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.