February 28, 2019
Wildlands No. 3: Phoenix Falling. By Laura Bickle. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
To conclude her Wildlands trilogy while incorporating and summing up material from the two prequel novels, Dark Alchemy and Mercury Retrograde, Laura Bickle has to juggle an impressive number of plot points and people. She manages not to drop too many of either in Phoenix Falling, which will certainly satisfy most readers who have stayed with this story of the fictional Temperance, Wyoming, through Nine of Stars and Witch Creek. The books are firmly planted in the “Weird West” subgenre of adult fantasy novels and make no attempt to stretch any boundaries, but they stay true to their venue and take readers on a suitable thrill ride without ever quite making the characters seem fully fleshed-out and empathetic.
Indeed, when it comes to empathy in particular, Phoenix Falling disappoints, since geologist Petra Dee was very human indeed in the earlier books as she struggled with encroaching cancer – a real-world fear for so many people – while also trying to understand and cope with the various supernatural entities and events surrounding her. But Petra gained a replacement body in Witch Creek, and her only fear in Phoenix Falling is that she may no longer be fully human – a decidedly non-real-world worry that seems petty and largely irrelevant by comparison with her earlier ones.
Petra does have plenty of other things to worry about, though, and Bickle has to find a way to conclude all the various stories by knitting the strands of the tale together. Petra’s father, a once-powerful alchemist who now has Alzheimer’s disease but can still journey into the spirit world, is one thread. Petra’s husband-of-convenience, Gabriel Manget, a former immortal tuned fully human when the tree that sustained his life burned – now turned immortal again when it turns out that the tree has regenerated – is another element. The tree itself, the Lunaria, is yet another, because this incarnation is different from the original in ways that are dangerous – sometimes subtly so, sometimes not subtly at all. Then there is the issue of Owen Rutherford, a brutal sheriff (now somewhat tamed through loss of a hand in the previous book) whose family owns (or at least controls, or at least seems to control) the ranchland where the Lunaria grows – and the ghost girl, Anna, who haunts him and who just may be able to go to Heaven if Owen can do the right thing once he figures out what it is. Another issue involves Nine of Stars, around whom the first book of the trilogy revolved: once a wolf, she is now a human who remains deeply connected to her former pack and uncertain of whether she can ever return to it and, if she can, whether she should.
All the ins and outs revolve around Aldus Lascaris, the hyper-potent 19th-century alchemist who made Temperance what it was and still is, who was destroyed (no, not really) in an uprising of townsfolk and who is condemned forever (no, not really) to the spirit world. Phoenix Falling makes a lame attempt to show Aldus’ horrific family life as a way to explain his turn to evil and depravity, but this part of the book feels tacked-on and does not really ring true. And the phoenix of the title is a deeply uninteresting element of the book, being simply a fire-bringer evoked near the apparent end of his earthly life by Lascaris – and now having re-emerged from the spirit world, at an unexplained but inconvenient time, to start fires in and around Yellowstone National Park, near which Temperance is located.
Far more intriguing than the human and sort-of-human characters are a couple of distinctly non-human presences. One is Sig, a coyote who steals pretty much every scene in which he appears throughout the Wildlands books and who will clearly resonate with the essence of the trickster god Coyote in the mind of anyone familiar with the lore of the Old West. Sig very clearly has coyote instincts and behaviors, yet shares perceptions and abilities that go beyond them and hint at a reservoir of knowledge that proves crucial to the human characters. The other genuinely intriguing character here is Pigin, a really wonderfully conceived supernatural being: a gigantic, festering black toad self-described as representing rot and putrefaction, yet the possessor of subtlety of thought and a sense of irony and rough humor thoroughly lacking in the humans. Pigin is cast as the antithesis of the phoenix and is far more interesting – and, in truth, less destructive, despite a taste for human flesh, since Pigin entices people to bring him nourishment while the phoenix simply burns everything in and around Temperance indiscriminately. It is Pigin who holds the key both to Anna’s fate and to the future of Nine of Stars. In the latter case, Nine of Stars encounters the gigantic toad, reaches a bargain with him, and realizes that “he had given her the truth, and a choice. ‘Thank you. You are both kind and powerful.’” To which Pigin replies, with a snort, “‘I am neither of those things. I am darkness and rot, tricksy and enjoying of suffering.’” Yet Pigin has more personality than most of the other characters in Phoenix Falling combined. The way Bickle eventually deals with all those characters does present a satisfactory conclusion to Wildlands, but it would be wonderful if she were somehow to reread the books with an objective eye and, realizing where her strength really lies, decide in the future to create novels built around characters along the lines of Sig and Pigin rather than ones resembling Petra and Gabe.