Monday, July 8, 2024

Review: Æstival Tide, by Elizabeth Hand

Review: Æstival Tide, by Elizabeth Hand

by Rich Horton

Æstival Tide (1992) is Elizabeth Hand's sequel to Winterlong, which I reviewed here. My copy is the Bantam Spectra first edition mass market paperback (remember those?) It has not been reprinted since 1992, except for the ebook available from Open Road.

The novel is set about a year after Winterlong. It shares with that book only one character, the mad Aviator Margalis Tast'Annin, who was killed at the end of the first novel. This novel opens with a scene of his "resurrection", as a rasa, essentially a zombie, and in this case a zombie in a robot body. He is now in the city of Araboth, an arcology (remember them?) located in what was once Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico. The city has been governed for centuries by the Orsina family, who seem to be in some sense loosely the rulers (or to consider themselves the rulers) of what remains of the old US, after the First and Second Ascensions. Unlike in Winterlong, some of this is detailed in exposition, and it mostly tracks with what I had deduced from reading the first novel, though I confess I has assumed the ruling "Ascendants" lived in space stations. (And perhaps they do, and the Orsinas are yet another layer of rulers.) 

The society depicted in Winterlong was cruel, but that shown in Araboth basically tells the aristocrats of that book "Hold my beer"! The Orsinate's power revolves around a city's worth of slave labor in various forms (with the cruelly resurrected rasas the lowest of the low.) They arbitrarily arrest people on the slimmest excuse or none, usually executing the prisoners, they breed people and genetically altered animals for sex, they perform human sacrifices often, culminating in the Feast of Fear every decade at Æstival Tide. It's as appalling a society as I've seen portrayed, and an oddly small one (Araboth, at the time of the novel, houses only some 20,000 people, though its capacity is much higher.) The residents fear the Outside, and any mention of it is potentially punishable by death. The ruling family is terribly inbred, and at the time of the novel (which takes place over just a few days) there are three surviving sisters, and one semi-exiled brother. (Although one sister and the brother had had an affair which resulted in a child so deformed that they abandoned it.) Margalis Tast'Annin had had an affair with the youngest Orsina woman, and when he broke it off he was sent off to the front, first returning a hero but then sent again on his abortive mission to the old Capitol, described in Winterlong.

That's the setup -- revealed over time in the novel, and, as I said, some of it a bit baldly revealed. (Which may have been the right choice in this book.) The novel itself revolves mostly around two characters. One is a 14 year old hermaphrodite named Reive who by chance becomes involved, to her peril, in the intrigues of the Orsinas, partly because she is able to properly interpret some dreams -- of the Outside. The other is another teenager, Hobi, the son of the Architect Imperator -- that is, the man in charge of the Architects, AIs that maintain the city and keep it structurally sound despite the storms that threaten it on the Gulf. Reive's adventures bring her to the attention of the sisters who rule the city, as well as associates such as the dwarf Rudyard Planck and the pharmacologist Ceryl Waxwing. Reive, in her earlier life in the lower levels of Araboth, had also ambiguously befriended the genetically engineered sea creature Zalophus, who longs to escape the city. Hobi, for his part, is taken by the exiled Orsina brother Nasrani to a room at the bottom of the arcology where he meets a beautiful android named Nefertity, who may have knowledge that could help people survive Outside -- or that could reveal some critical military secrets. Both Reive and Hobi, in different ways, confront hints and prophecies that the city may not survive the storms at this Æstival Tide, which is due in just a couple of days.

It's a novel that is by turns sickeningly beautiful and grotesquely horrifying -- and sometimes quite moving. The history it is built upon is even worse than we already knew from Winterlong. It's well-written though it didn't, for me, attain the heights of Winterlong. The imagination revealed is expansive and always intriguing. The characters are mostly quite mad, but believably so. I didn't like it as much as I liked Winterlong, but I think it's a worthwhile novel, and I am looking forward to the final novel of the trilogy, Icarus Descending. (Which is advertised as The Eve of Saint Nynex in the author bio at the end of the book -- I think the eventual title a bit better, and doubtless more marketable.) 

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