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After the Deluge

By Elizabeth Hand

Sunday, February 27, 2000; Page X05


By Sean Stewart

Ace. 454 pp. $23.95

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand

"We are magic talking to itself," wrote poet Anne Sexton. But in Sean Stewart's new novel, Galveston, magic isn't just talking: It's riding through the streets of the novel's eponymous city, shouting at its residents through a bullhorn. The world of Galveston, like that of Stewart's earlier books Mockingbird and Passion Play, is literally awash in magic, a devastating tide that in the year 2004 rose to suddenly and irrevocably change the contours of reality.

Now, decades later, Galveston's islanders have learned to live with the consequences of the Flood of 2004. Like survivors of war or natural disaster, they've managed to get by with a winning combination of luck, resourcefulness, native Texas grit and just enough magic to keep the eerie supernatural tsunami from overtaking their home once more. The people of Galveston are perhaps uniquely suited to this task, living as they do on an island that was battered by a deadly 1900 hurricane, which killed a third of its inhabitants. The memory of that earlier disaster colors everything in the novel and lends much to its air of sturdy, can-do realism, something in short supply in most fantasies.

Galveston's folks are as earthy and well-drawn as those in a work by Horton Foote, and as fallible. There's the apothecary Josh Cane, whose father loses the family home in a card game; Sloane Gardner, whose mother, Jane -- formerly a lawyer, now known as the Grand Duchess -- is the island's administrator; pipefitter Ham Mather, Josh's best friend; and the recluse Odessa, who functions as a sort of South Texas Norn, living alone in an abandoned casino where she scrupulously monitors the island's psychic health.

Because magic has not receded from this world: It's a kind of disease, like the malaria that also threatens everyone on Galveston, that must constantly be held in check. And like the parasites that carry illness, the magic is alive, with its own cycles of birth and death and regeneration.

The Flood of 2004 swept over Galveston at the height of the city's Mardi Gras celebration, and hundreds of unfortunate revellers who didn't immediately die in its aftermath can now be found on the island's beach, trapped in an eternal, infernal Carnival where dawn never breaks and the Mardi Gras god Momus holds court beneath the ironic and two-edged motto "It just doesn't get any better than this." It is to Momus that Sloane Gardner comes when her mother, the Grand Duchess, is near death, to beg for help. But, as in the best fairy tales, Sloane finds that her request -- "I just can't stand to see her die. Will you help me?" -- is not honored in the way she had hoped.

When she returns from Carnival, Sloane finds that the hours she has spent there have, in fact, been days, during which her mother has died. Sloane herself is presumed dead; Josh and Ham have been tried in a kangaroo court and found guilty of her murder, and sentenced to exile up near Beaumont, whose formerly god-fearing inhabitants have become cannibals. The same militia members who railroaded Josh and Ham have also decided to take on Odessa, the last of the old guard protecting the island; but when their plans go awry and Odessa too is killed, there is no one left to keep order, administrative or otherwise, and all hell breaks loose.

In a more conventional novel, Sloane would square her shoulders, take a deep breath, and take on her mother's role or Odessa's. It is a tribute to Sean Stewart's great skill that his characters are three- and occasionally four- dimensional, sometimes unlikeable, but always recognizably real, and Galveston's true story is not the transformation of the island by yet another deadly hurricane but the more subtle sea-changes that overtake Josh and Sloane and Ham.

Josh is the most unpleasant protagonist since since Brom Hellstrom, the almost pathologically unlikeable anti-hero of Samuel R. Delany's classic Triton (and I mean that as a compliment). The real triumph of Galveston lies in Stewart's nuanced and lovely depiction of Josh's gradual coming to terms with his own, very human failings. Within this delicate framework, an understated admission of the possibility of love is as powerful as the most overheated exchange of sentiments or the magical healing of any number of Fisher Kings: Fantasy novels don't get much better than Galveston.

Elizabeth Hand's most recent novel is "Black Light."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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