No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, September 01, 1997

Ancient Surfaces

This piece first appeared in Banana Wings #8, 1997 (eds Brialey / Plummer)

Going Back (1)

A hot summer's day. Mother and child sitting in the back garden (though this has not the connotation of privacy that it might have to you: no one ever comes past the front of the house either). Mother is smoking and reading a magazine. Her daughter, about nine years old, is sipping cherryade and reading a book.

Some people come down the track past the house. This track is technically private, but there is nothing to stop anyone on foot from slipping through the gap at the side of the gate and walking along it. The track is separated from the garden by a ditch full of nettles and stagnant water (hidden under trailing convolvuli) and a fence of corrugated iron, leaning slightly under the weight of vegetation. This barrier is not enough to stop mother and child hearing a woman say, "That used to be our house."

The mother is fascinated, and runs around the far side of the house and over the bridge (a railway sleeper) by the electricity pole to invite the strangers in for a cup of tea.

The child is outraged, and runs and hides in her bedroom. Not only is she painfully shy, but this is her house – at least her family's house – and how dare anyone say otherwise?

She sulks.

Going Back (2)

A warm day in autumn. A man and a woman are spending a weekend in the countryside. The woman wants to revisit the places she knew as a child: of late she has become increasingly homesick and nostalgic. The man is there to keep her company, and drive her around, and because he likes making her happy. They have parked in the entrance to a track, in front of a gate bedecked with locks and barbed wire. It's a mile and a half to the nearest village, and this is not themeland country: no one famous ever lived here: there are no scenic stopping places or picnic areas.

Next to the entrance with the gate, there's an opening in the hedge which leads from the gate down to the nearest roadside house. The woman stands at this opening, as close as she cares to get to an impenetrable barrier of brambles, and barbed wire, and wired-together wooden lathes. She peers through the tangle, trying to spot familiar landmarks. A line of trees leads off south-east, following the track. Most of the trees are elms and quite a few of them are dead. This area was hit badly by Dutch Elm disease in the sixties and seventies, and many of the remaining trees didn't survive the hurricane of 1987. She can't see the electricity poles, or the lake: the vegetation is too thick.

The man is examining the locks on the gate. He asks why the gate is locked. The track leads to a fishing pond owned by a local angling society, she tells him. They've always been keen on keeping people out.

The road is used by heavy lorries going to and from the timber wharf out on the island. It's not a safe place to stop. A car pulls up, and a man asks them to move their vehicle so he can get to the gate. There's nowhere else to park: the couple drive off.

It takes several days for the woman to realise that she could have explained why she was there, and that maybe he'd have understood and let them drive up the private track.

She does not sulk. She regrets.

Ancient Surfaces

Recently, reading about excavations at a palaeolithic site in Sussex, I was much taken by the idea of an ancient surface. The term referred to a separate, buried, but intact stratum that was once the surface of the land: the ground. This is rarer than you might think. Most of the land in the south of England is pretty much the same as it was when the glaciers last retreated, about ten thousand years ago. Any archaeological investigation has to contend with thousands of years of human habitation, but if you get deep enough you might at least find some indication of what the previous tenants were doing on that land. The land isn't in neat layers which can be dug through until you get to the century of choice. It's been mixed up by successive generations of farming, building and irrigation. Geological factors also play a part in this disruption.

At Boxgrove, in Sussex, the surface they've excavated hasn't been on the surface for half a million years. It was a beach, back when the sea was higher than it is now. Then it became a grassy plain, and was inhabited by humans. Then the climate cooled, the humans left, and sea and glaciers between them covered the landscape with silt. As a record of palaeolithic life, it is apparently almost unique.

There's a field to the north-east of the fishermen's track. Horses graze in it, and there are a few jumps, so they're probably exercised there. Under that field there's a surface – not so very ancient – that was almost my entire world when I was a child.

You Can Never Go Back

"I can't go back," I said.

"You can never go back."

