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The Hollow People: The Promises of Dr. Sigmundus    by Brian Keaney Amazon.com order for
Hollow People
by Brian Keaney
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Knopf, 2009 (2007)
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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

British author Brian Keaney quotes T. S. Eliot's The Hollow Men - 'Those who have crossed / With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom / Remember us - if at all - not so lost / Violent souls, but only / As the hollow men' in his book The Hollow People, first installment in a trilogy of The Promises of Dr. Sigmundus. The story is told in two parts - set in Tarnagar and Moiteera.

On the remote island of Tarnagar is an asylum for those who have broken laws, 'a particularly ugly and dispiriting place in which to live', with gargoyles and turrets of stone. Rows of houses are provided to senior staff, while communal halls shelter the remaining residents. Many pictures of the Doctor are hung on the walls in and outside buildings. Funny he never seems to age! There's a strict line of command - the director, followed by medical staff in white coats, then administrators holding clipboards and checking watches to be sure all is timely. The functionaries came next making sure the machine is well-oiled in its operation, followed by cooks and the cleaners, carpenters and plumbers, gardeners, groundsmen, and jacks-of-all-trades. Security staff are uniformed in blue. 'At the very bottom of the hierarchical pile was Dante.'

Dante was a baby when his inmate mother threw herself from the top of the Great Tower, or so he is told. Dante Cazabon was raised by asylum staff, without affection, and taught to be grateful for the privilege. He follows orders, bringing meals to inmates, and cleaning up messes. Dante cannot read nor write, but enjoys time to himself. Since he has already taken his Sigmundus vows, and takes the required Ichor, why does he still dream?

Beatrice Argenti is the daughter of lower-level physicians. Her coming-of-age ceremony will be in four weeks time. It requires the recitation of an oath. Bea has been very ill-at-ease and appreciates having a special place in the woods to be alone. By coincidence, Bea and Dante meet in the woods, and continue to meet secretly, share information, and express their concerns. Dante is seen on school grounds talking to Bea, who is ostracized by her peers ... a lowly-kitchen boy?

The anticipated arrival of new patient Ezekiel Semiramis has the staff abuzz. When Dante approaches the new inmate's cell with a meal, Ezekiel gives Dante a familiar glance, just as he did when he first stepped out of the transport vehicle. When Dante bends over to put the plate on the floor, Ezekiel grabs the boy and tells him, 'Your mother did not take her own life ... It's a lie. She was murdered.' Early the next morning, Dante is summoned to the Asylum Director's office for questioning. The Director warns the lad about 'fraternizing with the patient Ezekiel'.

In the second part of the story, Ezekiel, Beatrice, and Dante escape from Tanagar via water to the bay of Moiteera, the 'ruined city'. Bea and Dante learn of the Odyllic Force 'energy that underlies the fabric of reality ... invisible, intangible, but it is everywhere, flowing through living creatures, swirling about us at all times.' Bea and Dante are introduced to city residents, known as the Puka. Citizens train to fight, live as a community, and protect each other. They prepare for attacks by an enemy, while the Puka also plunder and steal clothing, food, armament, and supplies needed for survival.

The seed for The Promises of Dr. Sigmundus was sown when Keaney first read Dante's The Divine Comedy and was deeply affected by the classic's visions and themes. He set out to write a story that 'opened a window into the unseen worlds that are all around us, whether we acknowledge them or not'. Dante and Bea's thrilling story continues in The Cracked Mirror and The Resurrection.

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