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Phoenix Café
Gwyneth Jones
Tor Books, 350 pages

Phoenix Café
Gwyneth Jones
Born in Manchester, British author 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.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Phoenix Café
SF Site Review: North Wind
Phoenix Café Interview
The Literary Criticism of Gwyneth Jones
Another Review of North Wind

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jean-Louis Trudel

Gwyneth Jones is one of the fresher talents in the field, an author who has matched in a handful of books the best of what modern science fiction has to offer. Her sensibility is informed by a wide-ranging world view, not unlike the ample embrace of a Geoff Ryman or a Maureen McHugh. Her powers of imagination are wickedly devious, garbed in the finery of stylish prose, evincing a gift for the unexpected cut or thrust, and always able to draw out the greater and lesser consequences of an innovative technology.

Phoenix Café is the culmination of an ambitious trilogy. The first volume, White Queen, was a revelation, describing the arrival of alien beings to Earth, and the overturning of a number of long-held expectations as to what first contact might entail. The aliens, known as Aleutians from one of their landing sites, were natural biotechnologists, and while humanoid in form, they were anything but human in outlook and behaviour. However, in some ways, they could not match the technological achievements of humans and their buccaneering space venture was not exactly the grand embassy from another world that was expected... The second volume, North Wind, took up the story a hundred years later. This last volume picks up the thread yet another century on, just as the Aleutians are preparing to leave after enjoying years of effective rule.

While Phoenix Café lacks the natural edge and candour of the original first contact story, with its heady mix of hidden secrets and innocent wonderments, it presents the reader with a sense of finality absent in the earlier volumes. The departure of the Aleutians, with or without the space travel mechanism designed by humans, looms ever larger as a deadline, especially for Catherine, the human reincarnation of an Aleutian.

The main character, Catherine, has been raised to identify herself as a reincarnation of a pivotal Aleutian character in White Queen. As Captain Clavel, she understood too late the key biological differences between humans and Aleutians. Now, genetically human, and shorn of the innate capacities of the Aleutians, Catherine seeks to confirm her identity in a world transformed by biotechnology, while dealing with the fall-out of her long past mistakes.

The author's portrayal of Earth two centuries down the road may be the most brilliant element of Phoenix Café. The plot involves a mix of characters either conveniently naive and conveniently omniscient, and all eager to plunge into a convoluted and needlessly risky conspiracy. However, if the reader tiptoes lightly through the basic implausibilities of the main story (kept hidden until the end), there is much to enjoy in this novel. In spite of some inconsistencies, the background is vividly realized, and often convincing exactly because it manages to be disturbing. The characters are equally rich creations, at ease with their cultural antecedents, and shaped by their respective milieus. In presenting them, the author displays a finely honed intelligence and a talent for insight rarely found among science fiction writers.

The tension between Catherine's rather human self-absorption over her mutating guilt and her alien disdain for Earth shibboleths lies at the heart of the novel's fascination. For, in spite of portentous musings, the novel's personal dimension is much more appealing than its political dimension. Catherine's decision to commit to a wounded Earth is, to my mind, the real payoff of Phoenix Café. The human conspiracy she gets mixed up in is too contrived and kept under wraps too long to really engage the reader's interest, and the skein of clandestine plotting serves only to strew the story with inexplicable events. As well, the conspiracy's central secret covers very little new ground.

In the end, there is little to criticize in this work by Gwyneth Jones (though she might stop pretending she knows French). While Phoenix Café may not match the sheer drive and inventiveness of White Queen, it comes close, and is a more than adequate conclusion to a dazzling trilogy.

Copyright © 1999 by Jean-Louis Trudel

Jean-Louis Trudel is a busy, bilingual writer from Canada, with two novels and fourteen young adult books to his credit in French. He's also a moderately prolific reviewer and short story writer.

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