Jane Gaskell’s Atlan Saga: 5 – Some Summer Lands


JG - Summer

In one sense, and one sense only, Some Summer Lands stands in the same relationship to the Atlan Saga as The Urth of the New Sun does to The Book of the New Sun. Even then, the comparison is tenuous, consisting of the fact that both are later one volume epilogues to completed four volume stories. This link begs the question, firstly, of whether the Atlan Saga was ever actually finished in any conventional sense, and secondly, as to how far removed the later book is from its parent volumes.
Because whilst The Urth of the New Sun takes place both ten full years after Wolfe’s original tetraology, and almost immediately after its final page, Some Summer Lands is a more direct continuation of the Saga, commencing an unspecified number of months after The City finished. How many is not given: my initial impression is six months but internal evidence means it can’t be much more than two months, if that.
Anyhow, the biggest difference is that whereas Wolfe’s sequel continues to be narrated by Severian, Gaskell has done with Cija as diarist. We now get to see her externally, in the words of her daughter, Seka.
Another difference is that Seka is not writing these ongoing episodes on the run, so to speak, but many years later, when she is adult and has had access to her mother’s diaries (in the Tandem books set?) How old she is when the book begins is just as impossible to tell as anything concrete in the entire series, leaving the reader to try to make a reasoned deduction. My impression is that Seka is seven, though she could be a year older, or even nine at a pinch, but it’s hardly credible that she could be as much as ten.
Whatever age she is, Seka is very difficult to fathom. From her adulthood, she draws out her own memories as if she was then fully grown and highly intelligent, a precise judge of human nature. But, and this is where the book starts creepy, and will go on to be both creepy and disturbing for all its length, Seka is already an almost fully-sexualised human being.
Not in terms of participation. But in terms of understanding her mother and grandmother’s sometimes quite crude conversations about sex, and she is already (already!) experienced at giving herself orgasms of a kind, by holding a door between her thighs and rubbing herself on it.
Ladies, I confess that I have never had occasion to discuss that particular form of masturbation with anyone I was intimate with, so could anyone confirm to me , or otherwise, if that is a practical practice?
By the time that comes up, we are about three pages into a 358 page long book: three pages. And it’s not the first time sex has come up. Nor the second.
I haven’t even got onto the story yet, but there is more of this stuff at every turn. Seka is none too impressed with her mother’s body, and especially not by how small her tits are, though she’s quick to notice when Cija pulls down the top of her dress and starts rubbing her own breasts, or her thighs. When the pair are briefly taken in by Sedili, Seka not only compares her sexual appeal favourably to Cija’s but seems to spend all her time looking up Sedili’s skirt, where a boy is painting her thighs purple.
In fact, Seka’s whole attitude to her mother is one of quasi-amused contempt for her silliness, her hopelessness, her haplessness, her indecisiveness, indeed everything. It’s nothing that I haven’t said about Cija when reviewing the first four books, but it begs the question of just how much Gaskell regards her own heroine as a basic waste of space. It’s not even fifty pages into the book and already Seka is deciding that she has to find someone competent to get her off her hands, so that she – this seven year old, still-mute girl – doesn’t have to do it for the rest of her life.
I must admit to having a sliver of sympathy for Cija when the book begins. She’s back where she began, in the Tower, wanting nothing more than to be left alone to have her ape-baby and not to be re-united with her is-he-isn’t-he-still-husband Zerd. Her mother isn’t listening: Cija is still just a useful political tool to her and anything else is dismissed. She’s pregnant: get to his bed tonight and ‘conceive’ it. It’s an ape: abort it. Cija is rigidly determined to have her hairy baby, as a reminder of the only lover who treated her nicely. Not that she can have her way and she’s pretty immediately kidnapped by her half-brother Smahil, father of her first child, Nal, who may or may not be dead.
Smahil is still the perfect example of the Twenty-first Century stalker, convinced that he and only he knows what is good for Cija, not that he’ll touch her with his cock whilst she’s carrying anybody else’s child (other people’s babies are just a waste of his emissions, he says, if that makes any sense) so he has the best back-street abortionist scrape out the ape-baby: so much for that. Seka gets her mother out, only to be captured by Sedili, but then Zerd’s subordinate Clor appears, for the first time since The Dragon, to return Cija to her mother. Zerd himself is not far behind.

