Band of Gypsys
by Gwyneth Jones
"I keep drifting off and thinking this is some other, ordinary disaster."
Gwyneth Jones' Band of Gypsys is the fourth in a series of novels about rock stars Ax, Sage, and Fiorinda. In the first, Bold as Love (winner of the 2002 Arthur C. Clarke award, and just released in the US), Ax and Sage and Fiorinda found themselves ruling England—as much as anyone can rule a country, when the economy is crashing, the environment decaying, civilization falling apart, and magic beginning to work a little too well. They escaped power for a while; but at the beginning of Band of Gypsys, Ax has agreed to return to England as President, his lovers at his side.
Jones' series is self-consciously a fairy tale. Fiorinda (née Frances) is beautiful and brilliant, with supernatural powers and a tragic past; the men who love her (and each other) are themselves gorgeous and talented and sad. The books rescue themselves from melodrama with a sense of humor—this is an England whose most dangerous faction is the aspiring Ancient Celts—and an unusual pacing. The story's rhythm depends not on consistently growing tension, but on shock and the aftermath of shock. The characters' first response to danger is blackly amused resignation. They have to go on functioning, buying cartloads of jam for the refugee camps or dickering with Scottish spies; they have no time to look at their own anger. Long stretches of coping alternate with kaleidoscope moments, when everything shifts at once. By Book Four, we ought to recognize the technique, and anticipate the transformations; but though we know the stakes can change in an instant, that we can turn instantly from irrational rockstar romance to a sacrificial tiger pit in the English countryside, we're never prepared enough.
The third book, Midnight Lamp, ended with a quintessentially cyberpunk action scene. Our heroes attacked the cult compound where our heroine was held, guns and carefully programmed illusions blazing. The scene felt like a triumph of genre, the envy of Shadowrun game masters everywhere. On page one of Band of Gypsys, we learn we were wrong. This isn't a movie, this is the real world: actions have consequences, and the bad guys have Ax and Sage killing teenage cult members, on tape.
And then we wait. The tapes are not released. The rock stars love each other poignantly, which sometimes edges toward cloying, sometimes retrieving themselves with a joke: "Our relationship is like democracy, you know: a terrible idea, except for the alternatives." Three previous books have to be explained (their events seem strangely linear, in retrospect). Despite threats, maneuvers, and a creative variation on the palace coup, the book moves slowly until the portentous film appears again. Some of this leisure is necessary, the calm before the storm, but the pace may also lag because we aren't afraid enough. Fiorinda's handsome father, the evil magician, died at the end of the second book; it's hard to find a villain as terrifying as Fiorinda's dad, or a fight as imperative as the struggle against him. Both Band of Gypsys and its predecessor owe some of their initial aimlessness to his absence: what happens after the evil wizard dies? Jones' real ambition is most evident here, when we are wondering where to find the conflict: she is willing to push the consequences one step further than conventions demand, even at the cost of her own suspense.
Ax and Sage do find a way to tell the truth about the tapes, but afterward the truth doesn't matter: what matters is their fury, building all this time. As soon as they lash out, blindly stupid and irrational and almost justified, the story's current sucks us in. Jones makes evil and the impossible appear ordinary, draws us into her characters' bitter acceptance, so that once the rapids hit they seem both astonishing and inevitable.
This is in all ways an intermediate novel: we never know if Ax can rule England, or if England herself will survive. The best of achievable worlds might have Ax as president, teaching the hordes of unemployed about rock-and-roll and organic farming, funding technology for an Earth with too much magic and no fossil fuel. But that dream cannot last: Ax has failed as enlightened dictator at least once, and even if he could be President again, where would he find a successor? Machine guns and special interests killed democracy in Bold as Love, and nobody has seriously thought of resurrecting it. Ax and Sage and Fiorinda, our Triumvirate, haven't dared to imagine who might come after them. Sustainable technologies are easier to imagine than sustainable societies. In a true fairy tale, the successor would be self-evident: Fiorinda's child. She is still waiting at the end. This is another problem Band of Gypsys won't solve, though it warns us over and over of the dangers of family (hostages, rage, love).
Band of Gypsys won't give us a fairy-tale ending. It gives us a wake, and a war to look forward to, and a desperate year to wait until book five. Band of Gypsys doesn't finish what it started—there are questions it can't even begin to answer—but Jones' mastery of transformation is obvious. I spent the days after I finished Band of Gypsys holding my breath, unwilling to let the brilliant colors fade.