"I didn't mean it like that. I meant it literally. It's not there any more. No one else knew it. I was the only person who knew it: I'm the only person who remembers it."

"In England? There can't be any land in the south of England that no one's used."

"It started as corn fields, and they were level with the road. Then a company found gravel, and they came and dug it out. They went away and left the wasteland. I explored it, every inch: I could still draw you a map. There was a wood, which might have been what they call ancient woodland now: other people went there, birdwatchers and hunters. But between that and the road, there was just rough marshy ground, with a few willow copses, and some hills where they'd left earth from the gravel pits, and lakes – ponds – where they'd dug deeper. There was a stony plain where they hadn't taken all the gravel, and sandy cliffs at the edges of where the pit had been. There was a rabbit warren over near the wood, and a single electricity pole on a high island in the middle of another lake, which had been there before they'd started to dig. There was ..."

"Write it down."

So I am.

The Map is Not the Territory

I don't remember who said that "the map is not the territory". Barthes or some other one of those post-modern types, no doubt. I used to know, but I've forgotten. I forget things like that. I could draw you a map of a few acres of land that have been buried for over a decade. A very detailed map.

I tried to buy a map of the area. The Ordnance Survey sell a range of maps called Pathfinders, which are 2½ inches to the mile: 4 cm to 1 km in what I persist in calling the new system. (The standard OS maps are 1¼ inches to the mile: Pathfinders show more footpaths, tracks and minor land features such as fens and gravel pits).

The map I found was Pathfinder 1143. It shows a truly desolate piece of countryside, with the occasional small village and one medium-sized town (Burnham-on-Crouch, home to the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club). I studied the representation of the place where I grew up.

The map was wrong. That is, the map didn't match my memories. Where I remembered ponds, they'd marked fields. There was a wide track across the middle of the wasteland, according to them: according to me, that would be just around the gap in the elms where the snowdrifts were over my head in that bad winter. (No great feat: I wasn't even five feet tall then).

Could I have misremembered? Were my childhood memories that hazy?

No. The map hasn't been amended since 1976, and then only in part. By a process of deduction, I'd say that the place where I grew up was mapped around 1970. By the time I knew the land, it had changed. Even the contour line (which breaks at the house where I lived, and is resumed right down near the Wash) is different now.

The map in my head, then, is the only map there is for what was there.

I'm sure the landowner had maps, and kept them up-to-date. Some of the hunters probably made maps of their own: rabbits here, pheasants there, stay away from this bit because there is a Child. The angling society might have mapped out the area to which they had access. I wonder if my father has kept any of the maps I made as a child, replete with my own personal mythologies.

I've tried to draw the map that I want: there is a dimension to the landscape that I can't put on paper, however many techniques I try. I've come up with a whole new set of symbols for places. There are places to read, places that were mirrors of imaginary lands, places where I was scared, places to hide and cry, places where I thought I saw things that weren't there.

I cannot imagine the symbols which could describe it to anyone else. I'm using words, but they play me false.

You Can't Get There From Here

No road leads there any more. When I peered past the barbed wire, what I saw was not the track I walked down every day, winter and summer, through snowdrifts, in power cuts, in the pouring rain, with the cat following me.

I divided the track – the Lane – into four parts. There was the section between the house and the fishermen's' gate. The gate was of iron, not a five-bar gate but a simple frame, divided once horizontally and twice vertically. There was a padlock and chain on the side nearest the house, and next to that a gap wide enough to admit not only me, but my parents. The gate was as far as anyone else usually came. To the left, as you walked down, was a cornfield: to the right, elm trees, brambles and hawthorn.

