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Sean Stewart
Ace Books, 455 pages

Victor Stabin
Sean Stewart
Born in Lubbock, Texas, in 1965, Sean Stewart moved with his family to Edmonton, Alberta, when he was three. While growing up there and going to school, he has worked as a roofer, a theatre director, and a research assistant, among other things. He received an Honours Degree in English from the University of Alberta in 1987. After living in Vancouver for several years, Sean Stewart now lives in Houston, Texas, with his wife and two children.

Sean Stewart Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Night Watch
SF Site Review: Clouds End
SF Site Review: Mockingbird

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

The problem with the term "fantasy" is that, with its connotations of wizards and fairies and magic, it's not often taken seriously (despite the fact that many of Western culture's literary icons also trafficked in such stuff as dreams are made of -- guys like Shakespeare, to cite just one example). Of course, often, it's not meant to be taken seriously. It's entertainment, escapism. Nothing wrong with that. Hell, I like a big fat fantasy novel stuffed with knights errant and evil witches as much as the next person. But I can understand how it may not be everyone's cup of tea, and that "serious" readers -- the ones who sniff disdainfully at anything with less than literary pretensions -- might avoid the category. So my fear here is that anyone picking up Sean Stewart's Galveston with such inclinations will immediately put it down once they glance at the first mention of "magic" on the jacket blurb. Or that they might not even be aware of it in the first place because it's shelved in the Fantasy section.

That's a shame, because this is no escapist diversion. Far from it. Stewart uses the concept of magic to mirror humanity's ignorant hubris spawned from its own frailties and fears. His masterful portrait of humankind's disquieting baser inclinations is intended to make you feel uncomfortable, to make you realize, as one of his characters puts it:

"Civilization isn't what happens in the absence of barbarity... It's what we struggle to build in the midst of it."
Thanks largely to the administrative abilities of Jane Gardner combined with the supernatural talents of Odessa Gibbons, the inhabitants of Galveston, Texas, have managed to co-exist with the magic that swept over them 20 years earlier -- and to which the rest of civilization succumbed. Occult forces have been confined in an eternal Mardi Gras carnival celebration segregated from the "real" city, which has contrived to maintain a sense of "normalcy" using jury-rigged technology and an oligarchic government. But now Jane Gardner is slowly dying from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease). And in "working both sides of the street," the witch Odessa may have ulterior motivations for banishing from Galveston anyone with magical proclivities -- everyone, that is, but Odessa herself.

Sloane Gardner is Jane's daughter, and Odessa's godchild. She seeks to make the archetypal "deal with the devil" -- in this case Momus, the leader of the carnival -- to save her mother. Not so much out of love for her mother as for a wish to avoid the bureaucratic responsibilities of maintaining Galveston that will descend upon the daughter. As with most deals with the devil, there is an unforeseen catch, which leads to a series of catastrophes in which the barriers between the realms of magic and "reality" become unhinged.

One of those most directly affected by the backfiring of Sloane's deal is Josh Cane, who is wrongly accused of Sloane's apparent murder (she's only disappeared into Mardi Gras). Josh's subsequent trials and tribulations that lead to an eventual reconciliation not only with his own shortcomings, but those of the human condition in general, form the core of this remarkable novel. Equally central is the concept of poker, a game of chance in which even the most skillful player may be unable to beat the odds. The book begins and ends with a card game, and there are games played throughout the narrative. The novel opens with a game that took place when Josh was a boy, which leads to the first of many disasters. Josh's inability to hide his "tells" -- body language hints about the type of cards that are being held -- tips off his father's bluff in a hand that results in the loss of the family's house and the divorce of his parents. That the house shortly burns to the ground with the winning occupants in it foretells the kind of Cane luck in which you can't always tell if you're winning or losing.

As Momus explains:

"But life is not fair. The universe is not fair. The game is rigged. You can win for a time -- find love, hope, happiness. But in the long run, the house always wins. It always wins. That's the truth."
Facing up to that truth, and by doing so transcending it and, in effect, beating the rigged game, is the powerful and fully realized theme of Galveston. It's the kind of book Camus would have liked. Or, as the blurb from Neal Stephenson puts it, "Stephen King meet Ibsen. Trust me."

Heed Neal's advice. Miss this one at your peril.

Copyright © 2000 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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