Galveston by Sean Stewart
Published: Ace Books, 2000
Awards Won: World Fantasy Award
“During Mardi Gras of 2004, Galveston was inundated by a Flood… not of water, but of deadly and dangerous magic. When the disaster began to settle, the city was split into two halves. In normal Galveston, people lived in the ruins of the old technological civilization. Their fragile community was held together through the efforts of the secular leader, Jane Gardner. Magical Galveston remained in Mardi Gras forever, reigned over by a god of magic, Momus. The two halves were held separate by the power of the witch Odessa Gibbons, who exiled anyone contaminated by magic to the Carnival.
Jane Gardner’s daughter Sloane is still trying to find her place in this new society. As her mother’s health fails, she knows that she doesn’t have what it takes to live up to Jane’s legacy. At the same time, a boy she once knew, Josh Cane, struggles with his lot in life. Though his family was once somewhat wealthy, he now lives alone as an herbal doctor, treating poor folk that he despises. Like a game of poker, their futures will be determined both by chance and by their skill at playing the hands they’re dealt.” ~Allie
This is the first book I’ve read by Sean Stewart, and while I appreciated the creativity of the story, it didn’t really work for me. I already have a copy of Mockingbird on my bookshelf, though, so I am going to try reading at least one more book by Stewart at some point.
The thing I most enjoyed about Galveston was the setting. The survivor community of Galveston and the chaotic, time-stopped Mardi Gras area both had a distinct flair and ambience. Normal Galveston was a drab, desperate place that relied on its past as it searched for a future. The details about the foundations of their everyday lives, such as how they generated power or made clothing, made the setting feel immediate and grounded. However, as they began to run out of their carefully hoarded pre-Flood goods—from soda to penicillin—there was a creeping sense of dread and uncertainty about the future. Mardi Gras, on the other hand, was mysterious, wild, and confusing. It held all the allure of a wild night of drinking and carousing, but with a level of danger exaggerated by magic. For one thing, the revelers tended to slowly transform into creatures, and for another, the party never ended. There weren’t many details about the larger concerns of the world—how other areas were faring, what caused the magic in the first place, or what rules it followed—but real and magical Galveston were beautifully imagined in all their grimy, sleazy glory.
In this troubled world, I think the main characters, Josh and Sloane, were intended to be pretty unlikeable characters. I think that the fairly sympathetic secondary character, Josh’s only friend Ham (named after Noah’s son), was supposed to win over the audience and connect them to the protagonists. While Ham’s compassion and good cheer did win me over, I was never able to bring myself to care the slightest bit about the fate of Josh and Sloane. Josh was creepily obsessed with Sloane based on a childhood crush, and he was extremely bitter about having to associate with poor people. He was almost universally nasty to anyone who had the misfortune of interacting with him. Sloane, on the other hand, didn’t really seem to have a strong identity at all. Her personality changed a lot throughout the book, but it was mostly a result of external magical meddling. Since her character seemed to lack integrity, any personal growth seemed more like something that was done to her than something she achieved. I know all readers have different tolerances for unsympathetic characters, but these two were well past mine.
In addition to lacking a connection with the protagonists, I was frustrated by a plot that often seemed directionless, and occasionally even clumsy. One example of this clumsiness was the plot device used to force the male and female protagonists to meet. In short, Sloane encountered Josh as a result of her rescue from a gang of generic rapist thugs that set upon her as she was walking home. This event was largely irrelevant to the rest of the story, but I was also frustrated by the unexamined victim blaming in the later reference to the event as “her stupidity afterward in nearly getting herself raped” (p.75). Overall, the story seemed to move from event to event in a rather unfocused way, and often plot points that I expected would be important were just solved by chance or dismissed.
I think part of the reason for this structure was to make the story a reflection of the mechanics of the game of poker (specifically Texas hold’em), which was heavily featured in the story. Poker was common in both real and magical Galveston, and there were many discussions of strategies, bluffing techniques, and detailed accounts of games. As in poker, the story was strongly influenced by chance events, and the importance of various plot points shifted as more of the story was revealed. While I appreciated the idea, it didn’t work for me as a narrative structure. The end was also a little bit of a letdown, as the story didn’t resolve so much as it just stopped, leaving a number of threads hanging. Though I was a bit unsatisfied by the ending, I did appreciate the realistic treatment of some of the remaining problems, which were of the sort that can’t be solved quickly.
My Rating: 2.5/5
The setting of Galveston was fascinating, though I was less intrigued by the characters and the story. I loved the different atmosphere and rich description of the post-technological real Galveston and the time-stopped, sometimes nightmarish, Carnival. The main characters, Sloane and Josh, were too unsympathetic for me, and I had a hard time caring about what would eventually happen to them. The story, which seemed to parallel aspects of the game of poker, was just too random and unfocused for my taste, and the ending also seemed very abrupt. I did really enjoy the world, though the story didn’t really work for me, so I will probably try another of Stewart’s novels in the future.