DarkEcho Horror
deccoclock by Rick Berry
Book Review

A Scattering of Jades
By Alexander C. Irvine
Tor / 448 pages/ $25.95

Archie Prescott, impoverished but with ambitions to be a reporter, loses his wife, Helen and daughter, Jane, in New York City's Great Fire of December 16,1835. Unlike other catastrophic city fires, this conflagration was the result of magic gone slightly astray. Jane, unknown to her parents, was consecrated at her birth to an ancient Mesoamerican god. Lupita, a sorceress acting as midwife, remained to watch over the child and, in due time, work the proper magic. Despite the uncontrollable fire, the sorcery's intended effect -- the scarring and abduction of Jane and the death of her mother -- is still accomplished.

Cover Lupita delivers the child to Riley Steen, a snake oil salesman who is far more than he pretends to be. Steen believes, when the proper cosmic time arrives, he can bring about a new world dominated by the Old Gods with him as ruler of a vast new empire. Jane is necessary to his plan.

The story skips ahead to 1842. Jane has escaped and found her way back to New York City where, as a disfigured and ragged guttersnipe, she cannot convince Archie of her identity. Steen, meanwhile, obtains another necessity for his plan: a mummy that will reanimate into Chacmool, an avatar of an ancient god. The chacmool (the name degraded to a common noun) is discovered by Stephen Bishop, a slave speleologist, in "the Mammoth Cave" of Kentucky. Steen buys the mummy from Bishop's owner then sells it to P.T. Barnum. Barnum's museum in New York is the perfect safe haven Steen needs for the chacmool until the transformation from desiccated mummy to living avatar can occur. On the night of the avatar's rebirth, Archie -- now a drunken sot but still driven to become a journalist -- is present. The magical events do not go as Steen has anticipated and the monstrous chacmool escapes after murdering a museum guard. Archie is scarred by the chacmool and survives only to be attacked by Steen's muscle, members of the infamous Dead Rabbit gang. They leave Archie for dead, but three weeks later (on the eighth day of the new year 1843) he miraculously revives. Alive, but now he has a maddening symbiotic link to the Old Gods. Archie eventually seeks out Barnum and obtains enough information to realize he must track down the chacmool.

Archie, despite dreams of her ritual sacrifice, still does not accept Jane as his daughter. The determined Jane secretly pursues him, but is recaptured by Steen's henchmen. The Old Gods have their own interests in the human machinations and it is the chacmool who is the cause of Jane's re-capture. Another supernatural entity tells Archie that Jane "is the fulcrum on which the fate of this world balances" and in the next 21 days Archie will either save her or lose her to the chacmool who will use her to give new form to its god.

Finally on his proper path, Archie pursues Steen and Jane to Mammoth Cave where, if his daughter is to survive, he must confront the multitudinous terrors of the darkest powers. He finds a guide in Stephen Bishop, but the slave has been promised more than even his heart's desire -- freedom -- if Jane is sacrificed. Neither Archie nor Stephen is a heroic icon. They are both men who must make decisions, act on them, and deal with the consequences.

There's standard horror plot working on one level here: Black magician seeks to unleash vengeful ancient gods, destroy the world as we know it, and gain fabulous power. An innocent child must be saved and common men must make a mythic journey, undergo a transformation, and become uncommon heroes in order to defeat supernatural evil.

But this is not the true source of horror in the novel. Irvine has taken fantasy, real history, and complex characters (both fictional and extrapolated from history) and used them to explore the disquieting duality of the United States itself. Our freedom, opportunities, and democracy came at great cost: the annihilation of the Indians, enslavement of the African, degradation of the immigrant, wanton exploitation of natural resources, and other bitter oceans of blood sacrifice.

Comparing Alex Irvine's first novel to Tim Powers' extraordinary work is inevitable and, incredibly, Irvine manages to hold his own in the comparison. He still has quite a bit to learn before he can be ranked with a master like Powers, but the potential is evident. -- Cemetery Dance #44

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Copyright © 2003 Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.