Lisa Smedman,
The Apparition Trail
(Tesseract, 2004)

The Apparition Trail begins peacefully, in 1880s Canada, as Mounted Policeman Marmaduke Grayburn wakes from an uneasy sleep. By the time he's used a perpetual motion machine to make a pot of coffee and settled down under the broken moon, it's obvious that there's something different about Grayburn's world. And according to the premonitions he tries to deny, there's also something terribly wrong.

The center of the problem seems to lie in Canada's Northwest Territory, where surviving Indian tribes are gathering to mount a final resistance to white settlement on their land. The calamity that caused the moon to slide out of its old orbit and made perpetual motion machines possible has also given new power to native folk medicine, and the mounted police are forced to face a threat their founders never expected. Along the way, Grayburn and his new special unit will face thunderbirds, ghostly children, deadly wizards and the overpowering force of a cultural divide marked by lies, murder and war.

The Apparition Trail is Lisa Smedman's first novel, and it has a few beginner's stumbles. Her usually confident prose falters at points. The occasional midstory recap can't help but feel a bit nervous, as tough she's worried a reader might get lost along the way. But such first-time jitters soon fade, and while The Apparition Trail may not be the greatest novel Smedman will ever write, it is a good, clean story, told with a friendly eye for character and steady pacing that lingers and hurries in almost all the right places. Perhaps most impressively, she manages to create an alternate world and new history for Canada without forcing her characters into lengthy expository conversation. Information appears when needed, in unobtrusive bits of conversation. The only character to even attempt an expository conversation is summarily ignored in a grand taunt to the usual lore-heavy fantasy tales. World building is hard to notice when done well, and here it's just about invisible.

The cast is small, and only the trooper who calls himself Marmaduke Grayburn truly drives the action on the side of the mounted police. But that one character would be sufficient to carry a novel on his own. Grayburn is a distinct personality, one not muffled by the blanket of narrative distance. Smedman also has the courage not to muzzle him with modern values. Grayburn's an honorable man, true to his duty and insistent that others uphold theirs. But he's also a bigot by modern standards, unthinkingly sure that only whites have a true civilization, that the Indian tribes are unproductive primitives, and that the law of his country will bring order and justice to a savage land. He's never cruel in these beliefs, nor especially dogmatic, but he does act on them consistently, even where it risks alienating modern viewers. His companions are just as bound by the expectations of their own culture, and it helps establish the world of Apparition Trail as a real and separate place.

The Apparition Trail is a fine adventure story, a heartening tale of life-sized heroes in a world where life follows rather different rules.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 30 April 2005

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