Long-after-the-fact sequels are naturally suspect—particularly in fantasy and science fiction, where sequelitis and series-itis run rampant. So Steven R. Boyett has a lot to prove with Elegy Beach, the follow-up to his 1983 post-apocalyptic fantasy Ariel. Boyett wrote Ariel when he was 19, followed it with 1986’s The Architect Of Sleep, had a terrible experience with the publishing industry over Architect that scuttled its planned sequels, and hasn’t published a novel since 1991’s The Gnole, co-written and illustrated by Alan Aldridge. Since then, he’s become a DJ and a podcaster, with his Podrunner and Groovelectric series becoming iTunes hits. So why a sequel to a 26-year-old book now? Why return to writing after so many years away? Apparently for the best possible reason: Boyett finally had a story worth telling.
Ariel is pure ’80s pulp fantasy, a thoroughly enjoyable genre mash-up in which a sudden unexplained alteration of natural law makes magic possible and most technology impossible. It also populates the world with fantasy creatures and wipes out most of humanity, which leaves characters like the protagonist, Pete, and his unicorn companion, Ariel, as survivalist wanderers eking out a living among the ruins and the human and inhuman predators. Elegy Beach continues the story 30 years later, with a new batch of characters who have learned to not just harness magical spells, but create, nest, and chain them as if they were computer programs. Two young casters, Fred and Yan, start out as best friends and partners in magical research, but end up at odds when Yan’s ambition winds up at odds with Fred’s humanity. It’d be unfair to the book to get into too much detail about how it connects with Ariel, since the guesswork, the hints, and the gradual unfolding are part of the pleasure. But when Yan sets out to do something cataclysmic with the magic they invented together, Fred eventually winds up on a cross-country trip much like Pete’s in Ariel, complete with questionable companions with possibly conflicting agendas. And in the process, readers finally get to see more of Boyett’s well-realized post-Change world, a conceit that’s become common in fantasy, but that Boyett still handles with admirable solidity and detail.
Stylistically, Boyett sometimes hews a little too closely to Cormac McCarthy: He alternates clipped, declarative sentences with overly flowery constructs. He runs words into conglomerations like “fuckedup” and “pissedoff.” And he’s largely allergic to question marks and sometimes quotation marks. Elegy Beach does feel like The Road with centaurs, spell-casters, and a clearly defined goal at the end of the path. (Boyett has indicated that The Road is a favorite novel, but he can’t be accused of aping McCarthy, since Ariel, written in similar style, came first by decades.) But as with McCarthy, his bluntness gives his book a frank, believable quality, and makes it a fast-paced, instantly immersive read.
It may be a little too propulsive, as the resolution to the Yan/Fred conflict doesn’t live up to the hundreds of pages of buildup, especially since Fred seems to spend nearly the whole book neither planning for it nor thinking about it. Instead, he and his companions spend some reader-relishable time debating the questions that post-apocalyptic fiction should ask more often: what the right response is to their not-so-brave new world, and whether they’ve really lost that much with the old one. By closely focusing both on his characters and on their unwanted adventure, Boyett not only lives up to his first novel, he gives it a entirely worthy, well-justified equal. Here’s hoping it takes off, and prompts a similarly long-awaited revival of the Architect Of Sleep series.