Jul 12 2010 1:24pm

Texan Ghost Fantasy: Sean Stewart’s Perfect Circle

Perfect Circle (2004) (UK title Firecracker) is one of Sean Stewart’s best books. It’s about Will, an ordinary working class man living in Houston. He comes from a large and complex family and he sees ghosts. He sees them in black and white. They’re often, but not always, people he knows. They can see him too, and sometimes communicate with him. He can’t exorcise them or anything like that, he can just see them, and at night he can’t tell them from living people, which is why he doesn’t drive. Not driving can be a problem in Houston. He’s a normal American everyman, which means he’s a divorced father trying to have a relationship with his daughter, who is just becoming a teenager with distinct opinions about him and the whole ghost thing. She wants to go to Six Flags. He doesn’t have any money. Then he gets a call from a cousin with a ghost problem, and then things get complicated.

Stewart has been writing excellent fantasy for years, but it doesn’t fall into marketing category shaped boxes, so though he is a terrific writer he never seems to make it big. I don’t understand it—you’d think he’d be a bestseller. Maybe he always gets the wrong covers—he certainly does seem to have been very unfortunate there. And Perfect Circle lost out on a World Fantasy Award to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; most years I expect it would have won.

The book was published by Small Beer, a small press run by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, themselves fantasy writers. Small Beer are definitely my favourite small press, and one to watch. They’ve done some terrific short story collections by some of the best writers in the field (Theodora Goss, Holly Black, Joan Aiken, Link herself) and they also publish of a lot of wonderful but slightly quirky novels that might not quite meet mainstream tastes at the big publishers. They recently published Greer Gilman’s Tiptree Award winning Cloud and Ashes, for instance.

Perfect Circle is one of those books that’s hard to talk about. The voice, Will’s voice, is first person, confidential, and desperate. The whole situation feels completely real, including the thing with the ghosts. There’s an uncle who was vapourized in a refinery accident, all but his boots, and Will sees him wandering around in black and white and barefoot. The ghost of a cousin (Will has a lot of cousins) helps her family get compensation for an industrial accident. There’s a family reunion, there’s a scene in a shooting range where Will admits that the problem with being kind of left-wing is that you don’t get to exercise your usual American constitutional right to make guns go boom, there’s a vengeful ghost, and after all of that there’s even a hopeful ending. I like it a lot. It’s a book I don’t start reading late at night, but it doesn’t go over into being too scary for me.

If you like books set in the U.S. in the present day, and if you like a little supernatural in among your natural, you should on no account miss this one.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

This article is part of Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. DebC
I love this book so much! I love just about everything about it--the writing, the setting, the story and especially the way things come together at the end.

I only wish there were an electronic version.
2. AlecAustin
Yeah, Perfect Circle is brilliant and beautiful and probably my favorite of Sean's books. (The only reason I have any doubt at all is that I have a weakness for Night Watch.) The stuff he does with Dan's voice in it is astonishingly effective.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Alec: He's one of those writers where it's hard to have a favourite book, because in different moods, different ones seem better.
Wanda Wolfe
4. wolfewr
DebC, there is an e-book. The Kindle edition is $7.96 at
5. DebC
wolfewr: Awesome! I checked the Small Beer Press website and didn't see anything (maybe I missed it?).

In any case, thanks! And yay!
David Goldfarb
6. David_Goldfarb
I had some trouble with the incluing, near the beginning of this one. I wasn't sure whether it was meant to be set more or less in our world, or whether it was in a world more like that of Resurrection Man, in which the existence of ghosts and some people who can see ghosts was generally accepted. (It's the former, in case anyone reading this is wondering.) The first time I read the book, wondering about that and trying to figure out the rules took some of my mental energy away from appreciating the prose and characters.

I also found that I appreciated the book much more when I re-read it after living for a couple of months in Houston. There are a number of scenes where Will is wandering the streets, and we don't get much more to give us a sense of place than just the street name. That worked better for me when I knew at least a little about those same streets myself.