The second section ran between the Gate and the Gap. The Gap was where the wind came through and the snow drifted highest. There were three strands of barbed wire strung across it, but I had no problems getting through that. To the right of that part of the Lane, the trees were almost all elms: there was a half-dead elm stump just before the Gap where lizards and snakes basked in the summer. On the other side of the Lane was a pond – a lake, as far as I knew – with rushes and water birds and little islands. I learnt to row on that lake: I slid on the ice in winter, and climbed the cliffs (stony sand, all of fifteen feet high) until the landowner sold the pond to the angling society and I had to be more circumspect. By then I had grown from being a painfully shy child to a dumpy, paranoid teenager, so avoiding being seen was a fairly high priority. It was on the second section of lane that the boy from down the road set his Alsation on me. Anoraks, whatever their fashion failings, make good armour, and I ran home with no more than a bruise or two. I didn't tell my parents. I hate dogs.

The third section of the Lane had no distinguishing features. It was delimited by the Gap and by the third of four electricity poles. The trees were elms: there was a great deal of ivy. I didn't usually venture that far down the lake, because by then I was closer to the neighbours' houses than to my own.

The last section of the Lane was pretty much the same as the third, except that there was a matched pair of electricity poles, one at each side. Our paper box was nailed to one of them, until the paper boy stopped delivering. Our dustbin was right at the end of the lane, under an elder tree, because the Lane was too narrow for a dustcart. The dustmen came on Friday mornings, and usually remembered to take our rubbish away.

The elder tree is gone, and I couldn't see the rest. The sign my father painted had been taken away. The barbed wire barricade was, I suppose, much more effective than a polite request to 'please keep out'. I suppose the present occupant uses the farm track to get to the house. That's locked, too.

They can't keep me out. I know it too well.

Tuesday, July 01, 1997

Freedom and Necessity -- Steven Brust and Emma Bull

What manner of thing is this Freedom & Necessity? Is it a historical novel? a fantasy novel? Or what?

Well, some would say that any novel springing from a collaboration between Steven Brust (Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grill, the Taltos series, The Phoenix Guards etc) and Emma Bull (Falcon, The War for the Oaks, Bone Dance, assorted Borderlands stuff) must be fantasy. I suspect it would be differently categorised if it had been written by other hands.

Have with you, at all times, iron that cuts, polished silver (a coin will not do), a sprig of mistletoe, and a loaded pistol.

The excerpt comes from early in the novel, just after James has contacted his cousin after two months of being given up for dead. Richard, who pens this cheery warning in response, is later revealed to be living in sin with Kitty, who takes opium in the hope of finding the Shimmering Path, and has dreams and visions all over the place. But we shouldn’t judge people by the company they keep.

OK, how do we define fantasy? There are no magical beasties: no elves (there is a beautiful, mysterious, dangerous woman who travels around in a mysterious coach, but she's more nymph than elf); no goblins (there is one chap who is described as ‘inhumanly ugly’ early in the novel, but the next person to see him simply regards him as deformed). There are episodes which might be regarded as magical (I shall leave Kitty’s assorted visions, opium-driven and otherwise, out of this: dreams and visions are too commonplace to be of much use in classification). The bits where there might be magic, however, are reported with a refreshingly Enlightenment sensibility – "it was probably just the reflection of the fire", etc. James and Susan, at least, cling firmly to their Rationalist tendencies, and are far happier reforming the world over sherry with Engels than participating in obscure pagan rituals. … Oh yes, there are obscure pagan rituals, but no indication that they have any magical effect.

There’s certain plot elements that confuse me: I can’t decide whether the authors are being very obtuse and subtle, or whether the novel was originally intended to be more fantastical and the emphasis shifted as Brust and Bull became more at home with their characters. For example, early on James is given an iron ring which supposedly comes from the rector's housemaid but is in fact from the mysterious belle dame sans merci. Clearly (to those familiar with fantasy tropes) it is a token of magical significance. But we hear little more of it until near the end of the novel. James relates to Richard how he had the ring cut off by 'a blacksmith at Chandler's Ford', because it became uncomfortable when his hand swelled up after a fight. Richard nods sagely (he is Into This Stuff) and indicates that the blacksmith, and his location, is very significant. Low-key, or simply picking up a dangling end? It strikes me that both authors know exactly what they're doing: one cannot help but feel, though, that it is probably wasted on a significant portion of their audience.

