Title: Elegy Beach
Author: Steven R. Boyett
Genre: Fanatsy, Post-Apocalypse, Urban Fantasy
Publication Date: November 2009
Hardcover: 384 Pages
Stand alone or series: Sequel to Ariel (1983)
How did I get this book: Review Copy from Publisher
Why did I read this book: I read and really enjoyed author Steven Boyett’s first novel, Ariel, which was recently redistributed in preparation for the long-awaited release of Elegy Beach. These books blend two of my favoritest things: the apocalypse, and high fantasy. How could I resist? I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to read and review Elegy Beach.
Summary: (from barnesandnoble.com)
Thirty years ago the lights went out, the airplanes fell, the cars went still, the cities all went dark. The laws humanity had always known were replaced by new laws that could only be called magic. The world has changed forever. Or has it?
In a small community on the California coast are Fred Garey and his friend Yan, both born after the Change. Yan dreams of doing something so big his name will live on forever. He thinks he’s found it-a way to reverse the Change. But Fred fears the repercussions of such drastic, irreversible steps.
First, a caveat: this review contains mild spoilers for the novel, as it is impossible to really discuss the book without divulging these plot points. If you have not read Ariel, or if you wish to go into Elegy Beach completely fresh and unspoiled, you have been warned.
Elegy Beach begins in the Changed world, years after the events of Ariel. Decades after the fateful afternoon when the laws of the universe shifted, technology stopped working, and mythical creatures emerged to roam the streets, a teenage boy named Fred Garey works as a casting apprentice in the small, coastal town of Del Mar. Bored with the monotony of conjuring avatars of pretty unicorns for customers, Fred yearns to learn more powerful and complex magic from his master, Paypay – for Fred and his best friend Yan have a goal to understand all magic in the world, in a way that has never been done before. When Fred and Yan open the proverbial can of worms as they devise a way to mass produce spells and unlock a magical impossibility, Yan’s ambition and vision leads the two friends on diverging paths. Yan leaves Del Mar with a vision that means the end of the Changed world, and in his insatiable desire for magical knowledge, he sets events in motion that bring old friends together once more. Ariel and Pete reunite, and they set out on one last dangerous road together – this time with young Fred and Yan’s father, as they race to stop Yan’s ultimate show of power.
It’s impossible to think about Elegy Beach without comparing it to Ariel – and in fact, these novels are so closely tied, it would be wrong not to discuss them together. As its title suggests, Elegy Beach is a moving tale, tinged throughout with the profound sadness of change, an elegiac ode to moving on. When I began this book, I had no real idea of what to expect. I had read and enjoyed Ariel, but I thought that Elegy Beach would be more of a loose novel set in the same world. Imagine my surprise then, as I read the book only to discover that it was a direct sequel. Though narrated through the pen of young Fred Garey, just as Ariel was told through his father Pete’s written words, Elegy Beach is more the end of Pete and Ariel’s tale than it is Fred’s. As Mr. Boyett mentions in the afterword to this novel, at times it felt that Fred was an observer to his own book, watching and documenting the final chapter in Pete and Ariel’s story together. This is not a bad thing, though, as long time fans of Ariel will be happy to see the reunion of these two old friends, and new fans begin to connect with a new generation of the post-apocalyptic world with Fred Garey.
The writing style of Mr. Boyett’s second novel of the Change is markedly different from that of Ariel, though structurally the books are similar in concept. Both begin simply but become more complex as their stories continue, eventually becoming road quests on the path to dramatic, ultimate showdowns – and of course, following the showdowns, there are the inevitable consequences of decisions each character has made. Though the format may be similar, it is clear that the author writing Elegy Beach is an older, more seasoned one than that of Ariel. This comes across in the elegance of the descriptions of the changed world, the more tangible understanding of the laws of the Change, but most importantly in the narrative voice of the novel. Fred’s style is far rougher than his father’s in Ariel. Elegy Beach is written in a series of staccato-like sentences, as Fred hardly uses question marks or other inflection, selectively hyphenating (or not hyphenating) certain words, and phonetically spelling out certain abbreviations he cannot have any real understanding of (i.e. “Pee Em” for “P.M.”). The concept underlying this new narrative style is fascinating, but also is a bit of a gamble on Mr. Boyett’s part, as Fred’s voice is initially hard to get used to and new readers unfamiliar with the mythology of the novels may be turned off by this intentionally difficult style. As for me, I loved it. Though initially hard to get used to, the style is beautifully conceived as one of the main underlying themes of Ariel is the generational difference between those alive before the change, and those born after it like Fred and Yan, inheriting the new world. Fred, a teenager who has no concept of Beethoven, of the Apollo missions, of electricity or formal schooling would write in a manner completely different, even alien to our modern eyes – whereas Pete’s written narrative in Ariel was more simplistic, direct and comfortably familiar.
