Faces Of Mist And Flame
Tor UK / Pan Macmillan
UK Trade Paperback Original
Publication Date: 05-21-2004
390 Pages; £10.99
Date Reviewed: 05-26-04
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004
The power of myth is undeniable. Across centuries, across decades, the myths we create call to us from the depths of an unconscious that is no less than terrifying. We don't want to know the truth they tell us first-hand. Myths convey the kind of knowledge that can only be assimilated at a distance, because the simple truth would simply be denied. A story, a tall tale is something we can live with, maybe laugh at or shiver at in fright but knowing it is unreal, we can get to the core of truth without having to see it in ourselves.
Jon George is not the first writer to mine the power of myths and he certainly won't be the last. But his first novel, 'Faces of Mist and Flame' is a fascinating concoction, simultaneously very weird and very normal, mundane and magical, sweet and ugly. If it sounds like all these ingredients might not mix well, that's because they don't. But that doesn't stop the novel from attaining an unusual grip on the reader. 'Faces of Mist and Flame' displays George's panoply of writing skills in a variety of settings. When the gears don't mesh perfectly, George simply pours on the energy to get readers to his desired destination. Sure, there may be some engine damage as a result. But being able to write well counts for a lot.
George's most immediate predecessor in the SF canon is Howard Waldrop. His novel 'A Dozen Tough Jobs' recreated the Twelve Labors of Hercules in depression-era America. (One suspects that the Coen Brothers might have stumbled across this highly (and undeservedly) obscure work shortly before they decided to set the events of 'The Odyssey' in Depression-era America.) In 'Faces of Mist and Flame', however, Jon George is onto something very different and rather original. His novel begins as Serena Freeman, a child math prodigy in day-after-tomorrow 21st century England, perfects a technology she calls Odysseus. Odysseus combines math, sound, and MRI-style technology so the user can experience the thoughts of someone living in the past. With the high-powered processors available on PC's and the remains of some helpful government grants, she's able to do this at home, basically on her own.
Sixty years earlier, Phoenix Lafayette is a combat correspondent on the island of Guam during World War II. His grandfather was a native of Guam, a Chamorro who came to America at the dawn of the twentieth century. From his grandfather, he learned the native myths and legends of Guam. So he's not surprised when he hears a woman's voice in his head. She calls herself Serena. In a terrifying battle, both he and Serena perceive his victory as an analogue of the first labor of Hercules, the taking of the Nemean lion's mane. One down, eleven to go.
Hercules himself, borne of god and woman, has all the strength that legends tell us, but that still doesn't mean he has an easy time of it. On the advice of the Oracle of Delphi, he seeks King Eurystheus and offers the King his services. Eurystheus manages to find ten tasks for the hero, then two more to make up an even dozen. What starts out as an enjoyable effort to torment the great itself turns into torment.
If readers are wondering at this point, let me be perfectly clear: George re-creates the twelve labors of Hercules in the lives of Phoenix, Serena and Hercules himself. He does so in three distinct and effectively-written voices. Serena's tale is something of a modern-day thriller; the government is after her tech, and soon decides that nothing should stop them. It's told in straightforward prose that keeps the pages turning at a rapid clip.
Phoenix's tale is told in the kind of gung-ho prose that one might expect from a WWII correspondent with a bit of a literary turn. It's like nothing you've encountered in any SF novel recently, and may take some getting used to, but ultimately, it's very effective. It's gritty and horrific and has the emotional wallop of seeing your best friend blown to bits beside you. Most readers will be reminded of the recent spate of WWI movies that use modern camera techniques and unflinching state-of-the-art gore to give an all-too-good idea of what war is really like. Unpleasant, chaotic and horrifying.
Most interesting to me was George's rendition of the Twelve Labors of Hercules himself. Here, he adapts a rather modern science-fiction and fantasy vernacular and succeeds beyond all expectations at re-inventing Bullfinch for today's genre fiction reader. The Hercules segments are outstanding storytelling; they're fun, exciting and laced with a mordant humor.
How all this fits together is another matter. Phoenix's labors bear only the slightest resemblance to those of Hercules himself, which in a sense is good; George doesn't stretch the reader's credulity. In fact, against all odds, the labors really do kick up the action on Guam, which is already at a high pitch. As Serena's story becomes more and more entwined with Phoenix's the reader realizes that the novel is going to go past the labors. It's an effective plot-moving technique. And events move beyond the labors, it's sort of a nice contrast.
Those looking for lots of science-fictional elements in this novel had best look elsewhere. The Odysseus machine, while carefully conceived, is more of a Macguffin than a commentary on current events or technology. It gets Serena where George wants her to go. But George does have the language of the modern techno-thriller firmly in hand, and deploys it well. Obviously, there's no science fiction in the Guam sequences, but Phoenix's perceptions of his pursuit are more than a little surreal. And finally, the Hercules sequences offer some excellent Robert E. Howard-style fantasy action. Not SF by a long shot, but really enjoyable nonetheless.
Jon George is clearly a writer who has a lot of ambitious ideas and aims. He's willing and able to follow them to Hell and back -- literally. If the journey is a bit on the rough side, well, what do you expect if you're going to Hell? Certainly not an easy time of it and you're not going to find it here. You will find lots of well-written action-oriented prose and some very enjoyable characters in unexpected places. The poor herald who has to give Hercules the news of his latest chore, for example. There's a man who has to deliver a difficult message to a difficult audience. But then, one can see why George, who has set himself the same Herculean task, would find such a character so sympathetic.