Russell Letson Reviews Aspects by John M. Ford

Aspects, John M. Ford (Tor 978-1-250-26903-4 $26.99, 496 pp, hc) April 2022.

Sixteen years after his untimely death, we finally have John M. Ford’s last novel, Aspects, or at least a substantial portion of it. The whole would have been even more substantial, since a half dozen completed sonnet-epigraphs suggest a six-part structure that could have run to more than 1000 pages, so perhaps a two-decker or even a trilogy. The 400-plus pages we do have make up seven completed chapters, and turning a page to find an abrupt stop in Chapter Eight had the same effect on me as the mid-measure halt in Bach’s ‘‘Art of the Fugue’’: while the listener wishes there could be a completion and a resolution, what survives gives deep satisfaction.

At that break-off point, the plot seems to be finally precipitating out of the solution of character and setting and a few teasing events. But what drives the book up to then is less plot-machinery than the unfolding of the world and its inhabitants, and many of the pleasures of Aspects are those of the jigsaw puzzle, of assembling bits of information into a whole picture. There are no expository lumps, but understanding accumulates via a succession of incidents, encounters, conversations, travels, dinners and teas, games, and even a masquerade that is also a kind of masque.

The book’s opening lines could be out of Austen, Dickens, or Tolstoy: ‘‘It has been said that, if a person is going to die, he should do it in the morning: when the day is new and clean and full of unanswerable questions….’’ This establishes the novel’s narrative voice – an observational viewpoint that encompasses all the character viewpoints, with a camera eye for descriptive details that the characters would see and understand but not necessarily think about consciously or comment on. This voice and observing eye bind the book together in the foreground, while whatever linear plot there might be accumulates in details that only begin to coalesce at the point where the book ends.

The death in the morning would be the result of a highly regulated duel operating under protocols of ‘‘Lystorel, capital city of the Republic of Lescoray,’’ which require that when ‘‘the insult has been deemed mortal,’’ one of the participants must die, at the hands of the referee if necessary. The world of Lystorel and Lescoray is not ours, though its history has parallels to ours. But its greatest difference is that it has magic, organized and embedded in its social and economic orders. Subtract that magic and it is still a fascinating world – dense, complex, feeling as though it extends beyond and beneath the page, a gaslit, late-19th century analogue, caught between modernity and nostalgia for an old feudal order, layered with aristocratic tradition, social hierarchy, and class distinctions – and forces and movements countering the old ways.

The text is dense with close attention to details of costume, meals and snacks, social interplay, decor, and small gestures and interactions that are clearly meaningful, even if that meaning is not always clear at first. The opening-scene duel offers an extended example of this observational style. The participants and observers are enumerated, their dress described in detail, for example,

the surgeon, in a wine-red, swallow-tailed morning coat and crimson cravat, a white fur hat rakishly on her head. Dangling from her waistcoat pocket was a golden sunburst watch fob, indicating that she was also an accredited sorcerer.

The dueling protocols are described and followed meticulously, and the reader soon discovers why the proctor carries a single-shot pistol to a swordfight.

The challenged party is the first of several viewpoint characters: Varic, Coron (Lord) of Corvaric, a rather Byronic character whose activities as a legislator may have something to do with the challenge. But the possibilities of political intrigue and assassination are soon pushed aside by more ordinary political matters, as Varic lines up votes for some legislation and advises the visiting Coron Longlight in obtaining some anti-banditry assistance for her province in the Far West.

The first chapter, aptly titled ‘‘The City and Solitude’’, establishes both the general background and Varic’s character via the duel, parliamentary maneuvers, an ambassadorial ball, and the tentative beginnings of a relationship with Longlight. Subsequent chapters offer an Ironway (railroad) journey that further develops that relationship and introduces more aspects of Lescoray’s social, economic, and material culture. Varic and Longlight, among others, are going to Strange House for an extended country-manor holiday gathering. The House (named for its owner, and perhaps for its unusual social mixing) is a utopian microcosm where social distinctions are diminished or erased – where an aristocratic politician, a soldier-mage, an Ironway chief inspector, a rather dashing rogue, a high cleric (born a blacksmith’s son), a former royal guardsman, a couple of sorcerers, a one-time street urchin, and a visiting Coron can mix easily and informally. (The House staff is just as varied and interesting.) It’s an Agatha Christie/Jane Austen setting without a murder or worries about marriage – though there are certainly erotic and relationship tensions and anxieties and some striking examinations of a variety of pair-bonds.

Much of the rest of book is a tour, geographical and social, through this world: a trip to Longlight’s distant provincial Coronage, where life is more traditional, and another slice of Varic’s professional and personal activities in the great city. But I found the heart of the book to be in the sections set in Strange House, where ‘‘remarkable things happen,’’ and conversations can turn from the conventionally-social to the ethical or metaphysical in a heartbeat, or smuggle a reference to Krazy Kat (leaked somehow from our continuum) into a discussion of ancient political philosophy, or rework some familiar mythological motifs into a heartbreaking new shape. In fact, Strange House, as a physical and social environment, functions as a character, as do the Ironway trains (described, like Strange House, in loving detail) and Longlight’s seat in the Great Rogue Hills and the streets of Lystorel.

A movie of the book would require a small army of A-list actors to do justice to the range and vividness of the cast – even the walk-ons (for example, Varic’s second in the duel) make an impression. But Varic (at least in this fragment) provides the strongest through-line, and his personality is something of a puzzle. He is a meticulous gentleman, a loyal friend, a thoughtful employer, a serious and conscientious politician – but he is neither at ease nor happy with himself. Nevertheless, he is told that ‘‘there are people who care for you. It shows quite clearly in those around you.’’ Those others include his parliamentary mentor and collaborator Brook; Winterhill, who comes out of the criminal demimonde; the soldier-sorcerer Silvern; the Archpoet Agate, whose magical Craft can be near-crippling; and most definitively Strange, who sees others and the world at large with great depth and clarity.

This incomplete work is satisfying in that the finished sections do feel so finished – verbally adept, deeply considered, deeply felt, inviting not only horizontal but vertical reading – less the headlong suspense of a tightly-plotted page-turner than an invitation to consider everything presented on any given page and how it fits with what has been presented previously. It is a world that is simultaneously recognizable and unfamiliar – recognizable objects (photographs, railroads, telegraphs) have new names, and common human activities and structures (religion, government, class relations) are made strange. It is an immersive experience, a fully realized imaginative space with a wise and eloquent guide pointing out its best features. I loved traveling through it, and turning that last page, I felt like an exile.

Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud MN. He has been loitering around the SF world since childhood and been writing about it since his long-ago grad school days. In between, he published a good bit of business-technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book about Hawaiian slack key guitar.

This review and more like it in the May 2022 issue of Locus.

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