Sephirotten: A Review of Gordon Bonnett’s Sephirot (2016)
One of the true pleasures of fantasy fiction is that some tales thrill, some make you ponder, and still others, the finest, do both at once; Sephirot manages the singular accomplishment of having done neither and taken an age to not do them. Reading over three hundred pages longing for the potential which occasionally crops up to come to fruition, only to discover it never does, is a tiresome experience, leaving one wholly unsatisfied by the end of the tale.
And potential there is, in parts. The novel follows Duncan Kyle, a man who the blurb describes as ‘an ordinary twenty-something,’ as he falls through the floor of his apartment into a strange world, beginning a journey through the many worlds of the eponymous Sephirot (which is presumably the name of the collection of worlds, though what this is exactly remains unclear even by the end of the book). There are ten chapters, each named for the world Kyle is visiting; a decision which causes some problems in those chapters where the reader is supposed to be in suspense about whether he has finally made it home or if what he is seeing is real (a regrettably recurring device which never quite works). Put simply, you know Kyle hasn’t made it home; the chapter title told you as much. Regardless, the vague description mentioned of this man is suitably bland. My animosity to this character and story comes only with the experience of having finished the book —doubtless the bitterness of disappointment — as the first chapter, despite some misgivings, assuredly demonstrates promise and does manage to entice the reader.
The first world, despite being largely barren, is truly intriguing. The strange stone temple with myriad rooms into which Duncan falls is a curious construction. Small details help increase the sense of mystery; a statue of an angel in the first room, turned to face the corner; skeletons whose leather armour crumbles at the touch; its strange architecture; and even the obnoxious Sphinx character housed in this building is a curiosity at this stage (regrettably, the character is written as if they are intelligent and paradoxical, when really they are just bothersome, patronising, and about half as smart as they want to seem, all wrapped up in some pseudo-philosophical notions that sound like they were parsed from blogs). I particular liked how long Duncan was kept nude; a simple device, but an engaging one nonetheless, especially insofar as the lazy option of having him find conveniently fitting clothing was toyed with when the skeletons are discovered, but avoided when the armour crumbles. That Duncan is kept exposed and vulnerable for almost the whole of the first chapter is an excellent idea, maintaining the suspense, and giving me good reason to care for a character I do not yet know (it turns out, alas, that I do know pretty much everything there is, but that isn’t evident yet). And then at the chapter’s end, Duncan is captured and seemingly has his heat sapped by these paranoid semi-human creatures that have murdered and replaced the caretakers of the Sphinx. They decide to toss Duncan off a cliff after having some of his precious body heat. All of this I enjoyed and indeed the world and these little details and ideas helped me ignore some of the other issues, such as the sometimes odd prose and the choice to have all of Duncan’s internal thoughts in italics. Unfortunately, when I thought that Duncan would survive his cliff-plummeting ordeal and go on to explore this world and its mysteries, we do in fact leave it behind, never to return. This world alone was interesting and had the potential for an excellent survival type fantasy work, expanding on the curiosities peppered throughout. Instead, it is immediately abandoned.
Chapter 2 is deeply, laughably, absurdly misogynistic. There’s a whisper of misogyny throughout, but its first appearance in the novel is a full throated shout. Diana exists purely to have sex and to betray. In the space of two sentences, Duncan Kyle goes from asserting his commitment to his girlfriend, who he last saw no more than three days prior, to inside the first woman, indeed first properly human person he has encountered. It is patently ridiculous and yet it is clear this is supposed to be compelling characterful action, which it plainly isn’t. Ham-fisted classical allusions crop up now and then, with this rather dire iteration of the myth of Diana and Actaeon a glaring example; another symptom of Sephirot’s desperation to be more than ‘just a fantasy novel,’ as if that were a bad thing to be in the first place. And yet, by being at once desperate and noncommittal, it robs itself of the chance of being much of anything at all.
Frustratingly, another idea with clear potential is introduced and discarded soon after. One world Duncan visits is one which tries to convince him that his experiences were the result of fever and that he is actually the son of prominent townsfolk in a nineteenth century English village. Though there are evidently some stereotypical Victorianisms in this section, the idea underlying it is an interesting one: the world is really a ghostly realm, whose denizens are essentially shadow beings. They have substance only if Duncan believes their lies; his credulity gives them substance, form, physical presence. This strikes me as a great idea, one that could well have been developed far more. But instead, just like the other good idea of the first world, it is left and never retuned to. It is a true disappointment to find in Sephirot two decent ideas entirely squandered by shoddy execution and the infantile desire to have some vague, ill-devised spiritual journey through worlds, of which only two demonstrate any originality whatsoever.
By midway through at latest, you become deeply irritated by Duncan Kyle, the man who seemingly has no personality whatsoever other than occasional flashes of ‘bro.’ Particularly irritating, however, is the repetitiveness of his coming to a new world and going about his business in the same way each time, usually questioning whether things are real or not. The whole journey is simply tedious and by the fourth world I had ceased to give a damn what was happening or whether he would get home and to my dismay the author seems to have thought that having Duncan wonder what the point was at the same juncture counted as engaging character work. A growing theme, if theme it deserves to be called, is whether Duncan wants to go home or not. This is not the profound worry the story imagines it to be, primarily because Duncan is so bland and his life so generic in the rare moments it is described that neither he nor I can come up with good reasons why he should or shouldn’t miss it either way. All these musings do is draw attention to the clear lack of any motivation in the narrative, rather than convey any sense of emotional turmoil or crisis as they are surely intended to be. Likewise, another peculiar choice, to have Kyle regularly escape danger by suddenly falling through a portal to the next world, entirely robs the story of any sense of peril; if things get bad enough, Duncan will just fall out of the world.
The proliferation of lazy stereotypes and cliches is worth addressing at this juncture. From your TV movie Arabian desert world to the probably Chinese though really just vaguely Orientalist world dedicated to stagnation and the making of beautiful bowls (I’m not even being particularly facetious, that is what happens in that chapter), Sephirot is constructed almost entirely from stock characters and settings, awkwardly put together as if ten different flat pack furniture sets were all haphazardly combined, producing a sort of dull copy/paste monstrosity. The appearance now and then, though especially concentrated in the last chapter, of an off-brand Hemingway machismo devoid of his redeeming artistry simply exacerbates the moral bankruptcy of the piece. Indeed, the final two chapters are particularly grating. The pacing is glacial and the tone misguided at best. The procession of characters from Duncan’s adventure followed by his ostensibly serene island fisherman existence with his own doppelgänger are wholly unconvincing attempts to convince you that you have just been on a profound spiritual journey with Duncan, laced with deep philosophical introspection. You categorically have not.
Ultimately, this is the problem, the rotting core — Sephirot doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, whether thrilling fantasy adventure or a more contemplative spiritual journey. Consequently, it is neither; it neither has its cake nor eats it.
Reviewed by Adam Nicholson