Chasing the Phoenix, Michael Swanwick (Tor 978-0-7653-8090-6, $26.99, 316pp, hc) August 2015.
Chasing the Phoenix is part of Michael Swanwick’s continuing account of the adventures of far-future con artists Darger and Surplus, which to my chagrin I have heretofore somehow not been following. (I am already remedying that situation as I write this column, starting with the first entry, ‘‘The Dog Said Bow-Wow’’.) The world of Aubrey Darger and Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux (‘‘Sir Plus’’ for short and thus Surplus) is a partly recovered post-utopian milieu that has lost the truly miraculous devices and powers of fallen Utopia, which was destroyed by the rebellion of its AIs. Nevertheless, there are bits and bobs of antique (and potentially lethal) hardware waiting to be dug up and reconditioned by archaeologists, and plenty of nifty-enough biotech has survived – one can, for example, smoke a good book, thanks to ‘‘tutelary cheroots’’ containing ‘‘tailored mosaic viruses.’’ This kind of technology also accounts for Surplus, who is an intelligence-enhanced and considerably redesigned dog. (It’s not clear what accounts for his elastic moral code or his considerable appeal to women.)
The partners have swindled their way across Europe and Russia to a China that has spiraled back to an ancient warring-states condition. In a prefatory note, Swanwick writes that this is ‘‘a China which is not and could not have been nor ever will be.’’ Nevertheless, it is portrayed with apparent and abundant affection: a China of the imagination, a civilization which has maintained its personality through the cataclysmic changes that marked the fall of the Utopian age, mixing ancient character traits with the technological scraps that have survived.
The book might as well have been titled ‘‘Riding the Tiger,’’ since Darger and Surplus find themselves attached to the plans of a dangerous monarch without a clear exit strategy. The first problem is to locate the Infallible Physician to revive Darger (who is inconveniently dead), a task accomplished with the aid of a young man, Capable Servant of No Special Distinction, who attaches himself to the pair as factotum and, um, dogsbody. (We will return to the matter of character names later.) The miracle of Darger’s resurrection brings them to the attention of the Hidden King, which in turn leads to a series of increasingly difficult and dangerous cons, along with a bit of empire-building, interspersed with encounters with the terrifying and still-potent revenants of Utopia’s mad AIs.
The Hidden King (later Emperor) is hungry for territorial expansion and also monumentally paranoid, concealing his location in a palace labyrinth and his appearance in a variety of veils, masks, robes, and disguises. Nevertheless, Darger and Surplus work their way into his inner circle, becoming the Perfect Strategist and the Noble Dog Warrior. The grand con, undertaken merely to survive, is to fulfill the Hidden King’s ambition for conquest while averting one particularly destructive dream, and city after city is added to the reborn empire. This requires maneuvering, flattering, snookering, and manipulating all those around them, and playing on their hopes and fears – especially their hopes, as when the partners engineer a delicate, interlocking three-way courtship/matchmaking involving blunt, unsubtle general Powerful Locomotive; courtly, honorable Prince First-Born Splendor; and the brilliant but socially stunted archaeologist White Squall. Surplus also becomes the (involuntary, temporary, but carnally satisfied) ‘‘husband’’ of the bandit-queen Fire Orchid and thus co-leader of her tribe of pickpockets, burglars, forgers, smugglers, extortionists, arsonists (‘‘now and then’’), counterfeiters (‘‘when we can get the equipment’’), and general opportunistic appropriators of available property – ‘‘but no thuggery – never!’’ Surplus, needless to say, feels quite at home among them, if occasionally alarmed at the precociousness of the children.
The book is a delight: prose, setting, roguish characters, and scenes of elaborate speechifying all recall Jack Vance. Add the language and iconography reminiscent of the English Renaissance, familiar from previous Swanwickian efforts (Stations of the Tide, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, The Dragons of Babel), and you have a rich and intoxicating verbal environment. Swanwick, like Vance, is fond of chapter epigraphs drawn from imaginary sources – ‘‘The Book of the Two Rogues’’, ‘‘The Sayings of the Perfect Strategist’’, ‘‘Exploits of the Dog Warrior’’ – many of which are familiar sayings reconfigured as elegant faux-Chinese-sounding wisdom-bits and anecdotes. For example, ‘‘Kill ’em all and let God sort it out’’ becomes ‘‘Let them all be executed…. Heaven will know its own.’’ (Other sayings and sources appear disguised as elaborately as the Hidden Emperor. Watch for lines from the Yellow Kid, Mr. Dunkenfield, and Tricky Dick.)
The character names are another pleasure: soldiers Powerful Locomotive, Shrewd Fox, and Noble Tiger, and bandit-children Terrible Nuisance and Little Spider. Fire Orchid’s good-natured brother Vicious Brute was so named by his mother because she ‘‘saw I was going to grow up big and thought it would give me a leg up in my profession.’’ Capable Servant’s mom was even more thorough in her planning:
‘‘My mother named me… thinking it would improve my chances of finding employment. Capable Servant, because that is what every gentleman needs. Of No Special Distinction to reassure my master that I am unlikely to leave his hire seeking better pay elsewhere.’’
Bernard Cornwell ends each volume of the saga of Richard Sharpe with the assurance that ‘‘Sharpe will march again.’’ Swanwick has propelled his tricksters similarly across half the world and now put them through a series of military exercises that would let them swap tales with Cornwell’s hero. Surplus’s exit line is ‘‘I wonder where we are going.’’ I take that as a signal that there is a particular destination and that it will provide us with more cons short and long, swindles, scams, cheats, bluffs, fakes, double deals, palmed cards, and general scampery, all in a world more busy, colorful, exotic, sucker-rich, and demon-haunted than the one I turn off cable news to avoid thinking about.