A new entry in Swanwick’s picaresque post-apocalyptic series, following Dancing with Bears (2011) and various short stories.
Technological civilization collapsed long ago, the reasons for which only gradually emerge, yet Swanwick’s seductive future swarms with gene-modified creatures, ancient weapons, vengeful artificial intelligences, and other contrivances that would not seem out of place in a steampunk yarn. Surplus, a genetically modified dog with the stance and intellect of a human, arrives in the Abundant Kingdom with the corpse of his friend (and fellow confidence trickster) Aubrey Darger in search of the Infallible Physician, the only agency by which Darger might be revived. They soon learn that the land’s paranoid and quite possibly insane Hidden King is both ambitious to reunite the sundered kingdoms of old China and obsessed with locating his Phoenix Bride. Seeing a likely source of great wealth, our heroes attach themselves to the king’s entourage, braving the skepticism of Chief Archaeological Officer White Squall (whose mission is to recover and repair ancient war machines) and Ceo Powerful Locomotive. Surplus becomes Noble Dog Warrior, while Darger declares himself to be Perfect Strategist. In turn, various persons attach themselves to the heroes, among them Capable Servant and a band of feisty horse warriors. Somehow, Surplus and Darger’s intrigues and stratagems really begin to work. Or so it seems. One drawback to this otherwise witty, supple, artfully humorous, and vastly engaging yarn is the plot’s broad similarity with the previous novel. Still, along with a splendid supporting cast, Swanwick offers a pair of delightful rogues whose chief flaw (like Jack Vance’s celebrated Cugel the Clever, a likely inspiration) is that they’re a little too crafty for their own good.
Swanwick’s approaching top form, and this one’s just too good to miss.