingly human.

That being said, Anwar is by no means the most interesting character in the book. That honor goes to Olivia del Sarto, the leader of the New Anglican Church. Olivia is everything that a woman should not be: she is loud, opinionated, and speaks her mind. She likes sex and eats a lot, and both of these things make her crass in Anwar’s mind. If I had a dime for every time he referred to her appetites in his condescending, disgusted, holier-than-thou manner, I would be able to buy the movie rights to this book.

Her more important flaw, which is almost entirely ignored in favor of chiding her for fucking and eating and speaking like people do, is her lack of empathy. Her history before her life in the church is a mystery, though the lack of knowledge about her is hardly touched on until the end of the novel. I was very entertained by their awkward interactions, as it is clear Anwar had no idea how to even begin to comprehend a woman like Olivia. But this is where Anwar’s likability waned for me. His descriptions of how disgusted he is with Olivia’s behavior become increasingly tedious, and his hypocrisy in reprimanding her “appetites,” as he calls them, while simultaneously benefitting from them is boundless.

The only other female character in the book (and it is vitally important to their purpose that there are only two), and apparently the only other woman Anwar has ever interacted with, is Arden Bierce. Assistant to UNEX director Laurens Rafiq, Arden is everything that Olivia is not: quiet, reserved, and orderly.  My biggest problem with Love’s portrayal of both Olivia and Arden is that he pits them against each other. They are not directly competing for Anwar’s affections, and neither is truly a viable relationship option, but each woman serves only to embody the choice that Anwar must now make: continue his regimented, relatively safe lifestyle, or take a chance on something new and uncertain. This is where I was most disappointed with Evensong. Characters like these deserve agency, motivations, and stories of their own, rather than merely standing in as signposts for the main character.

Near the end of the book, we discover that Anwar has the ability to completely upend another individual’s belief system with a single phrase. At least, that is the only way I can explain how he manages to change the vision Olivia, an extremely stubborn and strong-willed woman, has for the future of her church after only a few meetings. He somehow manages to convince this woman to suddenly start caring about people, a whiplash-inducing change of heart that should be impossible. This leads to the creation of a Fundamentalist Outreach Program that seeks to “rescue” those who have been brainwashed by extreme religions. I found this facet of the novel very underdeveloped, as it is unclear what exactly Olivia hopes to achieve through its creation. I was also unnerved by the way it was praised unquestioningly by the characters and portrayed as progress by the author, though it seems obvious that such an organization could be used to serve evil ends and silence opposition.

Throughout the novel Love seems to be suggesting that the New Anglican Church, while political and corporate, is superior to other churches because it is socially progressive and not held back by outdated traditions. He writes off fundamentalism as evil, but uses it as a catchall term without defining it. He describes a vague, overarching Fundamentalism as inferior and harmful, but it’s hard to agree with him without knowing exactly what it is. Who determines what is too extreme? Why is this near-infringement of religious liberty heralded as progress? To what lengths is Love suggesting we go to combat extremist groups like those portrayed in his novel?

Evensong is an exciting science fiction thriller perfect for fans of spy noir, conspiracy theories, and political intrigue. Love sets up a fascinating premise that, if technology continues at its current rate, may not be as far-fetched as it seems. Despite several unanswered questions about the nature of religion, identity, and the soul, this novel has much potential as a thrilling, plot-driven adventure.

KM Bezner

KM Bezner

KM is a queer Nashvillian who reads a lot of books and watches too much TV. She hopes to one day retire as a recluse book printer with a farm of pigs.