Paul Di Filippo examines the scholars of the night by John M. Ford – locus online


The scholars of the night , John M. Ford (Tor 978-1250269171, 256 pages, $ 18.99) September 2021.

As we all look forward to John M. Ford’s latest unreleased novel, Aspects, due in April of next year, we will have to satisfy our desires for all things Fordian with the various reprints that plow the ground for this harvest. We had earlier The waiting dragon (my review here) who had spent 18 years between editions. Come now The scholars of the night, who saw the last impression 32 years ago!

We start with a great introduction from Charles Stross (his affinity for this title clearly stems from his own Laundry file series), which poses the cultural and geopolitical history of the birth of the book, whose action is quite contemporary, more or less, with its date of composition, around the mid-1980s. Stross highlights the great differences between our present time and that time almost 35 years ago. And while his observations are correct, I would like to point out the flip side of the book. It reads as fresh and as mimetically – almost journalistically – truthful now as it was then. Unfortunately or not, there is something eternal in the Machiavellian machinations of the plot. For example, when a team of assassins break into one of the key characters and kill him, while making him look like a heart attack, it’s not too hard to think about the secret poisoning of Alexei Navalny from 2020. Likewise, while there are no drones of course in the book, the surveillance technology and tactics Ford is showing us are weird forerunners of 2021.

Try to classify Scholars as a simple political thriller or spy novel would do the book a disservice, as it also belongs to the paranoid plot genre (think The tears of lot 49), techno-thriller, and even a bit of Elizabethan-punk alt-hist. I find it firmly anchored in the broad fantastika canon, and I think any reader who generally prefers more clearly defined echt sci-fi will cherish and welcome it.

We open fairly quietly with one of our main characters, Nicholas Hansard, part-time professor at the fictional Valentine College, while he enjoys a board game night with several colleagues. But then the arrival of a mysterious courier, carrying documents just recovered from World War II, routs Hansard’s plans. He knows that his college detective skills are immediately needed by his occasional boss, Raphael, who runs the secret society dubbed “The White Group, an agency for research and advice on matters of intelligence policy and international affairs.” This bland phrasing conceals a squad of master spies and killer bureaucrats with their fingers inside a hundred hot pies.

Before you can say ‘sabbatical’, the Hansard is sent to England, ostensibly to unravel the mysteries hidden in a recently discovered lost room of Christopher Marlowe. Ultimately, he becomes entangled in the main Macguffin, the theft of high-end computer hardware and software that will allow its owner to have fun with official communications and potentially start World War III.

Hansard’s main opponent in this game – although he hardly knows at first that it exists – is the Spy Master whose code name is WAGNER. WAGNER is the protégé of a certain Allan Berenson – the guy whose murder I described above – an academic who is also friends with Hansard. WAGNER’s mission is to collect all of the Macguffin’s parts from various other agents and assemble and test the entire unit.

This narrative engine – sequential encounters with a multitude of bad apples – allows Ford to treat us through a variety of locations and characters, using WAGNER’s POV about half the time. The drama involving a sociopathic British hitman named Cherry could have been news in its own right. The thread of Hansard is more linear and contiguous, but no less suspenseful and engaging, especially as Hansard traverses deep emotional territory involving memories of his deceased wife. (Hansard’s final state, beautifully resonating with the novel’s beginning, is particularly touching, both redeemed and damned, hopeful but resigned, helpful but pitiful. “They were all scholars together, scholars of the forbidden and unspeakable things, of the Night Scholars. ”)

Whenever the murderous and relentless WAGNER comes into contact with a new victim, Ford takes the time to insert much of that newbie’s story, fleshing it out gently and in a non-intrusive way. Generally speaking, while Hansard and Wagner take the lion’s share of character development, every other person, even the extras, comes across as a living and breathing entity as well.

In the end, saving the world comes down to an ultra-climax showdown between WAGNER and the Hansard – with the help of the funny and cynical British intelligence man Gareth Rhys-Gordon (“I borrow [Hansard] to identify our target. He gave up his constitutional rights to be kept alive. “)

And of course, Hansard’s vivid mental recreation of Marlowe and his Elizabethan hijinks is also beautifully integrated.

With plenty of dark humor, kinetic fight scenes, a certain cosmopolitan seriousness, and a strong sense of ethics and utilitarianism, this book alternates tender, dark moments with vicious brawls, without a wasted word.

Everyone who enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s Remedy, who – by coincidence or by inspiration?

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 30 years and has published almost as many books. He lives in Providence RI, with his partner of an even greater number, Deborah Newton.

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