The Completist: The CHANGE by Stephen R. Boyett

One thing I hope I’ve been able to do through this column is shed some light on titles / series / authors who may have been a bit overlooked when initially published or whose work has been overshadowed by some of the BIG NAME AUTHORS. I don’t exactly know where Stephen Boyett fits into that picture, but his two book series THE CHANGE is indeed unique and worthy of attention. The first book, Ariel, was the author’s debut and published in 1983 when he was 19. Those who read the novel at the time have held its story quite close to their hearts (Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi, to name two). Over twenty years later, Boyett returned to the characters and the worlds with Elegy Beach. I realize I may be stretching the bounds of “series” with these books since it is more or less a book and its sequel, but in my mind, anything more than one book equals “series.”

With that in mind, on to THE CHANGE

Cover by Steve Stone

A boy and his unicorn travel across the East Coast of the United States in the Changed landscape where magic has replaced technology in Steven R. Boyett’s debut novel, Ariel. The first person narrative is told from the point of view of Pete Garey, a young man in his early twenties who has come to live in an upended world where cars, computers, airplanes, and nearly all machines have ceased to work. What he finds instead on the very first page, is an injured unicorn. From that first meeting in Florida, the two become inseparable and because he’s a virgin and pure, he can hug and touch her.

Boyett quickly avoids some of the fluffy cutesy clichés associated with unicorns when Ariel begins to speak and mouth-off back to Pete. The bond between the two is more than that of a mage and a familiar, it is an intimate bond that might even border on that of star-crossed lovers. This description sounds trite, I admit, and even writing it feels a bit odd when describing the relationship between a man and an intelligent animal. However, Boyett’s skill in evoking the feelings between Ariel and Pete is wonderfully rendered.

In the Changed world of the novel, no creature is more magical than a unicorn and nothing holds as much magical power as the horn of a unicorn. It is for this reason that Pete and Ariel must constantly be on guard and aware of their surroundings even more than usual in this dangerous new world. When they come int the area of Atlanta, this danger confronts them head-on as an imposing man on a Griffin who, on behalf of a powerful Necromancer in New York, demands Ariel’s horn. Fortunately, Pete had recently befriended a warrior named Malachai Lee who helps to fend off the Griffin and its rider. Malachai is a sword master of the newly changed world and takes Pete under his wing. With the real threat of a bounty on Ariel, Malachai sets out for New York to confront the Necromancer, demanding Pete and Ariel not follow him.

Of course Pete ignores the advice and wants to fight this powerful enemy himself. Along the way, Ariel and Pete gather more people to their group. One is a young boy named George whose father pushes him to join Pete and Ariel so he can slay a dragon, which are said to have been seen in the Adirondacks. The group is also joined by Shaughnessy, a young woman who forces herself into the group much to the chagrin, initially, of Pete and even more so Ariel. As the plot proceeds, a confrontation with the Necromancer at the Empire State Building is inevitable.

Little, rather no explanation is given as the reason behind the Change. It just happened and though it may have been interesting to find out the why, Ariel is a stronger novel because no explanation is given. I couldn’t help but draw mental comparisons between Ariel and Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece The Road. Stylistically, both novels couldn’t be more different, but the sense of ruin and the dangers of a decayed civilization they both illicit in the feel of their respective worlds as seen through their characters is similar. Also, no explanation behind the collapse of civilization is given in either story.

Despite a couple plot elements dating the novel, the story itself holds up 25 years later and works on a very powerful and emotional level. The newly issued version of the book also includes an afterword reflecting on the book and offering some insight to the novel. One remarkable thing about the novel is that Boyett published it when he was only 19 years old. It was a book I had a difficult time putting down once I opened it. Ariel is a realistic, moving, powerful and at times heartbreaking novel that, while told in a fantastic setting, is very much about coming to terms with real life and changes both small and grand.

In the two decades since the book was first published, the world changed and Boyett wrote a sequel. Publisher Ace repackaged Ariel with an iconic cover from Steve Stone that does well to convey many of the themes and overall feel of the novel, despite the lack of a unicorn on the cover. With Elegy Beach, the immediate question that comes to mind is: Can a story that seemingly had closure and attained classic status be revisited, only to bring those elements of closure into the open again?

