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ELEGY BEACH
2009

Book cover art by Steve Stone.
Review © 2009 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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Now this one is some tough love. It took just over a quarter century for Steven R. Boyett to return to writing, and to his world of the Change, in which, for reasons unknown, the laws governing the world have been replaced by new ones swapping technology with magic. In Elegy Beach you feel every minute of those years. This is a story as somber as it is often thrilling. It comes weighted with the disillusionment of a life lived with one eye always glancing over the shoulder at all the missed opportunities and if-onlys. If Ariel's ultimate message was that the innocence of youth, while a beautiful thing to cling to in and of itself, eventually had to give way to adulthood's challenges and responsibilites, along comes Elegy Beach to drop the other shoe: yes, being grown up pretty much sucks even worse than you thought.

Heavy, perhaps, and curiously so, because when you read Boyett's blog and his chatty afterwords, he doesn't exactly come across as a guy with an unhealthy Holden Caulfield fixation or anything. But I think he's very attuned to those moments of our lives that define us and set us on irreversible courses, especially those we never planned. Elegy Beach mirrors the plot of Ariel very closely: Pete Garey — now in his early forties, not so much embittered by his life's losses as resigned to them, and the father of an alienated son on the cusp of adulthood and its onrushing hard lessons himself — must undertake a journey. In Ariel, the journey was both an ending (boyhood) and a beginning (manhood) for Pete. In Elegy Beach, the journey marks an ending for Pete and a beginning for Fred, his son, whom Pete named after his samurai sword, an honor Fred will require the novel's full length to understand.

I suppose I've probably made the book sound more like a downer than I should have done. But there's no getting around the fact that its tone is markedly different than Ariel's, even as its voice is much the same. Like its title, Elegy Beach is elegiac. It reflects the introspective concerns of a writer in his 40's just as Ariel reflected those of one just entering his 20's. It is all about endings, about accepting and moving on from losses that you cannot regain. And if you try to regain them, as this story's villain does, you risk causing even greater damage.

Pete Garey has settled in Del Mar, where he raises his son Fred but otherwise keeps much to himself. In some backstory several chapters in, we learn how his life has progressed in the last quarter century, and it hasn't been easy. There's even a bit of cold and unfair resentment toward Fred, and when the young man picks up on it, there's a bitter parting of the ways. Fred, who has been learning basic spellcasting from a beloved local eccentric, moves in with his buddy Yan, the son of the town doctor. They have a bit of a bromance going, and Fred begins teaching the curious Yan spellcasting as well. Yan is the unconventional thinker, and together they work out some revolutionary spells, such as moving an ancient train car several miles into town and living in it. They become driven by the urge to figure out how to reverse irreversible stasis spells, and Yan, who's been learning about the technology of the pre-Change world, starts to think of spellcasting as similar to computer programming. Spellware, they call it. They devise all new reversible stasis spells, that can be undone with a magic word (password). But Yan's ego starts to run away with him, and when Fred's old teacher doles out a little humiliation at the town swap meet, Yan loses it and burns down the old man's shop, leading to the inevitable broken friendship. Yan leaves town, but he vows Fred hasn't heard the last of him.

Just how far Yan is willing to go with his magic soon becomes clear. He thinks he can reverse the Change. But to do it, he needs the most powerful magic item there is, and from reading Ariel, we all know what that is. This leads to a reconciliation between Fred and Pete following a surprise reunion that I won't spoil (though every other review of this novel will), but that you can probably figure out from the context. Yan's spellcasting needs are the device that motivates the reunion, and Boyett handles it in a way that is a lot less contrived than it might have been.

From here, we're off on another prototypical heroic fantasy quest, an arduous journey across dangerous lands full of dead cities and marauding centaurs, to the showdown at the castle of the dark lord. But Boyett is even more meta about these conventions than he was in Ariel, mostly using them with a nudge and a wink. The fact that he has Yan holed up in the ruins of Hearst Castle in San Simeon has more than a bit of good-natured satire to it.

The story mainly deals with fathers and sons, how they shape one another through legacies bequeathed and atonements for past sins. Where Ariel was about learning to put away childish things, Elegy Beach is about learning from the mistakes of your elders, and accepting their flaws and hard lessons rather than becoming embittered and resentful. Pete knows he's never been the best of fathers to Fred, and Fred has never fully understood what Pete has lived with and bottled up all these years. Their journey together will be about healing these wounds and getting to know each other as men for the first time, and as he did in Ariel, Boyett conveys this with a refreshing total absense of mawkish sentiment. Also accompanying Pete and Fred and their old family friend is Yan's own father, who knows all about his son's crimes, and yet, as his father, simply cannot sit back while the misguided young man is just hunted down and summarily assassinated. Yan's father must find the inner strength on the journey to reconcile his paternal feelings with doing what must be done, when it must be done, if it all comes to that.

In its best scenes, Elegy Beach hits its emotional marks every bit as well as Ariel. But its somber tone — at times it feels like The Road as written by Tim Powers — can sometimes feel unrelenting, even when the action is on full, and for this, readers may find it less enjoyable escapism than Ariel. There are some storytelling choices I'm not convinced work either. (One character reveals a Dark Secret at the climax, and I'm not sure exactly what narrative function it serves, unless it's another variant on atonement.) But fantasy readers who want emotional truth and substance in their epics should embrace Boyett's stories. He doesn't make the journey easy on you, but that's precisely the point. If life and love were easy, what would any of us learn?