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The Meq
Steve Cash
Pan Macmillan, 430 pages

The Meq
Steve Cash
Steve Cash resides in Springfield, Missouri, where he was born and raised and educated. He lived on the West Coast and elsewhere before returning to Springfield to become an original member of the country rock band, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. He's the co-author of the 70s hits "Jackie Blue" and "If You Wanna Get to Heaven". The Meq is first novel.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

It's the 4th of May, 1881 -- Zianno Zezen's twelfth birthday ("for the first time", Zianno adds, hinting at mysteries to come). He and his parents are on a train, traveling to Colorado. To while away the time, Zianno's mother starts to tell a story. Zianno's twelfth birthday is different, she says, just as he and she and his father are different -- not only because they're Basque, but because they're older than ordinary people, whom she calls the "Giza". But before she can elaborate, the train derails on a washed-out track, and both Zianno's parents are killed.

Zianno, or Z as he's nicknamed, is rescued by a big-hearted Jewish trader named Solomon Birnbaum. Learning of Z's Basque origin, and also seeing how fast Z's injuries heal, Solomon begins to suspect that Z is the embodiment of ancient tales he heard in childhood -- of magical children who live forever without aging or falling sick. Solomon brings Z with him to St. Louis; there, Z encounters Ray Ytuarte, another like himself. Ray reveals that Z is Meq, part of a race of semi-immortals so ancient that they've forgotten both their origins and their destiny. Meq mature only to the age of twelve, and then remain in that form until they meet their Ameq, their soulmate -- a time of waiting called the Itxaron. Ameq, when they find each other, can choose either to continue the Itxaron together or to cross over into mortality -- to age and die like the Giza, but also to bring children into the world.

Z embarks upon his Itxaron, exploring his new understanding of himself, learning of the strange power some Meq have to influence the minds of Giza through magical gem-studded stones called Starstones. He encounters other Meq; he also forms deep attachments with a group of humans as rootless and adrift as he is. But darker currents are stirring -- the Fleur du Mal, a Meq assassin whose evil spans the ages and who has an inexplicable obsession with Z's Giza "family"; a plot by forces unknown to steal the gems that stud the Meq's Starstones; perhaps even a plot to disrupt the approaching Remembering, a climactic event at which, according to Meq lore, the Meq will recall at last who they are and why they are on the earth. Most fearful of all, the Meq themselves may be changing -- and Z and his companions may be the last Meq ever born upon the earth.

Immortal characters and races are hardly unusual in fantasy literature. But Cash's child-like Meq, with their odd powers, their cryptic traditions, and their incomplete understanding of themselves, are intriguingly different. They're as solitary as leopards, yet bound by a deep sense of communal identity; they slip unseen through history -- not hiding from human observation, or part of some secret underworld like Anne Rice's vampires, but simply so few and so much like the Giza around them that they are never really noticed (though there are special groups of humans whose ancestral task it is to protect the Meq). Their immortality doesn't weigh on them, and centuries of adventure and experience haven't jaded them -- nor, once they finally make the journey into mortality, do they mourn their loss of eternity.

Steve Cash provides an evocative portrayal of the dreamy, drifting rhythms of the Meq's existence, their simultaneous involvement with and detachment from the stream of Time. He also effectively contrasts the restless, ever-developing course of human history with changelessness that's at the heart of Meq nature. Unfortunately, too much of this static quality carries over into the narrative. Essentially this is a quest tale, with much of the action involving searches undertaken by Z in company with others. These searches take place in radically different environments (the ocean, the Far East, the Sahara), and have different objects (other Meq, a kidnapped Giza child) and carry completely different significances and outcomes -- but in tone and content they are very similar, lending the narrative a repetitive feel. Too, the leisurely pace never alters, no matter how much is at stake; even the most acute circumstances -- murder, kidnapping, violent theft -- feel as distant and dreamlike as the tranquil domestic interludes that divide Z's adventures. Cash's flat prose style, which tells far more than it shows, serves to further diminish tension.

Efforts are made to distinguish the various Meq -- giving them different clothing, mannerisms, history -- but like Z's journeys, they all feel very much alike. As for Z, one sees everything through his eyes, but it's like looking through a camera; there's not much sense of who's behind it. Z is reactive, but he's extraordinarily unreflective; what thoughts he does have beyond his immediate response to given situations tend to read like aphorisms rather than manifestations of a believable inner life. Nor does he change over the course of the tale, despite harsh experience and the passage of several decades -- the half-century-old Z at the end of the book is not appreciably different from the twelve-year-old Z at its beginning. Though Cash makes it clear that this lack of alteration is part of the essential character of the Meq, whose long, long lives are less a forward passage than a form of suspended animation, it doesn't make for a dynamic protagonist.

The Meq is first in a trilogy. Much is left open at the finish, including the whereabouts and true intent of the villainous Fleur du Mal. Despite this, and interesting hints as to the growing challenges the Meq will face in an increasingly modern world, it's hard to see how the story can be stretched through two more volumes. Still, I'm intrigued enough by the basic premise to follow it at least into the next book, in hopes things will speed up a bit.

Copyright © 2003 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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