Resurrection Man, Sean Stewart

Ace, 1995, 248 pages, C$14.50 tpb, ISBN 0-441-00121-1

Resurrection Man is a quirky book.

There’s no other way to characterize a book which opens with the protagonist making an autopsy on his own body. Or a novel where family matters are explored more thoroughly than a completely original backdrop where magic has returned to the world. Or a narrative that contains both some of the funniest and the saddest passages in recent memory.

Sean Stewart made quite a splash in the Canadian SF scene with his debut novel, Passion Play (Winner of the 1993 Aurora Award, as was his second novel, Nobody’s Son.) Resurrection Man is likely to enhance his reputation as one of the most accomplished SF writer in Canada today.

What if the horrors of World War II had been enough to bring back magic in this world? Many fine novels could be written to explore the concept but -perhaps unfortunately- Stewart’s offbeat fantasy doesn’t really care about the big concept, focusing instead on a dysfunctional family, the Ratkays. The protagonist has to deal with the fact that he’s becoming a powerful magic channel, the sister is an overweight and bitter stand-up comedian, the father is an authoritative physician, the aunt… well, you get the picture. Add a few deep, dark family secrets and soon you’ll be saying “and I though my family was mucked-up!”

From the first pages (the self-autopsy), it is apparent that this isn’t a run-of-the-mill, escapist fantasy novel. Steward is writing in the laborious style so beloved of literary aficionados everywhere. Neat turns of phrase and sharply drawn characters almost hide that the book’s plot is perhaps less than overwhelming. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you might even be bored.

Since this is a novel about a family, the characterization is truly top-notch. Characters spend a lot of time pondering themselves, their dislike for each other and the assorted armful of childhood traumas that seems to loom over everyone in this type of fiction.

This also means that the background setting is deliberately out of focus, at the intense disappointment of this reviewer: The truly non-classical view of magic (where minotaurs, butterflies, coins and grandfather clocks all are magical symbols) would have been fascinating to read about. Another weak element is a part of the conclusion (“But of course it wasn’t mine; it was his!”) that is highly doubtful and doesn’t make much “classical” sense. Fortunately, by the point Steward has redefined the novel’s internal coherency so much that most readers are likely to shrug and enjoy the remainder of the conclusion, which is fairly moving.

Whether or not Resurrection Man will be liked depends mostly on the reader’s personal preferences: Is he fond of complex characterization, polished prose, nontraditional fantasy and family-type novels? Or is he more interested in fast-moving action, world-building or logical extrapolations? This isn’t a breathlessly entertaining thriller, a mindless action novel or a fluffy-goody fantasy; readers beware!

Fans of complex family-affairs novels will want to take a look at Resurrection Man. As for others, though it may be heresy to say so, Harry Turtledove’s The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump is a more entertaining look at a contemporary magical world.

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