Summer

The Dictatress wants to send her daughter and granddaughter to accompany the General on his march north. Cija has no intention of going but is manipulated into doing so. She’s not just in his party, she’s in his bed, though Seka doesn’t tell us too much about that. No, Seka becomes an object of fascination for the Atlan bandit chief, Ael. In fact, it’s more a mutual fascination. First she watches him wank himself off in the saddle. Then he fiddles with her parts at a banquet. And then she wanks him off, twice, and lets his come dry on her belly.
Remember, this is a child, age unknown but very much pre-puberty. What I’ve said before about a twisted psychosexuality running through the Saga should now be discarded: how this book didn’t fall foul of the Obscene Publications Act can only be down to its obscurity.
Eventually, my patience with this overall story just snapped. Cija and Seka are separated from Zerd’s Army during… during what? A battle, a skirmish, a victory, a defeat. Sedili’s tried to poison Cija again, but instead she gives birth, telling Seka only now that the abortion was botched. She names her ape-girl Despair, but she winds up in a cheap and nasty peasant area, full of mud, shit, chauvinism, cruelty and subhumanity, at which point I was dragging myself to read any more.
It was just more disaster after disaster, without rhyme or reason. Others have suggested that Seka’s contemptuous attitude to her mother indicates that Gaskell has lost patience with and interest in Cija, and the way she mechanically piles crap after crap on her supports this notion. If the writer only keeps a character around to heap shit on her at implausibly short intervals, why should I have any interest in her? Or in her mute little snotty cow of a daughter?
Apart from my personal response, the mud-and-shit sequence is allowed to go on too long, without progress or development. The debased humanity of the peasant community rapidly gets very wearying: they deny and defy anything remotely describable as good in people. Cija is ‘courted’ by and marries a peddler who ends up using his dying breath to have Seka emphasise to her mother that he doesn’t love her, he never did, he just did it to save her, he knew what was best for her.
Shades of Smahil, and of course he pops back up. Cija and her children have finally moved on, just when it looked as if they were stuck there for good, the book doomed to die but keep on going forever. This is thanks to the unnamed officer that Seka only calls Beautiful or The Saint, who has quite frankly gone off his head and become a religious revivalist of more than usual stupidity. He moves the peasants as his ‘army’ to the Northern capital, Northstrong, which inevitably draws out Smahil.
He hasn’t changed. He still knows what is best for Cija. Nevertheless, she refuses to come and live with him, so he visits practically every day and semi-rapes her. It revives Seka’s interest in the subject after a long period in which she seems to have forgotten about even masturbating.
The book, and the series, moves into its end-game with the reappearance of Juzd, the former Regent of Atlan, a man from whom golden light emanates, and who is some kind of spiritually superior person. He is able to deflect Smahil, indeed override his worst instincts. Cija and Seka go with Juzd, into the Palace, where they become captives of the Northern King, but Juzd leads them clear in the midst of an attack by Zerd.
And things change out of all recognition over the last sixty pages, as Gaskell turns away from everything she’s done before now, leading her Saga towards, what else, but the Fall of Atlan, Atlantis. This is accompanied by much quasi-spiritual philosophising, conducted primarily in heavy and undigestable platitudes, as Juzd takes Cija and her daughter – who discovers her voice en route – back to the island continent, to an all-too-brief non-reunion with Cija’s oldest child, Nal, and to the destruction of the land by an earthquake, caused by Juzd ‘pulling the plug’. It appears that the world was not ready yet for Atlan, that the world is not the world God planned but a precursor and…
But all this is unstructured and incoherent. Gaskell is trying for a heavy ending, some sort of overarching significance to a story that has never really risen above that of a travelogue. She is insufficiently clear as to the ideas she is trying to express as to cast doubt upon any honest belief in them, or belief greater than is necessary to suggest significance. The ending fails. Seka continues to express her love for her mother by analysing her manifold failings. We are given some skeletal hints as to the long future ahead, at least insofar as they affect the little family of Cija, Zerd and Seka, but to be honest it’s all about counting off pages until the book stops.
Some Summer Lands is, make no bones about it, a bad book, and bad in a way that makes it different from the original Saga, which at least offers a semi-comprehensible, though pointless, fantasy of a prehistoric world through which the ineffectual Cija moves, even if that’s only from rape to rape. Even if you were to excise the disgusting episodes of pre-pubescent sex, which disappear about halfway though, alone, unmourned and unloved, this tail-end book fails on that basic level.
So thank you, but no thank you. By the time you read this fifth post, I shall know whether the set is sellable on eBay*, or whether I shall just have to sneak into a Charity Shop and run away before they stop me leaving these books there.

*They sold, for 1p less than I paid for them: hoorah!

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