When I started reading, I picked up on the 'British folklore fantasy' elements [if it's any sort of a fantasy, it has roots in British folklore and paganism as much as anywhere else] as a matter of course, because I think I assumed that it was a fantasy novel. After the first section of the novel, the 'fantastical' elements diminished, yet I'm sure that until fairly near the end I was half-expecting a magical denouement. Well, the climax of the book is intended (by the perpetrators) to be a magical ceremony, but whether it actually is, is another matter.

And I confess that it's a relief to read something where no one makes anything happen by waving their hands around: the fate of the world is not decided (except in James' Chartist tracts): there are no talking animals (I counted): and the fact that it's set in what I can recognise as 'the real world' does not involve a suspension of disbelief.

Let me expand that last point a little. Of course all (most?) novels involve a suspension of disbelief, because their premise is (usually?) that the author is relating a series of true events which just happen to have escaped our attention. The average fantasy novel deals with the reader's inclination to say 'that didn't happen' by setting itself in a different world, or at least an alternate version of our own. F&N is not set in an alternate world, unless you accept that hackneyed old chestnut I occasionally dredge up about every novel constituting an alternate world of its own. F&N is set quite firmly within the bounds of our own history: there's even a clever little aside when James tells Susan that there's a reference to him in Flora Tristan's collection of reminiscences on Britain in the 1840s, Promenades Dans Londres [I haven't been able to check the validity of his quotation]. The authors use contemporary press cuttings, which don't always seem to have much to do with the text of the novel: on flipping back to them, however, you usually find something of significance. As far as I can tell, there is nothing in the novel (apart from some of its characters) which contradicts history As We Know It.

Incidentally, there wasn't any magic in Ellen Kushner's acclaimed 'fantasy' novel Swordspoint, either. What made that fantasy? It was set in a made-up world which owed something to 18th-century Europe, but was clearly not.

Freedom and Necessity reminds me of Sorcery and Cecilia (Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, Ace Books) because of the use of the epistolary form, and the informed and witty use of history. Unlike Freedom & Necessity, Sorcery and Cecilia is a frothy Regency romance set in an alternate world where magic works. I suppose the two do share a few other aspects: elements of the swashbuckling romance รก la Sabatini, for one; a sense of humour; likeable characters: that sort of thing. Freedom and Necessity is a deeper book: the discussions between James and Engels on the emancipation of the poor, and between James and Richard on the nature of thought and reality, are by no means lightweight: they're solid philosophical tracts, and they do lend something to the plot – they're not (all) just there to show us how intelligent the characters are. There's a true Enlightenment mentality to it: a rational, humanitarian outlook which sits oddly, at times, with Kitty's Romantic sensibility.

Saturday, March 01, 1997

The Law of Love -- Laura Esquivel

The Law of Love is a strange blend of magic realism and New Age spirituality, from the author of the award-winning Like Water for Chocolate, which was made into a successful film. Esquivel's second novel is set mainly in 23rd-century Mexico, but there are flashbacks to the past; for these, the author uses an imaginative blend of music and graphic art. This may be the first true multi-media novel; it is packaged with a CD which contains a catholic mixture of Puccini arias and Mexican danzones, and the narrative switches between text and pictures – drawn by the celebrated Latin-American graphic artist, Miguelanxo Prado – as the characters relive their past lives, each evoked by a particular melody.

The novel begins with a flashback to 16th century Mexico, at the time of the Conquistadors. Rodrigo, a Spanish commander, has conquered the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan with sword and flame. As his soldiers destroy the city, he sees Citlali, an Aztec woman whose new-born child he has killed, and is smitten with list; he rapes her on the pyramid of the Temple of Love, and takes her to be his slave. Rodrigo imports a Spanish wife, Isabella, who eventually becomes pregnant. When the child is born, Citlali kills it; Rodrigo kills her, and then himself.

