Muse of Fire Hardcover – Dec 2008
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Mr. Simmons' love and admiration for Shakespeare pervades this story, which is worthwhile not only for its especially novel and creative take on our universe, but also because it encourages its reader to seek out and rediscover Shakespeare's infinitely rewarding art.
Worth every penny.
This digital version of this short book has been on sale and is well worth the price. In the far future, in a far part of the universe, a space-travelling group of actors wander worlds inhabited by human slaves, performing the works of Shakespeare. Narrated through the voice of a secondary player, Wilbr, Simmons builds a world of creatively crafted aliens, religions and gods.
The title refers to the name of the troubadour's ship. The Muse her/it-self is a being that runs the spacecraft, reminiscent, but in a much less dark way, of John Scalzi's god-driven starships in his short "God Engines'.
Simmons builds his plot around a series of these Shakespearian performances on grand-universal stages to a variety of beings. Even at fewer than 100 pages, Simmons crafts realistic and believable characters and the framework of a fascinating and detailed universe.
In "Muse", Simmons emotes a passion for The Bard and I couldn't help but think that he'd not yet gotten Shakespeare completely out of his system after writing his duology "Olypos" and "Illium", which relies heavily on Shakespeare-driven themes. While not giving the ending away, Simmons may acknowledge that he finally found some creative Shakespearian closure with "Muse of Fire", when an alien suggests to Wilbr, "You people need to learn some new poets."
Simmons continues to prove that his creative abilities go well beyond a narrowly defined genre such as science fiction. He writes so sharply and with an imbued sense of intelligence that his literate capabilities lift the literary sense and pleasure of his readers.
On the surface, the book serves as a sort of travelogue story through Simmons' universe. The main characters are human actors in the company the Earth's Men. They travel through known space staging Shakespeare's plays for human settlements. Humanity has long since been subjugated by a hierarchy of other races, and the Earth's Men are one of the few ways that human culture survives.
Unexpectedly, the Earth's Men are asked to play for the local Archons of one planet - the alien overlords. This kicks off a multiple stop tour, each time with a different play.
The story also serves as a short, layman's commentary on the Bard. Many of the things discussed by the narrator, a skilled but not virtuoso actor, are things that I had already gleaned or read about the plays. Some others led me to consider them in new lights.
Finally, it's a bit of a tour through Gnostic cosmology. The alien hierarchy of races are lifted straight out of Gnostic teachings, and Basilidean Gnosticism is the human religion.
The ending of the tour involves a twist that I didn't see coming, and which raises questions about the parts of the book that have gone before.
Simmons' prose was up to his usual high standard - intelligent, readable, and elegant.