Spies and Fairy Tales: Anthony Price’s Tomorrow’s Ghost

Tomorrow’s Ghost is the closest Anthony Price came to writing a fantasy novel, and it’s not that close. I’ve talked before about how Price wrote spy stories with an underlying layer of history. In this book, the underlying layer is about fairy tales and what it means to tell a death story—and as the death story really works, it’s perfectly possible to read it as fantasy. It’s possible to start the series almost anywhere—there’s a sensible discussion of good starting points in my older post. Tomorrow’s Ghost is both part of a sequence and a standalone. You may get more out of it if you’ve read others and know the characters, but you won’t know Frances, and this is really a book about Frances and identity.

Price’s characters are generally very good, and nowhere better than here, where what we have is an internal investigation. The book subsumes us immediately into the point of view of Frances, a young woman who is a spy. Frances is protean. We meet her first as Marilyn Francis, a cover identity who is trying to infiltrate “British American” to check up on a scientist suspected of leaking secrets behind the Iron Curtain. The way she’s described is in terms of Frances painting lipstick on Marilyn’s lips and allowing an office boy to look down Marilyn’s shirt, with Frances herself not so much playing the part of Marilyn as pulling her strings.

Then she becomes Miss Fitzgibbon, supposedly an expert in Tolkien and Faerie, and to fuel Miss Fitzgibbon she draws on her earlier self as Frances Warren. In civilian life she’s Mrs Fitzgibbon, but even there she’s playing a part. Later she’s Mrs Fisher—she has not just identity papers but personalities for all these people. She thinks of them as external—not just Marilyn’s lips, but Mrs Fisher’s bitchiness. Miles Vorkosigan once described himself as a set of concentric circles enclosed within his skin. Frances is more like s shifting blur within hers, but yet she has a strong personality. She’s a spy, which gives her a professional reason for her fluid identity, but this series is full of spies and none of the rest of them are like this. The whole book is about identity—assuming identities, playing parts, creating alter egos, being the person other people want you to be.

This is a book about an investigation, and the subject of the investigation is Jack Butler, who is a recurring character in the series. Here we meet the interesting question of whether he murdered his wife nine years before—and as readers we really don’t know, as we only saw the wife once, years before he married her in The ’44 Vintage. She hasn’t been mentioned since. It’s a fascinating subject, and I think it would be even for a reader who hadn’t encountered Butler before. He barely appears in this book in person, but his life is all through it, and he’s a great character too. It’s interesting that Frances immediately decides, before even seeing the evidence, that he wouldn’t have murdered his wife, but if he had it would have been a tragic accident and he’d have had a clear alibi.

The death story underlies everything, giving it all a darker spin and making the ending work.

And just to make it all more meta, Price wrote A Prospect of Vengeance in 1989 in which some journalists in 1988 start investigating Frances and the 1978 events of Tomorrow’s Ghost and what happened immediately afterwards. You wouldn’t think a book about people investigating the events of another book where the reader already knows more than they do about what they’ll find would work, but it really does.

There’s a fascinating interview with Anthony Price in two parts here and here, in which he discusses the series and retiring from writing.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. 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.


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