Review: Elements of Mind

I’ve been friendly with Walter Hunt for some years, so when he told me that his new novel Elements of Mind (Spence City) involved Victorian mesmerists, I knew to expect an atmospheric and meticulously researched fantasy full of period language and detail, probably one dovetailing with real history as seamlessly as anything by Tim Powers.

That is indeed what we get. In Victorian England, a society of mesmerists – in effect, sorcerers who can use gestures and the power of animal magnetism to compel humans and others – is aware of various categories of dangerous spirits. There are elementals of earth, air, fire and water; greater entities of a kind a Victorian Christian could only categorize as demons or perhaps djinn; and still greater, half-awake entities who might be old gods.

The mesmerists – and various unlikely allies – strive to keep these entities beyond the Glass Door, out of the human world. They cannot pass the Glass Door of themselves, but they can be summoned. And for the summoning there is always a price – which the evil or simply desperate may be all too willing to pay with their souls.

The head of the Committee of Mesmerists, William Davy, knows that some of these entities intend to shatter the Glass Door so that the spirits can erupt uncontrollably into the human world. To prevent this, he seeks a statuette older than history that enhances mesmeric powers. During the novel he travels all over Great Britain and eventually to India in search of it.

The only serious flaw in this book is that’s about all that happens. Walter is so fond of his scene-painting and historical lore (Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle are both significant characters) that he sometimes seems reluctant to let his plot develop or resolve. If I didn’t know from him that there is to be a sequel (something not hinted at in the packaging of the ARC he gave me) I might wonder what the actual point of the exercise was.

As it is, Walter is working on a narrative arc that cannot be encompassed in a single book. I have fair confidence that he’ll get somewhere interesting with it; this is, after all, the same man who wrote the action-filled but philosophically challenging Dark Wing space operas. In the meantime, this sepia-toned puzzlebox of a novel offers some quiet, sophisticated pleasures for the historically-literate reader and connoisseur of Victoriana. I mentioned Tim Powers earlier; though not as pyrotechnic as either, this work otherwise bears comparison with The Anubis Gates or The Stress of Her Regard pretty well.

Elements of Mind is perhaps best read with a search engine handy so you can look up character names and items of terminology, and appreciate the clever use Walter has made of his sources. If that prospect fails to appeal to you, you are probably not Walter’s target reader. But if it does, you’ll appreciate reading something more intelligent than the reams of formula fantasy out there, and this is it.

15 thoughts on “Review: Elements of Mind

  1. >Category: Review, Fantasy, isn’t it?

    Yeah, if I had a Fantasy category. Maybe I need one.

  2. I read this one in draft, and am looking forward to seeing the final version. Of course, as a historical weird stuff fan, he had me at “Mesmerism.”

  3. Cue the inevitable “what is SF and what is fantasy” war… (I tend to see elements of both in both genres, so it wouldn’t displease me for one if you simply tagged them all as “Review” for simplicity.)

  4. I am late to this party, having read only a handful of science fiction titles over the years. I would really enjoy seeing a post from you about getting started in sci-fi, with a top-ten (or N of your choice) list of what you think are the most important titles. I hope that would be at all of interest to you. At least one n00b would appreciate it.

  5. I’ve never had a slog through a series like I had with the Dark Wing novels. I could not bring myself to care about any of the characters, who mostly seemed to be finger-puppets being run about to exposit parts of the plot, which would’ve happened without them in any case.

  6. >connoisseur of Victoriana

    Thanks for the tip. YMMV, but I would rather enjoy a sinus infection.

  7. >I would really enjoy seeing a post from you about getting started in sci-fi, with a top-ten (or N of your choice) list of what you think are the most important titles.

    Not the same as a list of ten best for the new or inexperienced reader! If only because there are some novels I’d put on a “best” list that a newb wouldn’t understand.

  8. Not to pan this particular work, but the theme of supernatural beings threatening to “erupt uncontrollably into the human world” is a bit old: it’s present in anime such as Silent Möbius or Wicked City, and even in good old Ghostbusters. I suppose the reader should focus on the detailed depiction of the setting, as you seem to suggest.

    BTW, you wrote: “…entities of a kind a Victorian Christian could only categories as demons…”. Shouldn’t that be “categorize”?

    >Not the same as a list of ten best for the new or inexperienced reader! If only because there are some novels I’d put on a “best” list that a newb wouldn’t understand.

