written by David Steffen
Chasing the Phoenix is a science fiction novel by Michael Swanwick, published by Tor Books earlier this month.
The book stars Swanwick’s recurring characters, the con men Darger and Surplus. As the story begins, Surplus is journeying through a future China with the Darger’s corpse carried on the back of a yak, seeking the services of the legendary healer the Infallible Physician to raise Darger from the dead. Once that’s happened (it happens early enough in the book that I don’t think that counts as a spoiler). Considering greed a virtue, the con men are always looking for ways to profit from their circumstances. Surplus, who is an anthropomorphic dog, has used his appearance to his advantage by pretending to be an immortal, and with Surplus rising from the dead they have soon gained the attention of powerful people involved in a brewing civil war. Even among one side of the war, there are always those jockeying for power and willing to kill to get their way, and soon the two con men are working all sides just to stay alive.
Since Darger and Surplus are recurring characters, of both novels and short stories, a valid question would be: Can this book be read out of order with the rest? Yes, you can. This was my first Darger and Surplus story, though I was familiar with the characters from short nonfiction segments that had featured on the StarShipSofa podcast on the subject of the art of confidence tricks. My only prior knowledge was that they were con men, and that’s obvious very early in this novel. I had no trouble picking it up. I expect that there are probably some references and in-jokes about previous books, but nothing that interfered with my understanding.
I imagine that some people enjoy going on adventures with these con men characters–presumably they are recurring characters because books about them sell. Honestly, I just found them irritating. Not because of their professions, necessarily–their ethics are certainly different than mine, but I have related to such characters before. I just found them… I don’t know what word I’m looking for… smarmy, perhaps? I didn’t really care what happened to them, and if the book had ended with them both dying I wouldn’t have really minded. I don’t know if this book is representative of them or not, but I probably won’t try to read any more Darger or Surplus stories unless I hear this one wasn’t representative.
I did read through the whole book. I was curious how it would turn out. There were some interesting challenges that the pair faced, varying from war strategies, to battling against future technology, to interpersonal challenges that they were coerced to help resolve. The challenges and the stakes rise throughout the book as they con men play people off of each other and the war goes on. A few times in the book the characters they seem to be in an impossible situation and those were the parts I was most interested in, to see how these two could turn things around… but more often than I thought was reasonable things would just take a turn of circumstance and save them at the last moment. In the end there turned out to be some explanation for this, but I felt like it was a cheat and took the enjoyment out of the part that I really wanted to see–these two actually facing a real challenge. Apart from those apparently unsolvable challenges, they breeze through the rest of the book, never stymied by anything. Although the stakes go up and up, they just cut through the challenges like butter.
So, this book is clearly not for me. I didn’t like the protagonists and I thought the book was too easy for them. I imagine that fans of Darger and Surplus stories might like it, though I don’t know if this story is representative. Swanwick is a good writer, and I’ll happily pick up other works by him that star different characters.