What I’m Reading – ‘Seven Cities of Gold’ by David Moles

“And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts, saying: Come and see; and I saw…”


This book has promise, but just from reading the first page you get the distinct impression that Moles had bitten off more than he could chew. The story claims it is a meditation on 9/11, the War on Terror, Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina – as well as being full of “emblematic violence and acute symbolism”. All this, in 66 pages. My interest was piqued, but I was doubtful. Surely, not even the greatest writer could cover this smorgasbord of topics in such a small space? And sadly, Moles misses the mark.

That first page gives you a whole lot of backstory, it almost feels like a Star Wars text scroll, like the author (or publisher) is desperately trying to give you some crucial information that’ll help you make sense of the story and world. But, for my money, that’s a rubbish way to begin any book. It says to me that someone isn’t confident in the reader’s ability to comprehend the work, or that perhaps the story itself is so incomprehensible that it really needs some extra information to help with the heavy lifting. A bad sign either way. Also, worryingly, the book claims this is “the first masterpiece” by Moles but “surely not the last”. If you want to deter potential readers with pompous wankery on the first page, that’s the way to do it.

Our protagonist is the morally grey Doctor-Lieutenant Nakada, and the world is one of alternate history. In Moles’ world, Islam is the dominant world power and is locked in a war with Christianity. Nakada, a neutral Japanese Buddhist, is tasked by her superiors to head upstream with a ragtag crew and deal with a rogue religious zealot, who has recently caused untold catastrophe. You know the rest. Because the story is basically Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (or Coppala’s Apocalypse Now) – a story that I’m almost tired of seeing adapted. And I don’t think Moles does enough with it here to make it an interesting concept again. In fact, scenes feel almost lifted verbatim from those works, from the film especially.

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But the imagery is there, the world is fleshed out. I enjoyed how Moles drip-feeds the details, building a pretty interesting world and background. The sights the characters witness are evocative and affecting, recalling pictures we’ve all seen of disaster and war. Cities are aflame, people cling to life on the side of boats, or on the roofs of their submerged houses; all the while our protagonist passes through, numb to it all, dosing herself into delirium with opium. But it feels as if the book is too smart for his own good, not content to make one allusion but to instead make metaphorical references to numerous things. I can’t help thinking that if Moles had made it an allegory for Hurricane Katrina, or the Iraq war – and not five or six different things – it’d be so much more effective.

The encounters along the way are by far the best thing about it, as the crew discover threats and other characters (usually, like the environment, these are just thinly veiled allegories too). Sadly, It all sort of falls apart at the ending, as Moles fails to craft any kind of satisfying resolution or bring home his messages. Again, the description is fantastic, but I found myself just not caring. He keeps his cards close to his chest, not caring if you understand what he’s going for, what the biblical quotes mean, what the pretentious waffle is all about. Which is fine, it’s the artist’s choice to keep their work amorphous, after all. If only I cared enough to try and decipher it. But after only 66 pages, I was done.

Overall, it’s a very mixed bag. I don’t necessarily regret reading it, but I’m not recommending it. I think the visuals are all there (and I’d love to see something like this on screen) but it just doesn’t work as a whole. Maybe it promises too much, maybe Moles tries to achieve too much, or maybe it just isn’t as interesting as he thinks. Whatever the issue, it’s an admirable attempt but misses the mark almost entirely.

Jack Bumby

 

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