Cover by Steve Stone

It has been a few decades since the world Changed and rules for magic replaced rules for technology, long enough for a group of people to grow up and come of age without knowledge of technology. To these people, working cars, computers, and airplanes are all just legend. Magic and spell-making has become both a way of life and a way to survive. We learn this through the words and actions of Fred, who tells the reader the story as the novel’s first-person narrator in the California beach community of Del Mar. At the outset of the novel, Fred is a caster apprentice to Paypay, the owner of a magic shop where Fred makes unicorns and other magic trinkets for people.

Fred and his best friend Yan are working on seemingly more complex applications for their spells. In particular, he has made theoretical connections between software and magic, devising a method of understanding magic he calls spellware. Fred’s father cautions him and Yan about the magic with which they are toying. Fred’s father has some experience with the dangers of magic, he befriended a unicorn, got separated from it and fought a Necromancer and his forces in order to regain Ariel, the abducted unicorn. Fred’s dad is Pete, the protagonist of Ariel.

When Paypay’s shop burns down, nearly killing Paypay, Fred immediately knows who his responsible. Yan receives an ultimatum from Fred – leave town immediately and Fred won’t say anything or don’t leave and Fred will tell the leader of the town. Yan leaves but Fred is later given some ideas of just how dangerous Yan can be when he learns that Yan has acquired a unicorn’s horn – the most powerful magical object in the world. Fred then realizes stopping Yan is something that must be done because he has aspirations of reversing the Change.

Even though Elegy Beach and Ariel are told in the same type of narrative voice, Fred is a much different narrator than his father. That said, Boyett’s voice in Ariel was crisp and honest, and much the same can be found here. The framework of the two novels is similar; both are essentially quest fantasies wherein the heroes must travel to the enemy’s stronghold and bring him down to save the world. Despite the similar voice and structure in Elegy Beach, Boyett gets experimental with the style and employs a different tone. In the style, many sentences — regardless of whether they are declarative or inquisitive — end in periods. (i.e. “What time is it.”) It’s off-putting for most of the novel, but it does eventually feel a natural fit for the story. Tonally, Elegy Beach is a more somber story, the interaction between Pete and his son Fred are minimalist at best, but that sparseness speaks more volumes than words. Interestingly, Fred learns more about his father’s past through hearsay and being a fly on the proverbial wall than through Pete’s own words.

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Barclay Shaw’s original cover for Ariel

Where Ariel was essentially about a lone man, an orphan, growing up in a world reawakening from a nightmare, Elegy Beach is about parents and children – fathers and sons specifically. Fred has issues with his father and his mother’s absence is a powerful force, yet he seems to have a relatively well-balanced outlook on life. Yan, on the other hand, is part of a large family, with both parents living and he’s developed a dangerous obsession. Joining Pete and Fred on their journey to stop Yan is Yan’s father who is also one of Pete’s closest friends in Del Mar. In a sense, Yan’s father Ram feels a great responsibility for his son’s action. All told, Boyett has a real knack for depicting strong and even uncomfortable relationships because in real life, some of the most important relationships are uncomfortable.

The only similar experience to the publication history/logistics of Ariel and Elegy Beach I can compare is The Talisman and its sequel Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub, with publication between the two separated by 17 years. That worked because the two novels were so different and the sequel only hinted at the events of the previous novel. Boyett takes the opposite approach and succeeds just as well. He’s managed to integrate the feel of the previous novel, keep the two connected very well and genuine, without making that connection in any way superficial.

With all the comparisons I’ve made between Ariel and Elegy Beach, the sequel-of-sorts is a novel that can stand on its own. The events of Ariel are covered sufficiently and smartly, and not off-putting to a reader who has just read Ariel. Conversely, it is a worthy sequel. One element that seemed a bit overwrought for me was the detail in which Boyett described the intricacies of spell casting and creating magical objects. Despite that, the language of spells as a concept and spellware is one of those “cool ideas.”

These two books work quite well when read together. Seeing a writer’s creation from his youth — and seeing how that writer changed and grew so many years later — is intriguing. The smartest thing Boyett did with linking these two stories is to build in those years in the story which parallel the years between publication of the two books. The Change novels are highly recommended, and for a better look at the two books, take a look the dedicated Web site for each book: http://www.arielbook.com/ and http://www.elegybeach.com/.

One thought on “The Completist: The CHANGE by Stephen R. Boyett”

  1. Yup, these are absolutely must-reads. Certainly ARIEL was very influential with me. I liked them both very much but ARIEL better; that was probably because it hit me at a certain age rather than it being intrinsically superior.

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