In the 17th century, a teenager in a pirate-infested island town becomes an apprentice to an old man who may hold the keys to wealth and abnormally prolonged life in Erikson’s debut fantasy adventure novel.
Jack Higgins and his friends spend much of their time robbing inebriated pirates and squandering the spoils on drinking or gambling. The small group of orphans lives in a trio of caves, collectively known as Under-the-Tree. One day, when a hurricane besieges their town of Cayona on the island of Tortuga, Jack rescues an elderly merchant known as Old Kit, who’s in danger of washing away in the flooding rain. Jack anticipates a monetary reward for saving the affluent Cayona resident, but Kit instead offers him an apprenticeship—the opportunity to learn about myriad cuts of gems and earn his own treasure. Jack’s ensuing busywork with Kit’s enterprises causes the teen’s pal, Will, to compare him to an indentured servant. But soon Jack is assigned an adventure: a search for a cave containing magic stones. Kit says that an Indian sorcerer gave him stones from that cave (“tears from the moon itself”) and that their magic has afforded him a lengthy life. But now the old man is dying and needs Jack to retrieve new stones, which leads him on a surprisingly macabre and perilous expedition. Erikson’s novel primarily depicts Jack as an observer, often listening to others’ tales at length. This suits the story, in which Kit is essentially passing the torch; along the way, Jack witnesses the dark side of business, as even local merchants are a threat as they covet Kit’s treasures. Hints of romance provide relief from the dark tone as Jack pursues Rebecca Van Duyn, a local woman whom he hardly knows. But much of the rest of the narrative is grim, particularly the hunt for magic stones in the final act, which gradually turns into a surreal, sometimes-grotesque ordeal. Erikson’s writing style, however, is persistently elegant, regardless of the content: “The rainbow gleam of dragonflies eddied in and out of the shadows where the trees overhung the slow current.”
A somber, atypical genre piece with resplendent prose.