Party animals

Our science fiction columnist on Sean Stewart's dark tale of perpetual Carnival.

Published March 31, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

To ecologists and creators of drama alike, islands have much to recommend them. Isolated from the larger world, they conjure up their own societies and ecologies, filling the niches they create with characters or creatures evolved from the materials at hand. The same geography that bred "The Origin of Species," "The Tempest" and "Lord of the Flies" is the hatching ground for "Galveston," Sean Stewart's beautifully written and muscular double coming-of-age fantasy.

When fantasists and science fiction writers want to create a self-contained world, they often pick a planet -- an island surrounded by a vacuum. Stewart, however, stays Earth-bound off the Texas coast, rooting his story in our planet's current history. In 1900 a flood changed the face of Galveston; 104 years later another flood -- of magic, not water -- disrupted the island utterly and sent the survivors into a state of siege.

Ever since Mardi Gras 2004, the island has been divided in two. Downtown, in Carnival, eternal night reigns. There, time stands still for a perpetual party hosted by the master of ceremonies, the hunchbacked god Momus. Meanwhile, beyond Carnival's gates, Galveston's leading citizens have been struggling for decades to hold their world together. The four Mardi Gras Krewes, clubs of townspeople who used to organize the Mardi Gras parade before the Flood, have grown in political power.

In the decades since, Grand Duchess Jane Gardner, Momus' human consort, has ruled the island's nonmagical society with an autocratic fist in a democratic glove, while Odessa the Recluse, nightclub owner and witch, uses her own magic to keep Momus' magic confined within Carnival. When she detects any hint of magic in a Galveston resident, she makes a doll in his shape and uses it to "send him to the Krewes" -- that is, trap him in Carnival.

As the book opens, the Grand Duchess is dying. Her daughter, Sloane, feels far from ready to assume the double mantle hanging over her head -- Odessa, too, has chosen Sloane as her heir. Like someone in a Greek myth (Orpheus? Demeter and Persephone in reverse?), Sloane seeks out Momus in the hellish Carnival to bargain for her mother's life. She's desperate enough to ignore an age-old rule: Try to trick a trickster, and you'll find yourself tricked.

"Are you glad to see me, Stepdaughter?" "Honored," Sloane meant to say -- but the word turned in her mouth and "Horrified" came out instead. She yelped and covered her mouth with her hand.

"You are not in your mother's house, Sloane. With me, you will speak only the truth." Momus patted her fondly.

Unable to choose her own words, Sloane extracts an ambiguous promise from the god: "'I just can't stand to see her die,' she cries. 'Will you help me?' The sea broke and hushed, broke and hushed like the slow beating of the world's heart. 'I will,' said Momus."

Sloane's visit to Carnival brings her into contact with the book's other young protagonist, Josh Cane. Josh has always carried a torch for aristocratic Sloane, his childhood playmate. The son of a gambler who vanished after his luck ran out and a diabetic pharmacist who died after she'd used up the last pre-Flood supplies of insulin, Josh has come down so far in the world that Sloane no longer recognizes him when he and his best buddy, Ham, rescue her from rapists after she stumbles out of Carnival.

The eternal Mardi Gras allows Stewart to create a wonderfully creepy carny atmosphere of ominous gaiety. It's a bit like an Angela Carter novel. Things seem a little off at first, then escalate feverishly. Sloane arrives in Carnival ("'Admission is always free.' The ticket-taker chuckled. 'You'll do your paying inside'"), then notices the oddness:

No, wait -- looking closer she realized that many in the crowd were not wholly human. A feathered woman stood on one leg like a heron, squinting hard as she tried to guess the Fat Lady's weight. A man munching on a D-cell battery as if it were a pickle passed not three feet from where Sloan was lurking.

Stewart's gently twisted humor saturates his plot as well as his language and imagery. For example, in one grim but funny scene late in the novel, a cannibal inquires in a roundabout way about whether it will be safe to eat his beloved after she dies of tuberculosis. (The answer is yes, as long as he cooks her.)

Through Odessa's magic, Stewart multiplies Sloane into a trio of doppelgdngers. There's Sloane herself, obedient, insecure, unready; there's confident, foxy Sly, the character she becomes when she dons the Mardi Gras mask Odessa makes for her; and there's Scarlet, another creation of Odessa's, a feisty doll-child who contains Sloane's heart. To become fully adult, which she must do to save her community, Sloane has to integrate these three parts of herself.

Stewart spends equal attention on the subtly mapped friendship between arrogant Josh and warmhearted, gentle, foulmouthed, working-class Ham:

Once, when they were both thirteen, they had been out walking together when Josh said, "I don't know why we stay friends, but I sure am glad of it." "We stay friends because you think you're better than me," Ham had said, "and I let you." That had shut Josh up in a hurry.

When Sloane disappears into Carnival in the wake of a family disaster, Josh and Ham find themselves arrested for her murder. Can their friendship survive torture, exile to the cannibal-ridden shores of the mainland and sexual rivalry? Can Ham teach Josh that no man is an island? Will they and Sloane manage to find enough personal and political authority to keep Galveston from flying apart into magic and anarchy? In this tricky, twisty book, the answers are never quite what you'd expect, but they're always illuminating.

By Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

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