Paul McAuley's Confluence trilogy seemed in its first volume, Child of the River, to be taking the reader through radically new spins on some fairly standard fantasy tropes: the hero Yama was found as an infant, floating in a container on a vast and mysterious river, acquired a magic sword and set out, reluctantly on his travels. He acquires a shrewd rat-boy squire and a wolfish barbarian warrior mistress, Tamora; gradually we realise that his exotic world is more rational than it seems. In the sequel, Ancients of Days, he discovers strange powers, and is pursued through a vast city, and down the river, by an inexorable enemy. Now, in Shrine of Stars, Tamora is dead, his squire is left behind, and Yama is a prisoner, not just of the sinister Doctor Dimas, but inside his own body:
"It was as if Yama's self was an island or castle of light surrounded by a restless flood of darkness both malevolent and sentient. Not only was it rising, but it was constantly sending out stealthy filaments and tentacles, constantly probing for weaknesses. Yama felt that if he gave way to it for a moment...then he would dissolve at once, like a flake of salt dropped in the Great River."
The Confluence trilogy is not fantasy at all, but sense-of-wonder science fiction revisited; McAuley gives us standard SF obsessions of the90s like nanotechnology, cosmology and the uplift of new intelligent species, but presents them not as ideas, but as lived sensuous realities. Shrine of Stars is the perfect end to a trilogy, a third volume that forces us to rethink, and reread, earlier volumes. --Roz Kaveney