I’m the first to admit that my reason for picking Far-Seer by Robert J. Sawyer was the cover. ‘Is this a book about sentient dinosaurs?’ I asked myself, reading the blurb to confirm my theory. It was one of a number of books I left that antiquarian bookstore with, the first of a trilogy. I knew nothing of the author and did no research on him or the book before beginning to read, my own theories on the plot in place. I found out later that the book won the Homer award for best novel in 1992. This raised a curious point in my book selection process; every book so far on the Library Bizarre has won an award of some kind in its life, showcasing how few authors I’ve read in my time. In my youth there was Tolkien and Asimov, Douglas Adams and a smattering of David and Leigh Eddings books. Other random authors were littered throughout but in my twenties my reading stopped, due to work and other obligations. It’s only recently that I’ve picked up the hobby once again, looking back now at names I might’ve known better had I kept at it. Perhaps this book might have been known to me, perhaps not.
Far-Seer follows Afsan as the main protagonist. He’s a quintaglio, a species of sentient dinosaur. They live in small communities on a massive land mass that’s sailing forever up a river so wide its banks have never been discovered. They are led by a line of rulers descended from the ancient prophet Larsk, the one who discovered the Face of God, the large glowing object that fills the night sky on the far side of the world. Over time the quintaglio cast aside their old hunter religion, instead following the prophet Larsk’s teachings. A place of sprawling jungles and mountains, the lands have regular earthquakes but otherwise life continues as it always does, with quintaglio hunting, creating and venerating their religion and empress. Afsan is the apprentice to the court astrologer Tak-Saleed, having lasted the longest under his critical and demanding gaze compared to his many former apprentices. Soon is the time of his pilgrimage to see the Face of God, following in the wake of the prophet’s journey. It is a coming-of-age ceremony that all go on if they can, reaffirming their belief in the faith and ensuring they can go on to the afterlife when they die. For Afsan, his time it spent observing the moons and stars, watching them on their own journeys through the sky. In time he may become the successor to his mentor, perhaps train an apprentice of his own. The events preceding and during his pilgrimage however cause Afsan to ask questions that are never asked, wonder if there’s more to things then at first meets the eye. And so Afsan goes on two journeys simultaneously, of discovery and of faith, each one changed forever by the other. This journey is triggered in part by the namesake of the book, the far-seer. For all intents and purposes it’s a telescope, a device that will allow Afsan not only to see things magnified; it will also open his mind to a whole world of possibilities.
This book has one thing I wasn’t surprised to see at the beginning, a map of the landmass the quintaglio call home. It name the eight provinces their world is separated into, noting important locations and the continent’s overall length and shape. This I’d seen in other books, namely among the fantasy genre. Directly after it however is a dramatis personae, listing all of the characters of significance. It grouped characters by their affiliation and provided a description of their profession, no longer then a few words. This puzzled me initially as it showed me all the important characters I’d encounter. I found myself only rarely consulting it, usually to remind myself of who a minor character was. The main cast appear often enough that they are recognisable, but common features that distinguish people in other stories aren’t present in Far-Seer. Quintaglio don’t wear clothes barring the occasional sash or travel pack. They also lack hair and different eye colours; this leaves their size, scale colour and any injuries as primary identifying features. It helped more then I thought it would, preventing me from traipsing back in my reading to identify who someone was.
The story is written in the third person with Afsan as the primary view point. At times we get to see from the perspective of other characters; when that happens, it’s clear when the change occurs. The internal monologue of each character is clearly distinguished from their musings and thoughts through the use of italics. Italics are used for speech that’s thought rather then spoken, eliminating any possible confusion in the text. The narrative does a wonderful job of describing the world Afsan lives in as well as his outlook on life. Every character is different enough that you could tell whose mind you’re in even if the name wasn’t mentioned. Of significant importance in the book is the mannerisms of the quintalgio themselves; being dinosaurs rather then humans, they have deeply rooted animalistic instincts. Each one has a sense of their territory and can detect pheromones in the air, for instance. Even the largest settlements are tiny in comparison to human ones, only hundreds of quintaglio within the comparatively massive settlement of their capitals. The flicking of tails and clicking of teeth are natural reactions to things as befitting a dinosaur species. That they can lose themselves to savage bloodlust in dangerous situations – when territory or life is threatened for instance – shows how shallow the veneer of civilisation is for the species. All the non-human aspects of the characters took some getting used to when reading. Fortunately that acclimatisation didn’t take long.
