Saturday, June 2, 2018

Birthday Review: Galveston, by Sean Stewart

Birthday Review: Galveston, by Sean Stewart

a review by Rich Horton

Today is Sean Stewart's 53rd birthday. Stewart was born in Texas in 1965, moved to Edmonton as a young child, and now lives in California. Making him officially a Canadian writer. :) He wrote eight very strong SF and Fantasy novels beginning with Passion Play in 1992, continuing through Perfect Circle in 2004: what looked like the start of a truly major career. But since then he has published one Star Wars tie-in, and a trilogy of YA novels (in collaboration with Jordan Weisman), the Cathy books. And nothing since 2009. To someone like me, that seems an unfortunate silence, and I wonder about things like "Death of the Midlist". But Stewart still has a significant career in the gaming industry (and the Cathy books reflect that), and he is still writing stories, interactive stories. Quite possibly he has decided that this is the way he wants to tell stories, the career he wants, and it's unfair of me to regret the lack of good old-fashioned print novels. He did win the World Fantasy Award for Galveston in 2001.

I wrote this review in 2000, on the publication of Galveston.

Sean Stewart has developed quite a reputation, mainly as a writer of a sort of urban fantasy.  (Though he has written straight SF, fairy-tale derived fantasy, whatever Cloud's End is.)  Galveston is set, in the same world as two of his earlier novels, Resurrection Man and The Night Watch, though all three books are set at different times, and feature different characters, and are basically completely independent books.  It's an alternate history of sorts: sometime around World War II, fantasy started to leak into our world, at first slowly, such that at moments of great emotional stress, "minotaurs", dangerous magical creatures would be created.  Then, in 2004, some years before the action of Galveston, came the Flood, where the world was apparently inundated with magic.  In the island city of Galveston, a semblance of order has been maintained, mainly by the agency of two women: Jane Gardner, the secular leader of the city, and Odessa Gibbons, the Recluse, who polices the border between the magical part of Galveston, and the ordinary city.  Anyone who shows traces of succumbing to magical influence is sent by Odessa to the magical part, where it is always Carnival, always 2004, always a party; and where over time people undergo strange alterations: some become part shrimp (the Prawn Men), or part cat, or heron, etc.

Galveston is mainly the story of two people, Jane's daughter Sloane Gardner; and Josh Cane, who was sweet on Sloane when he was a boy. But Josh's father lost their house in a poker game, and Josh's mother kicked him out and ended up becoming an apothecary in the poorest part of Galveston.  Josh learned from his mother the bitter art of trying to make medicines in a mostly post-technological world, taking over the business when she died of diabetes after her insulin stock ran out.  Josh is forever bitter at his exile from the high society of Galveston, at his mother's death and father's abandonment, and at the way most of his new neighbourhood is slow to accept him.  He has just one friend, the huge and amiable Ham Mather.

Josh and Sloane are about 23 when the main action occurs.  Sloane is watching her mother die of MS, fearing the time when she will be expected to take over running the town, a job for which she feels inadequate.  A desperate trip to the magical part of Galveston leads to a disastrous bargain with Momus, the god who rules that part of town, a bargain intended to save her mother, but which of course goes wrong.  She ends up nearly raped, saved by Ham, who brings her to Josh for treatment.  Josh's embitterment is increased because Sloane has forgotten him completely. 

From there the action intensifies.  Odessa helps Sloane make additional trips to the magical side, this time appropriately masked, while Josh and Ham end up framed for a crime that didn't even occur, and exiled to the barbaric Texas coast.  Just at this time, the disaster which has been foreshadowed throughout the book happens: a hurricane, and some deaths, which finally loose the tide of magic onto the long protected city of Galveston.  Sloane is forced to learn more about herself, and to try to find a way to lead the newly changed city, while Josh is forced to even more bitter self-confrontation.

This is really an absorbing book, a wonderful read.  The magical elements are very well described, as is the decaying "real world" landscape of post-Flood Galveston.  The characters are bitterly and honestly portrayed, and despite manifold weaknesses, they are very sympathetic.  My only disappointment was that the book doesn't really end so much as stop.  I think this is a result of Stewart's refusal to "lie": he doesn't want any easy solutions, either easy happy endings, or easy tragedies.  The book's theme could be described as "life isn't fair", or perhaps "it doesn't get any better than this".  To some extent, this means reader expectations are frustrated: I sense because of a feeling that to satisfy conventional expectations would be cheating.  At any rate, I felt the ending of the book read a bit flat, though the theme is driven home excellently, and the characters are treated honestly and their changes are real.  In sum, a ve

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