“One-Eyed Jack” Elizabeth Bear

I mentioned at the end of my post about Elizabeth Bear’s Hell and Earth that the next of the Promethean Age books was out – and in fact in between writing that post and it going live I bought One-Eyed Jack and started to read it. This book takes place after Blood and Iron (and possibly after Whiskey and Water, I’m not sure if this is what the common antagonist character did before showing up in Whiskey and Water or after (if there was an after for him, which is ambiguous)). It is more in the nature of a linked story in the same universe, rather than a sequel per se.

It’s set in Las Vegas (mostly), and the protagonists are not so much people as archetypes and personifications of places. Which doesn’t sound like it would work, but it really does. The titular character, One-Eyed Jack is the genius or avatar of Las Vegas along with his partner the Suicide King. And the story opens on the Hoover Dam, with the first skirmish in what the Los Angeles avatars hope will be a takeover of Las Vegas using the Dam as their bridgehead. It is vital for the water supply of LA after all, so is a point for them to establish their influence. Amongst the rest of the cast are the ghosts of a pair of late 19th Century folk heroes, a vampire who calls himself Tribute (but who you’ll recognise early on if you know any cultural icons from the 20th Century US), and a handful of pairs of spies/assassins who are archetypes from different TV shows. Of course the takeover attempt from LA isn’t all that’s going on – there are several other power struggles which are also coming to a head at this point, and over the course of the book the links between these become clear.

There was a certain amount of mental whiplash reading this so soon after reading Hell and Earth. All four of the other Promethean Age books are grounded in a mythos I know – so the interesting thing was seeing what Bear was doing with them and exploring her versions of these stories I already have a sort of shape for. This book flipped that on its head – here the anchor point for me were the elements of Bear’s Promethean Age I recognised, and the newer stuff was the mythos. I don’t think that would be the case for someone who lives in the US, or for someone who watches more fiction TV than I do. But it still works as a story, and as a cast of characters, for me – I know enough through cultural osmosis to have an idea who the people are. Which is a part of the point of the book – like me you might never’ve been to Vegas or to LA, but you’ll have enough of an idea of the cities to recognise the personifications as personifications. Like me, you might not’ve watched the various spy shows, but you’ll still recognise the character types and possibly even the specific shows referenced. I’m fairly confident the Englishman and the woman in the leather jumpsuit are from The Avengers, for instance, despite not having watched a single episode of that.

Names and the naming of things are once again important in this story in ways that range from the One-Eyed Jack using sympathetic magic to call up ghosts of his more famous namesakes, to the way the assassins are nameless for most of the story. Another common theme for the Promethean Age novels that shows up is the power of story with the characters at times trusting that if they “play to genre” they’ll survive something implausibly (the hero never dies in a spy story!), and at times deliberating flouting genre conventions in order to throw the antagonists off the scent.

One thing that has struck me as I’ve been writing this up & thinking about the book, is that the mental whiplash I mentioned above is almost a part of the point. The stories & characters in the other Promethean Age books are much more familiar to me, because I’m British – the Stratford Man duology are set in my cultural past with my cultural mythology playing a part. The other two (Blood and Iron, Whiskey and Water) are set in a part of the New World that’s full of immigrants from the Old World, whether recent or not. So the stories are the stories from “home”, and some – like Arthur, like the Fae – are a part of my cultural heritage and have continuity with the Stratford Man stories. Of course there’s other elements mixed in – not all the immigrants who come to New York and the rest of the North-East US are European after all and they change to fit their new context as stories always do. And then we come to this book – it’s set in the West and the people who came here came from the East coast, it’s one step more removed from Europe. And the stories they build their identities on are the stories of the Wild West – of Cowboys and Indians, of brave pioneers, of lawless towns and railroads bringing civilisation, of the American Dream and the gold rush. And into that mix is dropped Hollywood glamour, sinful Vegas – not the staid old-fashioned elements of Faerie courts. With a health dollop of Cold War paranoia. Basically it’s more deeply rooted in US culture, so it’s not surprising I recognise things more from an outside perspective, I am an outsider to it.

A good book, that kept me thinking about it after I finished reading it.