Something More by Paul Cornell
Hardcover - 422 pages (21 June, 2001) Victor Gollancz Science Fiction; ISBN: 0575072032
Reviewed by Lavie Tidhar
Check out this book at: Amazon US / Amazon UK

In Something More Paul Cornell has created a chillingly disturbing Christian fantasy, a surreal world where Jesus of Nazareth re-incarnates as an alien, a lonely ghost attaches itself to a mysterious house, and soldiers use mind-bending machines to rape and torture the customary villagers.

England, about four hundred years in the future. An economic collapse has caused the country to lose all touch with the outside world (which, as far as anyone is concerned, does not seem to exist anymore) and divide into areas of influence controlled by the families: the Hawtreys, the Campbells, the Singhs.

Anomalies abound: The Singhs are the only non-English things around, which is probably why they are given so little space. Jews, Moslems and Hindus are for all intents and purposes non-existentant (not to mention Catholics, Protestants et al) and everyone is happily Anglican. (Personally, I would have liked to see the Rothschilds as one of the families. Alas.) Technology has declined and almost disappeared, armoured cars are horse-drawn yet advanced satellite communication and "the Internet" exist, and sending an email through a hand-held device from the middle of a battle field is perfectly normal.

In this confusing milieu we follow the Reverend Jane Bruce and her entourage of soldiers as they are sent to the mysterious house of Heartsease. Also on their way to Heartsease are Booth Hawtrey, an immortal agent for the alien Aurigans, who is followed by his biographer Rebecca Champhert, and Rebecca's ex-boyfriend David and his platoon of soldiers, fresh from carnage of rape and execution on previously mentioned villagers.

For in the heart of the house lies a mystery, and solving it might mean saving the world...

The story takes a long time to unwind, following Reverend Jane Bruce as she succumbs, temporarily, to the malignant forces of Heartsease, (who manifest as Mary Poppins!) and recording all of Rebecca's birthdays, from her twentieth and down to zero, with a separate chapter for each. We also follow David Hawtrey and his soldiers as they... well, those villagers don't seem to have it easy in the future.

Cornell builds the tension well, however. I kept reading out of a need to find out what it all means, what the solution to the mysteries is, and was rewarded about two thirds through the book, where the action radically shifts and all becomes clear before reaching the climax.

Heartsease is well drawn, a classic haunted house combined somewhat surprisingly with a whimsical Webster feel - it does, in fact, read a little like a violent, Anglican version of Clifford Simak. Mary Poppins is suitably scary, the haunted maze nerve-racking, and the smell of brimstone is in the air...

I also quite liked Cornell's choice of chapter headings, from "One: Communicating at an unknown rate" to "Forty-Four: A Mad sort of C.S. Lewis Thing".

Cornell takes us to a strange after-life, a war in heaven, whose outcome will decide the fate of the Earth. That world, in itself, is fascinating, resembling a budget version of Farmer's Riverworld, but without the complexities of history: it is a decidedly English, decidedly Christian afterlife, where everyone else just seems to take sides with no questions asked.

On the whole, it is a challenging first novel, and what it lacks in direction it makes up in the sheer enthusiasm the author has for his subject.