The image on the cover of Sharon Lee’s* Carousel Sun, sequel to the oddball contemporary fantasy Carousel Tides (2010), is unusual even from a publisher famed for its peculiar choices in cover art. A giant cockerel looms behind a shaggy-haired man and a woman whose hands trail sparks and who looks like she’s twisting her head away from a vile smell. A rooster! Prospective readers may be excused a raised eyebrow or a momentary double-take: what do male chickens have to do with a fantasy set in a small town on the seaboard of Maine?
It’s not fowl after all, though: it turns out that the cock is actually a plastic carousel mount, a replacement for the batwing-demon beast that transformed and departed during the climax of Carousel Tides. For Kate Archer, our protagonist, runs the carousel at Archer’s Beach, and she can’t open for the summer season one mount short.
Kate has a double life, as the owner-operator of a vintage carousel at the Archer’s Beach carnival, and as Guardian to the land of and around the town. Her return after a long absence (in Carousel Tides) has coincided with—in fact, as she comes to accept, has caused—a change for the better in the town’s fortunes. An unusual early spring opening at the carnival provided a much-needed boost to prosperity, and now townsfolk and carnival people are uniting with the goal of keeping the carnival open for more than just during summer, and turning Archer’s Beach into a tourist destination for the whole year around. But there is work both magical and mundane for Kate in assisting the town’s success. And meanwhile, local drug lord Joe Nemeier has acquired new magical help; Kate’s ally and love interest, Borgan, her maritime counterpart, has some trouble in his own realm; and a visitor from another world is trying to rescue his lover, who was bound into Kate’s carousel as punishment for a transgression against the Wise, the final arbiters of justice in the Six Worlds—of which ours is one.
Where Carousel Tides was a tight, tidy adventure in small-town fantasy, Carousel Sun is expansively willing to take its time. When it comes to the details of carousel-running, local colour, and the flavour of seaside Maine, Lee is in her element. Straightforward prose and compelling characters carry one through in an enjoyable, undemanding reading experience.
Unfortunately, Sun doesn’t match Tides’ accomplishments as a novel. I’ve noticed that the most recent novels from the Lee and Steve Miller writing partnership (Trade Secret and Necessity’s Child, both in the Liaden Universe) have lacked a certain energy and sense of focus: they amble, instead of drive. The same issue afflicts this latest of Lee’s solo work: Carousel Sun feels meandering and episodic. Its varied subplots never quite unite into a coherent whole, and its denouement introduces a new and unexpected permutation to the existing order of things: it turns out that the Wise are less wise than they are politically motivated.
It doesn’t help that the novel’s several disparate finales all come across as rather hasty affairs, crammed into thirty pages. Each subplot is wrapped up in a chapter of its own, with a short chapter for the physical and emotional consummation of Kate and Borgan’s relationship squeezed in between the climaxes involving the local drug lord and the otherworldly visitor’s jailbreak.
I do like Kate’s struggle with her newly levelled-up magical power, and the believable way in which her relationship with Borgan* progresses. I really enjoyed reading her growing friendship with the out-of-towner Peggy. But in many ways Carousel Sun feels more like a series of novellas spliced together, and not quite smoothly at that, than one coherent novel.
*Which I keep typing Borgen. Television shows about Danish Prime Ministers, what ho.
If you enjoyed Carousel Tides, Carousel Sun will probably entertain you, too. But much like the cockerel on its cover, it’s a bird of a different—and rather less enjoyable—feather than the reader might expect.
Tides, I liked a hell of a lot. Sun, on the other hand, leaves me cold.
Carousel Sun is available February 4th from Baen.