July 20, 2017
(+++) OTHER REALITIES
Tropic of Kansas. By Christopher Brown. Harper Voyager. $15.99.
Hidden Legacy #3: Wildfire. By Ilona Andrews. Avon. $7.99.
The unceasing drumbeat of vitriol being produced by the self-proclaimed intelligentsia against what East Coast and West Coast illuminati contemptuously refer to as “flyover country” has become a steady, boring jeremiad. Hatred for President Trump – duly elected, despite many manifest shortcomings both personal and systemic – has become de rigueur in many bastions of higher education and among self-important literary types and so-called entertainers who seem to believe that they and their opinions actually matter. Ugly, narrow-minded, biased rants continue to proliferate, serving only to harden individual and group viewpoints and cause further ill feelings in a nation already awash in them. And now we have a let-it-all-hang-out “heartland” novel, Tropic of Kansas, a long-form debut by an author who has previously produced only short fiction. The setting here is nominally an alternative timeline: President Reagan was in fact assassinated in 1981, and the result is a militarized nation with walls on both northern and southern borders – a place called “robotland” by the people of Canada, to which many Americans have fled, only to be hunted down and deported back to the demonized U.S.A. (This alternative Canada is a lot less friendly to refugees than is the real Canada.) Tropic of Kansas is a book whose title instantly recalls Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, but one that shares none of Miller’s novel’s sensibilities and none of its once-groundbreaking sexuality and intense insistence on free speech – a combination that led to the book being banned as obscene for 27 years. Brown seems blissfully unaware of or uninterested in the irony of living in a country whose leadership he mocks and despises, but one in which he can forthrightly and without fear of repercussions write Tropic of Kansas and have it published. The novel’s protagonist is an adolescent named Sig, who has lived off the grid in Canada for years after his mother – a radical and therefore by definition a good person – was imprisoned and eventually murdered for her politics. Sig is caught, delivered to U.S. Motherland Security, and sentenced to forced labor in Detroit. He escapes, however – actually, he escapes from difficulties repeatedly – and makes contact with the radical (hence good) underground. Sig is heading for a sanctuary (therefore good) city, New Orleans, but is being pursued by his adoptive sister, Tania, who is working for the government under duress after she (gulp) insults the president. Brown actually has some very interesting ideas here, and Tropic of Kansas is at its best when he explores them rather than insisting on an utterly formulaic differentiation between good guys and bad guys. There is, for example, a pirate network with its own cryptocurrency and a method of inserting secret messages into the vertical blanking intervals of television broadcasts. Also here are an outlaw Texas billionaire, a deposed former vice president, a National Guard colonel, a series of citizen militias, drones put to nefarious purposes, and more. Dystopian, yes, but for the most part cleverly so – except when Brown’s exceedingly narrow political views (which appear to be his main reason for writing the book) intrude again and again, their inherent goodness as unquestioned here as is the inherent evil of viewpoints that differ from Brown’s and from those of his central characters. The focus of the book eventually shifts from Sig to Tania, as she rather than he starts to emerge as a potential change agent on a grand scale. The perils-of-Pauline escapes and repeated scenes of intense fighting become repetitious after a while, but Brown’s notions of revolution and counter-revolution play out with consistency and are presented in writing that moves the story along at a quick, often frenzied pace. Those who share Brown’s worldview and politics will revel in the underlying “destroy Trump and all those who resemble or follow him” mindset here. Those who find this approach tiresome and its attitude both venal and banal will not read the book anyway, so they can be safely ignored – the customary attitude of today’s self-proclaimed “good guys” of any political persuasion. It is ironic in the extreme that the eventual outcome of Tropic of Kansas, after much carnage and at very high cost, is to make America great again.
The Hidden Legacy series by the wife-and-husband team of Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon, writing as Ilona Andrews, also happens in an alternative U.S.A. – one permeated by magic – and in the central part of the country, specifically in and around Houston. But there is no politics here, zero, except for the imagined politics of various powerful magical groups (Houses) seeking leverage against each other and, frequently, using (or trying to use) protagonist Nevada Baylor to get it. This is a paranormal-romance series, and for anyone who may not realize that the characters and their connections are supposed to be hot, there are sufficiently self-explanatory titles: Burn for Me, White Hot and, now, Wildfire. After a sexually explosive connection in the second book with the ultra-powerful and of course ultra-gorgeous Connor “Mad” Rogan, Nevada is now trying to sort out her increasingly complicated life. She is a truthseeker – she knows when people are lying, a useful trait to have when operating a detective agency, as she does – and she is discovering that she is something more: she is just coming into powers so great that she would be a highly desirable match not only for Rogan but also for others of his super-potent ilk. The conspiracy to destabilize Houston so a magical dictator named Caesar can take over the city and do nefarious things is a thread connecting all three Hidden Legacy books, but there is so much else happening in Wildfire that that particular foundational element spends little time front-and-center. Instead we have a missing-persons kidnaping case, said person being a plant mage named Brian Sherwood whose wife, Rynda, just happens to be Rogan’s former fiancée. And a redhead. And gorgeous. And an empath. Of course there is nothing between her and Rogan anymore, but she is very clingy and demanding, and maybe, just maybe, she is looking to Rogan as a backup plan in case her husband never turns up. And also on the “family issues” side of things, there is Nevada’s grandmother, Victoria, as hard-hearted and apparently dark a character as any in these books – and a good deal more interesting then Nevada in many ways. Her motivations, her moves to control Nevada and the family as a whole, seem altogether more nefarious than anything coming from Caesar and his minions – unless, of course, it turns out that she actually has good reasons for what she is doing. Or is in league with Caesar. Or something. As a series conclusion – assuming it is one; the ending is decisive but does leave a glimmer of possibilities for potential future installments – Wildfire is quite well done, introducing new characters as needed, connecting the dots from the first two books, moving the Rogan-Nevada romance along smartly (or at least hotly), and creating new intricacies that are then neatly dissected, their multiple knots unraveled. And it is significant that the title of the overall series is quite explicitly explained here, when a minor character, speaking of Victoria, tells Nevada, “You’re family. …Family is all any of us have. You’re her hidden legacy, the future of her House.” But with all the solutions in Wildfire, this statement near the book’s end may be premature: “Finally. We won. Nothing was hanging over our heads.” That is not strictly true, for the very end of the book involves neither Nevada nor Rogan but the never-named Caesar, who is still very much alive and still plotting – and that is why this series conclusion may perhaps not be a genuine finale. Whether it is or not, Wildfire knits together enough disparate plot strands to be entirely satisfying to readers who have stayed with Hidden Legacy from the first book. They will not find this one disappointing – and likely will not be disappointed if there is a followup sometime in the future.