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Review of The Order of Eternal Sleep by S. C. Mendes

The Order of Eternal Sleep is the sequel to S. C. Mendes’s disturbing masterpiece The City. Set in 1913, three years after the events of the original, The Order of Eternal Sleep wastes no time plunging us back into the occult weirdness that gave The City its unique flavour of crazy. I described The City as a “conspiracy theorist’s wet dream” and The Order of Eternal Sleep is a worthy inheritor of the title.

We begin by picking up pretty much exactly where we left off after the events of The City. I’ll try not to give too many spoilers, as there are many terrifying surprises laid up in store for anyone enjoying these books for the first time, but this is a sequel, so it will be necessary to divulge some narrative information for context.

Max Elliot, the famous detective who lost everything in the case of the Chinatown Surgeon, is still missing. John McCloud, the man who once rescued Max and who semi-adopted Ming, a survivor of The City, is trying to carry on with a normal-abnormal life as a homicide detective. McCloud and Ming have become estranged after one too many rows, for which he experiences deep regret. McCloud is looking to retire, worn out by the darkness and the horror of his profession and his own failings. This is when, a week before he’s due to step away from the force, he’s sent to investigate a case of suspected arson and, in the basement of the house where six people have been reduced to ash, discovers a black shrine—along with something else totally horrifying I’m not going to spoil for you.

From there, the story simply does not let up the pace. Whereas The City was definitely a slow-burner, a kind of inexorable, incremental descent into a realm of madness and epiphany, The Order of Eternal Sleep is an explosive thriller that doesn’t lose sight of its intellectual roots and its 1910s setting.

The genius of Mendes’s writing is that he has a knack for making very complex ideas seem simple, whether these are nuanced emotional states, philosophical concepts, or occult principles. His stories contain layers. We can enjoy The Order of Eternal Sleep as a fast-paced period-piece detective yarn with some black magic thrown in. Or, we can look under the surface and see how Mendes explores—often from very esoteric angles—the primary questions of human experience.

To give an example of the layers of this story, a secret order—no spoiler here as they are mentioned in the title!—plans to perform the Rites of Eternal Sleep that will usher in the dawn of the Black Sun, an epoch of world-changing calamity and chaos (the reasons for this are more sophisticated than the stereotypical “evil people doing evil for the sake of it”, which is another way Mendes distinguishes himself). Reading this novel historically for a moment, we know that in the year 1913 the world teeters on the brink of World War I. Could it be, then, that Mendes is implying the catastrophes of the 20th Century were brought about by the performance of dark rituals, as other occult authors—including Kenneth Grant—have suggested? Or is this simply the conspiracy theory in me going into overdrive?

If you want another example of subtle depth: look at the dates Mendes gives us in the chapter headings. Think about it long and hard. Why are those dates significant? When the answer comes you’ll realise what he’s doing. I once described Mendes’s novels as “puzzle-boxes”, and one must treat them with the same respect!

I’ve already alluded to the villains in Mendes’s novel, but it’s worth devoting more time to describing how brilliant they truly are. They are terrifying and imposing, but most importantly, they are clever. Unlike most “evil” characters in stories who seem like little more than plot devices to be wheeled out at appropriate moments and overcome, Mendes’s villains seem to be genuinely interfering with the trajectory of the story. They show up and change things, often in devastating ways where we wonder how the heroes can possibly come back from such a setback. The villains are intelligent: they anticipate and predict their adversaries, and remain one step ahead. After all, if there really was a secret society trying to take over the world, one that had maintained its secrecy for centuries, it’s unlikely they would be foiled within a few weeks by one or two nosey investigators. The stakes, therefore, are very high in The Order of Eternal Sleep and though we spend a lot less time in The City in this book than in the former (which I think was a wise decision so as not to re-tread too much ground), the scenes of interrogation in this book are utterly nightmarish.

