Alexander C. Irvine, A Scattering of Jades (Tor Books, 2002)

When an author like Charles de Lint endorses -- no, sings the praises of -- a first novel, we here at GMR take notice. As one of our best fantasy authors today, de Lint is in a position to know what heís talking about, and while he uses Tim Powers as a touchstone for describing Alexander Irvineís style, he is quick to note that Irvine has his own unique voice in story-telling. Indeed he does. A Scattering of Jades is a remarkable debut novel, combining secret historical conspiracies, magic, adventure, Aztec mythology, and tons of action to give readers a jolting ricochet ride. Irvine puts together a plot so gripping you may need to borrow the local Fire Departmentís Jaws of Life to pry yourself free!

The multiple subplots provide the reader with plenty of fuel for takeoff into the imaginary realms. Since Irvine uses actual American history as a backdrop for much of his story, as well as authentic Native American myths, the most unlikely scenarios within the plot seem unbelievably credible. The story begins in a New York City tenement building basement in 1841, and stays true to the historic atmosphere. There are sawdust-floored saloons, demonstrating abolitionists, traveling medicine men with wagons full of mysterious elixirs, and colonies of Dickinsonian street urchins.

Irvineís characters are a delightful stew of the bizarre and quirky, mixing actual persons such as Edgar Allen Poe, P.T. Barnum and Aaron Burr with a fictitious street gang called the Dead Rabbits, a snake-oil-salesman/puppeteer, and a kidnapped girl disfigured according to the rites of an ancient Aztec ritual. There is a whole slew -- or at least a partial pantheon -- of Mesoamerican gods. Toss in a midget henchman who bites peoplesí ears off, and a deity known as Meskansisal, the Mask Bearer, who manifests as a talking bear. Add a pinch of the reanimated dead, and a pair of very human heroes: Archie, the father of the runaway girl, and Stephen, a guide at the newly discovered Mammoth Caves in Kentucky who is also a slave seeking freedom. Everyone in this novel wants something, but whatever each individual seeks is inextricably intertwined with the fates of all the others.

The event that begins the whole chain reaction of the novelís plot, like the first falling domino in a convoluted pattern, involves Jane Prescott. Unbeknownst to the world, with a few notable exceptions, Jane is marked by the Aztec god, Tlaloc, to be his Chosen: the human sacrifice who will allow him to return to the world and transform it with his power. Jane has been chosen before birth, born on the day I-Rain in the first month of the beginning of the rainy season Toxcatl, in the last hour before the end of the cycle; four times sacred to Tlaloc, He Who Makes Things Grow, the god of water and earth. This phenomenon occurs only once every 562 years, and there is only one man still living who is both acutely aware of the event and poised to exploit it -- Riley Steen.

Other than his collected knowledge of arcane Mesoamerican rituals, Riley Steen is no more than a traveling salesman pawning wonder cures out of his canary yellow wagon. Steen has inherited this valuable information from the discredited Aaron Burr after Burrís disastrous conspiracy plans against the government failed. Privy to Burrís notes and calculations after his death, Steen realizes that what Burr was after was much more than a plot against the U.S. government. It was an attempt to figure out the Aztec dates of the cyclic phenomenon of Tlalocís possible return. Steen has realized Burrís real plan -- and now itís Steenís opportunity to manipulate the world and the gods. Sounds like a tall order, but when have villains ever thought they could go too far?

Riley Steen is an archetypal -- if amusingly quirky -- bad guy. Like every comic book, science fiction, or mythical nemesis, Steen wants to control the world. What else does every bad guy want for Christmas? He is a power freak. Heís also confident that he can make all of the considerable pieces fit into the ancient pattern and manipulate them into their proper positions. Heís the man with the plan.

