Castles Made of Sand
(Gollancz, £10.99, 368 pages, trade paperback; published 4 July
2002. Hardback also available, £17.99.)
Following on from the award-winning Bold As Love, Gwyneth Jones's
new book continues the story of Fiorinda, Ax Preston and Sage Pender.
The story is an inspired re-working of Arthurian fantasy -- the Jimi
Hendrix remix version -- with Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot translated
into a near future setting during and after the break-up of the United
Kingdom. England has gone all to hell but Ax and Fiorinda are the people's
guitar hero and rock-chick babe, king and queen of the Counterculture
think tank, bringing the country back from the brink. And Sage is the
noble best friend who, of course, also loves the girl.
I began reading Castles Made Of Sand, which picks up right where
the preceding volume left off, knowing that the logical next plot development
is for Sage and Fiorinda to embark on a disastrous affair. Except that
it is Ax and Sage who seem to be displaying an unexpected fondness for
each other, having taken oxytocin -- a designer intimacy drug. Before
long, all three embark an open love affair, complete with three-way
Of course there are consequences. Jones explores the inevitable realities
of such a relationship, knowing that jealousy, bitterness and guilt
must all feature. Surely, it can't possibly last. And neither can the
comparative lack of political turmoil that they briefly enjoy.
The plot thickens with the arrival of Fergal Kearney from Ireland,
a Pogues-esque figure who has enjoyed the drink and drugs lifestyle
to such excess that everyone is amazed to find him still alive. Fergal
presents Ax with photographic evidence linking the English Prime Minister,
David Sale, to pagan ceremonies of animal sacrifice; and claims that
the "hardline Celtics" seek a return to the dark ages through magic.
The musicians try to hold everything together, but their political
position is undermined by governmental machinations, their personal
relationships falter, and the country becomes increasingly afraid of
this upsurge in witchcraft. Ax and Sage each seek their own solutions
to the escalating problems, leaving Fiorinda to fend for herself. Then
the real villain of the piece is revealed, and Fiorinda is forced into
an impossible pact with him.
Like its predecessor, Castles Made Of Sand is a wonderful fairytale
for adults. Sage's story in particular is utterly gripping, especially
when he is at his lowest ebb (at the end of Chapter Six). Jones tells
her story with extraordinary verve. She flies in and out of first and
third person narration and changes viewpoint with wild abandon -- something
that a lesser writer would never get away with. Her characters are so
well delineated, so clear in our minds, that the reader is never in
any doubt as to whose voice is in the foreground at any particular time.
Jones cunningly avoids middle-book-of-three syndrome, which typically
delivers an unsatisfactory cliff-hanger non-ending. On the contrary,
Castles Made Of Sand apparently resolves many plot threads that
could easily have been left for the third book. Ah but nothing is perfect.
The nature of Sage's exploration of a state of being called "Zen Self"
is too vague. A more serious concern is that the main villain of the
piece, who for the purposes of this review shall remain nameless, is
a tad underwritten. And the climactic battle, when our heroes literally
storm the castle, is played as high adventure -- it's good fun but I
would have preferred something darker.
Some of this could possibly still be explored belatedly in the next
book, if Jones felt the inclination. But there is such a sense of closure
to this part of the story that I doubt she has any such intention. Ah
well, we shall see. With Bold As Love, I enjoyed trying to track
the cues that Jones had taken from the Jimi Hendrix song of the same
name. For example, the "he knows everything" line in the song must have
been an inspiration for her Ax's implanted neural chip. Hendrix's song
"Castles Made Of Sand" is concerned with the way life sometimes conspires
to ruin the best-laid plans, and again this certainly fits with Jones's
story. I read the second half of the book with a palpable dread that
something terrible was going to happen. I hope you will too. Castles
Made Of Sand adds to the story begun in Bold As Love with
tremendous success, enhancing it on numerous levels. I don't know if
Castles is a better book, but it is a more enjoyable one and
it had me completely enthralled. There's a third volume to come, and
I can hardly wait.
Review by Chris Butler.
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