Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dancing With Bears by Michael Swanwick

Yesterday, I reviewed a book about one con man -- The Other by Matthew Hughes -- and so that means that today I have one with two con men, to continue the streak. (I don't know of a book about three con men; if you do, feel free to comment up at me.)

Dancing With Bears is the first novel about Michael Swanwick's series characters Darger and Surplus, but not their first story -- as the words "series characters" probably tipped you off -- since they've previously appeared in three shorter pieces starting with "The Dog Said Bow-Wow." (Those three stories are all collected in Swanwick's most recent assemblage of new short fiction, which, coincidentally, is also named The Dog Said Bow-Wow.) Darger and Surplus are, as I just said, con men -- they traipse through a complicated, gaudy and dangerous post-apocalyptic future a few centuries on, in which a Singularity was more or less tamped down, with the cold and cruel AIs scheming in various data-storage devices to slaughter any life they can whenever they get a chance. Technology has turned biological -- Surplus himself is an uplifted dog, more or less, and is the flamboyant American to Darger's quietly nondescript Brit -- and the world is a patchwork of small and medium-sized polities, full of wonders, treasure, and lovely women, all of which Darger and Surplus endeavor to take for themselves. (Though usually with spectacularly dangerous, and not particularly remunerative, results.)

Darger and Surplus are something like the post-historical version of Fritz Leiber's great sword & sorcery duo, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, though Swanwick's heroes rely much more on their wits, and are typically vastly overmatched in the violence department (unlike Leiber's swordsmen, who are good enough to fight their way out of nearly every situation they encountered). And Swanwick uses appropriate prose for their tales: long, rolling sentences, a wry, world-weary tone, crackling dialogue, and just enough description of the bizarre world to keep the story hurtling forward.

Taking them to novel length meant that Swanwick had to weave an even more intricate plot around them than before, which unfortunately does mean that Darger and Surplus are not at the center of Dancing With Bears quite as much as I might have hoped -- they set the action in motion, but they disappear for chapters at a time, and the focus is wider than the two con men. This time around, we meet them in mid-journey, just as Prince Achmed, the envoy from the Caliph of Byzantium to the Duke of Muscovy, has learned that his two learned and experienced guides are actually nothing of the sort. Achmed, like so many of Darger and Surplus's temporary companions, doesn't last too long in this story, but Byzantium's gift -- a group of bioengineered young women, the Pearls Beyond Price, designed to be the perfect courtly lovers and wives to their noble husband the Duke -- continues onward to Moscow, guarded by a group of fanatically loyal and massively powerful Neanderthals and somewhat guided by our con-men heroes.

And of course matters in Moscow -- and in Russia in general -- are less settled, and more complicated, than anyone anticipated: just to begin with, the Duke is never seen in public, and admits no one for an audience, so how are his gifts to be delivered? As usual with a mysterious, hidden leader, there are factions that would be quite happy to replace him with a more visible face of Muscovy -- themselves, for example. And what of the fanatic Koschei the strannik, a wanderer with plans of his own? Worse, the demons of Russia -- those AIs -- are not as dead or walled away from the physical world as in more civilized regions, and the path of the Caliph's party passes directly through a former oil refinery, now a manufactory for mechanical beasts to kill humans. And the demons have larger plans than that -- a plot well in motion to kill all of Muscovy, and much of the rest of the world, with forgotten megaweapons from before the apocalypse.

All Darger and Surplus want is to find a way to make a vast fortune and get out of Moscow with it -- and their skins -- intact. Is that so much to ask?

Dancing With Bears is a splendid romp, a tour through a strange future, and an enthralling adventure -- I won't recommend it to any readers looking for morals in their novels, but for all of the rest of us, it's a great way to spend a few hours. (And reading about them is the only way I'd recommend spending time with Darger and Surplus!) Since the paperback is officially published on January 3rd -- which is this coming Tuesday -- the timing is perfect as well.

1 comment:

Michael Offutt, Visitor from the Future said...

Awesome. I'm a fan of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser.

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