Wielding words and high-flown images with his customary aplomb, prize-winning novelist West (The Tent of Orange Mist, 1995, etc.) offers a different take on the notion of creative inspiration, capturing soon-to-be poet John Milton in a heady, developmentally decisive moment. Imagine a sensitive, sexually naive 17-year-old having his first encounter with a streetwalker: a bit of groping frustrated by conscience and inexperience. Next envision that same youth, now obsessed with sex, following prostitutes everywhere but never approaching them, until suddenly taken up by a mysterious black beauty who's the fulfillment of his innermost desire. Picture the grim surroundings where a crude initiation occurs--then be prepared for the realization that all is not what it seems. The place is 17th-century London, and the boy is Milton, but his buxom prize, with her companion, a castrated ex-sailor, is no mere tart: A weary time-traveler, part Calliope, part extraterrestrial, she has inspired poets from time immemorial, and the discourse she now has with her latest charge carries both the wisdom of the ages and the terrible knowledge of mortality. She and Milton enter a barge on the Thames, where the novice breathes the language of the dead, then embark on a journey seaward in a gondola, where he learns all of the pleasures of the flesh in a single, unending afternoon, only to be placed ashore, fully awakened but again alone, at the end of the day. To accept the conceits offered in abundance here is to experience a fanciful, probing, indeed mesmerizing story, but any unwillingness to grant the unfettered possibility of magic in the real world would lessen its effect considerably.