Savor Sean Stewart's latest masterpiece as you would linger over a seven-layer parfait on a hot summer evening. Don’t rush the pleasure.
Galveston is all a fantasy novel should be; enthralling, keenly illuminating, boldly fantastic yet credible. It just doesn't get any better than this.
Stewart richly portrays the Gulf coast in all its savage splendor. Texas is the frontier, complete with rattlesnakes, mosquitoes, breathless heat and breath-taking storms, prowling cannibals and the relentless sea. The city of Galveston is not a piece of the scenery, but a character in its own rights, a grand dame fading into ruinous age but still able to recall when she was belle of the ball.
This once-and-future city by the sea has drowned not once but twice, and is in danger of going under for the third time, unless someone can stem the tide of magic. The Flood of 2004 altered the psychic landscape of the inhabitants just as the devastating hurricane of 1900 forever altered the physical landmarks of the city. In that latter-day disaster a tidal wave of magic swept away the rational civilization of the twentieth century. Those who survived the onslaught of minotaurs and ghosts, dog-sized scorpions, and the flesh-eating Black Widow drew together into a tight-knit community under siege. Hoarding their dwindling supplies of medicine, water, and technology, they scrabble for a marginal existence behind the bulwark of Jane Gardner's practical talent for organization. Jane Gardner, Grand Duchess of the Ancient and Honorable Krewe of Momus, is Galveston royalty. For nearly a quarter century she has held her Galveston together through ingenuity, hard work, relentless good manners, and Odessa Gibbon's magic.
But the magic is not benign. Odessa ruthlessly exiles anyone who betrays a glimmer of magic to the endless Carnival, the dark Galveston ruled by the capricious horned god, Momus. It is the only way she knows to keep the magic from seeping into the everyday Galveston, the tired city where Josh Crane ekes out a living as an apothecary. A brilliant, bitter man born into the upper class of Galveston society but impoverished by chance, Josh has no real friends but Ham Mather, an amiable giant. It is Ham who brings Sloane Gardner, battered and dazed, to Josh's door one night. Remembering their childhood together, Josh brings Sloane into his waiting room, and thereby deals himself into a game he cannot win. “Poker is a man’s game,” Josh’s daddy used to say, “because it isn’t fair.”
Sloane Gardner also resents the hand she was dealt. She dreads the day when she will have to step into her mother's shoes and direct the civic endeavors of her Krewe. She has no interest in holding together the coalition of the five Krewes and improvising solutions with the dwindling resources left over from the age of science and technology. She knows herself unequal to the task for which she was born, and trembles between anger and pity as she watches her mother slowly dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. In desperation, she sneaks into the the dark Carnival to bargain with Momus for her mother's life. But once Sloane arrives on the beach, the endless Mardi Gras seduces her.
Wearing the magical mask Odessa made her, she feels able to shed her dutiful, timid self and becomes Sly instead, fearless flirt and carefree gambler, a vixen who not only survives in the frenetic Carnival, but thrives in the never-ending revelry. It is only after she has put all her chips on the table that she realizes what is truly at stake in this game.
Caught up in Sloane's web of deceits, Josh and Ham also have to pay the piper. Ham's loyalty damns him; Josh's arrogance and brilliance conspire against him; both end up in exile. The struggle to survive brings out the best -- and worst -- in them both. Along the way, Josh will have to relearn everything he thinks he knows about himself and his world.
Stewart knows the power of our primitive fear of the masked man, the fool, the harlequin. Momus is no beneficent deity, politely remote from daily life, but a powerful and capricious force of nature. The maelstrom he unleashes tests Galveston and its inhabitants to the limits of human endurance. Playing deftly on our morbid fascination with freak shows, the odd and grotesque, Stewart snares us in his spell that does not relent until the final spine-chilling chapter. He vividly recreates the spooky atmosphere of a carnival, bringing the Mardi Gras to life in all its garish, sinister splendor. Stephen King takes the ordinary and turns it into something terrifying; In Galveston, Sean Stewart takes the fantastical and makes it real.
© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu