Sean Stewart,
(Ace, 2000)

Sean Stewart's Galveston is a complex, ambitious exploration of the nature of magic and reality set in his alternate, magic-enhanced America.

The island of Galveston has known two floods. One was in 1900, the result of the hurricane that struck the city head-on and left thousands dead. The other was in 2004, a Flood of magic that hit during the city's Mardi Gras celebration, resulting in the division into two Galvestons. One is a place with no magic and limited technology which slips backwards as pre-Flood resources disappear, but where people try to live a "normal" life as best as they can. The other is an endless Mardi Gras where the revelers are trapped in an eternal night of Carnival.

Anyone who begins to exhibit any kind of tendency for magic is "sent to Krewes" -- banished to the other Galveston. The agent for this is Odessa, Galveston's last "angel" -- a person who shows innate magical tendencies. Odessa stands at the gateway between the two cities, and she is both feared and revered.

Twenty years after the Flood, Jane Gardner, a survivor from one of Galveston's long-standing families who helped pull the city together, is still the city's mayor. Dying slowly from Lou Gehrig's disease, she struggles to finish training her daughter, Sloane, to take her place. But Sloane isn't certain that she wants to be her mother and is barely able to endure watching her mother's physical deterioration.

Sloane makes a drastic decision: she goes into the Carnival to meet with her stepfather, Momus, the leader of the Carnival Galveston, hoping he has a cure for her mother. But with an unfortunate choice of words, Sloane changes the paths of both cities irrevocably.

Others get swept up in the events, as helpless as if in the path of a hurricane. Among them are Josh Cane, an apothecary still bitter over his family's loss of luck, and Ham Mather, Josh's only real friend. Meanwhile, forces outside Galveston are brewing and waiting to strike.

Readers of Stewart's previous novels will be familiar with his alternate world in which fear manifests itself into monsters called "minotaurs" and people with special gifts are "angels." Still, readers for whom this is the first Stewart novel should have little difficulty in understanding this world. The plot is character-driven: while only Sloane wears an actual mask, the others are forced to strip off the masks they have created in order to survive.

Stewart has some surprises in store; characters aren't always what you expect and sometimes the story plunges in unexpected directions. The pace is steady but not too swift as Stewart forces you to take a breath and look around you every so often. The rich, intricate clean prose holds you, making you keenly aware of all you may be taking for granted in your "real" world.

If you're looking for a change of pace, go to Sean Stewart's Galveston, but take care that you remember the way back.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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