Steen pays an old sorceress named Lupita to deliver the Chosen One and set up the proper charms so that when the time comes, Jane will be ready for him to steal and keep until the next piece of the plan falls into place. But Lupita knows sheís literally playing with fire, trying to manipulate the gods one against another. In the ancient Aztec god system, there exists a delicate polar balance between Tlaloc, god of growth, earth and rain, and the oldest deity, god of fire, Xiuhtecuhtli -- He Who Created Himself. Lupitaís fear grows as she hides in the tenement where the Prescotts live. The sorceress realizes that both deities are watching her -- and also the Tochtli, the Rabbit in the Moon, causer of mischief and the unknown, adding to her fear that something will go wrong.

Just as Lupita is calling up the mocihuaquetzqui to burn Janeís face, another girl rushes through the basement past the sorceress, and the fire spirits go out of control. Janeís face does get imprinted -- but the fire spreads throughout the tenement, creating a huge blaze that destroys several buildings. Still, she is able to somehow snatch Jane out of the flames while the girlís mother burns to death, and then deliver the screaming child to Steen. Was all this mayhem caused by the Bunny in the Moon? Good chance. And it doesnít stop popping up, either, so the reader can be assured that almost nothing in this novel goes as itís supposed to.

Janeís father, Archie Prescott, finds wife, Helenís, body, sees a small, charred corpse lying beside it and assumes itís Jane. The only thing that keeps Archie going is his job as a typesetter for the newspaper, and an old dream of becoming a writer. As toasted as his life has become, he still keeps his eyes open -- Eyes Peeled on Orange, the byline heíd come up with -- for a story that will interest the newspaper. But hereís the kicker: Jane has escaped from Riley Steen and made it back to New York to find her father. And she has been following him constantly, selling newspapers, disfigured and living on the streets -- even accosting him, saying, "Donít you recognize me, Father? Iím Jane." Archie goes out of his way to avoid her whenever possible, sure that his daughter is dead and that the scarred girl he sees is a delusional stalker, even when she cries out in frustration.

Meanwhile, back in Kentucky, a young black slave named Stephen Bishop guides visitors into the recently discovered Mammoth Caves for a white landowner, who is eager to exploit the discovery for everything itís worth. Stephen is drawn into the caves; he has no fear of them. In fact, Stephen hears whispery voices inside the unearthly beauty of the caverns, speaking to him and seeming to draw him further into the caves. But one day, the whispers lead Stephen to a mysterious chamber with odd carvings, and some sort of sarcophagus. The find is a phenomenon. When Stephenís master gets his hands on the "mummy," he unearths it and sells it to -- guess who? Riley Steen.

Stephen is the other possible hero in Jades. He has an elevated position among the slaves because he is the best of the cave guides, but he knows that when he is no longer able to sustain that function, he will share the fate of all slaves. While the others sit and laugh, celebrating, exhorting Stephen to forget his crazy dreams of freedom in Africa -- or anywhere else -- he knows he cannot, and still be a man in his own eyes. There lies his breaking point. His inner conflict plays an important part in the novelís outcome. Why wouldnít the evil powers-that-be prey upon Stephenís deepest doubts when the time comes to seduce him?

The "mummy," surprise, surprise, turns out to be the avatar (called a chacmool) of Tlaloc, hidden for centuries. Steen's plan for world domination involves this chacmool and Jane. Will he be foiled in time when Jane's father, Archie, discovers the re-animated chacmool, hidden by Steen in the P.T. Barnum museum? Will the chacmool's talisman save Archie's life? And when he, Steen, and Jane chase the chacmool back to the Caves from whence it came, who will get there first? And how will Stephen help or hinder in all of this?

Dreams play a central part in Scattering of Jades. For example, both Stephen and Archie have startlingly real "dream visits," including those to Tlalocan -- the afternoon paradise for those who die by earth or water, but whose cities smoke with the fires of sacrificed children. At times, with the talisman around his neck, Archie can even see through the eyes of the chacmool in his dreams. As mystical experiences, these dreams and nightmares become blurred with reality, as do the living and the dead, the past and the present. In fact, what was most frightening to me in Jades was exactly that blurring, where reality leaves off and the world of the unconscious and of magic bleeds somewhere in between, leaving me to wonder what is "real" -- and, worse still, would I stay trapped inside the nightmares forever?

