The Infinity Concerto

by Greg Bear

Cover image

Series: Earth and Power #1
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: October 1984
Printing: February 1987
ISBN: 0-441-37059-4
Format: Mass market
Pages: 342

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Michael first met the composer Arno Waltiri at one of his parents' interminable parties. They struck up one of those unexpected friendships between an old man and a teenager, deep enough that Waltiri told Michael of the last serious orchestral music he ever wrote and the strange man who helped him write it. Music that affected the audience so powerfully that some couldn't write music again. When Waltiri dies, leaving Michael a key and strange instructions to follow in the dead of the night, Michael finds his way past horrific guardians and into another world, one ruled by the fae.

Up to that point, The Infinity Concerto seemed to be following the path of many stories of humans finding their way into magical lands. The reader might expect Michael to turn out to be a prophesied rescuer, full of unexpected powers, who has to learn the politics, magic, and alliances of a new world. And that is what happens, to a degree. But Bear's take on this stock setting is surprisingly dark: many other humans have found their way into the Realm as refugees and slaves, the male Sidhe rule with power and contempt, and even the half-blooded Breeds are outcast and ignored. The Pact Lands, where Michael finds himself at first, are stark, ugly, and barren, rather a sharp contrast from the normal portrayals of a faerie realm.

Unfortunately, while this sets The Infinity Concerto somewhat apart, it also makes it rather depressing and leaves the reader without much to like. The appeal to the typical story of faerie lands is the mingled haunting appeal and dangerous traps, beauty that's a little too wonderful and constantly perilous. The Realm Michael sees, at least for the first two-thirds of the book, is full of traps and dangers without the beauty, ugly and systematically hierarchical. Michael runs into moments of peril and hidden knowledge, but mostly he just gets inscrutable instruction, repeated terror and embarrassment, and painfully slow dollops of information. Nearly all of the first 200 pages are the training portion of a typical coming-of-age story with some painfully stupid adolescent love affairs thrown in. There are sparks of magic around the edges, but usually they just turn into something horrific.

The reader who lasts through the first 200 pages then gets a dramatic shift in the story. The tediously unpleasant battle between the humans and the Sidhe comes to a head, Michael's instructors decide he's learned enough, and suddenly he's out of the Pact Lands and into the rest of the Realm. Here, we see much more of the typical faerie mix of beauty, enchantment, and traps. But after the rigorous structure of the first section, this second section feels random and disconnected. Michael uses his training to make his way out of various perils and fulfill his search, but at times this has all the plot structure of spending accumulated savings. After being nearly helpless against the Sidhe for most of the book, Michael now does exactly the right things in each situation and becomes unstoppable, if constantly confused. It never clicked for me.

The best part of the book is the intriguing almost-SF background and history, of which we see far too little. Bear's mythical respinning of the history of Earth, the interaction between elder races, and the almost-SF role of space travel and interstellar war in that history has a lot to recommend it. If this had been more than background for a few stories, I think I would have liked this book much better. As is, its interaction with the ending is confusing, Michael feels like a witless pawn for the whole book, and I ended up not caring enough about the characters to put enough work into unpacking and understanding the ending.

This book could have used stronger and more likeable characters. Michael is the focus character for the whole book, and when he's not being Everyman, he's an angry, frustrated teenager who regularly makes stupid decisions. A persistent companion would have helped a lot, but we never get one; the closest we get are a couple of love interests, and that's where Michael's stupidest decisions cluster. It's hard to muster a lot of enthusiasm for a book if you're not rooting for the characters.

There are bits and glimmers to this book that I really liked, and I wish Bear had focused the book on them. Unfortunately, as-is, this rare fantasy novel from an author who usually writes science fiction and near-future thrillers is a forgettable effort with a cliched lead character.

Followed by The Serpent Mage.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-08-12

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21