I've been intrigued by this novella ever since I heard about it on the Subterranean Press website months ago. I mean, Dan Simmons mixing up science fiction and William Shakespeare's body of work. I had no idea how it would turn out, but I knew I needed to read Muse of Fire.
The story occurs in a distant future in which mankind's first contact with a powerful alien race ended humanity's rule of self. The scattered human remnants now live under the yoke of a Gnostic hierarchy that controls their existence. Earth has been drained of its oceans and is now populated by the dead brought back by the Archon funeral barges. The Earth's Men, a wandering theater troupe dedicated to presenting the works of Shakespeare, stop to perform Much Ado About Nothing on a planet that's a regular stop on their intergalactic tour. But when a group of Archons, members of the ruling caste, join the rest of the audience, the actors are acutely aware that a lot appears to revolve on the quality of their performance. Soon, the Earth's Men are set on a path on which much more than their lives seems to be at stake.
The tale is told in a first person narrative, the sole POV of Wilbr, a young actor. Although the troupe is comprised of several other actors, the single POV format works quite well overall. I don't think that multiple narrative voices would have worked out in a novella-length project such as this. Granted, I would have loved to learn more about Aglaé, Heminges, and the Muse, yet Wilbr's POV suffices to convey all that the readers need to know to enjoy the book.
Muse of Fire contains many of the traditional scifi tropes such as first contact and alien encounters, fascinating worlds, unfathomable technologies, etc. Yet at its heart lies a more spiritual element which is seldom explored in science fiction works. Hence, though I enjoyed the interesting worlds and aliens Simmons came up with, I wish the author would have focused a bit more on the four stages of humanity's eternal evolution and the four levels of their masters. I was engrossed by anything that had to do with the Archons, the Poimen, the Demiurgos, and Abraxas, the ultimate God of Opposites.
Dan Simmons obviously loves and respects William Shakespeare. I was pleasantly surprised by how easily he was able to incorporate the Bard's classics in this novella.
Muse of Fire is a solid effort; something special and quite unique. Already soldout (though you should be able to find a few copies by visiting some online retailers), hopefully this novella will find its way into another, more widely distributed edition, for it deserves to be read and enjoyed by all fans of quality science fiction stories.
The final verdict: 7.5/10