Jul 1 2009 1:27pm

Blue collar magic: Sean Stewart’s Mockingbird

Sean Stewart is a brilliant writer of the kind of fantasy that takes place in the real world, just out of the corner of your eye. By “real world” I mean the real world where people work in bars and get fired and fix up their cars and take baked goods to funerals. There’s nothing glamourous about Stewart’s worlds, except for the magic—and his magic tends to be a little seductive and a little scary and nothing any sane person would want to be close to.

Mockingbird (Small Beer Press) is one of his best books. It’s set in Houston, and it’s about a woman who was ridden by voodoo gods, who dies before the first page, and the very different legacies she leaves her three daughters. It’s a bit like a fairy-tale and a bit like a mainstream novel of family, and it was nominated for the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award and it’s just incredibly powerful. It starts:

When you get down to the bottom of the bottle, as Momma used to say, this is the story of how I became a mother. I want that clear from the start. Now, it’s true that mine was not a typical pregnancy. There was some magic mixed up in there, and a few million dollars in oilfield speculation, and some people who died, and some others who wouldn’t stay quite dead. It would be lying to pretend there wasn’t prophecy involved, and an exorcism, and a hurricane, and I scorn to lie. But if every story is a journey, then this is about the longest trip I ever took, from being a daughter to having one.

Antoinette and Cindy have been brought up by their scary mother and passive father, and their mother’s six “riders” or other selves, which take her over from time to time. They’ve been brought up on her stories of the Little Lost Girl who’s trying to find her way home and keeps encountering the riders. The novel is punctuated with these stories, which have a genuine mythic feel. Antoinette is an actuary and she tries to be practical and logical. She doesn’t want her mother’s gifts. Candy has dreams of the future, but only of good things. After her mother’s death Antoinette has to deal with inheriting the riders and learn to make her own bargains with them. She also has to cope with Candy’s resentment, her mother’s old friends and enemies, and the fact that her mother had a Lost Girl of her own, a daughter she abandoned in Canada before the others were born. Will everything be all right if they can bring her home? Well, it couldn’t possibly be that simple...

It’s all written in that solid specific first person voice of the bit I quoted, it’s deeply rooted in time and place, and it all feels rock solid, even the fantastical bits. There really isn’t much else like Sean Stewart, and if you’ve missed him this far I urge you to give Mockingbird a try.

Megan Messinger
1. thumbelinablues
This is one of my top three or four books *ever.* Even if you're read Sean Stewart, especially earlier ones (Resurrection Man, Night Watch, Cloud's End) and didn't care for them, read Mockingbird and Perfect Circle, his two latest adult novels. I've been getting so frustrated with his Cathy series because I want more of those instead!

One of the reasons I love Mockingbird is because of its variety of relationships among women: Toni and her mother and Candy, the half-sister, the older neighbor, the unborn daughter around whom the story turns.
R. Emrys
2. R. Emrys
I think I may have read this--is there a rider who does very well at day trading in one scene?
Kate Nepveu
3. katenepveu
thumbelinablues, I think _Galveston_ was in between, yeah? (Which hit some of my sore spots so hard that I've been reluctant to read _Perfect Circle_.)

R. Emrys, yes.

Also, those who were part of the massive online game around the movie _A.I._ may be interested to know that Stewart was the head writer.

I'm a little afraid to re-read this, partly because I've become a mother in the meantime and I found parts of it wrenching even _before_ that, and partly because I'm a lot more dubious now about the premise (since I have since learned that voodoo is a very culturally and religiously specific thing, and I'm not sure how that's handled here). But I loved it the first time I read it. And if the mix of family and truly numinous magic and place sounds good, try _Resurrection Man_.
Megan Messinger
4. thumbelinablues
Kate, you're right - Galveston was in between Mockingbird and Perfect Circle. I liked it, but not as rabidly as those two (or, indeed, 1993's Nobody's Son).

As far as the voodoo in Mockingbird, I get the feeling that these six little gods are particular to the Beauchamp women. In that case, I don't mind if Stewart plays with a voodoo-inspired system without adhering to the specifics of a single practice, but I also don't know as much about the real deal.
walter tingle
5. wjtingle
"Mockingbird" is my second favorite Stewart. "Clouds End" beats it out by a nose, IMO. Any of his books I've read are worth the time. I admit I haven't read "Perfect Circle", primarily because I've yet to come across a copy.

Jack Tingle
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Jack: Perfect Circle was published in the US only by Small Beer, a small press whose taste is very congruent with mine, but who don't have the distribution big publishers have. You may need to buy the book online (the Tor store has it!) because you're unlikely to just stumble over it in a bookshop. I recommend it highly, especially if you like Mockingbird. It's sad that Stewart wasn't getting the sales figures he deserves when he's so good. You'd think people would like him, too, he's not the kind of good that takes a lot of work to appreciate. I don't understand how this works at all.
Terry Lago
7. dulac3
Sean Stewart is probably the best writer of fantasy of this generation...too bad he stopped writing these excellent novels and turned his hand to multi-media games. *sigh*

Oh well, we'll always have the books he did write. His ability to capture voice and character is uncanny...all of his characters seem so real (I think this is what Guy Kay tries to do and generally fails at due to overamping the pathos and emotion up to 11).

Also, Stewart just gets magic. In his worlds it's not just some "mystical science" that is nice and clean and follows specific rules and can be rationally understood as long as you're initiated into its secrets. No, his magic is wild and scary and very elemental, even primal, and while it may follow certain rules at certain times (generally having to do with the give-and-take relationship of power) it is not something that you can reproduce in some sort of experimental way.

I love all of his books, but I would say his best are Resurrection Man and Night Watch. Kate: definitely try Perfect Circle it is excellent and has one of the best openings of his novels.
Kate Nepveu
8. katenepveu
I've heard it said that a barrier to Stewart's recognition is the variety of his work, but I'm not so convinced--_Resurrection Man_, _Night Watch_, _Mockingbird_, _Galveston_ (and by reports _Perfect Circle_) are all of a "type," it seems to me.

Okay, yes, _Passion Play_, _Clouds End_, and _Nobody's Son_ aren't very like each other, but still.
R. Emrys
9. Shirleing
Loved "Mockingbird". Tried "Resurrection Man" but could not get into it. Will have a look at some of Stewart's other titles recommended here.

Does anyone know whether "Perfect Circle" was republished in the UK under the title "Firecracker"? TIA.

For a different, SFnal view of voodoo riders, try "Bone Dance" by Emma Bull.
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Shireling: Yes, it was. I was going to mention that but I couldn't remember the title. Firecracker, yes, that was it.
R. Emrys
11. sienamystic
I started reading Stewart with Resurrection Man, which I enjoyed but which I didn't entirely connect with, and Galveston, which I could admire but not really fall in love with. And then I found Mockingbird, which immediately became one of those books that is really close to my heart, and I was so happy that Perfect Circle did the same thing. Those two books are just absolute gems.

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