Seven Cities of Gold by David Moles
PS Publishing, (novella) July 2010
Reviewed by Craig W. Anderson
David Moles’ “Seven Cities of Gold” is an interesting and intriguing alternate-history adventure containing metaphysical and symbolic overtones that, fortunately, don’t get in the way of the story.
And a fascinating story it is of Doctor-Lieutenant Chie Nakada, a physician with the Relief Ministry of the Regency of Japan who is assigned the apparently suicidal mission of locating what the government says is a terrorist nun – Clara Dos Orsos – and when found, assassinating her.
The background laid out by Moles, is this: in A.D. 714, seven Catholic bishops escaped the Muslim invasion of Spain, sailed across the Western Ocean to the New World where they founded seven legendary cities and a Christian empire.
At the time of the story – 12 centuries later – a war between Muslims and Christians rages and as a representative of neutral Buddhist Japan, Nakada is plunged into the heart of that war as she travels up the mighty Acuamagna river through jungle and chaos to find the Seven Cities of Gold headquarters of the crazed nun.
Clara Dos Orsos is a mysterious messianic figure responsible for having her minions explode an incredibly powerful bomb that obliterates the Muslim-occupied city of Espirito Santo.
I’ll leave it up to the reader to discover the other plot surprises “Seven Cities of Gold” holds and they are plentiful in this detailed and sometimes dense novella.
The bones of the story are fleshed out nicely by Moles, in particular the main character, the less than charismatic Nakada, an opium addict whose addled state at various points in the narrative is both surprising and frustrating.
Surprising because opium addicts don’t usually grab hold of the hero reins; frustrating because Nakada’s addiction creates an off-handedness, a remove of her character from life, almost making her an observer of events instead of being involved in them. This is not a complaint as I found this a refreshing approach.
That Nakada is an opium addict is quickly established: she’s been through hell on other medical assignments and opium brings welcome surcease from the hideous memories she carries. Nakada is also well aware of her position in the Relief Ministry and she understands what needs to be done to survive in her world.
An element that gradually insinuated its way into the reading of “Cities” was that the adventure mattered more than Nakada and despite her position as the main character, whatever initial concern about her welfare that existed at the outset gradually faded to almost nothing by the end of the tale.
Again, this isn’t necessarily off-putting and it sets up an intrigue between three elements in the book: first, Nakada and her experiences; second, her (italicized) writings in her pillow-book; and third, the intense description of the river and what Nakada and her boat crew discover.
Here are examples of Moles’ fine descriptive writing:
“The air was hot as a sulfur spring, hot as fresh ashes. The sky was a deep blue, and completely clear. Of the looters and cannibals Ishino feared, there was no sign. There were not living people in sight, no fish, no birds. The wooden maze of the lower city, where the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants had lived and worked, was simply gone. Of the canals…there remained only a vague geometry picked out in burnt pilings that rose here and there among oily slicks of garbage, with slowly turning drifts of wreckage captured in lazy eddies, the corpse of dogs and pigs and human beings grounded against accidental dams of capsized boats and fallen timbers.”
“There’d been less than a grain of opium in the packet…but enough to take the edge off, enough to let Nakada appreciate what was around her. She felt suffused with mono no aware, the sense of inherent pathos in ordinary things: a category which at the moment seemed to her to encompass the boat, the dirty water, the vanished buildings, the corpses, the clear sky; to encompass the world. She looked out over the ruin of Espirito Santo, and in the bathhouse heat, shivered at its tragic beauty. She felt, for the first time in months, alive.”
The parallels with our history are good, often subtle, and frankly, I like it that way; there is evidence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the blast that levels Espirito Santo; Nakada travels up a turgid river flanked by a dark, dank, dangerous jungle to find and kill a rogue individual – “Heart of Darkness” anyone? – and there are intimations of 9/11 and the bombed, wrecked and flooded city conjures Hurricane Katrina.
More disasters and hugely significant world events may be buried within “Seven Cities of Gold” for the enterprising reader to unearth. And that’s not a bad thing.
Is “Seven Cities of Gold” in the same class as Alfred Coppell’s “The Burning Mountain” or Cyril M. Kornbluth’s “Not This August” or Phillip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle”? Probably not but only because “Cities” is a novella and not a full-fledged novel.
And therein lies the major rub, albeit not one that in any way destroys the story.
I wanted more. The feeling persists that there was a great deal more to the story: more character detail, background, locations, politics, history, society and the like. It is ironic that despite all the detail contained in “Seven Cities of Gold” I felt mildly cheated that more interesting stuff wasn’t available, information that would have fleshed out the story. Perhaps this story is the centerpiece of, say, a much larger book yet to be written, a book wherein Moles will provide all those absent goodies. We can hope.
“Seven Cities of Gold” is a darn good story with well-drawn characters, excellent descriptive writing, and a narrative clarity that funneled events to the finale’ and with an introduction like this, yes, some caveats follow thus:
The place names essentially meant nothing and didn’t orient me in this alternate history world; perhaps a map or two or some illustrations to let the reader know the terrain and the location of the events and their equivalent location in our world.
Revelations can provide either a true “OMG!” moment or a “Whaaaa…?” of frustration and the surprise near the end of the story regarding the Seven Cities of Gold was, incredibly, both. A great surprise and then a big “So what?” I couldn’t decide if the Big Revelation was indeed a big deal or if I simply missed the point. Be that as it may, I’m not revealing the twist because…well, read “Cities” and form your own opinion.
Finally, the finale’ felt rushed as if, after all of the detailed and unambiguous buildup the energy level had wound down, aided and abetted by an onslaught of unclear symbolism that undermined the surety of style and description established by Moles.
But none of these “difficulties” have a major detrimental effect on “Seven Cities of Gold.” I wish it was longer and more detailed because this is a strange and oddly vigorous world I wanted to explore more fully. But as a novella, it’s definitely a good read…and an expanded version would be very welcome.