After the blood and horror of the opening chapter, the juxtaposition of Azucena's life could not be greater. She lives in the Mexico City of the 23rd century, in an enlightened world where people routinely boast of their past lives and how much karmic debt they've worked off. Azucena is an 'astroanalyst' who helps people regress to previous lives to discover the roots of their current problems: her landlady's grandmother, for example, is blind because in a previous life as a member of the Chilean military "she had blinded several prisoners during torture".

Azucena has evolved to such a high level that at last she is permitted to meet her twin soul, Rodrigo. But after one night of cosmic passion they are parted; Rodrigo has been framed for a murder he did not commit by Isabel Gomez, the next candidate for Planetary President and the apparent reincarnation of Mother Teresa.

Stricken with grief, Azucena resolves to be reunited with Rodrigo. In the process, she will relive episodes from several past lives, and realise that the two of them – along with Isabel and Citlali – have played out a violent drama together in several past lives, each taking his or her turn at the roles of victim, aggressor and avenger. Only after reliving her various pasts can Azucena begin to understand who she is in this life, the karmic debt she owes and the mission she has repeatedly tried to complete. During her quest, she is aided – in the grand tradition – by a motley assortment of helpers, from Julito and his rag-tag spaceship the Interplanetary Cockfight, to Cuquita – Azucena's landlady – and her amazing cybernetic ouija board. Azucena's Guardian Angel Anacreonte, and the demon Mammon, Isabel’s ‘teacher’, provide a more theologically-oriented commentary on the proceedings

The Law of Love is a blend of Latin American magic realism and classic European fairytale themes, set in a future world which – although not entirely consistent – is nevertheless quite believable. The author doesn't seem to have set out to write a science fiction novel, but rather to depict a society in which reincarnation, cosmic harmony and all the rest are not only acceptable, but are integral to everyday life. Her characters are as ready to propitiate a volcano as to commute to work from the Moon. Esquivel successfully imagines a future which encompasses not only astroanalysis and past-life regression, but also instant teleportation, weather forecasts by planet and holographic TV. That future is occasionally cartoonish, and scientifically shaky, but it provides an entertaining backdrop for the author’s exuberantly human protagonists.

The horror of the first chapter balances the epiphany of the grand finale: above all, this is a book about balance and reconciliation – European with Mexican, man with woman, mother with daughter – and the ability to forgive people no matter what they have done to you.

Saturday, February 01, 1997

The Sparrow -- Mary Doria Russell

This is one of the books I read in one sitting (well, almost), finish, and immediately start reading again to enjoy the benefits of omniscience. Twice. I know it has flaws: I don't care: I really do like it. (And the flaws I think it has are not identical to those mentioned by others). On the other hand, on both rereadings there was one section that I really did want to skip.

I have immense problems talking about this book to someone who hasn't read it because there is so much to say that hinges on knowing what happens. Anyway, underlined quotations are from that review.

The one question that I did have to wrestle with is, Does this book have to be SF? That is, could it happen without the interplanetary stuff and the aliens? It depends where you think the focus of the novel lies. If it's the crisis of faith (this is called understatement) then I suspect that missionaries have suffered similarly since someone first had the idea that those strangers over the river would be happier if they were shown the error of their religious ways. Although Sandoz is not a missionary in the traditional sense, everything he does is imbued with his faith: it is why he is.

I started off trying to imagine how this novel would work as a historical piece on, for example, the Jesuit missions to Native Americans. They did that same sort of thing: the Jesuits would beg their way onto a ship (on occasion funding their own expedition) and go and talk to the natives. How sound their conversion techniques were is apparently still under discussion. There's a vehement little book in the local library which accuses the Society of Jesus of presenting a very biased view of Christian faith in order to score as many converts as possible (in India, for example, they imported elements of Buddhism wholesale in order to convince the natives that it was really one and the same thing). Anyway, a lot of them met grisly ends, for much the same reason as things go wrong in The Sparrow: lack of comprehension of an alien society.