Of note however was that, despite them being completely different from humanity, a lot of their thought processes were very human indeed. Their speech can be reasoned as an interpretation of their language so the reader can understand it; if you had to learn Quenya from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings to know what the elves were saying, I don’t think I would have read it so eagerly. There are subtle differences that reveal themselves during the story but Afsan and the other characters are very human despite never encountering that species. The chance that they would develop mentally in such a similar manner is very slight, yet without that common connection a reader would have great difficulty empathising with Afsan or any of the plot. I myself am writing some characters who are wholly inhuman and understand how difficult it is to do, able to appreciate that, while they think very much like us, they’re just as much not us.
The first chapter of this book is entirely devoid of spoken dialogue. Focusing on Afsan stargazing alone, it’s a wonderful insight into how he thinks and acts, the world and his place in it. On the first few pages I expected there to be conversation, imagining a friend or his mentor would appear on scene. But nobody arrived and with that, I began to focus in more detail on what Afsan was pondering instead. With no conversations to distract me, in a single chapter I got a firm grasp of the protagonist’s personality from the quintaglio himself. It’s a brilliant first chapter that made me realise I’d picked up something far beyond just ‘a book about sentient dinosaurs’.
I really enjoyed being in the mind of Afsan. He is a highly inquisitive character, questioning aspects of his life and beliefs that, even in the first chapter, are understood to be set in stone. He’s full of drive as well as a keen mind that can perform great scientific deduction. He’s unafraid to experiment and theorise, doing so to better understand how things work and why. As an apprentice astrologer that makes sense, even if it goes against his master’s teachings not to question that which has been laid down as fact by their faith. Afsan’s other important trait is the conviction he has for his beliefs; he’s willing to defend what he sees as true and has the evidence to back it up when possible, speaking from a position of strength. The other main characters are also enjoyable to read, each with their distinct personalities that helped build the world around them. Of particular note is Afsan’s best friend Dybo, a down-to-earth figure who ought to have his thoughts on far more important things than his insatiable appetite. He’s a character who grows and develops as Afsan does, albeit in a different direction and due to events out of his control. One could argue that Afsan has little control over how he changes too, driven by his curiosity to learn and understand.
As the story progresses, tension between the different factions within society begins to grow, all of it ultimately centred on Afsan. The narrative starts off rather slow, developing the land Afsan lives in and the current situation of society. It’s written such that the world building doesn’t feel forced; background is often played through Afsan’s recollections rather then dialogue, and when it’s spoken it feels natural. The plot has a certain pace about it, jumping between events of significance while briefly mentioning the passage of more mundane activities. As well as the slower points, numerous sections in the story are full of heart-pounding action. Fast, dangerous scenarios are given both pinpoint detail and emotional brevity when needed. There were times when I feared for the safety of Afsan and the characters around him, the author showing even earlier that he’s not afraid of killing off characters, brutally at times. As the pages went on I began to feel a presence about the plot, of darker times in the mostly light-hearted read that the chapters were. It spurred me to continue reading, see if my theories on the story at that point were true. There are enough twists and turns in the plot to keep me on my toes, more layers of complexity revealed which further made the world feel alive. Certain moments had me wondering what their significance was, Afsan having no idea himself. I was confident the book would answer the questions it set down in time, reading on feeling invested. In all of it however I saw themes that ran throughout, that I knew would only grow in prominence as the pages progressed.
The religion that almost all quintaglio worship is laced into every aspect of their lives and the plot; it binds the society together, directs them in almost every facet of their existence. Few quintaglio actively seek to question what was written by others in authority, taking teachings as fact not to be doubted. Doubt is punished with penitence, heresy with worse. Through Afsan’s youth, he was taught to believe and not question the faith, yet his mind is one of research and questioning by its very nature. After all, what point was there in his training if, when he assumed his mentor’s position, he simply kept things as they were without testing if it was true? For me reading it, the faith felt unyielding and smothering all at once, their society stagnant in many ways but united by their faith. The dogmatic worship curtailed questions and revelations in front of them all for the discovering. Advancement rarely comes from inaction; lightning may have made fire, but primitive man didn’t have ready access to lightning, so they tried other methods of replicating fire. And so Afsan seeks to understand as the story progresses, his character growing as his knowledge does. I knew as the story continued that conflict was coming, merely a matter of when. Apart from knowing that there’s conflict in almost every story, the hints were clearly presented within the narrative.
