Sunlight picked out motes of dust and burnished mellow wood to match Arianne Seaforth’s hair as she strolled through the Southern Nomarch’s library. Heavy bookcases jutted from the inner wall, stopping short of the many-paned windows, and Rian walked along a corridor formed by the gap, watching a drama of wind.
I have put off reading Pyramids of London for years, partly because I don’t like reading the last new-to-me novel by an author and often delay reading a novel for that reason; and because I knew it was the first book of a series and thought it would be nice to wait for the sequel to hit the shelves. [It hasn’t yet, btw.] Anyway, while I bought Pyramids when it was released, it’s just been sitting in the AKH folder of my Kindle ever since.
But Andrea K Höst always writes novels that I will like even if I am not in the mood to read anything. There are a handful of authors like that for me, and AKH is one of them. This spring is all about comfort reads and re-reads for me, so I just re-read Hunting, which honestly, I think I like better every time I read it. (This was the third.) That made me one to read something else of hers, and Pyramids was sitting there in the folder, and I thought What the heck, who needs sequels? Anyway, I knew Höst would tie this one up pretty well. So I opened it up.
Now, I saw somewhere – her blog perhaps – that AKH considers Pyramids of London her best novel.
It’s not my favorite; it’s not going to be the one I re-read the most often (that’ll be the Touchstone trilogy, which I also re-read this spring already). Nevertheless, Pyramids of London is imo Höst’s best novel. It is also a candidate for the list of “Books I Never Would Have Guessed Were by the Same Author.” Just as The Speed of Dark is (a) Elizabeth Moon’s best work, and (b) really, really different from all her other work, so Pyramids of London is for AKH.
Things that make Pyramids stand out:
Wow, it has the MOST BAROQUE alternate history EVER in the entire history of fantasy literature.
If you are into alternate history, read this and tell me I’m wrong.
I can think of exactly one other contender that comes close: Richard Garfinkle’s Celestial Matters. In Garfinkle’s novel, Greek natural philosophy is true for the Greeks and Chinese natural philosophy is true for the Chinese and so on. AKH’s world is something like that, but her characterization is better. For that reason among others, her story is substantially more gripping. And I literally can’t think of any other fantasy world where the worldbuilding is both sort of based on real history and yet tremendously different way down deep, with ramifications that echo all through history and through basic societal assumptions and individual psychology and … I don’t know, the ramifications echo through everything.
Here in Pyramids, we have a world where the Egyptian conceptions of the gods and the afterlife are true. Also Roman mythology and the Roman afterlife; that’s true for Romans, who are still around but not all that influential. Also Scandinavian mythology, which is true for the important Swedish Empire. Also who knows what else.
I gather that in many countries, when the people call on the gods, the gods may Answer, capital “A,” but the characters don’t spend a lot of time discussing or thinking about basic facts of history, so I’m not entirely sure exactly how all this worked, or still works. My impression is that once the gods Answer, that country is bound to that god forever, or as near as makes no difference.
There is nothing remotely like Christianity, but wow are there afterlives, and travelers may be in a pickle if they die in a foreign country. If they’re lucky their soul will move on to some nice-ish afterlife which applies in that country and if they’re not lucky I guess their soul … disappears, maybe? Or there are such things as “punishment Otherworlds” – Otherworlds being the term for afterlives. This is the sort of thing that changes how people behave. Do you really want to travel? Are you sure?
But the world is way more ornate than that. Because vampirism appeared in Egypt a long, long time ago, and is all tied up now with the way the Egyptian afterlife works. Extraordinarily long-lived vampires have ruled Egypt since basically forever.
Oh, and the vampire afterlife involves the possibility of becoming a star. Which is to say, a god. Because gods and stars are definitely linked somehow. In Prytennia – I guess the equivalent of Britannia, part of England anyway – the important god is definitely the sun. Who, by the way, sometimes sends down to the world solar entities that remind me of cherubim from A Wind in the Door – wings, no other familiar anatomy, heat, song, incomprehensible but not badly disposed to people. A whole different order of life.
And then there are the Night Breezes.
Also, the Forest Lord, the horned god of the eternal Great Forest, is an important figure.
Did I mention already that this world is incredibly cluttered and baroque and ornate? I said that, right?
Oh, by the way, France is ruled by creatures that aren’t human, that remind me somewhat of the Fae, but aren’t the same. They only come out at night and only in Paris, which is almost entirely under the shadow of the Court of the Moon, where gravity suddenly lessens dramatically at sunset. Oh, also, if you die in France, your soul has a very good chance of being re-incorporated into a flying creature in the Court of the Moon. There is, in fact, a Sun King – who is very much subordinate to the Court of the Moon. A lot about this is developed in an associated novella and I am actually leaving out a lot of the complexities of the situation in France. I would not want to live there, probably, depending on what the afterlife is like in other places, but probably I wouldn’t pick France.
There’s just so much, is what I’m saying.
Meanwhile, the actual story.
So, we have Rian, whose brother was recently murdered, orphaning three children for whom she is now responsible. Her goal is to find out who killed her brother, not so much to bring the murderer to justice but to clear his name of the carelessness that seemed responsible for his death, in order to help the children cope.
Her first step is to get herself bound to the service of a particular vampire, for reasons. This goes wrong and she gets bound to a much, much older and more scary vampire instead. After which everything gets complicated.
There’s no point trying to describe the plot. It’s a murder mystery set in a really ornate, unique world. The murder was committed for peculiar reasons that don’t have anything to do with ordinary motives for murder. The viewpoint alternates between Rian and one of the children. We meet a large cast of characters. The theme is, oh, let’s say the theme is the importance of being true to yourself, and the difficulty of knowing what that entails. The plot centers around the murder mystery. The characters are well-drawn, as you’d expect from Andrea K Höst.
Take-home message: this is a great book. Not my favorite of hers, no. But it’s a book I want to press on everyone. Pyramids of London belongs on everyone’s must-read list. If you haven’t read it yet, you have to go get a copy right now and read it and then let me know what you think.