This may be Sean Stewart’s best novel, though it is not my favourite. Here we see Stewart displaying full mastery of his prose, his characterization, and his depiction of a fully realized magical world. Be warned though, neither the characters, nor the world presented, are always pleasant to behold.
We follow the story of Josh Cane, a young man with a chip on his shoulder due to the constrained circumstances of his life that are the result of his father’s loss of a pivotal game of poker. Add to this the fact that Josh lives in a world after the occurrence of a magical apocalypse wherein everyone has to work hard to survive, not only due to their physical circumstances, but also due to the perilous proximity of the magical Otherworld, and you have the makings of a pretty downbeat story. Stewart himself has described this book as: “…your Basic “Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Everything, Girl becomes her Own Evil Twin, Boy Is Framed For Murder and Sent Along With Sidekick To Be Eaten By Cannibals, and Things Get Worse When The Weather Turns Bad” story.” That about sums it up.
Of course there’s more to Galveston than a simple encapsulation, even one given by the author, can provide. First of all we have, once again, Stewart’s excellent characters: Our main character Josh is by turns repulsive and worthy of pity; a man who had expected a life of much greater comfort than the one he ended up with and who is unable to let go of the bitterness he feels as a result of his circumstances. The only person who seems able to stand Josh is his best friend Ham Mather, the gentle giant who loyally accompanies Josh in his exile that is brought about by Josh’s infatuation with the third of our heroes: Sloane Gardner, the heir-apparent to both the political and magical leaders of Galveston whose desire to escape from her responsibilities leads to disaster. Standing in the background of the story like a looming spectre is the distorted and eternal carnival otherworld presided over by Momus, a godlike trickster who will give blessings to mortals courageous, or foolhardy, enough to pay the price. As always, be careful what you wish for.
As noted, Josh’s story goes from bad to worse and his circumstances, both physical and personal, can become hard to stomach. You think George R.R. Martin can put his characters through the ringer? He could pick up a few tips from Sean Stewart here. There are also no easy resolutions. Stewart always avoids the easy answer or pat conclusion. Our characters do get resolutions of sorts, and they certainly grow and change as people, but nothing is exactly as one might have expected and nothing follows the standard Hollywood paradigm for such things. This is all to the good I say and for all its difficulty, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better told story than the one you’ll find in Galveston.
I wouldn’t recommend this as a starting point for Stewart: go to Resurrection Man, or The Night Watch for that. Both take place in the same world deluged by magic, though at different points in its history. They are a bit more friendly to their protagonists, though they never quite let them off the hook either. No matter where you start though, you’re in for a real treat with Sean Stewart. He’s truly an excellent writer of great talent.