Early in the story I started to draw a parallel between Afsan and the historical scientist and philosopher, Galileo Galilei. Galileo studied the stars as Afsan does, drawing conclusions based on the unwavering principles of mathematics and science. Considered by many now to be the father of modern physics, he pondered questions that were quite unpopular to ask in the time he was born and lived. Facing persecution from the inquisition and eventual charges of heresy, Galileo stuck firm to his beliefs despite being a catholic, believing that they could coexist peacefully. The facts he proposed were to many eye-opening and to others monstrous, impossible with their current view of the world. There are many similarities to how Afsan and Galileo think and I imagine the two would get along quite well… once they found a way to communicate and got over the fact that intelligent dinosaurs existed (or that a hairless mammal was intelligent and talking in the case of Afsan).
What made me think of Galileo was the question that Afsan asks himself often, the most important of them all; why. That word, of questioning what’s before you and working out the answer, is one of the book’s important themes. To a parent, why can be an annoying word, it uttered countless times often without a moments consideration. While sometimes used by a child without truly wanting an answer, it’s the one word that pushes all advancement forward. It goes hand-in-hand with another word, how. The circumstances decree which word comes first, but both eventually are asked. That’s not just limited to science either; in philosophy why is exceptionally important, being that it’s the precursor to scientific thought. Theology is the study of religion while theosophy is the philosophy of religion. For any quintaglio, I realised, that question comes with a moderate degree of risk. This is because the faith worshipped by almost all quintaglio lacks theosophy; There’s no room for true debate within the faith, and thus within much of the important aspects of society itself. While ignorance is bliss, in discovery there is both the illumination of knowledge and the burden that comes with it.
The end segment of the book focuses almost entirely on one revelation, a fact which brings about an impetus for change. I knew right from the reveal of the twist – which occurs midway through – that it would be messy and the book doesn’t disappoint. The pace increases significantly, letting you know that everything is coming to a head. There’s tension and tragedy in equal measure, points where I was hoping for the plot to come to the rescue when it didn’t. Subtle moments within the story started to make sense, the seeds of curiosity flourishing into eye-opening moments. Afsan learns many things about the way his world works in quick order, not all of it good. While I won’t spoil the ending itself, I can say that it has more than a few surprises that left with a great sense of satisfaction while reading. Previously background characters flourish, showing the full depths of their personalities only briefly hinted at. It wasn’t just this that I noticed about the ending however; I began to spot something that had pervaded the entire book.
That the story is about change is only part of Far-Seer‘s narrative; it’s also about what one does when presented with change. A change in outlook based on new theories is one thing but some change is unavoidable; it affects observers whether they know about it or not, prevention impossible. Everyone experiences that in their lives, that itself is inevitable. The ways to deal with it vary greatly from person to person, one society to another. Some hope the change will go away, others actively work to deny anything is happening. Then there are those who try to understand what’s occurring, the better to adapt and endure that which will happen. They seek to shift the Sword of Damocles from its path, in the hopes it may miss and so avert catastrophe. Half of the battle is being brave enough to say change is coming, the other is getting people to accept it. Sometimes a battle of minds provokes a literal battle within society, rending itself apart and only possibly reassembling at the end in one form or another. Far-Seer allows the reader to observe that level of change affect a society and people in less then forty chapters. I personally found it fascinating to watch unfold.
For me, Far-Seer was a very enjoyable read but it was a lot more then that; it made me sit back and think, ponder much like Afsan does. I quickly grew to like the main character and setting, invested in him and the world he lives in. His struggles and successes, in matters both personal and concerning society, are exceptionally well written. The world Robert J. Sawyer paints, he does with great care and attention to detail. The quintaglio are a species whose intricacies are quickly picked up and understood, their society explained deeply but not so much you drown within it. It asks questions of discovery and change, the marvels and terrors uncovered with knowing truth. I liked the book so much, I’ve purchased both sequels so I can read them in the future. If that will be as entries in the Library Bizarre remains to be seen, but one thing’s for certain; never before have I remembered being so pleased to pick a book because it had dinosaurs on the front cover. If I had the same feeling of joy when picking a dinosaur book when I was five, I sadly don’t remember.