3 / 5 Stars
‘Kiteworld’ was published in 1985 in the UK by Gollanz; this Ace mass market paperback edition (293 pp.) was released in the US in May, 1988, with cover artwork by Blas.
‘Kiteworld’ contain several stories that first appeared in Interzone magazine in the early 1980s, as well as, apparently, some newly-written chapters Roberts produced to bring the overall collection to book-length.
‘Kiteworld’ is set in a future Britain, where, in the aftermath of a vaguely described catastrophe – perhaps a nuclear war – civilization endures, albeit in a rural landscape where technology is at a level ca. 1910.
Within this ‘Realm’, a vaguely Christian Church occupies the position of power, mainly by guarding the populace from incursions by ‘demons’ (i.e., mutants) originating within the fallout zone bordering the Realm. The Church has few scruples about using severe penalties – including execution – to restrict technological advancement, the acquisition of historical knowledge (such as maps), and dissent from its theologies.
As part of efforts to deter the ‘demons’ from trespassing into Realm space, the Church sanctions the use of large, man-carrying kites. These are regularly launched aloft, there to float for hours displaying ‘hex’ signs and symbols designed to repel demons. Those who man the kites are highly regarded in Realm society, but the mortality rate for kite flyers is high, and an innate fatalism rules their lives.
The stories in ‘Kiteworld’ follow the adventures of a group of recurring characters, who man the kite stations, and dwell in the small towns, that occupy the outer districts of the Realm. The novel’s sf elements are muted, and serve mainly as a background against which author Roberts explores themes such as the tensions between orthodoxy and dawning humanism (a theme which he visited in his 1968 novel Pavane).
The writing style Roberts employs in Kiteworld is of mixed effect. While there are many descriptive passages, their focus on incidental details often fails to enlighten the reader; for example, the grease, smell, and manipulation of the kite-launching gear is fulsomely presented, but clear descriptions of the kites and the principles of their flight are deliberately vague. As well, I often was frustrated by Roberts's use of dialogue laden with British colloquialisms, slang, and figures of speech to impart important plot details in an oblique, inferential manner.
That said, as with Pavane, Roberts makes the world of the Realm more ‘real’ than many contemporary, 800-page fantasy novels, burdened by highly descriptive prose, struggle to achieve with their own imagined landscapes.
The action picks up in the last chapters of the novel, but unfortunately, Roberts elects to close on a contrived note.
‘Kiteworld’ will most appeal to those readers with the patience to sit down with a slower-paced narrative that centers on the trials, tribulations, and hopes of its characters. Those looking for a action narrative, with proto-steampunk sensibilities, are better off passing.