A Scattering of Jades
Tor / Tom Doherty Associates
US Hardcover First
Publication Date: 07-2002
428 Pages; $25.95
Date Reviewed: 08-22-02
Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002
Pinning down the genre of a novel is usually counterproductive, especially when it fights as hard as 'A Scattering of Jades' to evade them. The publisher, Tor, is known primarily for its big-name SF authors. But Irvine's first novel is certainly not SF. It has much more in common with any of the current crop of supernatural thrillers, except, course, the setting, which is historical. It also has much in common with the historical mysteries that have abounded of late, but it's filled with surreal and supernatural events. It details portions of history that presumably never happened, but it's not alternate history. The story it tells is hidden within our own past, a secret history, as are the events of many current horror novels. By any measure, in any genre, 'A Scattering of Jades' is an outstanding success.
The novel starts in New York, in 1835, moments before the Great Fire that burned the city is brought to life. Irvine's portrait of the city if detailed and dense, yet he allows the reader to build a picture and a map that is as clear as if the novel were set in the present. Archie Prescott is a typesetter who yearns to become a writer. His wife and child die in the fire, but unbeknownst to him, they're victims of a ritual sacrifice. Stephen Bishop is an educated slave who leads customers on tours of the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. He discovers an artifact he sells to a nasty travelling medicine man named Riley Steen, who sells it to P. T. Barnum in New York. Goaded by his publisher, promised a job as a writer if he can bring back a good story, Prescott investigates Steen and Barnum. It's the beginning of a journey that will lead him to the depths of himself.
It's also the beginning of a journey of wonder and joy for the reader as Irvine creates one fantastic scene after another. He has an eye for details, but knows when to pull back and give the reader the big picture. He describes scenes of action as well as any contemporary horror or thriller writer, but invests them with the authenticity of history. His supernatural inventions are clever and surreal. Most importantly, every single one of them is invested with a careful characterization that integrates them into the story. Because each creation is complex, Irvine manages to make them both pathetic and frightening.
Irvine has also done an impressive amount of research on a number of subjects. His Meso-American mythology has the ring of truth in antiquity. With one exception, his historical characters don't have mere walk-on parts, but are all essential to the story. Were they to be absent, the reader would question the narrative, but with them in place, the novel has the heft of reality. This becomes important when Irvine is sliding into one of his surreal, supernatural dream worlds. Even these remain rooted and gritty.
'A Scattering of Jades' is not without kinks. There are some stretches where readers will wonder if they're experiencing amnesia, and others where there's a sense of the teleprompter moving the story along. But even in these portions, the characters are strong enough to counteract the slips. Archie Prescott and Stephen Bishop are not the usual paragons of good that people the average horror novel. In fact, one of the great achievements of 'A Scattering of Jades' is that even though Irvine uses all the tropes and tricks of the typical horror novel, the reader never notices. Readers will be helplessly caught in the swirl of Irvine's exciting plot and detailed historical creations. They'll feel uplifted and engorged by his ability to resolve moral quandaries in gorgeous settings. The ending of the novel answers the questions asked at its beginning in a denouement that is worthy of the buildup. 'A Scattering of Jades' is a secret history that readers will not want to keep hidden.