Elizabeth Hand, Aestival Tide (Bantam Spectra, 1992)

Aestival Tide is the second installment of Elizabeth Hand's post-apocalyptic trilogy that begins with Winterlong. It portrays, in loving detail, the decadence and destruction of Araboth, the city created as a refuge from the horrors of war and pestilence unleashed by earlier conflicts.

Although created as a haven, Araboth has become -- not a prison, exactly -- call it an asylum. The behavior of the inhabitants pushes one toward that description. Ruled by the three margravines of the Orsina dynasty, it's a society marked by empty pleasures, maneuvering for status that means nothing, and rituals that are even emptier than the conversation.

But the end is coming, the day that the Prince of Storms will sweep in from the sea and wipe the city from the face of the earth. Someday, say the margravines, and so we must continue to sacrifice to the Compassionate Redeemer, an eyeless appetite created by the genetechs, released once a year for the Feast of Fear at the time of the Aestival Tide.

Hand says, in regard to the universe occupied by this trilogy (Winterlong, Aestival Tide, Icarus Descending) that she was playing off Jack Vance, among others. I can see that, remotely, but heavily filtered through Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun -- Vance's vivacity and brittle acidity are not in evidence, but Aestival Tide reeks of Wolfe's arcane disciplines, recondite vocabulary (all of it, seemingly, originating in real words), and sense of doom.

Conceptually, the book partakes of steampunk as much as anything else, although again, not exactly. The denizens of Araboth live surrounded by technology they think they control, but that they don't understand in the least: procedures produce proper results as long as everything is routine, but if something goes wrong . . . well, the repeated failures of the margravine Shiyuung at her latest hobby, creating -- or recreating -- extinct animals, bear witness to the ignorance in control of powerful forces. One wonders how many in this city have come to the same realization as Sajur Panggang, Architect Imperator: things are going wrong and there's damn-all he can do about it.

I can't think of anyone who has portrayed a cast of characters so fundamentally degenerate, in all sense of that word. Of the core group of "major" characters, the two who show any spirit and control of the situation are the centuries-old android Nefertity and the rasa Margalis Tast'annan, once the Orsinate's leading general, now a walking corpse with, supposedly, no will of his own. (Which doesn't stop him from exacting revenge on Shiyung, his former lover and the one responsible for his present state.) Reive, the fourteen-year-old hermaphrodite who interprets dreams, whose heritage surprises everyone and no one, and Hobi, son of Sajur Panggang (who finally programs the Architects to destroy Araboth), although each takes a key action at some point in the story, mostly seem to be along for the ride. Perhaps the most typical character is Ceryl Waxwing, a minor pharmacist who finds herself elevated in status for curing a margravine's headache, and who otherwise is a failure at everything she tries. She's pretty much a nonentity, going through the motions, although she's not sure why, and even her death is barely noticed, except by Reive.

If it weren't for the strength of Hand's prose, I don't think I could have lasted through this book. The pacing is best described as "stately," meaning that nothing much happens for the first two hundred pages and even the crises are sober and reflective. There's never much of a sense of urgency about anything. The writing saves it.

Equally engaging is the rich inventiveness of the milieu. Call it a riff on Vance, Wolfe, steampunk, what have you, it's still dense and tasty. And maybe that will serve for the books as a whole.

[Robert M. Tilendis]

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