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Band of Gypsys
Gwyneth Jones
Victor Gollancz, 297 pages

Band of Gypsys
Gwyneth Jones
Born in Manchester, Gwyneth Jones is a winner of both the World Fantasy Award and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. As well, she is a two-time nominee for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Her other books include Divine Endurance and Flowerdust. Before moving back to England, she lived in Singapore, with her travels in Southern India and parts of Southeast Asia providing her with inspiration for several of her books.

Bold as Love Website
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SF Site Review: Life
SF Site Interview: Gwyneth Jones
SF Site Review: Bold as Love
SF Site Review: Phoenix Café
SF Site Review: Phoenix Café
SF Site Review: North Wind

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

The next day, [the rock star] flew to Berlin to rejoin the band for a gig at the arena Albert Speer built for the 1936 Olympics. There, standing in front of [the band's] towering electronic screen, with a vast crowd spread out before him on the playing field, [the rock star] praised..."leadership" on debt cancellation and fair trade but added that leadership also required an additional $50 billion a year in aid. "We are watching," he shouted. "We are waiting. If he can deliver this by 4 tomorrow, I believe you should welcome you chancellor back home a hero." He implored the crowd to send e-mail and text messages demanding action that very moment. [He] flew back to Edinburgh that night in order to be at Gleneagles for the third and final day...During the afternoon, he started seeing leaks of the communiqué, which was drawing ever closer to his own agenda, the agenda he had tirelessly, and often fruitlessly, championed.

[The rock star] had taken a look at the situation and realized he could do nothing in a hurry. After the reinstatement celebrations (part traditional, part invented), the Triumvirate had taken off on an impromptu tour of the provinces with their closest friends, the bands of the inner circle, during which they'd visited some of the agricultural labor camps that were the secret envy of less hard-headed neo-feudal regimes. It had been November when they returned to England. In February, running short of excuses to stay out of the gilded cage, the three had picked a fight over an unrelated issue and decamped to Paris - without announcing their travel plans. They'd been in Montmartre for a month (co-incidentally through the deepest freeze of the frigid "global warming" winters of the European Crisis): staging a show-off, rock star protest about conditions in the camps, while [the rock star] entertained approaches from a variety of lunatic émigrés. [The rock star] was confident that he could come to reasonable terms with the Second Chamber...He was happy go on embarrassing the suits for as long as they liked.

One of these excerpts is from "The Statesman" by James Traub, published in The New York Times Magazine, September 18, 2005. The "rock star" is Bono, front man of the venerable band, U2, but also a highly regarded and influential front man of efforts to foster international cooperation in mitigating third world debt and providing AIDS-related relief.

The other "rock star" is Ax Preston, from Band of Gypsys by Gwyneth Jones, the reluctant figurehead of countercultural "good guys" in a near-future, post-apocalyptical England.

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One is fictional, the other is not. Perhaps it's a little hard to tell which is which? (In case you couldn't, the first passage is the real rock star, perhaps one of the few of that caste who might have any clear idea what "real" is.)

As someone who initially had a little trouble buying into the concept of rockers leading the revolution as nothing more than a hippie wet dream, I have to admit it has gotten kind of weird how these days fiction is no stranger than truth. Particularly since I was reading this fourth installment of a series that in part examines how civilization responds (usually not well) to devastating forces beyond its control as Hurricane Katrina hit with its Balladarian aftermath.

Our story so far, in a nutshell: Magical forces are gathering in a technological quarantined England; the resulting political upheaval has caused a succession of dictatorships and subsequent armed uprisings, during which a kinkier variation of the Arthurian myth -- rock musicians and "heroes of the people" Ax Preston, Sage Pender, and Fiorinda Slater -- comprise a reluctant shadow government. Preceding volumes have seen one or more of our heroes, as well as the nation, placed in peril. The rescue of both kin and country by the threesome come with a certain psychic price not only to the individual, but to a relationship that is difficult enough among any ménage à trois, let alone one that carries on its collective shoulders the weight of national destiny.

Like its predecessors, the novel's title is a Jimi Hendrix reference. The real Band of Gypsys that backed up Hendrix on the live album of the same name seem to some to be an attempt to cast off stylistic excess and return to a rootsier blues style. Hendrix didn't live to do any further sessions with the band, and we're left to wonder "what might have been." At the end of the novel, "what might have been" as well as "what might be" is a looming concern.

Unlike its forebears, this novel doesn't work as a standalone effort. Conceivably, you could (though you really wouldn't want to) read the first three books out of sequence and not get lost. Band of Gypsys not only requires foreknowledge of what came before, but also feels unfinished. While there's a resolution, of sorts, it primarily sets the stage for what presumably is to unfold in the next, possibly concluding volume. From an esthetic sense, it may have made more sense to combine the two into a single work; as it stands, the prevailing publisher's economic sense has rendered a disservice to the narrative (I'm guessing). Consequently, this is a book for fans and followers only, definitely not for the uninitiated.

For one thing, the story takes a while to get moving, in part the result of ongoing digressions to provide back-story. Jones defends this practice not only as necessary to remind even faithfully close readers who may have forgotten or skipped over something important, but realistically reflective of how we actually think in encapsulating the past to understand the present. I'll concede she's probably right, but it seems unavoidably awkward at times.

Now, to engage in the same exercise. The threesome are back from their adventures in America, where Ax and Sage rescued Fiorinda from a cult intending to use her mojo to trigger a "neuro" bomb that would probably be as devastating to the initiators as the target (shades of the cold war all over again). The British leadership want Ax to resume the largely ceremonial powers of President to placate the masses, giving them breathing room to pursue their own -- not necessarily in the general interest -- agendas. However, the troika isn't about to let the fate of England fall into their hands, as a daring raid to free Ax's family from literally right beneath the leadership's noses demonstrates. Success is short-lived, though, when Ax nearly kills a key member of Parliament (though what exactly jolts him to do this isn't entirely clear), and he and his two consorts are placed under house arrest. To further discredit the national heroes, doctored video somehow taken at the time of Fiorinda's rescue gives the impression that Ax and Sage relished taking the lives of her captors; equally damaging is the officially spread rumor that they are werewolves. Then there's the fact that Fiorinda is pregnant, and the eschatological question of how the offspring of a trinity might affect world events.

The threesome starts the book as a "band of gypsies" ostensibly to make a political point, but mostly to get away from an exhausting celebrity "lifestyle" as heroes of Western Civilization. There's a lot of stuff here about the difficulty in maintaining a three-way relationship that, all strains notwithstanding, continues to endure (maybe because it is fantasy). Further aggravating this is the threesome's situation of being under house arrest, an historical British practice of treating nobility nobly while also keeping it out of prevailing political machinations. This time it is Sage's turn to be imperiled, which he somewhat improbably manages to save himself from offstage, and the three plot their freedom, albeit at the expense of their country's independence. But as so often happens in real life, the best laid plans go unexpectedly awry, and the three find themselves again living as gypsies while outside forces take over. Cue the curtain for intermission as we all prepare for what happens next in the second act.

Needless to say, Jones is fearless in combining ingredients that even in fantasyland might seem implausible, but manages to pull it off. We suspend belief if only because what is really happening to us seems just about as implausible. Plus, there's the sense that in some way, somehow, we've been there before in a slightly different context.

Which, of course, is the whole point.

Copyright © 2005 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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