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Bold as Love
Gwyneth Jones
Victor Gollancz, 308 pages

Bold as Love
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
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Phoenix Café
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 David Soyka

There was a brief time during the peak of the 60s counter-culture movement when the notion that rock musicians had political sensibilities was actually taken seriously. Perhaps not coincidentally, during that same five minutes relative to the larger world historical timeline, folks thought hallucinogens could be good for you.

Well, now there're only two living Beatles left. And while today rock stars give perfunctory turns at humanitarian benefits and occasionally foray into international monetary policy (e.g., Bono of U2), no sane person wants anyone who can actually mouth without gagging the insipid lyrics to a piece of pop crap like "We Are the World" running a government. Just think about the idea of a Congressman Don Henley. Enough said?

Well, maybe not. Lest we forget, Sonny Bono was not only a bona-fide U.S. Senator, but a Republican one at that, and Bill Clinton was sometimes described as the first rock and roll president (an insult to the profession -- what rock 'n roller worth his salt would ever deny having sex with a groupie?). More seriously, during the early U.S. Civil Rights struggle, performers, though mostly of the folk variety, were active in black voter registration in the Deep South at a time when people were getting murdered for such activities. Joan Baez was one protest singer who put her own skin on the line by visiting Hanoi during the American bombing raids of the Vietnam war.

These exceptions of personal conviction and the occasional celebrity officeholder notwithstanding, the conceit of rock stars as major political influencers, especially those that are frequently under the influence, represents a bit of a stretch. Yet this hippie fantasy is precisely what underpins Gwyneth Jones's latest novel, Bold as Love (presumably a reference to Jimi Hendrix's second album). In a near-future England that has dissolved all ties to other countries in what was once the United Kingdom, Pigsty Liver, an Ozzie Osborne-type rock star, initiates a bloody coup to take control of the Counterculturals, a sort of shadow government whose popularity with the people (at least those people who like rock music) reaps significant, albeit not total, political power.

Pigsty's personal perversities, however, soon lead to his downfall. The fate of the revolution falls into the hands of a popularly-exalted triumvirate comprised of ace guitarist Ax Preston (an axe, by the way, is how guitarists refer to the instrument), his girlfriend the rock goddess waif Fiorinda Slater, and techno-artiste Sage Pender, whose Grateful Dead affectations extend to literally transforming his face with the holographic image of a skull. This rock and roll version of King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere not only strive to keep England from literally descending into the Dark Ages (a virus has all but obliterated the Internet, electricity reserves are deteriorating, and there's conflict with native English Muslims), but get to play some cool gigs and take some freaky drugs as well. And as the technology of the industrial age deteriorates, magical forces emerge, in which Fiorinda manifests some potential abilities.

Far out, man.

This is the part where book reviewers usually say something to the effect of, "In the hands of a less skilled writer, this could easily become very silly." That's because the premise that such a group of rock stars would actually possess the political acumen coupled with military savvy and power base to pull off what Jones depicts here is laughable. Yet this is not a work of satire. It is a fantasy with particularly dark undercurrents -- so dark, in fact, that publication of the first chapter in the July Interzone resulted in a police obscenity investigation -- that Jones pulls off quite well largely because of the vivid characterization of the three protagonists. Though I found it hard to buy into the premise, I kept turning the pages. As I got closer to the end, I couldn't figure out where the plot was going and how Jones was going to manage to tie up all the loose ends. Of course, the obvious answer became apparent when, after I reached the last sentence, I read this depressing note:

"End of Part One: The Story continues in Castles in the Sand."

(The title of the next book, for those who need to keep track of such things, is another Jimi Hendrix reference, one of the more famous ditties that appear on the Axis: Bold as Love album.)

You know, I'm starting to get a little pissed about this sort of thing. Getting engrossed in a story, eager to know what's going to happen to engaging characters, only to find out I've got to wait until what will probably only be another installment, with final resolution another few years ahead. In contrast, around this time last year I sat down to read Ash by Mary Gentle, a 1,112-page opus that British publisher Gollancz had the good sense to recognize needed to be published in a single volume (though in the States it appeared in four separate books). Yet that same publisher wants to tease me with only a little taste of what Jones will ultimately produce. Sure, really fat fantasy books can be scary, it's hard to commit the time to them when there's so much overflowing on your "to-be-read" shelf, but, damn it all anyhow, in some cases the piecemeal approach is just plain wrong. This all started with The Fellowship of the Rings -- it should have been published in a single volume, and the fateful decision back then to make it into a trilogy because it was thought general readership would be put off by a thick single volume was an unfortunate precedent. I don't mind a series in which a storyline is more or less self-contained in each volume, e.g., Kage Baker's Company novels or, in a different genre, John Updike's Rabbit books, or even Harry Potter. But, otherwise, I'd prefer the whole narrative in one big meal, not in easily digestible chunks that just serve to leave you hungry for more.

But the bastards know what they're doing; they aren't likely to change. All they have to provide is that first little taste to get you hooked. Then it's a sordid tale of waiting to get your fix whenever the next bit of supply becomes available. And when it's as good as what Jones distills here, it may not be enough to completely satisfy.

Copyright © 2001 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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