In this satisfactory debut novel, Paul Kearney presents an interesting poststructuralist premise in the idea of a disintegrating writer being required by his creations to remedy the damage he is doing to them. Although writers stretching from Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan) to Iain Banks have had similar notions, this precise slant is original. Even more astute is the fact that although Riven affects it so directly, the land is more complex than he ever imagined.
The inhabitants of Minginish also show Kearney’s considerable powers of invention. Unlikely though the Gogwolf may seem, it is effective in the book. The Myrcans, products of a giant’s destruction of a sculptural gnomish trap, benefit from the author’s military background, which is also used to add depth to Riven’s character.
Riven acts as a focus for the story and glue for its plot. He is believable and, though undoubtedly brave, is not ridiculously so. Nor is he particularly noble; indeed, his hardened cynicism proves valuable. His nature is established in the hospital sequence, and the strength of that first impression informs and validates the fantasies that come later. It is probably the major feat of the book.
The Way to Babylon is also notable for the incorporation of stories into the plot. Occurring at realistic times, these subnarratives are told with a style that fits each narrator and provide details about the world and its inhabitants. A vignette about Riven’s service in Ireland lends insight into the forces that drive him.
The book does, however, show some marks of an inexperienced writer. The long opening sequence in the hospital builds up characters who ultimately are irrelevant and gives a false impression of the book. A more serious problem is that too many strands of plot are left unresolved at the end, especially the disappearance of the ostensibly important Madra. There are also contradictions, in that Riven’s memory is supposed to have been wiped clean of Minginish, but he clearly intends to begin writing about his experiences.
The inclusion of such strong female characters as Jenny and Jinneth mitigate a very male atmosphere. Perhaps there is a concluding hint that the loss of a wife is bearable if an author obtains a story through the experience, but the sense of a real restoration is sympathetically conveyed.