Then there are the dead people, too. The one that crops up the most, and holds an important key to the novel, is John Diamond, a black dancer who was used and then murdered by Riley Steen. Diamond floats in the Mississippi River where Steen drowned him, and, as he died by water, he is a rightful possession of Tlaloc. But is he? As he is compelled to lurch out of his element time and again, he seems almost mischievous as he gives information to both sides, punctuating his remarks with, "Sorry, Johnny," Steenís last words to Diamond before he drowned him. You really donít know whose side Diamond is on, or where heíll end up. I really loved this character the best. Diamondís power -- and his ability to destroy or to help -- comes from his frightening ability to hear both the dead and the gods.

Irvine builds a secure constellation of character symbology. For example, the chacmool itself could be seen as Irvineís symbol of manís dream of power, which awakens and reawakens cyclically, it seems, delicately balanced by events, being fed by human hearts to sustain it. Riley Steen is just Everyman -- or Everyfool, as the case may be -- who fanatically pursues that dream, scheming his life away with no regard for the lives of others. His blinding by the hands of the chacmool mirrors that of any greedy person blinded by the lust for power, with his eventual madness the final consequence.

Stephen and his experience in the underground caverns can be seen as his exploration and search for inner truth, just as he seeks the source of the whispers. Only within himself does he feel comfortable -- but once he understands the whispers and what he must do, he knows he has to come out of the darkness once and for all. Freedom starts beneath the terra firma within, but must necessarily surface to be sustained.

Archie is a fine representation of the hero within us all, no matter how unlikely or unstable we may be. Grieving, bottomed-out, with absolutely no clue of where he is really going, Archie rises to the incredible challenges heís faced with. Not in a Superman kind of way, or in an overpowering, confident way -- like us, heís scared shitless. Yet he goes on, wagering his life against the bad guys to save his daughter -- but not only that. He is forced to confront himself and his self-pity and to force himself out of the downward spiral; heís a real example of self-redemption if ever there was one.

Jane herself might be thought of as youth wounded; her stigmata shapes her as it has disfigured her, but when she achieves love she returns to beauty. Through all of her traumas, Janeís courage, resilience, and determination to make her father recognize and love her again are the very paragon of the indomitability and loyalty of love. Both Jane and her father are redeemed through the strength of this love and sense of family.

What I really loved about this novel is the level of surprise, the God-I-canít-believe-that-happened plot twists. And there are so many more surprises than I could tell! There is just enough mysticism in A Scattering of Jades to keep it from being just another horror book; both the ancient myths of the Mesoamericans and the historical fiction give it additional depth and plausibility. To accomplish such a thing is a difficult task, all the more so for a first time author.

Now comes the bad news. For all of these great components, A Scattering of Jades falls flat at the very, very end. In fact, unfortunately, not only do you wonder throughout the book whatís going to happen; you wonder at the end what did happen. The conclusion is sudden and ambiguous. The loose threads left dangling could be woven into one of P.T. Barnumís circus tents -- who is, by the way, a distant relative of Alexander Irvineís. Barnum, that is.

I canít even compare what happens to this novelís ending to anything else Iíve ever read. Iíve seen poor endings by the boatload, Iíve seen endings that fell far short of what the story deserved. Iíve even scratched my head and shrugged more than once. But I have never before been drawn into a story this compelling with such great characters, and then been so suddenly zapped. Itís like being thrown from a horse after the finish of a terrific ride. Jadesí ending is not only abrupt and lame, itís as indecipherable as an Egyptian glyph. I was more than disappointed when I put the book down. I had fantasies of shaking Irvine until his molars fell out.

In Jades, Irvine says that the Aztecs, in believing Cortes to be another of their gods come back to earth, fell victim to their own myth system. Well, guess what? In his way, so does Irvine.

[Kimberlee Rettberg]