A review of Chasing the Phoenix by Michael Swanwick (Tor Books, 2015)
Originally published in Interzone
Chasing the Phoenix is set in a post-apocalyptic future, which is littered with the detritus of its high-tech past. China, the geographical location of the events in the novel, has degenerated into a network of warring states.
Enter the central characters – a pair of con men (or more accurately one con man and a con dog). The man is Aubrey Darger, every inch the English gentleman, lover of Victoriana, and admirer of Churchill. His sidekick is Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux (Surplus to his friends), a bipedal genetically engineered dog possessed of human intelligence and canine senses. In spite of being thoroughly amoral, Darger and Surplus are a pair of likeable rogues on a par with Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen or Michael Chabon’s Zelikman and Amram.
The story begins with Surplus arriving in the city of Brocade, dressed as a Mongolian shaman, and carrying the corpse of his companion Darger on the back of a yak (later passed off as the sacred yak of Shiliin Bogd Mountain). He is seeking the Infallible Physician who alone can restore Darger to life. In Brocade, he falls in with Capable Servant who leads him to the home of Bright Pearl, granddaughter of the Infallible Physician. She, it seems, has inherited his library and much of his skill. After some persuasion, Darger is duly restored.
A few days later, Darger and Surplus are summoned to attend the Hidden King, monarch of the Abundant Kingdom and would-be emperor of a reunited China. Seeing the prospect of great wealth, they allow themselves to be pressed into service to aid the Hidden King reunite the warring states.
Darger renames himself the Perfect Strategist. In that guise, he masterminds a series of outrageous and increasingly improbable victories against superior forces. However, in order to placate hostile courtiers, he must attempt to satisfy their increasingly contradictory demands, mostly of a matchmaking nature.
Meanwhile Surplus takes on the persona of the Noble Dog Warrior and engages the services of a band of outlaws as a mercenary company under his command. With his Dog Pack and their varied nefarious skills, Surplus aids and abets Darger in his triumphs both on and off the battlefield.
As victory becomes more and more likely, it becomes apparent to our heroes that the Hidden King is quite mad. In fact, he is a pyromaniac intent upon destroying himself and the city of North (formerly Beijing) in a thermonuclear explosion. He apparently believes that his alchemical marriage to the weapon (his Phoenix Bride) in this fashion will result in his deification.
Determined not to be vaporized alongside their employer, Darger and Surplus hatch a plot to assassinate the Hidden King and replace him with Capable Servant. As they put their plan into action, the plot begins to twist in a dramatic way. But Swanwick has not simply introduced a deus ex machina, nor is it merely a last-minute plot device to cut the Gordian knot created by Darger’s increasingly complicated and desperate machinations. Rather, with the benefit of hindsight, it becomes clear that from the outset our heroes have been manipulated by forces that have long worked behind the scenes for the reunification of China.
The warring states are successfully reunited. Darger and Surplus are lavishly thanked for their contribution to this outcome. They are then less than lavishly rewarded and unceremoniously deported. And the novel ends with them wondering about their destination (and presumably their next scam).
I was intrigued by Swanwick’s use of language in the novel, particularly his dialogue. In sharp contrast to a lot of recent science fiction and fantasy, at times there is a studied formality about it. Elevated is the only word to describe the language of a mechanic who speaks of ‘chastising’ an apprentice. And yet, the characters can at times slip into much less formal mode as if they are briefly setting aside a public role.
The impression that most of the characters in the novel are playing a public role is reinforced by the naming convention used in this post-apocalyptic China. Everyone apart from Darger and Surplus uses a ‘descriptive’ name sometimes describing a person’s function or character, sometimes seemingly more aspirational, sometimes even contradicting or subverting what the story seems to tell us about them. So, for example, we have Capable Servant, Powerful Locomotive, Terrible Nuisance, and Vicious Brute.
All good SFF novels should have shiny things in them, and Chasing the Phoenix is well supplied from the riches of Swanwick’s imagination. We have surreal ancient technologies (crushing wheels, war spiders) and bizarre GM animals (e.g. the ‘mountain horses’ of Surplus’s Dog Pack). I particularly liked the idea of tutelary cheroots: You want to learn something? Just smoke the appropriate fag! And then there are the sinister ghostly AIs, which populate a substory within the novel. Implacable enemies of humankind, they live a ghostly existence in the remains of the Internet. They appear to bear a personal animosity against Darger and are possibly responsible for the Hidden King’s madness.
I also enjoyed the way Swanwick peppered the story with a variety of well-hidden cultural references including a paraphrase of a famous line from The Mikado and a passage in which Heraclitus meets Benjamin Franklin.
To sum up, Chasing the Phoenix is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the far future, which should appeal to lovers of both fantasy and science fiction.