All of this connects to a broader point which is that Mendes’s characters are incredibly believable, grounded in a totally realised psychology. For example, John McCloud reflects upon his distance from Ming and Mendes tells us, “The desire was followed by a pulling undertow of hypocrisy.” With this metaphor we see the human condition encapsulated: we want things but often act in direct contravention of our conscious desires, sabotaging them; the unconscious undertow is too powerful to escape. Mendes uses all this psychological understanding to craft some moments of pure dread. The techniques his villains use to break the human spirit are very real indeed, exploiting weaknesses in the human mind, making us question whether we could withstand such pressures.

Mendes outrageously tempts the conspiracy theorist in all of us. He touches on pretty much all the major theories: that the world is being controlled by a secret order, that the pyramids were not burial sites but used for more esoteric purposes, that there are occult ways of amassing wealth, wealthy people have a way of infinitely extended their lifespans, and so on. And though he does it all with a sly wink to the camera, he makes it all alarmingly credible: “You feel it… When water runs over quartz, it creates electricity.” Little knowledge-bombs like this take us back and force us to ask uncomfortable questions. I mean, why did the Egyptians build twenty-four 30-ton sarcophagi out of quartz near a source of running water? Why have we never found a body inside them if they were for burial purposes (when Egypt is in no short supply of mummies!)? Google the The Serapeum of Saqqara and you’ll see what I mean.

Similarly, there is a ritual scene near the middle of the novel that is so disturbing it made every hair on my arm stand on end. The reason it was so potent is that Mendes doesn’t settle for the cliches like most authors attempting to write about the occult with little to no experience of it. Mendes’s understanding of magical principles and ancient occult orders makes the ritual feel hair-raisingly believable. This furthers the reader’s questioning of what could be real in our world that we take for granted (reassuringly) as being mere fiction. The character Valbas observes, “Interpreting ancient cultures through your modern paradigms can only reveal half truths.” Mendes asks us to open our minds a little, to consider that our own perspective is limited, and whether there might not be a grain of truth in the stories after all. The time-period of his novel serves to emphasise this point further, as at the beginning of the 20th Century there was a greater degree of uncertainty about our reality and about the past despite the Age of Reason being well underway—in many ways, we have become more close-minded in our modern time and chained to our so-called scientific truths.

To say a few more words about the 1910s setting: Mendes doesn’t overplay it and weigh us down with historical references. He gives us just enough detail at one or two crucial moments to make the setting come alive. For example, in one amusing scene, a character called Detective O’Neil observes that though the six bodies were burned to a crisp, the teeth survived. McCloud responds, “Well, unless you think taking a fistful of teeth down to the local dentist is going to give us a name, it doesn’t help the situation.” Of course, this is an era before the concept of “dental records” or identifying bodies by their teeth! Mendes slyly pokes fun at this idea we take for granted in the modern world.

Thematically, there are two central polarities Mendes explores throughout. The first is flesh versus soul. The adage “the flesh is weak” is repeated frequently, and as we go deeper and darker into the wilder lore and occult mechanics of the book we realise just how transient the flesh is in the cosmology of Mendes’s universe. So, if the flesh is nothing, what are we? What endures after we die, if anything? What is really “living” inside us? This profound anxiety about the condition of our existence is reflected in this aphoristic quote at the start of Chapter II: “Every man believes he will be the exception to the rule of life.” Ironically the “rule of life” is “death”. And of course, no one is the exception.

The second polarity explored is conscious versus unconscious. Throughout, characters espouse their conscious views only for their unconscious to betray them and reveal their true intentions and desires. We see Mendes explores this duality a number of ways: literally through the minds of his characters, metaphorically through the concept of “demonic” possession, and symbolically through the geography of a world divided into the “surface level” we know and the deep hidden world of The City. But whereas Mendes’s original novel spent a great deal of time excavating the unconscious by taking us on a tour through a warped underworld that was both a physical place and representative of the human psyche’s buried half, in The Order of Eternal Sleep he takes a slightly different approach. Much of the story explores liminal spaces—places between being awake and asleep, between leaving a destination and arriving at another, between knowing and not knowing, between living and dying. Mendes doesn’t settle for simply setting up a juxtaposition, but rather attempts the more daring feat of exploring the strange and unsettling territory between these two states. I always think that “dream sequences” in stories have to be deployed sparingly, but The Order of Eternal Sleep is an exception because—as the title would suggest—dreams form the very foundations of what the story is about: are we awake or asleep? And what happens when we wake up? When we’ve woken up from the dream and seen the strangely beautiful nightmare of reality, what do we do?

