Since I am privileged to personally know its author, I sat down to read The Gaean Enchantment with real interest. Even so, I was surprised at how much it drew me in. The genre is described as "post-apocalyptic contemporary fantasy" and the setting of the book is a current day America plagued by disruption, cause unknown–a "Time of Change." Social order, weather, electricity and the behavior of heavenly bodies are all out of whack. Gaea awakes from her slumber. The book begins thus:
"Giant meteors crashed to Earth. The Northern Lights shimmered above Chicago. The monsoons came too soon in Asia. Fall refused to pass into winter all the world over. And the birds–the birds flew every which way, neither north nor south, but in confused circles, as if they too were uncertain in which direction lay normality."
T. Jackson King excels at creating a sense of building chaos. What begins as generalized confusion quickly becomes a personal emergency as the main character, Tom, an archaeologist and Vietnam veteran, is summoned desperately by his ex-wife to rescue her and his three children from imminent peril on the other side of the country. The plot is concerned with Tom's journey with his wife Mary, a Wiccan sorceress with whom we shares a sweet and playful relationship full of their shared love of sword play. It is also about the community of sojourners that forms along the way, about the strange magic of the earth personified, and one scientist's acceptance of the shaman within him.
King has created characters which are fascinating and complex. They are more than merely stand-ins for ourselves placed in uncommon situations, but an investigation of what might be possible. His protagonist is at once a warrior and a tender lover, both the leader and the novice of King's assembly of characters. Tom's superior knowledge of war craft and the authority of his protective love for his threatened children are in tension with his disbelief at a world which has abandoned scientific order for magical law and his tutelage by Mary. Mary is the moral authority in the book, bringing the question of love and loyalty to humanity, not just to Tom's children. At every important juncture, she nevertheless places her love for Tom ahead of her notions of what else might be done. Among the other characters are Kate, a devoutly Mormon prophetess, and Howard, a physicist devoted to the study of megaliths. Kate and Mary together become a magical powerhouse, increasing their understanding of the changes taking place. For Tom, the two become inarguable proof of a world not what he thought it was. Howard is an answer to Kate's isolation as a prophetess cast out from her community. He provides companionship and aid to the group and is united with them in his remarkable wisdom and acceptance of the altered world, in juxtaposition to Tom's internal battle.
What stands out for me about King's characters is that, in a world gone animal with chaos–an America full of rape and theft and exploitation–these wayfarers are kind; motivated by something higher just than a love of their own lives or the lives of their families. King treats both Wicca and the religion of the Saints with a deep respect and creates a world in which they are compatible–a world of magic, prophecy and supernatural power. The only loser in any faith debates is Tom the atheist, who is himself communing with his totem–a giant bison.
The plot is quick and engaging enough for any teenage boy, moving from one highway pit stop to the next, with attendant conflicts and supernatural events. It is charged with living totems, menacing clouds of evil and bad-ass sword and gun play. The chaos deepens the further that Tom and Mary travel and magic emerges from the background, becoming something that can be seen and touched and fought against. I love fantasy because I love myth. It was my particular area of study back in college, when I spent hours and days poring over The Book of the Dead, The Epic of Gilgamesh and tens of feminist interpretations of ancient myth, all for no school credit. I am well-acquainted with the Gaea Hypothesis, the notion that the earth itself may react like a living organism, essentially a scientific rationale for belief in the Goddess. The fact that T. Jackson King explores this idea makes this book a worthwhile read to me in and of itself. That he seems so interested in seeking the magic and prophecy behind seemingly uncommon faiths and creating of these an alliance of friends in his characters is also an easy sell for me. But, in the end, what makes me like a book is almost always the writing.
King can write. Plot drives his book so hard that at first you don't notice the talent that steers each well-placed image, word and metaphor. He interweaves Native American shamanism, Mormonism, Wicca and Greek mythology so that they appear to be a seamless whole. We can see his America, ravaged by earthquake, highways torn up, bodies and buildings blasted by explosions and still appreciate the beauty of turning maple leaves against a sky filled with smoke. His characters are allowed to fulfill their purposes, without any set-backs that feel gratuitous. In so doing, they lose some of what is most dear to them along the way–scientific rationality, fertility, autonomy–as they negotiate to survive the world which has changed past their reckoning. The plot feels both genuine and epic.
Whether you might choose to read The Gaean Prophecy for the ideas, for the action or for the velvet of King's writing itself, it is a book worth reading. Worthy either of a book discussion group or an action-packed screenplay replete with special effects, it is good stuff. And chock full of ambiguity.
Full disclosure: The author gave me a copy of this book to read and review. This has not affected the fact that I actually loved it, although I expect it would have made things awkward if I had thought that it sucked eggs. Happily, that was not the case.
UPDATE: September 25, 2012 The Gaean Enchantment has now been updated with new cover art. The image above reflects the new design.