Tag Archives: Sean Stewart

Passion Play, Sean Stewart

Tesseracts, 1992, 231 pages, C$?.?? mmpb, ISBN 0-88878-314-0

For a writer, one good way to ensure interest from the reader is to mix widely disparate elements in a single work. Some of the time, the result is a mish-mash of incongruous concepts. Most of the time, it seems like a fairly obvious gimmick (as Jurassic Park‘s mix of genetic engineering and chaos theory) Once in a while, though, the themes mesh well together and the result is often a classic.

In the field of Canadian Science-Fiction, Passion Play (Aurora and Edgar Award, 1992) is considered a minor classic and after reading it it’s easy to see why. Basically, it’s an endearing mix of science-fiction and crime story: the plot is about an investigator asked to solve the death of an actor.

So far, so accessible. Then the complications begin.

First, the setting. We’re a few years in the future, in an America dominated by a religious leadership (The Redemption Presidency, in a tone slightly similar to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale —another great Canadian SF novel.) The atmosphere is restrictive, oppressive and retrograde. Women’s right are in decline -if not almost gone-, as are most progressive ideas. Vigilantism is encouraged; the novel begins as a small mob kills a women for adultery—the leader of the mob being the husband.

Enters the protagonist; Diane Fletcher, a woman in a man’s world. Her precious talent: She can see and feel the emotions of others. This makes her useful to the official police force, who subcontracts a few cases to her. Fletcher is one of this novel’s biggest assets: Her narration is almost always impeccable, and her personality is fully developed. It is fortunate that the tale is told by her voice.

The victim of the crime isn’t ordinary either: Jonathan Mask is, at the beginning of the novel, the most famous actor—sorry, “communicator”—in America. And he’s also very, very dead, electrocuted inside his hi-tech suit he was wearing for his new teleplay. It might be an accident—but since this is a crime story, we can bet that it’s not.

Fortunately, Steward knows how to tell a tale. It gets muddled in the end (like most whodunits) and the end result is too dark to be cheered, but Passion Play is an impressive debut by the author who would later write the engrossing (but frustrating) Resurrection Man. Passion Play is slightly more enjoyable although the ending is unnecessarily grim. Too bad; this novel could have used an optimistic finale.

Still, this 1991 Tesseract book is well-worth tacking down. Stylish yet easy to read, complex but captivating, let’s hope that our future has a few more authors like Sean Stewart and books like Passion Play.

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.