Keith Roberts’ early novel PAVANE was cited by author Anthony Burgess as one of the ninety-nine best English fictions since World War II. With this sort of testimonial, one expects to find something special in Roberts’ newest novel, KITEWORLD, a fantasy about man’s possible future.
Unfortunately, KITEWORLD is not Roberts’ best work. The prose leaves no cliche untouched and chronicles characters of little substance. KITEWORLD uses an earth-bound setting for the examination of intellectual and religious dogma, a theme Roberts dealt with thoroughly in PAVANE.
The Realm is all that remains of the known world for its citizens. Two factions of a powerful church are the driving force of a culture dominated by the presence of the Kites and the pseudo-military Kite Service. The Kites, today’s flying toy, have become church icons against alleged demons-- the mutant results of some ancient holocaust, or perhaps some leftover weaponry. Roberts explores how history has become myth under the careful guidance of the church, shows how propaganda can create national consensus, and draws a priest-controlled society which is a curious mix of modernity and the Middle Ages: motor cars and horse-drawn carts, wireless telegraphs and feudalism.
The story’s internal logic falls apart, however, when one asks obvious questions. Where does the fuel come from? The metals? The spare parts? Most readers will soon wonder how any governmental entity, no matter how powerful, could stop citizens from privately wondering about the source of the products and devices which they use in their everyday lives.
The reader follows the lives of those in the castes of KiteCadets, captains, and mistresses, characters who are portrayed as sophisticated and educated, but who somehow never question the anomalies of their world.
The truest character is a street urchin named Velvet, who has a defined sense of herself and her realities.
The lives of the people in the various castes intertwine and climax during a civil revolution that has no clear motivation or origin. In the novel’s deus ex machina ending, the principal characters are among those chosen to be flown to another land, the church’s carefully kept secret, where civilization has flourished. The Realm, it seems, has been an experiment--a little controlled genocide.
Roberts clearly designed KITEWORLD as an allegorical warning against the blind acceptance of dogma, but it is difficult to identify with characters who seem to be so stultifyingly dull-witted.