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Dawn Song
Michael Marano
Tor Books, 396 pages

Dawn Song
Michael Marano
Michael Marano began studying alchemy and Kabbalah while pursuing a degree in medieval history at Boston University. He has held a number of positions, including college writing instructor, apartment building manager, rare book dealer, and punk rock DJ. He reviews horror movies on the radio and for a number of publications. Dawn Song is his first novel.

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A review by Victoria Strauss

It's 1990, on the eve of the Gulf War. The Millennium is approaching, and as it does the ruler of hell, known as the Enfolded One, is manifesting itself ever more fully within the world. The Enfolded One's currency is mass hysteria, war and bigotry and religious oppression, the "atrocities born of thoughtlessness and blind impulses and blind faith." As the Enfolded One's power increases, these uglinesses increasingly overtake the world.

In the depths of winter a Succubus arrives in the city of Boston, and takes up residence on a snowy rooftop. She has been sent by her creator, the Unbowed One, who is the Enfolded One's rival. The Unbowed One once ruled in hell and wishes to do so again. He disdains ugliness and ignorance, the herd-mind the Enfolded One both informs and reflects; he desires to pursue damnation through what he considers beauty, the tapping of the darkest regions of each individual soul. He has created the Succubus out of the remains of a damned soul, and sent her out to cross the angelic spheres that divide the pit of hell from the throne room of God, moving from spirit to materiality and beyond. Through this journey from Damnation to Grace, a profound reversal of the divine order of things, the Unbowed One hopes to strike down the Enfolded One's rulership, and take back his lost mastery.

To accomplish her journey, the Succubus must absorb into herself the souls of 20 men. She sets about this task in the style of her creator, entrapping her victims through their darkest wishes and desires. But the Enfolded One -- which has no directed mind, but is rather the inchoate sum of the ugliness that is its being -- has become aware of her. Rising to a kind of consciousness, it reaches out and implants a barb of its corruption in a human soul. This captured soul becomes the Enfolded One's tool, as the Succubus is the Unbowed One's tool. The earthly streets of Boston become the battlefield of hell, where these two avatars, and the humans they have drawn into their orbit, must ultimately confront each other.

These are the basic bones of Dawn Song, and as someone with an enduring interest in theology I find them fascinating. Unfortunately they are clothed in far too much literary flesh. There is real power to Marano's dark vision of Boston, swept up in the jingoistic hysteria of the Gulf War, the river Charles running through it like a sewer. And the Succubus, whose point of view occupies the largest portion of the book, is an effective creation, rapacious and innocent, corrupt and sympathetic at the same time. But Marano's turgid prose overwhelms his story, blurring the impact of his ideas and obscuring his meanings. One has the sense of an author fatally distracted by his own phrasemaking, at the cost of thematic clarity. The theological and occult esoterica that fills Dawn Song is crucial to the book's structure, but most of it is so poorly explained or so cryptically described that unless the reader knows something about the subjects Marano is dealing with -- succubus lore, for instance, or alchemy, or the Kabbalah -- the larger significance of certain parts of the story will be almost entirely opaque.

This is especially true of the portions of the book that involve the Succubus. What she has come to Boston to do is clear enough -- take the souls of 20 men -- but it requires some serious mining of the text to figure out why this is important and what it will accomplish. And some things, such as how she will accomplish it and how exactly this will defeat the Enfolded One, are never made clear. There is a pivotal scene in which she sketches out, on the snow of her rooftop, a graphic representation of her journey from spirit to flesh. This scene is meant, I think, to make a bridge between the novel's real-time story and its extensive symbolic landscape. But the series of Kabbalistic concepts Marano offers, while fascinating, are never concretely connected to anything but themselves. In both a narrative and a symbolic sense, the scene leaves the reader as much in the dark as ever about where the Succubus is going and what she will do once she gets there.

Part of the problem is the book's fragmentary structure, with its large number of characters and overlapping points of view. The switching back and forth is often effective, but also at times confusing and repetitive. Reasonably lengthy at the outset, by the novel's close the POV sections have become distractingly short and choppy, never allowing the reader to get inside a scene long enough to absorb its impact. Also, Marano provides the same amount of information about all his POV's, whether or not they are pivotal to the plot -- an overload of detail that, like his elaborate prose, has the effect of slowing the narrative and diffusing its meaning. As for the Unbowed One and the Enfolded One, who are pivotal to the plot, they drop from the story halfway through, never to reappear. It would have been nice to know the Unbowed One's reaction, at least, to the way it all ends.

Ultimately, Dawn Song never quite manages to come together. The book is structured as a series of separate plot threads, which periodically intersect, but meet up only at the end to form the climax. For this kind of storytelling to work, there must be a tension to the narrative, a feeling of characters and circumstances steadily closing on one another. Yet for all its graphic portrayals and unpleasant details, for all its descriptions of personal ugliness and mass hysteria, Dawn Song's narrative is too rambling and obscure to produce this overarching atmosphere of impending crisis. Dwelling deeply upon the horror of each moment, Marano fails to evoke a sense of horror at what those moments might lead to. The result is that when the plot threads do at last collide, their intersection seems not inevitable but contrived, a strangely flat resolution to so much heated action. There is little sense of impact or transformation, and the final significance of these cataclysmic events, like the ideas that shape them, remains unclear.

Marano is clearly a writer of some ability. Dawn Song contains many fascinating images, many moments of arresting strangeness, horror, and beauty. Indeed, read only at the level of image and detail, it's a compelling book. At the deeper level of ideas, however, and on a technical level, it does not succeed. This is Marano's first novel; perhaps greater experience will yield more integrated work.

Copyright © 1998 by Victoria Strauss

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

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