If we are tracking an over-arching narrative, it feels like whereas The City described an unconscious that was still buried and repressed, in The Order of Eternal Sleep that unconscious is beginning to emerge and drive towards the surface. This makes me wonder whether in the third book we’ll see a final integration of the two halves—or perhaps a complete catastrophic severance of them! And to re-iterate: there will undoubtedly be a third book, it seems, as the ending to The Order of Eternal Sleep, whilst complete and satisfying, certainly sets up a final dance between good and evil. Although, knowing Mendes’s ability to warp perspective and challenge conventions, I highly doubt it will be as straightforward as that.

The Order of Eternal Sleep is an incredible, unique book—a rare combination of both imaginative scope and haunting reality. Head on over to Amazon and buy your copy now, thereby joining us down here in the secret city!

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Review of Brian Barr’s Serpent King: Shadow & Light

In our modern world, we have many advantages, but one major disadvantage is sometimes knowing too much. By this, I mean that it is more and more difficult to surprise a modern reader, gamer, or film-viewer because each of us sits at the heart of a constant information flow. Speaking with a good friend of mine the other day, we were both lamenting how the advent of YouTube, whilst useful, has led to video-game worlds feeling smaller and more predictable. Gone are the days of trying to find a cure of vampirism in Oblivion and not knowing even the first place to start. Now, all the info is available online. Of course, one could resist the temptation to look, but there is not that same sense of communal excitement at the possibilities of the unknown, except, perhaps, when you encounter a Dark Souls title. Those games still manage to hide a wealth of secrets even as they are being plumbed to the nth degree. 

Dark Souls isn’t the only exception. There are other great works out there that surprise and awe us with their lack of conventional storytelling, and the way the keep their cards close to their chest. Serpent King, by Brian Barr, is one of those artefacts; it is a powerful and imaginatively vast novel set in the far flung galaxy of the Dracos Constellation. 

The narrative predominantly follows Razen Ur, a Commander General in the Nagan Empire, and his son, Zian Ur, born in mysterious circumstances, and gifted beyond natural means. Yet to say this is to deny the scope of the book, which also involves the mysterious priesthood of the Plumed Serpent, the occult gatherings of the Shadowsnakes, the internal politics of the Imperial Family and the Emperor of Naga, and the colonisation of the outer worlds of the Dracos Constellation. Barr describes this novel as “science-fantasy”, which fairly accurately invokes the superb blend of science-fiction action and world-building, mixed with an undercurrent of something far darker and more magical. 

In this novel, it is snakes, not monkeys, that have evolved to intelligent, bipedal form: the reptilis sapiens. In this way, there is also an element of “alternative history” about the book, a depiction of how evolution might have played out a different way, and what civilisation would have looked like if that were the case. Although inhuman, Barr’s cast of characters are disarmingly sympathetic, and that is where the power of this novel comes in. The Nagans are clearly a metaphorical representation of empire-building cultures, particularly the Roman, British, and Spanish empires. Yet, whilst Barr exposes and satirises the xenophobic thought patterns and brainwashed jingoism of these cultures, he also shows more morally upright, sympathetic, and “human” figures caught in the midst; these aren’t bad people, they are individuals with loves and losses doing their best under an oppressive regime. This really shows how dangerous and potent writing can be, because before long, Barr had me sympathising with Razen Ur, the relatively humble Commander General of the Nagan fleet. Razen is troubled by his impotence, a human concern if ever there was one,and unwilling to shed any more blood than necessary during his conquests. He is a devoted husband, and a kind father. Yet, he is also a mass-murderer who has brought more worlds to heel than any of his contemporaries in the military. Barr allows the moral ambiguity of all of this to breathe, which makes his work rich and compelling. 

