A book review: Engines of Empathy, by Paul Mannering

25 10 2015

Engines_of_Empathy(review first published in ASIM 61, 2015)

The first thing that you should know about this book, by NZ writer Paul Mannering, is that it is a quest story; and quest stories are obviously ten-a-penny, and at that probably overvalued. But the second thing you should know about this book is that its heroine is one Charlotte Pudding, a well-meaning single professional woman with an unparalleled knack for soothing the psyches of troubled domestic appliances, and that the quest at its centre concerns her endeavours to obtain a small bottle of patchouli oil for the antique living-oak desk which has been in her family for generations, at which point it should hopefully become somewhat apparent that Engines of Empathy is not exactly your regular quest novel.

Charlotte’s sidekick in her search for essence-of-patchouli (although he would insist that she is the sidekick) is the delightfully gauche, charmingly blunt Vole Drakeforth, who claims to be a direct descendant of one of the pioneers behind the development, a century or more ago, of Empathic Energy-based devices. Assisting Charlotte and Drakeforth in their efforts are an unusual religious order, the Arthurians (not, I hasten to add, the Lady-of-the-Lake lot, but a different mob), while the forces ranged against them include various representatives of the all-powerful Godden Energy megaconglomerate and a pair of particularly sarcastic furniture removalists.

Engines is quite wonderfully mad, a turbocharged alt-SF comic masterpiece that at once invites and yet more subtly resists comparison with the works of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, or Robert Sheckley. Neatly, it carves out its own space; it is its own creation; it is most assuredly a great deal of fun to read and yet sensibly takes itself seriously the while. Pudding and Drakeforth provide excellent foils for one another, almost incessantly bickering between times of crisis, yet cooperating admirably (if, on occasion, begrudgingly) when the situation demands it; and the emotional freight of Charlotte’s personal situation (an inoperable and apparently terminal condition) is handled well.

Does Charlotte succeed in getting the patchouli oil? That’d be a spoiler … but I’d suggest it’s well worth your time checking out the book to find out.

I’ve also learnt that the next book in the sequence, Pisces of Fate, is due out this year from Paper Road Press.

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14 12 2015

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