    Please consider making both lists, then. Like Franklin, I’ve read very little SF and would love to see your take on “How to Become a Science Fiction Fan”. ;)

  9. > Please consider making both lists, then.

    Came here to say this. I had the getting-started list in mind but I’d like to see what’s on the other one just out of curiosity.

  10. @Franklin
    If you look through the blog archives, there was a post and comment thread about SF and the hacker mind. There was considerable discussion of various titles in that thread, and a many good places to get started.

  11. Hopefully Eric’s is not the only input you’ll accept. You’re in a great crowd here to get an SF survey. Here’s mine:

    As with any endeavor, I’d say the best way to get started is with manageable chunks. So, in science fiction, start small, and from more familiar territory: short stories that don’t require you to digest an enormous amount of world-building. Isaac Asimov, for example, had a reputation for producing prose that anyone could understand, and also producing so many short stories that if you had shown him a list of short story titles and challenged him to name which ones named stories he wrote, he wouldn’t be able to tell you. (He even wrote a very short story making fun of this.)

    In fact, if you were to get into SF the way I did, you would start with Asimov’s non-fiction. Case in point: Adding a Dimension – several scientific essays compiled into book form, and IMO a good way to prime yourself. Then you might work through his robot stories. Again, the great thing about Asimov is that he tends to be fairly transparent about what he’s putting in front of you.

    Which in turn leads me to opine that the most mechanical way to get yourself into quality SF, and get a decent spread (as opposed to any one person’s peccadilloes) might be something I’ve never thought to try until you brought it up: look up the “best-of” stories in the more well-known SF magazines, such as Analog, Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, etc., particularly in, say, the 1950-1980 period. Not so far that the culture is hard to get used to, but far enough that you’re seeing SF written by authors who were trying to market the genre to everyone. A lot of these will be short stories. Some will be novellas and novels, but were published a chapter at a time, in a way that tried to encourage the reader to look forward to the next.

    I’ll go out on a limb and guess that most of the crowd here likes fantasy, but respects a distinction between SF and fantasy in terms of what drives the plot, as opposed to the time setting (fantasy=past, SF=future) or tropes (fantasy=elves and dragons, SF=spaceships and lasers). Fantasy plots would be driven by more romantic, mythic narratives, while science fiction plots would use more realist, rationalist devices. Which means you can have a fantasy plot in a SF setting (Star Wars and a lot of Star Trek comes to mind), and vice versa (some of Stasheff’s Warlock series).

    This is important because of the “hard SF” property, held in special reverence by fans. Hard SF stays as closely as possible to known, provable science. Not only that; hard SF makes that known, provable science matter in the story. The hero does not overcome the antagonist because the hero was pure of heart or favored by the gods or chose dwarves instead of orcs to forge his armor, but rather because the hero used a ship with more delta-V, or used better military tactics, or understood and adapted to some actual implication of the physical, chemical, biological, psychological, etc. principles governing some element in the story. In other words, if any science fiction story has a moral, it’s not that good will always triumph, but rather, understanding the mechanics of the universe will.

  12. “I’ll go out on a limb and guess that most of the crowd here likes fantasy, but respects a distinction between SF and fantasy in terms of what drives the plot, as opposed to the time setting (fantasy=past, SF=future) or tropes (fantasy=elves and dragons, SF=spaceships and lasers).”

    This.

    While I’m OK with a work that deliberately puts the two in conflict (Zelazny’s _Changeling_ is the obvious example), I generally like to be very clear whether I’m reading SF or fantasy before I start.

    I don’t like it when you start on one side (Stirling’s _Dies The Fire_) and then drift into fantasy over the course of the book or books (the later books in the Change series are basically fantasy).

  13. Jorge Dujan on 2014-05-27 at 14:39:17 said:Not to pan this particular work, but the theme of supernatural beings threatening to “erupt uncontrollably into the human world” is a bit old: it’s present in anime such as Silent Möbius or Wicked City, and even in good old Ghostbusters.

    It’s much older than that. It’s a fundamental premise of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and Lovecraft certainly didn’t invent it.

  14. Rich Rostrom: thanks for the correction. I’m ashamed to confess this, but… I haven’t read any Lovecraft, except for a short story of which I remember neither the title nor the content. Since I aspire to become a hacker (at least culturally), I should familiarize myself with Lovecraft’s work, I guess. Any suggestions for a newbie?

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