Jun 21, 2017

Unfinished Reading: Michael Swanwick, Chasing the Phoenix

Every few weeks, it’s the same thing: There’s tons of new books I’ve been meaning to review or at least muse about online, and I just can’t get it done. Part of this is the bookseller’s curse: I keep starting to read books before finishing the current ones, and then I stop reading these other book – sometimes when I’m 50 pages in, sometimes when I’m 50 pages before the end.
Usually, it doesn’t matter that much whether the book is good or arresting; I’ve simply dropped out of books for no other reason than that, for a few days, I was just unable to read in the evening. That’s because of another occupational curse: as a translator, I spend months on end trying to immerse myself in the world of the book im translating. At times, this turns out particularly intensive and exhausting, so in the evening, I’m unable to dive into yet another story on the page.
Still, I desperately want to read all these books. So I start reading them, and then I stop somewhere along the way, even though a lot of them are really good, and then I decide it’s time to read a graphic novel or a nonfiction book or a roleplaying game book or even (gasp!) watch a movie, because that sometimes helps me clear my head from all these abstract symbols on pages becoming worlds and stories. Sometimes I’m able to get back into a book few weeks later, sometimes not and it just fades asway ...

So I decided not to wait for that to happen and simply write a little about the books that still sit half- or two-thirds finished on my shelf. Not too much, because obviously I can’t reach a qualified verdict yet ...

The first of the several novels I’m able to say at least something about would be Michael Swanwick’s Chasing the Phoenix. It’s one of the rare cases in which I just picked a book that had been smiling at me from our bookshops shelf for months. I simply wanted to read it, for no particular reason besides that I tend to like science fantasy and that I have heard lots of good things about its author over the years, without having a particularly strong idea about what kind of books he writes.

Chasing the Phoenix is firmly set in the time-honored subgenre of “scheming adventurers navigate a weird, post-apocalyptic world, trying to get a good deal and not to get killed.” Its heroes, the devious dog-man Surplus and the more philosophical (but no less cunning) Darger, pull an elaborate, ever-changing scam, in which they present Darger as “The Perfect Strategist”, to become close advisor’s of an up-and-coming prospective Emperor of a post-apocalytic China. To that end, they create ruses within ruses, most of the time (but not always) staying one step ahead of all the other players in the game, some of whom are schemers just as cunning as them. What sets Darger and Surplus apart is, for one thing, their most curteous and outrageous Vancian eloquence. It’s just pure delight how, in a barbaric world, they display the most highly standards of civilized interaction without missing a beat. While this is of course, and practically by definition, a facade – it is absolutely clear from the first page that Darger and Surplus are con-men and liars with little moral qualms –, there still seems to be a true and even noble core to their disposition. Darger and Surplus may be helping a cruel and quite mad Emperor to unite China under his rule, but they actually have a strong distaste for bloodshed and manage to score one non-bloody victory after another for him, so they may very well be the lesser of many, many evils.
It’s also interesting how this book turns into a weird kind of rom-com about halfway in. Not only does the dog-man Surplus end up with a most delightful criminal who, much to his chagrine, after one night of passion claims to be his wife, and against whom his considerable wit seems to be powerless; furthermore, the inner circle of the Emperor is a hotbed of unreturned sexual desire and morbid jealousy, and all of the unfortunate would-be lovers seem to turn to Darger for help, who, after all, has styled himself the Perfect Strategist ... and since the usual response of these people to a no or to a lack of results is to have you either officially put to death or unbeaureaucratically murdered, there’s quite a lot of pressure to ensure each and every one of their numerous conflicting wishes are satisfied. And did I mention that the emperor himself is in love with a weapon of mass destruction from ancient times?

So yeah, Chasing the Phoenix is big fun – and now that I’ve written about it, I actually feel like reading the last 50 pages, because for some reason, I got stuck right before the big finale when I was hit hard by an approaching deadline ...

By the way, Chasing the Phoenix is actually the second novel about Darger and Surplus – the first was published by night shade books, has the title Dancing with Bears and is set in post-apocalyptic Russia; and if I understood it right, there’s also a number of short stories about the two con-men. Still, Chasing the Phoenix stands on its own as a self-contained adventure very comfortably.

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