On the other hand, a first-contact-with-natives novel wouldn't bring out the same sense of a truly alien society, of reaching out over vast distances to something miraculous, or the idea of 'God's other children'. Or the sense of separation from everything safe and normal. Yes, it would be quite a different novel without the science fiction: I don't think it would be anything quite as special, although Russell can certainly write brilliantly. Her characters have wit and humour, exhibit grace under pressure, and lose their tempers in a hardly-sweet-at-all fashion.

By the bye, all through my first reading, I was haunted by a sense of resemblance to Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond novels: that same sense of face being maintained at all costs, that same elegance of thought and act … then I got to the end and found an acknowledgement to Dunnett in the bibliography (and what sort of novel has a bibliography, for heavens' sake?!)

It is essential to the plot that the expedition sneaks off: that 'backyard spaceship' is the only way the mission could happen. We're looking at a fragmented society where a major mission would take years to plan: in addition, the mission needs to be mounted by the Society of Jesus rather than a secular organisation, otherwise the first contact would be quite differently, and more soberly, managed and there would be little chance of things going (initially) so well, or (later) so catastrophically wrong. There's no way that any nation would meekly hand over a spaceship to a religious organisation: think of the outrage from the secular parts of that society, and the outright hostility from other religious groups.

And there's also the point that a large part of the problems in the later timestream (the novel consists of two strands: the Jesuits nursing Sandoz back to health and trying to find out what really happened, in 2060, and flashbacks to the mission and the events leading up to it, beginning in 2019) are caused by the publication of the mission's existence. It's a sort of betrayal: the man who originally sorts out their form of travel then goes public with the news, even as his company is helping to bring back Sandoz. Inevitably, the story at that stage is one-sided: Sandoz becomes a 'global villain'.

And, of course, there are precautions that would be taken by a 'proper' mission that are simply skipped by our intrepid band. Speaking of whom, yes, they are ridiculously nice (with one possible exception). On the other hand, that is precisely why Sandoz is friends with them all. They are the people to whom he is closest: his surrogate family.

My Significant Other read this novel before me: he pointed out that the chance of aliens being humanoid and human-like is actually pretty low. Yes, I responded, still halfway through the book, but they have to be similar enough that their differences come as a shock. And anyway I bet there's a good reason for them being that similar …

There is.

There are a couple of other flaws, to my mind. For one thing, there is a point at which Sandoz should have died, but didn't. I find I can't explain the others without giving away part of the plot … they are both to do with 'X should have realised / noticed / told someone …'

Several people have wondered why The Sparrow won the James Tiptree Award: I found this explanation somewhere on the Web. It was written before the actual award was made: I don't know if the decision was ever discussed in more detail.

"So, if the Tiptree Award is given each year for the writer who deals most effectively with an exploration or expansion of gender roles, why did Russell win? Granted, she wrote a compelling, original novel, but what about gender roles and sex? Or, maybe the question should be phrased differently. What about no sex?

I don't know for sure why this award went to Russell - and we may not know until the award ceremony next month - but this is my guess. Russell didn't explore gay or lesbian issues or do much new in the way of stripping away sexual stereotypes. But what she did was bring to light a discussion of celibacy which, considering the relentlessly bisexual recent trends in science fiction, is award-winning indeed."

The religious aspects are fascinating: there are several echoes of Christ and his betrayal, and more fundamental stuff about sacrifice. Sandoz is celibate: he has, in a sense, sacrificed the sexual part of himself ad majorem Dei gloriam - for the greater glory of God. However, he is not the only person who has sacrificed something: those on Rakhat have also had to give up parts of themselves, though for quite different (and, in a sense, even more fundamental) reasons. Sandoz' crisis of faith is really the only sensible reaction to what has happened to him: there is a sense of a cruel Miltonian God, in a sort of Garden-of-Eden scenario, blessing and then punishing. I'm not that qualified to discuss the theological implications – and there are a great deal, ranging from 'so who is made in God's image then?' to 'Does Sandoz have any impact on the spiritual life of those on Rakhat?' – but a heck of a lot of Biblical quotations kept springing to mind. (Gardens – now there's a thing …)

As a non-Christian I found the theology fascinating and not a little frightening: the things Sandoz does, and lives through, because of his faith. While it is distinctly a religious novel, it can certainly be read without needing to believe in God. All that matters is that we accept that Sandoz believes. (And so do the rest: all of them have pretty strong faith, or at least religion, which is probably why they are all so very nice to one another most of the time).

