Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Review - Galveston

by Sean Stewart
Tied for 2001 World Fantasy Award winner for Best Novel

I used to live in the wastelands southeast of Houston. I was also close enough to Galveston that I went to the island town about twice a month. I used to know the city reasonably well and I can tell you that Stewart description of the setting did not grate against my memories. I can't promise you that if you're a current resident of the island that it'll match but then when has any author ever tried to get more than the general atmosphere of a town correct.

Magic has stormed back and overwhelmed the world causing innumerable deaths and toppling civilization. On Galveston however magic has been cordoned off; it runs free in an eternal night of carnival ruled over by a moon faced god while those who are not affected by magic work to maintain their isolated town. However the leader of the town who has kept it running for decades is now dying and her large breasted daughter turns to magic to save her life. This sets off a chain of events that will overthrow the stability of Galveston.

Sorry about the breasts thing; every other character in the novel mentions them repeatedly and I would have felt left out if I didn't.

I will give Stewart credit for wrapping up old stories in new concepts and making them feel fresh. Eternal parties, dichotomous societies, parental conflicts, and so on are old themes and Stewart's view of them in Galveston isn't bad. The problem is that when it comes to execution of those concepts he's seriously flawed.

For example, there's a theme in the novel of class conflict between one of the protagonists and those he lives among. It's vital to understanding the characters, their interactions, and ties into the divided society theme. Oh, and the first time it's mentioned is about two hundred pages into the novel in the middle of a trial. Since we never see this character interact with anyone other than his friends and family to that point there's no sign that these problems exist. Then they're forgotten about for a long time only to be suddenly raised again for a few paragraphs much later. Finally this gets an extensive conclusion at the end of the novel.

This is not the only plot thread that this occurs with. Stewart's story moves in jerks and spurts. Key elements are poorly established. They're picked up and discarded as the novel progresses. Characterization is whatever is necessary for the plot at that moment and once that moment has passed it can shift again on the reader.

A perfect example of this if the woman who goes to bargain with a god for the life of her mother. Now Stewart does introduce the complications that a person can only speak the truth in the god's presence and is terrifying enough that someone might not think straight. Still I would hope that a person bargaining with supernatural power would know that "I don't want to see her die" is the absolute worst possible way to word such a request. Even if they do phrase it that way the character, who the reader is constantly being told is smart, shouldn't go on thinking that they've gotten what they wanted from the bargain. It goes beyond simple the simple foolishness of most characters that make bad deals with supernatural beings to outright stupidity when she can't recognize the problem with her request.

All this adds up to a story that runs on authorial fiat; things happen with the obvious hand of the author pushing them that way instead of developing characterizations and situations which flow naturally. It makes for a frustrating reading experience.

Galveston is a good example of what I find flawed in so much fantasy and science fiction: a lot of good ideas that can sound interesting in summary with weak execution. High concept with low quality. Stewart isn't nearly as bad as some authors but that doesn't make Galveston a good book.