Fred’s characterization as a narrator was wholly genuine, down to his punctuation – and these strong characterizations are some of Elegy Beach‘s greatest assets. As a narrator, Fred is observant but frustratingly unreliable at times, as he does not tell us everything we want to know, or taking a long, roundabout way to get to those answers. It’s infuriating, but again genuine and in keeping with Fred’s character. And of course, there’s Pete Garey – this version of Pete is a far cry from the innocent, thickly naive young man from Ariel. Life has tested Pete harshly, and his “great adventure” has long since been completed. We do not know everything that has happened in the decades between the end of Ariel and Elegy Beach for much of this second novel, only seeing a bitter, tired man aged beyond his forty-odd years through the eyes of his uncomprehending son. Those missing years of Pete’s story are gradually revealed, and it’s another profoundly moving, hard path that has shaped Pete’s adult life. Mr. Boyett takes a little traveled road with Elegy Beach, answering the question of what happens to a hero once his grand adventure is over – because they cannot go home again, and Pete and Ariel are proof of that.
The other characters, are similarly well-defined through Fred’s eyes, from Yan’s father, the good Doctor Ramchandani to a young straggler girl they encounter on the road. The only character I wish I could have known better was Yan himself, the Magneto to Fred’s Xavier. Even with Yan, though, readers understand his motivations and desires – I only (selfishly) wish that more time was spent developing the growing differences between Yan and Fred.
In terms of world-building and setting, Elegy Beach also is more complex than its predecessor, changing certain aspects from the Ariel mythos. There’s a time jump that’s quickly apparent concerning the era of the Change. As Ariel was initially written in the 1980s, the Change in that novel accordingly reflected ’80s technology. In Elegy Beach, however, the time of the Change has shifted to present day (as there is reference from the pre-Changers of cell phones and iPods). Though this was a little confusing, I believe this was a conscious decision by the author, to make the Change applicable to a new generation. Personally, I didn’t mind this revisionist interpretation of the Change, and I liked the attempt to make sense of the universe created in Ariel with new, hard rules – older devotees, however, might not. There’s a total re-interpretation of “magic” in this novel as well, which I found fascinating. Magic is described as a language, interpreted in a software/computer-literate manner, and the ideas of magical “stasis” and spells that work like programming macros were bizarre, but oddly effective visualizations. I wish there was a bit more about the rules of magic in this novel and Fred’s efforts at codification and implementation of those rules…but I suspect that’s an adventure for a future book.
On a less analytical note and a more emotional level, Elegy Beach simply works. It’s an older, smarter, more viscerally evocative novel. Author Steven Boyett and protagonist Pete have come a very long way from where this journey began in a lake, when a young man spied a unicorn with a broken leg. And Elegy Beach FELT like it began one way but ended in a completely different, unexpected direction – to Fred, to Pete, and to the author himself. Ariel may have lacked denouement, but Elegy Beach doesn’t – it has the emotional release that the story requires, not rushing through the hard, cruel bits at the end. It’s a cautionary post-apocalyptic tale in some respects (as it has been marketed), but it’s more a story about growing up, putting the past to rest, and letting go. As Ariel might say, everyone is betrayed and yeah, it isn’t fair – but any fairness is a gift. There is humor in this book at times, but some readers may understandably be put off by the lack of whimsy and naive lightheartedness that was more present in Ariel and is not-so present in Elegy Beach. As for me, I chalk the quieter humor up to hard living in a hard, changed world, and I thought Elegy Beach was all the better for its grittiness. The best post-apocalypse novels are tinged with sadness, and such is the case with this profoundly moving novel.
I want more. I want Fred’s story, because this is just the beginning for him. I can only hope that Mr. Boyett returns to the new Changed world once more.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
The last thing in this world I wanted to see was another damned unicorn. They were the big deal for schoolgirls in Del Mar this year. Gaggles of them came into Paypay’s shop wanting their vewwy own unicorn that would wait for them outside Miss Cowardan’s school with tail swishing to walk them home. Some women wanted one in the living room like some sort of knick knack. They could have one too, for a half a pound of coffee, a couple ounces of chocolate, a jar of decent homebrew, or whatever else Paypay was trading for this week.
