"The Lost Art" takes place in a post-apocalyptic world a millennium or so in the future. The Earth has turned on its axis and the technological civilisation is gone, replaced by a set up reminiscent of ours ca. 14th-15th century. It's not clear if the Reversal was actually caused by the technical civilisation or has it just happened but the Users, as they are called now, have caused the seas to rise and destroyed their own land and substantial parts of others and are now universally reviled. Who were the Users? It's not said, but their ruined cities lie beyond the Outer Ocean, to the east (and remember, the world is upside down).
We are introduced to this world a few hundred years after the Reversal. The story will take us throughout the new-Old world, from Maghreb to Moskva and from the Aeire to New Nairobi, the capital of the mighty Kenyan empire. The civilisation of the Users is gone, and machinery and science are viewed with suspicion though not necessarily universally: the Kenyans are building industry and developing technology, from windmills to projectile weapons (not identical to ones known from our past!). Old religion survived and appear to be thriving: Islam, Christianity and its Orthodox version in Mother Russia returned.
The set-up and something in the feel of this world reminded me of Walter M Miller's s-f classic "A Canticle for Leibowitz", but "The Lost Art" is first and foremost a riotous roller coaster of an action-adventure story, with a well constructed, fast-paced plot, judicious use made of science fiction devices and concepts and larger-than-life characters.
A set of indestructible User books is stolen in a bloodily murderous raid at the Siberian monastery. A fanatic ex-assassin monk who believes that if used, the books will bring on the destruction of the world sets off to find them, aided by a princess bound to him by an irrational and unrequited love.
A strange man who can annihilate enemies using a blast from his hand and owns a flying carpet lands on the beach in South Africa near the Atlas mountains, searching for a trial of high-tech artefacts. Soon he's on his way, aided by a 12 year old boy who is good with camels, an ex-bodyguard of an arrogant prince and an European woman who was a broker at a thieves' and diggers' market in what used to be Cairo.
The man is Benzamir Mahmood, a descendant of the Berber tribes that left the Earth for the stars (and a mysterious war with the aliens which only appears in a tantalising glimpse) hundreds of years before, who has returned to Earth in pursuit of his enemies.
And as is to be expected, the fate of the whole world is at stake.
I enjoyed "The Lost Art" enormously: it's fast-paced without being rushed, full of action without boring detailed descriptions of fight sequences, and most of all very well constructed. The crucial scenes and moments of the quest (because it's, as befits a novel of the fantastic, definitely a quest) are described well and in sufficient but not overdone detail, while all that's omitted doesn't break the continuity of the plot.
I must have a 12 year old boy hidden somewhere inside, but I can't help enjoying tales of people who have all kinds of superpowers, possess advanced technology, great intellectual ability or anything else sufficiently similar to magic. Magic will do as well! Thus the (literally) super-human abilities of Benzamir are particularly satisfying.
It's not all plastic fantastic in the Horowitz manner though. Most of the characters are larger than life in one way or another, but they remain quite human with it. Of course, there isn't much emotional subtlety there, but there is enough depth to make them interesting and worth caring for. The monk Va, haunted by voices of people he killed in his previous life and fanatically devoted to God. Princess Elenya, beautiful, intelligent and unable to shake off her infatuation with Va. Benzamir himself, generally the most simplistically drawn, but gaining some complexity as the quest progresses.
And underneath the story lurk - if you want to find them - quite important questions, mostly to do with knowledge and its applications, the uses and abuses of technology, the role of religion and the way people construct society and its rules. Is there a way to avoid the abuse of technology? Is becoming a Luditte or living a subsistence existence the only alternative to Armageddon? What is the relationship between knowledge, technology and power? Is keeping knowledge secret or forbidding its development possible or desirable?
Published by David Fickling Books, "The Lost Art" is probably aimed at teen/young adult market, but there is no reason why it shouldn't be enjoyed by anybody from about 12 years old onwards (or even younger if they are happy to read 500+ pages of large type).
Yes, it is largely a combination of old tropes, but it's done professionally, skilfully, with enthusiasm and grace. The resulting book works well and I haven't that much fun with a novel for a while. Highly recommended as a summer read for all s-f fans, and might inspire the younger ones to ask deeper-probing questions.
David Fickling Books hardback, 528 pages
This review was originally written for www.thebookbag.co.uk.
The review copy was sent by the publisher - thank you!
A millennium after the formidable war machines of the User cultures devoured entire civilisations and rewrote planetary geography, Earth is in the grip of a perpetual Dark Age. Scientific endeavour is strongly discouraged, while remnant technology is locked away - hidden by a Church determined to prevent a new Armageddon. This is the world to which Benzamir Michael Mahmood must return. A descendant of the tribes who fled the planet during those ages-old wars, he comes in pursuit of enemies from the far reaches of space. The technology he brings is wondrous beyond the imaginings of those he will meet, but can its potency match that of the Church's most closely guarded treasure? For centuries it has lain dormant, buried in a lead-lined tomb deep beneath the flagstones of a remote Siberian monastery. But it is about to be unearthed, and the powers that will be unleashed may be beyond anyone's capacity to control. Even a man as extraordinary as Benzamir...