Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Immortal Folly III: Review of The Night Watch by Sean Stewart

Grade: B+

So we walked out of the jungle and settled down as men. But the trees didn't let go of us so willingly. The Wild Wood, the forest primeval (to scatter my sources), held our primitive thoughts in its captive tendrils for centuries. Taming it has made us more than amimal-men, but what if the wood reasserted itself? (Well, it'll be pissed off, for starters.)

Sean Stewart has created a world in which the earth has woken up. Dormant for half a millenium, from (as he belabors) the sixteenth century until the end of the second world war, the old-world magic has returned. It was a horrible thing too: turning great men into terrible gods, stirring the dead, and transforming the lesser of us into ghostly deformed creatures that feed on fear. The awakening, in Stewart's universe, was slow at first and then climaxed in a Dream that, but for the efforts of a noble few, nearly wiped humanity off the map. Some communities survived the Dream intact, through guidance and grit, and The Night Watch looks at two of them, the south side of Edmonton, that made it through with stark denial, and Vancouver's Chinatown, which persisted with considerable more flair.

From this palette of earth powers and the living supernatural, a good writer can paint some gorgeous and haunting scenes, and this indeed is Stewart's strength. (He describes his own work as happening "at the confluence of Faulkner and Tolkien, Dostoyevsky and Enid Nesbit, Joseph Conrad and Lloyd Alexander and Ursula Le Guin," which, neglecting Nesbit whom I've not read, isn't a bad description at all.) He's got a splendid eye for detail, whether it's detail of setting, detail of emotion, detail of character. And they're wonderfully rendered: his vignettes and snapshots range from frightening to fulfilling to poignant. The primitive forest of Vancouver, grown to near sentience, the magical depths of Chinatown (where's Jack Burton when you need him?), and the cold gods of the freezing prarie that demand sacrifice all seethe from the page.

My only wish is that he could have used more a little more expository detail. To turn all those scenes into a novel, you have to connect them somehow, generate some faith in the reader in the causality of events, that one thing leads to another, that there's a purpose to grouping them in such a fashion for display. You need to to have a consistent setting, too, and a few words as my second paragraph here (necessarily better written) would have gone far if applied near the beginning. Stewart's early info-dumps were, unfortunately, not terribly relevant, and I was damn confused on how the world fit together. Technology has advanced nearly to artificial intelligence, but fuel and other chemicals must be scrounged. How was that possible? The "barbarian" and many of the other magical threats were so unclear at first as to be non-alarming. They got told eventually, mostly, and by the end, I was tempted to re-read the first half to verify that I wasn't the problem. But it wasn't me: for all that beauty the individual plots never mesh quite well enough. A shame, but hardly a damning one.

A couple of non-thematic notes: he painted a relationship of a formerly married couple that I liked. Stewart often writes women that annoy me (relying overmuch on some Madonna/whore thing to complicate them past the point of likability). Here there was none of that: he made a woman that was tempestuous and difficult and still strong and feminine. He recognized how well paired such women are with solid man-types as unflappable bulwarks against their storms. He matched this pair believably enough, and made it a nice vehicle to display the culture clash. Another point that I enjoyed was the serendipitous pairing of this novel with Jitterbug Perfume. Future Edmonton is beet-eating town it seems, but it couldn't be more dispassionate. Meanwhile, the lusty residents of Chinatown loathe the things. Is it a nod? It's an amusing one if so.

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