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Review: The White Light of Tomorrow

The White Light of Tomorrow audiobook cover. A knight and young squire stand together before a cityscape. The White Light of Tomorrow by D. Pierce Williams.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐
Duration: 10 hrs 4 mins.

The White Light of Tomorrow, First Earth Series, Book 1 by D. Pierce Williams is a galactic adventure which borrows much of its imagery from the knights and villains of the past, and resurrects them in a rather alien future.

Audible Summary: "In a future dominated by the church and defended by the sword, one piece of forbidden technology may change all the rules. 

Adrian of Tarsus is a veteran Knight Hospitaler. His adopted daughter, Mariel, serves as his squire, and together they travel the galaxy aboard the ancient merchant ship Miranda. Adrian uses his position as a church enforcer to provide cover for his real quest: A cure for Mariel's mysterious and painful illness, which worsens every day. Trouble is, Adrian's certain the cure requires Machina Infernus, heretical technology forbidden by the church, and not even a knight can hide from the holy office of the universal inquisition. 

When the Miranda's crew are ambushed while acquiring such an object, Adrian turns to Sabine Adler, an old flame and specialist in Machina, for help. But once on the planet Bethany, Sabine's home and the seat of Christendom, assassins come out of the woodwork and everyone seems to want Adrian's relic - mercenaries, cultists, thugs, politicians, even the inquisition. Most troubling of all are a pair of unusual nuns who claim to know the location of the lab where the relic originated, and the fact that one of them bears a striking resemblance to Mariel. 

Adrian has survived years of galactic crusades and church politics, but these women may be the death of him. 

©2017 D. Pierce Williams (P)2019 D. Pierce Williams." . 

The White Light of Tomorrow is a wonderfully vivid sci-fi space-romp, which imagines a future in which many of Earth's old stories and traditions have been incorporated into a "second-coming", and the resurgence of the religious strongholds that bolstered the Crusaders of yore. It took me a little while to get to grips with this topsy-turvy world, which was simultaneously primitive and speculative. D. Pierce Williams' colourful, descriptive writing helped me visualise its unique blend of history and technology, and whether the crew were inside the Miranda or traversing the malodorous pig planet, their travels were easy to imagine. 

Williams also clearly explains the physics behind space travel in this universe without being too dry or confusing. With much science fiction, there is often either a tedious amount of jargon to remember or nothing is ever elaborated upon, but this audiobook gives us enough detail to make its setting accessible without overdoing it. The fight scenes are dealt with similarly, managing to recount the action blow-by-blow without it feeling like ringside commentary.

The whole book has, in fact, been well written and carefully edited. The prose was polished to enough of a gleam that I could switch off my Editor-brain and just enjoy listening as the tale unfolded and my understanding of the characters grew. Whilst I enjoyed the setting, I do think this novel will divide opinions into those who love the almost-cyberpunk world which juxtaposes knights and sinister religious orders with extraordinarily futuristic tech, and those who find the speculative leap out into a future that has returned to the dark ages confusing. It is an almost opposite vision of the future to Michael Pogach's The Spider in the Laurel, in which history and religion are banned. (When the characters spoke of Earth it reminded me a little of The Voyage of the Damned, a Doctor Who Christmas Special in which a group of tourists from the future are taught Earth history by a historian who believes that Britain was ruled over by Good King Wenceslas and that humans worshipped the great god, Santa.)

Of the main characters, three are women, which I initially welcomed as it is rather uncommon to find so many strong female characters in what is ostensibly quite traditional science fiction. Though I enjoyed the story overall, I felt that it suffered from the dated perspectives that have often held science fiction and fantasy books back from creating female characters who are as rounded and at ease with their environment as the men. It's not that they are badly drawn, just that they each tick a few too many boxes that we have seen before, and under the weight of the same gaze. Each of the book's most prominent women calls to a narrow stereotype or male fantasy, and though much of this audiobook is very earnest, with Adrian being particularly devoted to his quest, I did begin to wonder if it was meant as a pastiche. Whilst it contains some humour in the form of witty dialogue and wry observations, it is not obviously played for laughs or as a satirical comment on pulp fiction of the '70s and '80s, which is why I was so surprised to see it handle its female characters in a way that belonged to that era.

One of the first women to whom we were introduced was Sabine Adler, the heroine of sorts and Adrian's romantic interest. A smart, beautiful, competent, woman-on-a-mission, Miss Adler remained one step ahead of the law, though her daring and beauty mean that one cannot help but assume her to have had a 50x-great-grandmother named 'Irene'. Also appearing early on was Sister Mary Francis, an alluring, sexually-manipulative Femme Fatale in the employ of an Inquisitorial Cardinal, who initially appears to be little more than Milady De Winter in a Galaxy Far Far Away. Lastly, there was Mariel, a proficient young knave who breaks with tradition by training as a squire. Skilled with a sword and dedicated to her duties, Mariel then hits puberty and immediately discovers her inner Lolita, wearing "sultry red" and answering the threat of harsher discipline from her adoptive father with undisguised sexual innuendo.

These stereotypes might not have been too grating had their development challenged the thinly-worn tropes they resemble, but alas they only cemented themselves further as the story progressed. When the capable and controlled Sabine finds herself overwhelmed, she crumples into the very image of a distressed damsel, telling Adrian, "Sometimes a woman just needs to cry, like men need to pound their fists on a wall."And this came moments after she had sobbed into his shirt, pounding her own fists upon his chest like she was auditioning for a part in a tragic romance from Hollywood's golden age. In general terms, Sabine did not fare badly in this audiobook, though she was the source of some very alien anatomy. An encounter with Adrian led him to pass the following observations about her figure: 

"...her perfect, round breasts offered themselves to him. The only barrier between her chest and his hands was a wisp of fine chemise, and he could see a dark spot atop each breast with a brave, hard nipple standing on each summit." 

Now, I am well aware that many of my body parts do not work as intended; it's a source of unrelenting consternation not only for me but for great swathes of the NHS. Yet even my recalcitrant bosom has never offered itself to anyone of its own volition, nor has it ever done anything to warrant being labelled "brave". I really can't think of an occasion where a taut nipple could be called courageous - unless it was being fondled by Edward Scissorhands, in which case anything more protuberant than complete inversion would, indeed, be rather heroic.

Mariel, too, was a missed opportunity to subvert an obvious trope. As a foundling who had come to rely upon her saviour and protector, Adrian, it is plausible that her changing hormones and search for an identity of her own might collide in confusion and awkward misunderstandings. But her lustful pursuit of the only father she has ever known is rather discomforting, as is his response. It cheapens her role far beyond that of a hormonal teenager with an impossible crush, and I found the moment on the flight deck of the Miranda especially troublesome. I won't say more because it's a spoiler, but when Adrian questioned "at which point one stops indulging one's daughter", the answer should have been 'right then and there'. People are complicated and their situation is hardly traditional, but when someone spends a decade raising a vulnerable child to a young woman of fourteen, the grey areas of their relationship ought not to be quinquagenary.

Just to compound my unease with the female characters, the story ends on a planet that has been isolated for more than a thousand years. When faced with a group of spear-wielding female warrior "natives" who have spent their lives under a form of technological mind control, Adrian is warned: 

"I don't really know what they'll do once they're free. They don't know what a man is, so they may be frightened. Or their instinct to mate may kick in...with a vengeance." 

This elevates it from eye-rolling or cringeworthy to all-out parody. Throw in a couple of Sapphic nuns and a woman who appeared to orgasm from an unexpected pain in her toe, and I don't quite know what to say about this aspect of the book that cannot be conveyed far more succinctly by the forehead-smack emoji.

Despite the very cheesy, outdated female characters, the story itself actually had very good pace and held my attention throughout. The search for Mariel's cure and the sinister forces that threatened to thwart the crew's progress retained the tension needed to drive the mystery, and held enough twists and turns to entertain at each stage. It did not feel very contemporary in style, and I think it would be kinder to think of it as a homage to the classic stories of one's youth than to judge it too much by modern expectations.

The narrator, Matt Armstrong, really helped bring the Miranda's crew to life. His performance was enthusiastic and engaging, with good definition of voices for the various characters. There were a few slightly-dodgy accents, but most of them were identifiable. I especially liked the fact that there were so many accents from right across our own Earth populating Williams' future worlds. It helps give the book's universe more texture, and Armstrong managed to keep track of them all.

I would certainly look out for other audiobooks narrated by Matt Armstrong, as he kept me engrossed in the story and helped maintain a sense of connection to the people at its heart, however alien their environment and experiences may have become.

I would recommend this audiobook to people who like classic sci-fi and exploring new worlds, but who will not be put off by its nostalgia for less enlightened times.

*I received this audiobook free of charge in the hope of an honest, unbiased review.

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