It seemed pretty hollow to me. Maybe unicorns had been common as cock-roaches back in the days just after the Change, but clearly they’d long since left for greener and more hospitable pastures. If we were what they had to rub elbows with, who could blame them.
Older ladies always moaned about this while I made the charm in Paypay’s shop. Poor widdle unicorns, them all go bye bye, how sad, could you make it shinier, please? I smiled and nodded. They were customers.
Today it was Mrs. Gloster who wanted her unicorn shinier. “I just like having them around the place,” she said. “They make things feel so warm and friendly.” She smiled at me. “Inviting.”
Mrs. Gloster was a regular, went through about a unicorn a week—pretty good deal for Paypay, considering their trade value and the fact that they only last a couple of days. I smiled and nodded and uncapped the potion thermos. I’d taken to mixing up the unicorn potions in big batches first thing in the morning and pouring doses into thermoses. It saved a lot of time. Paypay was oldschool and hadn’t thought of this. He did castings without wondering how they worked or why, or figuring out ways to make the whole messy process more efficient. I wish I’d thought of the thermos trick last year when everyone had wanted lawn gorgons. I wondered if Mrs. Gloster would be as happy to trade dear for her shiny unicorns if she knew I brewed them from ready mix.
“My guests just love them,” Mrs. Gloster was singing on. “Your work is so accomplished, Fred.”
“Well, I’m glad you like them.” I lit the camp stove. Propane was one of the items we traded for. More Paypay logic: trade castings for items you use to make castings that you trade for. How do you get ahead that way?
I held up a finger for her to be quiet and turned to recite the charm. Paypay liked castings to be dramatic and in full view of the customer. “Customer think magic belong on stage, you know? In movie. Make exciting. Make big.”
Whatever; I’d never seen a movie. And it was hard to act excited when I’d recited the unicorn charm so many times that I once woke myself up saying it in my sleep. But Paypay was my boss, so when he was around I did the whole bit, raised arms and flourishes and dramatic voice.
But he wasn’t around now. I cracked my knuckles and made the passes over the cauldron—really just a saucepan on a rusty old campstove—and recited the charm. Just because I said it ten times a day didn’t mean that I couldn’t still mess up, and when castings go wrong they tend to go memorably wrong. My first unicorn charms had been these horrible lopsided skinless popeyed mutant horselike things that had gimped around the back of the shop braying and falling down a lot for two days before fading out. Well if casting were easy every-body’d do it.
The door jangled as another customer came in while I was reciting the charm. I’d asked Paypay could he please lose that damned bell—it could throw you off at a crucial moment, and it seemed to jangle only at crucial moments. Paypay’d just shrugged and said, “You get used. Concentrate is good.”
The eidolon unicorn was taking shape in front of me. Mrs. Gloster liked her unicorns small and shiny, golden horned and glossy—more like ceramic ornaments. I’d learned to leave some things out so she could make helpful suggestions and feel she’d contributed a creative hand. Everyone’s an artist if they only had the time. Well what was the harm.
This week’s unicorn was “a cute little one for the upstairs.” I made it doe-sized and made the head too big for the body and the eyes too big for the head and gave it thick black lashes. Mrs. Gloster asked could I make it shinier. I added faint blue to the coat to give it more glow indoors and made the tail fluffier and backed off on the eyes and lashes. You’ve got to have some standards.
You can read the full chapter online, along with Chapter 2 & Chapter 13 at the book website.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: Unclean Spirits by M.L.N. Hanover
Courtesy of Ace and author Steven Boyett, we are offering TWO prize packs, which each include an autographed copy of Elegy Beach, along with bookmarks, book fliers, and a signed copy of author Steven Boyett’s live DJ set from WorldCon. To enter, leave a comment here answering the following question: If YOU had to survive the end of the world, what would your “apocalypse of choice” be? Answers include but are not limited to alien invaders, the zombie plague, global warming, asteroid impact, The Change (as in Ariel & Elegy Beach), etc…
The contest is open to residents of the US and Canada, and will run until Saturday November 7th at 11:59pm (Pacific). Good luck!