Chasing the Phoenix, by Michael Swanwick – Book Review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Chasing the Phoenix, by Michael Swanwick
NYC, Tor Books, August 2015, hardcover $26.99 (316 pages), Kindle $12.99.
“Third year, summer, first month, of the royal year. The Hidden King killed his brothers so that there might be no rivals for his throne and continued his preparations for war. In that same month, a stranger unlike any ever seen before came to the Abundant Kingdom.
— The Summer and Winter Annals
Surplus came down out of the north dressed in a Mongolian shaman’s robes covered with multicolored ribbons and hammered copper disks. He was leading a yak adorned with red tassels and tiny silver bells. The yak carried a bundle swaddled in cloth and carefully tied up with ropes.
In the bundle was the corpse of his friend Aubrey Darger.” (p. 17)
I am tempted to end this review here. If that isn’t enough to make you want to read Chasing the Phoenix, nothing that I could say would convince you.
Chasing the Phoenix is Swanwick’s sixth novelette, novella, or novel featuring the adventures of his futuristic con-man team of human Aubrey Darger and genetically-engineered talking dog Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux (“Call me Sir Plus”). Three short fictions chronicled their steampunk post-utopian adventures in London, Paris, and Arcadian Greece on their way to the Grand Duchy of Muscovy. In the novel Dancing With Bears (reviewed here), they reached (and ruined) Moscow. A later adventure was set in New Orleans.
Chasing the Phoenix is set in China, to which the duo escape after fleeing Russia. Darger dies of disease on their journey, but in this post-utopian future, death is not necessarily permanent. Surplus completes the journey to China with the corpse of his friend, to search for the fabled Infallible Physician who is rumored to be able to bring the dead back to life, if he is approached within a week of the subject’s death.
While searching, Surplus acquires a young servant, indeed named Capable Servant, who turns out to be as wily and unscrupulous as he is. They find the Infallible Physician, after a fashion, and Darger is returned to life within the first chapter. (It would hardly be a Darger and Surplus escapade without him.)
The rest of the novel is about a convoluted and highly dangerous scam that the two prepare to pull on the paranoid Hidden King, with the help of their henchmen Capable Servant and Vicious Brute, and the latter’s sister, Fire Orchard:
“‘Poor General Bold Stallion!’ Surplus exclaimed. ‘He looked so terrified to be met by a high-ranking official and so relieved to be dismissed.’ Then in English, he said, ‘Do you suppose they have somebody eavesdropping on us?’
‘They’d be fools not to,’ Darger replied, also speaking in English. He was careful to speak slowly and sonorously, as befit a sage. ‘It is a bad sign when an underling fears to come face-to-face with his ultimate superiors. It suggests that the loyalty they demand of him is not returned.’” (pgs. 38-39)
Darger carries out the scam through a combination of surreptitioness and boldness, while Surplus struts about distractively as the exotic Dog Warrior.
“Those who never met the Dog Warrior may be scandalized that human women would be so strongly attracted to one whose genome was purely canine. Those who stood in his presence and experienced his charisma, however, understood perfectly.
— Exploits of the Dog Warrior” (p. 58)
But the … voice? woman? goddess? ghost? … who calls herself the Hidden King’s Phoenix Bride has her own plans.
Chasing the Phoenix is not a furry novel, but there are many scenes that furry fans will like:
“A fat Buddha of an ostler who rented out red-and-white-striped saddle-cats for children to ride along an oval track merely spread his flabby arms and shrugged.” (p. 20)
“At that instant, a giant metal spider crested the hilltop. Lifting and dropping eight sleek and cunningly jointed legs, the gleaming black monstrosity stalked down the road toward the two travelers with ponderous delicacy. Surplus stopped dead in his tracks.” (p. 22)
(The mechanical spider is a war machine of the Hidden King’s Good Fortune Spider Corps, named Death to the Enemies of the State by its cheerful driver, Sergeant Bright Prosperity.)
“The mountain horses were kept in a nearby grassy sward, surrounded by a chest-high pole fence. Surplus and Fire Orchard stood for a while, watching them crop grass. They were everything they were reputed to be, chimerical creatures with the size and beauty of unaltered horses, the legs and paws of some enormous triple-jointed cat, and beaks that would have done justice to griffins. They looked like no creature Surplus had ever seen, and he could tell at a glance that they were swift as wildfire.” (p. 70)
Darger and Surplus meet many colorful Chinese supporting characters, from court functionaries to military leaders to scheming peasants: Bright Pearl, Powerful Locomotive, White Squall, Little Spider, Glorious Legend, Immovable Object, First-Born Splendor, Shrewd Fox, and Noble Tiger; some of whom have secret goals of their own. Cover artist Stephen Martiniere shows Surplus and Darger striding at the head of the Hidden King’s army, illustrating the adage that the way to appear to be a leader is to find out which way the masses are going and to run ahead and get in front of them.
It helps to have read Darger’s and Surplus’ previous adventures first, but Chasing the Phoenix stands on its own. It comes to a satisfying conclusion, but keep in mind that each Darger and Surplus adventure ends with them moving on to a new destination.