Whilst it would be easy to dismiss the choice of writing about an empire of bipedal snake-people as simply a flight of fancy, or perhaps a “cool” sci-fi idea, I think there is a lot more going on. Snakes, firstly, are almost universally a symbol of knowledge. Interestingly, one of the recurrent motifs throughout the novel is that of two entwined “proto-snakes” (snakes that never evolved from their slithering form) around a caduceus. In the real world, this symbol is emblazoned on every Western ambulance, hospital, and medical centre. The emblem has its roots in Hermetic principles: the two wings crowning the caduceus symbolise the winged feet of Hermes / Mercury, the messenger of the gods. Of course, Biblically, snakes also represent knowledge, for it is the serpent that persuades Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit that brings “knowledge of good and evil”. Interestingly, the sub-title of the book is “Shadow and Light”. Things in shadow are darkened to us, things that are in light are revealed. Shadow often represents “evil”. Light, “good”. There is a lot more going on here than meets the eye. Naga, the Empire of the “Reptilians”, therefore, is not just a cipher for the empires of human history, but could well be construed as an extended metaphor for the battle between good and evil, for secret knowledge, and for a path through the middle all of these contrasts, a path that only people with a certain mindset, and certain tools, can tread. 

Having previously been impressed with Barr’s re-imagining of the King In Yellow mythos of Robert W. Chambers, I anticipated some occult elements in Serpent King, and I was not disappointed. There are layers beneath even the simplest interactions in this story. Hints that seem innocuous are actually gateways to greater narrative truths that Barr deftly hides from us until later stages. I do not know what Barr’s influences were, but many scenes remind me of the occult practices outlined by Kenneth Grant and, though he is often purely regarded as a fictional writer, H. P. Lovecraft. Beneath the civilised surface of Naga and these “cold-blooded” reptilian snakes, who are all about duty, honour, and logic (and have even named one of their choicest weapons “logic bombs”), is something far more emotional, dark, and irrational. Whilst it would be easy to construe the Reptilians as a kind of nod to the Illuminati conspiracy theories of lizard-people ruling the stars, I think Barr has done something even cleverer: he has shown that deep down we’re the snakes, traitors to our own warm-blooded nature, hiding behind a veneer of science and reason, when the reality of the universe is very different indeed. 

In many respects, Serpent King is also a coming-of-age story. Much of the book follows Zian Ur as he is tutored by different masters, demonstrates his supremacy in the fighting ring, and finally is appointed to a high rank in adulthood; all while his father, Razen, continues to conquer in the name of the Emperor off-world. The coming-of-age elements are so well done, that one can easily forget how many other facets to this novel there are. And, one becomes fondly attached to the places and characters Zian interacts with as he grows up, to the point of nostalgia in later parts of the book. 

Zian is also a fascinating character, and Barr manages to reflect how different he is from all the people surrounding him simply through dialogue and action alone. This is partly achieved through the sheer contrast between Zian and his father Razen; the two are endlessly juxtaposed. Whereas Razen makes for an incredibly human and empathetic portrait; Zian is much harder to understand. We fear what Zian is capable of, but we also root for him. Barr goes into great detail about the slow but satisfying process of how Zian unlocks his full potential, and again, clearly demonstrates a knowledge of how occult practice works, and how certain practices can lead to an expanding awareness and deeper insight. This culminates in an incredibly satisfying evolution and climactic battle in which Zian must use all that he has learned to survive. The ending of this novel is apocalyptic, sad, arguably bleak, but also strangely satisfying. I’m not sure I can think of a comparable ending in any other book I have read, which is saying something. 

Serpent King is weird, and wonderful because of it. It will transport you to another universe, make you care about an empire of snake-people, and then dash your expectations to smithereens. It is a book of magic, with hidden meanings, but above all that: it is a compelling story of awakened potential. 


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