REVIEW SUMMARY: A hugely entertaining sequel that sparkles with style.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Marid Audran solves crime in the culturally rich Budayeen.
PROS: Lively, spunky writing; rich setting; engrossing story; quick pacing.
CONS: Marid slow to catch on to the nature of the Phoenix File.
BOTTOM LINE: This is easily going to be one of my favorite reads of the year.
Every now and then, I contemplate what I like about science fiction. My current thinking is that there are a small handful of traits that contribute to the bigger picture. One of these is writing style. Many writers have a unique style, but few writers truly stand far above the crowd. For me, those that do occupy this selective space are Theodore Sturgeon and Rex Stout. And now, on the basis of When Gravity Fails (1987) and its sequel, A Fire in the Sun (1989), to that list I also add George Alec Effinger.
A Fire in the Sun continues the story of former street hustler Marid Audran. Marid is now working openly as a cop but is really in the employ of the much-feared Godfather of the gritty Budayeen, Friedlander Bey. Having given in to the fashion of being fitted with a pluggable brain interface, Marid is hooked on his “moddies” almost as much as he is hooked on drugs. When his partner is killed, Marid is drawn into a web of horrible crimes. Most signs of blame point to Friedlander Bey’s mob boss rival, Reda Abu Adil, who has seemingly hired everyone in the Budayeen to topple Bey’s empire. (Abu Adil has worries of his own: his second-in-command is waiting for the old man to kick off so he can inherit his riches.) Marid’s investigation will lead him to discover the cold truth about life in the Budayeen as well as a personal secret that he himself did not know.
I expected much the same experience when reading the A Fire in the Sun as I had with When Gravity Fails and I was equally impressed. Effinger’s writing style rises above the norm and slaps you hard with the realization that words are but a tool that can be wonderfully crafted in the hands of a master. In this case, Effinger’s lively prose is lean, mean, funny, energetic and entertaining with room to spare. The writing is a hoot!
This is a hardboiled detective story in the vein of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe or (as I hear) a Raymond Chandler novel. Marid has many faults (he’s a swindler, a drug abuser, a moddy addict, a murderer, a manipulator and more) but you love the character anyway because of his in-your-face attitude. He’s not all bad though; he’s really the tough guy with the heart of gold. And he even manages to work some religion into his life as the story progresses. Marid grows most notably in his relationship with his estranged mother. It helps that she has now taken up residence in Bey’s luxurious house where Marid also lives. Marid has also been rewarded with a personal slave named Kmuzu, but soon realizes that the gift from “Papa” Friedlander is really just another way Marid can be controlled.
The theme of freedom is played up in the book as Marid laments over his loose hold on his own freedom. When he was a street thug, he could come and go as he pleased. But now Friedlander Bey owns him and nobody who wants to live crosses Friedlander Bey. As a cop working for Bey, Marid is ostracized by his mostly-shady friends. At least he has the loyalty of his old friend Chiri – that is, until Bey buys out her club and gives it to Marid with the intention of isolating him further from his friends. Marid tries to escape his complex predicaments with drugs, but soon realizes that will only get him so far. In addition to investigating a string of murders in the Budayeen (he is supposed to be a cop after all), Friedlander Bey also orders Marid to kill a woman who is apparently trying to claim Bey’s fortunes by claiming to be his daughter. That’s a lot for a character to juggle, but it ensures that the story is packed full of stuff to enjoy.
The Budayeen is as cool a setting as I remember it; dark but colorful and steeped in Middle Eastern culture. As I mentioned about the previous book, the Budayeen is as much a character as any other in this story. Respect and religion are highly valued by all and it pervades everything the characters do. When Marid snaps in a moddy called Wise Counselor, he experiences himself sitting across from Mohammed. As marginally religious as Marid is at the time, he is still deeply disturbed. (This recalls recent events in the news concerning outrage over the depiction of Mohammed in a cartoon.)
The story moves along at a very quick pace and immersing yourself is virtually guaranteed with the lively writing, the rich setting and quick pace. Roughly following the practice of author A.E. van Vogt, Effinger introduces a revelation every 10-15 pages. Most of them are surprising, but I did raise my eyebrows when even my slow-to-catch-on self figured out the true nature of the mysterious Phoenix File before our stalwart hero. But throughout the book there are enough conflicts between characters to keep you wondering where the story is going to go next.
Even though this book originally appeared in 1990, this is easily going to be one of my favorite reads of 2006.