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.


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