Darger and Surplus are back. If this means a lot to you, save some time and go fetch Chasing the Phoenix straightaway. If not, read on.
As this is not their first outing, our narrator quickly sketches a view of Darger and Surplus for those who have not seen either Dancing with Bears or the short stories recording earlier adventures. Expectations may be confused when we discover that Darger is dead as the novel opens—but such misfortune is only a minor deterrent for two such resourceful chaps as the dog-man formally called Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux and his best friend, who takes the name Perfect Strategist in this adventure. Our friends' lighthearted tone is maintained throughout, whilst still delivering sufficient light and shade not to become monotonous.
To one of Surplus's profession, the best thing to be in a city was anonymous. Failing that, however, notoriety would do. (p. 20)
This is a high-wire act, but Swanwick performs in perfect comfort. Darger and Surplus are “rogues,” but they are contrasted against the truly wicked and misguided people they meet along the way. We are encouraged to feel superior to those with moral certainty or an excess of ambition; our leading lights are better than those whose morals are either too high or too low.
The story begins deep in the heart of a collection of nations still known as China, where Darger and Surplus soon come to the attention of the Hidden King. They avoid immediate execution through incredible promises and further death threats through outrageous lies. The web of deceit grows ever more elaborate and the variety of retribution threatened upon them more multitudinous. These confidence tricksters have only their own self-confidence to bet on, in the hope of riches and the fear of death. This all unfolds within the court intrigues and upon the battlefields of the Hidden King, who has a grand plan to conquer and unite China, then immolate himself and his new capital—the ancient city of North—in a nuclear fire, the first since the Utopian Age.
In some ways, this is a China of Western myth, but Swanwick is writing in full awareness of the nature of orientalism. He amuses this reader, at least, by naming a series of characters in the most literal fashion: Capable Servant, Vicious Brute, General Staunch Defender; and in the same moment pointing out how names that English speakers think of only as names are no different—
the Demesne of Western Vermont . . . in Chinese the name translated as the Land of the Green Mountains of the West (p. 22)
This mutual incomprehension is played as foolishness on all our parts, both in the epigraphs at the start of each chapter and through the repeated use of story and aphorism by the Perfect Strategist. Sayings which we see as crutches or catchphrases in our own language are used as a sign of mysticism and debt to the past in another's:
“In my country,” Surplus said, “there is a saying: The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.”
Wonderingly, White Squall said, “you Westerners certainly use a lot of adages.”
“It is our way,” Darger said, standing. (p. 169)
Embedded in this is the further joke of how memes from our own time might survive across the centuries. Swanwick establishes that this setting is a somewhat distant future but it could, at first, be mistaken for fantasy, or for a mediaeval era or perhaps for pastiche of Jack Vance's Dying Earth. These elements are present in the work, alongside twenty-first-century considerations of how our world might be viewed from beyond. Our own time has been the utopian era, but some form of singularity seems to have been both the peak and the end of utopia. Miracles from that era have either become mythical or merged into ordinary life. The things lost are usually ones we could understand, whilst the things retained are those of which we have no knowledge. Using this, Swanwick can deliver a picaresque of a post-utopian future:
Chickens foraged in the yards. Wisps of blue smoke rose from the chimneys. A land orca pulled a plow. The scene could hardly have been more bucolic. (p. 126)
Almost, one is past this description before noticing the land orca, which our residents of the time consider no less likely than chickens.
There are other hints at what has been lost from our utopia and what remains, whether it is the suggestion that the ancients had a religious symbol called a satellite dish or the idea that drinking a potion of mathematics will embed the knowledge in your brain. Yet, anything considered to be technology is taboo or viewed with suspicion. Despite this, the Hidden King's army is powered by the research of Chief Archaeological Officer White Squall. She has spent her life in the company of machinery. Her command vehicle is a backhoe, surrounded by such resurrected war machines as crushing wheels, walking bridges, and giant mechanical spiders. White Squall is a true servant to the Hidden King, and so obeys the command to seek and restore a nuclear warhead. The search is concluded remarkably quickly, quite early in the book, which makes the possibility of nuclear destruction a genuine threat.
The foray into a nuclear bunker also provides an opportunity for a cameo from the demons of the Internet. These “mad intelligences and posthuman minds” (p. 114) are not as visible here as they were in Dancing with Bears, but on each occasion that they show up, their malevolence is undoubted. Late in the novel, Darger seeks them out in a beautiful piece of plotting. His apparent purpose is to ask questions about the nature of the world and of the demons themselves. The answers he elicits provide new details for the reader; a satisfying outcome as it explains the nature of the Hidden King and provides context on the demons of the Internet. The next scene provides a completely different gloss on proceedings, as Darger reveals to Surplus the reason he went—to determine whether these mad intelligences have been able to learn the latest trick they are playing. This is different from either the revelations to the reader or the reason supplied to the demon. And yet all this apparent transparency allows the author to further obfuscate what is actually going on—for both the reader and the characters themselves. I would like to pretend I was not fooled as much as the characters, but even so, I can recommend the pleasure of experiencing the author's own confidence tricks played out—and the ending is a delight.
Swanwick builds a pleasurable reading experience at every level. From word choice and sentence shape to plot and character, each reflects and amplifies the other and the whole package is tied up with just enough loose ends to look forward to more in this series.