A post-apocalyptic America chooses between reason and superstition as it revives a lost literary heritage in this beguiling fantasy.
Somewhere between Pennsylvania and California a neo-medieval society has risen from the ashes of a long-forgotten catastrophe, constructed on animal power, swordplay and detritus from the Wasteland. (An ancient Ford Econoline van chassis and an exhumed quartet of monster-truck tires make a resplendent horse-drawn carriage.) It’s a world of narrow horizons and intense local antagonisms like the simmering feud between the metropolis called the Ville, population 1,012 souls, and the nearby hamlet of Brodman’s Bluff, that escalates from squabbles over road tolls to rioting and rumors of black magic. The hysteria plays into the hands of the Ville’s mayor and his power-hungry wife, who make it a pretext for trumped-up murder charges against Jackson Thomas, a political rival who is trying to calm the panic. These Medici-an intrigues set up a cracker-jack detective story and courtroom drama that replays the Renaissance struggle between a nascent liberal rationalism and theocratic reaction. Meanwhile, Jackson’s teenage son Casavero and his friends embark on a journey across the Wasteland seeking a realm of angels who they hope will restore the unimaginably advanced civilization of the Old Ones. Their loose-jointed quest is less an adventure than a Decameron-esque idyll: the young people dally, flirt and regale each other with stories, including an abridged re-enactment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, bawdy tales of Johnny Appleseed and a fractured version of Voltaire’s Candide recounted by pirates. Stevens’ fictive world is vibrant and lived-in, with a fully realized culture and a quasi-Shakespearean diction that’s vigorous and musical without being fusty or quaint. His characters don’t mope and mourn in the ruins, but look to them for inspiration—and swag—while they seek to build their world anew.
An engrossing yarn that embeds an off-kilter perspective on history in rich language and storytelling.