Runes of Iona
by Robert Balmanno (Benin 1973-75)
Reviewed by Paul Shovlin (Moldova 1996-98)
THE SECOND BOOK in the Blessings of Gaia series by Robert Balmanno, Runes of Iona, is in print, and, like the first, it’s far-ranging and ambitious. The series began with September Snow which followed the protagonist Tom Novak, an author, philosopher, freedom fighter, as he worked with September Snow to disable the climate controlling wind machines of the Gaia-domes. In Runes of Iona, the machines are down and nature is slowly returning to something like normal, but little has changed in terms of the power of the Gaia-domes and their domination of the world. The second book follows Iona Snow and Kull, a freed slave, as they build a guerrilla army for the expressed purposes of dismantling the current power structure and toppling the dictatorship of the Gaia-dome government.
The novel starts strongly. The opening pages chronicling Iona’s journey through the Forbidden Zone are some of the most engaging parts of the book. Balmanno’s pacing of the story, as Iona crosses the desert and grapples with the unavailability of food and water, is spot on. The scope of the novel in other places works against constructing that kind of concrete familiarity that Balmanno achieves with Iona during her initial journey. I mean that because the novel covers the span of a generation (like the first book in the series), some time has to be condensed, and just as we can lose touch with our closest friends over the space of a couple of years, it can jar engagement when characters we’ve been sympathizing with grow up and become different outside the scope of the relationship we’ve developed with them through particular events.
While the book opens where the first left off, with Iona traveling across the desert, Kull, a freed slave, is the protagonist for much of the book. Kull is a slave plucked from certain death as a worker on a nuclear powered, sea-based, wind machine by a sub-magister, Clive. Clive raises and educates Kull secretly and in a way that is subversive to the totalitarian state — through books. It’s notable that Balmanno, “a library specialist in a Silicon Valley library for 23 years” develops in his dystopia a totalitarian government counter-intuitively claiming a pro-environment stance while simultaneously being bent on destroying it and using that twisted environment as part of its means for controlling the masses. Further, the main roles that books, philosophy, and literature play are those of subversive activities that propel the characters forward and, by extension, their revolutionary potential. It’s easy to imagine how Balmanno’s experiences with literature and Silicon Valley have infiltrated his fiction.
The Blessings of Gaia series may be hard for some diehard sci-fi fans to swallow in that their tastes and expectations may have been formed by formulaic genre-based literature. I had misgivings about the nature of the first book as well, when I came at it from a sci-fi fan perspective. What I’ve realized over the course of the two books, though, is that Balmanno’s intended audience is potentially more inclusive and diverse than those of a particular subset of a genre (say, sci-fi dystopia). Laura Miller, in her New Yorker article “Fresh Hell: What’s behind the boom in dystopian fiction for young readers?” cites the work of Kay Sambell that argues that one identifying factor of typical adult dystopias is the need for an unhappy, even soul crushing, ending. And while Balmanno continually stacks the odds against those who resist the Gaia-dome government, each book chronicles the rebels’ ultimate, although partial, successes, offering hope rather than despair. I feel like Balmanno’s series breaks new ground in adult dystopia in that offering of hope and may appeal to readers who believe they aren’t interested in sci-fi.
While there were points in the book that worked against my suspension of disbelief, Balmanno’s characters do have their compelling moments. At the conclusion of Runes of Iona, much like the first novel, a reader feels as if she or he has truly accompanied the characters on a long journey. The focus on character at the beginning and end (usually by means of isolating central characters, for example Iona and Kull’s final years together in the desert retreat) is engaging. The revolution in the books incrementally crawls towards full realization and after the first two one can’t help but be interested in what happens next.
Paul Shovlin (Moldova 1996-98) is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Writing at Binghamton University (SUNY). His research interests focus on writing instruction that integrates technology, writing instruction for basic writers, and critical analyses of the work of Robert E. Howard.
Photo of Robert Balmanno by Organicjar.
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