This is also a novel about language and how it defines a society. My notes (which I can't expand without giving things away, but I do want to raise these points somehow) go thus:

No word for 'I' (but neither have the Japanese): the thing with the hands and how it is described: to have a word for 'poaching' implies that there can be a legitimate use: the difference between being able to read a language and understanding it when it is spoken.

Just in case you all had the idea that this was a serious, philosophical book: it's also great fun. Sandoz and his colleagues assign arbitrary names to the fauna of Rakhat, with the result that Anne, having a conversation, is distracted by 'the howling of Dominicans in the forest'.

Wednesday, January 01, 1997

Fevre Dream -- George R R Martin

At the 1995 Worldcon, George R. R. Martin – who pursues the dual paths of editor and author – said that, rather than stick to one genre, he preferred to write one or two novels which would explore that genre, and then move on. A Game of Thrones, his latest novel, is epic fantasy; he has also written space opera and heroic fantasy. Fevre Dream is Martin's slant on the vampire myth; the story of a Mississippi riverboat, its owner and its captain. Abner Marsh’s career as a steamboatman seems to be over; the harsh winter of 1855 has destroyed all his boats, and his hopes with them. On an April night in the Planters’ Hotel, the mysterious Joshua York makes Marsh an offer he can’t refuse – a brand-new sidewheeler, bigger and faster and more beautiful than any other boat on the river. All that York asks in return is that his friends can travel free of charge. It sounds simple enough, and although Marsh is suspicious of such largesse, the deal seems straightforward.

Only when the Fevre Dream is cruising the waterways of the Mississippi and her tributaries does Marsh begin to realise that the situation isn’t as rosy as he had thought. Joshua’s friends are an odd crowd; they only appear after dark. There are dark rumours of what York does alone, on shore, at the dead of night – and uglier whisperings of a curse upon the Fevre Dream. And eventually Joshua himself "fesses up"; he leaves the boat during those unscheduled midnight stops at deserted timber mills and riverside houses to hunt vampires. Vampires like himself.

Only gradually does Marsh come to accept this; he’s a practical man, and vampires are the stuff of old stories to scare children. An encounter with York’s enemy, Julian – who believes that human beings are prey – leaves Marsh convinced that vampires are real: finally he begins to understand Joshua York's dilemma. York is trapped by his wish to make peace with Julian’s people, rather than destroying them; some of those whom he has already converted to his cause speak of him as a messiah-figure amongst vampires – the 'pale king'. Caught up in a battle that he cannot comprehend, Marsh’s pragmatism and knowledge of the river are tried to the utmost.

This is not a novel which concerns itself with blood and night alone; Martin uses the vampire metaphor to explore issues of power, sacrifice and degeneration; Marsh and York’s journey into the ‘heart of darkness’ owes more to Conrad than to Anne Rice. Images of stagnation and decline – a weed-jammed bend of the river cut off by changes in the Mississippi’s course, a filthy bar in New Orleans – are contrasted with the gleaming mirrors and marble floors of the Fevre Dream, just as Marsh’s essential honesty and honour offset the treacherous, amoral Sour Billy, Julian’s human henchman.

Martin’s interpretation of the vampire myth is subtly conveyed, and more convincing – scientifically and emotionally – than many. While he doesn’t dwell on the act of vampirism, neither does he gloss over the everyday violence and danger of life on the river – exploding engines, bar brawls and the casual slaughter of slaves. As a historical novel, it has a convincing sense of place and time; as a horror novel, its sense of brooding menace and powerlessness is remarkably effective