(Both in this book and in Mockingbird, by the way, the Houston-area things referred to are Mockingbird when Toni Beauchamp goes to a Slick Willie's Pool Hall on Westheimer Road, there really is a Slick Willie's on Westheimer in real life.)

Aside: Why is everyone calling the protagonist Dan when his name is Will? There's an important secondary character named Don, but that's not Dan either....
ian keith
7. aequitas55
Thank's for the review. I can't wait to check out the book. I'm glad an author is finally setting a story in Houston - a wonderful city that is woefully underrepresented in literature.
Phoenix Falls
8. PhoenixFalls
This one is currently on Mt. TBR, and I guess after reading this review I'll have to move it up near the top. I've only read two of Stewart's novels so far (Cloud's End, which I like, and Nobody's Son, which I love beyond all reason) but on the strength of them I've been trying to find everything else he's written. . .
Carl Rigney
9. cdr
Sean Stewart once said he wrote "Meaning of Life Thrillers" and there wasn't a place to shelve those in bookstores.

There's an 8-page mini-comic, Family Reunion, with Will, written by Stewart and drawn by Steve Lieber. Available free online at
Kate Nepveu
10. katenepveu
_Galveston_ broke me into little pieces and I kind of haven't dared pick this up as a result.

But Stewart is a very fine writer and I highly recommend his books.
11. Siena
It's a toss-up as to whether Perfect Circle or Mockingbird is my favorite Sean Stewart, but I adore them both. I really should buy an extra copy to foist on people.
Leigh Butler
12. leighdb
I first became aware of Stewart when he was revealed as the head writer behind the brilliant (and revolutionary) ARG created to promote Steven Spielberg's A.I. movie in 2001, which in my opinion was about twenty times better than the movie itself turned out to be.

I've been meaning to pick up his stuff ever since then, but kept forgetting. Thanks for the reminder!
13. AlecAustin
Jo: You're right, really; Mockingbird and Cloud's End are also really beautiful, and sometimes I even like Resurrection Man best.

Katenepveu: I know I'm in the minority on this, but I liked Perfect Circle a million times more than Galveston, partly for the reason you cited.
Walter Lopez
14. Snakpakk
Been hearing about this book for awhile now. Thanks for the review and the comments on here are helpful too. Thanks all around!
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
Alec, Kate: I haven't been able to re-read Galveston.
16. AlecAustin
Jo: I actually sold my copy. Which broke my heart a little, because now I don't have all of Sean's books, but I also knew that I had no desire whatsoever to reread it in the immediate future.
17. Jim Henry III
I love this one; not quite as well as Galveston, but I think it's better than Resurrection Man. Mockingbird, Clouds End and Nobody's Son are on my to-read shelf.
Megan Messinger
18. thumbelinablues
Siena, those are my two favorites, too -- although I've only read Nobody's Son once, and that several years ago, so if I reread it I might have a three-way tie.

I love Perfect Circle because, while the ghosts are instrumental to the story, it's really the story of how Will nearly lost it and then sort of got it together again. And instead of being the stereotypical loner freak outcast, he's got his whole family breathing down his neck, including AJ. I love how powerful and understated their relationship is.

Obviously Sean should do what makes him happy, but I haven't really enjoyed the Cathy books, and I'm hungry for his next adult novel!
individ ewe-al
19. individ-ewe-al
Read Firecracker because I'm very fond of Night watch. It's so very different that I thought I'd made my frequent mistake of muddling up authors who have similar names, but I don't regret it in the slightest. I was very, very impressed with Firecracker; it's not my sort of book at all, but it's really powerful.

Both the supernatural elements and the human society depicted are intensely believable. The thing that I found perhaps most creepy of all was gradually realizing that all the female ghosts had died of partner violence and all the male ghosts had died of industrial accidents, which isn't even what the book's about, but it really stuck in my mind.
Pamela Adams
20. PamAdams
This is another of the books that I would have never read without your re-read blog. Loved it, and now I have some more to add to the TBR stack. (Actually, they don't stay there long, as I use a lot of inter-library loan.)

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