Originally published at Lee Benoit Tales. You can comment here or there.
Here is the second in my occasional series wherein I reprint reviews I did a while back on the dearly departed RAINBOW REVIEWS. I understand Rainbow Reviews will eventually disappear, and since I was lucky to get to review some fabulous books there, I wanted to make sure those authors and their works continue to get the love they deserve.
I reviewed A STRONG AND SUDDEN THAW by R. W. Day in its first edition, from the now-defunct Iris Print. The second edition is available from Lethe Press.
PUBLISHER’S BLURB: The Ice fell upon the world nearly a hundred years ago, and if civilization didn’t rightly collapse, it surely staggered and fell ill a while. In the small town of Moline, Virginia, folks struggle to survive, relying on hybrid seed sent by the faraway Dept. of Reintroduction and Agriculture and their own faith in God and hard work. But when a mated pair of dragons starts hunting the countryside, stealing sheep, and attacking children, the townsfolk quickly learn that they don’t have the weapons or the skills to fight off such predators.
David Anderson is a farmer’s son who has explored the world through books. When he meets the new healer in town, Callan Landers, he doesn’t quite know what to make of the strange warmth stealing over him. It’s not until he surprises Callan with another man—and both men are promptly arrested for sodomy—that David finally realizes the truth about his own feelings.
When David and Callan stumble over a secret in a nearby abandoned town, their personal problems fade before government politics and corruption that threaten lives. It seems the dragons aren’t the worst dangers facing Moline.
MY REVIEW: What a splendid surprise this novel is! Set in a richly imagined future, featuring themes of bigotry, reactionary religious fundamentalism, government predation, and the baffling appearance of dragons, this is a romance in the oldest sense. David’s story is a hero’s progress from ignorance to understanding, from innocence to experience, at great peril and against great odds, resolved at great cost and closing with well-tempered hope in a still-uncertain future.
But this is no picaresque adventure. The novel’s post-apocalyptic Virginia may resonate with elements of current events, but A Strong and Sudden Thaw is neither allegory nor cautionary tale. Its heroism is not clothed in triumphalism, but rather in the undeniable – and ambiguous – realism of the setting. How can a frozen future engineered by a cynical government, isolated communities mired in a fearful return to old-time religion, and dragons, of all things, be elements of a realistic plot? The novel is so deftly written, and so seamlessly plotted, that we readers don’t for a moment question the inevitability of each tragedy any more than we fail to sigh with relief at each escape or smile through a tear or two at the scant but significant victories.
Day writes in a straightforward style that belies the complexities of the plot and characters. The measured pace of the narrative reflects the pre-industrial conditions to which David’s part of the world has returned after a frozen century. The novel feels historical, in tone and structure. Even though we are introduced to the dragons within a page or two of lifting the cover, the lilting prose and bucolic setting lull us. There is great darkness here, but Day reveals it slowly, in graduated doses, such that by the time we reach the story’s climax we have been through the same developmental process as David; if we are not as changed as he is, at least we will not soon forget his tumultuous coming of age. Nor will we dismiss the lessons of the hard-won and incomplete truths at the heart of the conflict.
David’s first-person voice is itself a marvel of youthful vigor and countrified understatement (for example, he says of the man who will be his lover, “His smile was like an invitation to a harvest feast”). He lives a quiet life, hunting and farming with his family, but David himself is not a quiet character. He is full of curiosities that will never be satisfied within his narrow (and narrow-minded) world. The world is bigger than the town of Moline, he knows, but he is already resigned to knowing the wider world only through books. We taste the leading edge of David’s bitterness because, unlike him, we know he is fit for greater things.
Those greater things begin to reveal themselves to David in the person of Callan, the new healer from far-away Florida. Callan’s sophistication and kindness go a long way to waking up David’s dormant senses of self and wonder and possibility. The erotic feelings David develops for his new friend confuse him, but he suffers no tedious bouts of self-hatred; his self-acceptance is not easy, but it is interesting. David is upright and stalwart and honest, all good qualities in a chivalric hero, but he’s no simp, and he’s not perfect. When the first of many crises strike, David makes a youthful, foolhardy error in judgment whose serious consequences set the larger plot in motion.
With great depth of feeling, and without undue sentiment, David’s affair with Callan progresses as the larger plot evolves in ever-widening circles, each more sinister than the last. A happy ending is no foregone conclusion, and, at the risk of spoiling things, it doesn’t happen. But what does happen is tremendously rich and satisfying. The protagonists aren’t destroyed, nor must they resign themselves to a life of discreet conformity. In fact, the society that sought to destroy them is itself shaken to the point of destruction. In return for David’s and Callan’s roles in preserving something of the world that would happily have eliminated them, and in recognition that they now have devastating knowledge of the power and intentions of the government, David and Callan are able determine the course of their own lives, an outcome impossible to imagine at the beginning of the novel.
Solidly fantastic and classically romantic and unabashedly gay, A Strong and Sudden Thaw transcends genre and niche so spectacularly that it is hard to imagine any reader not being ill-served by missing it.
(Disclaimer: I’m presenting these reviews as they originally appeared, no matter how strong the temptation to edit my past self.)
Lethe has also published the sequel to A STRONG AND SUDDEN THAW. It’s called OUT OF THE ASHES. I haven’t read it. If you have, I’d love to hear about it!