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Midnight Lamp

by Gwyneth Jones

(Gollancz, 326 pages, trade paperback, £10.99, published 20 November 2003.)

Ax, Sage and Fiorinda are hiding out in cover scanMexico, recovering from their recent escapades, when they are approached by Harry Lopez. Lopez represents Digital Artists, but his offer of a virtual film deal is a cover story to get the former rulers of England to follow him north. A pattern of ritual human sacrifice is emerging in America, with apparent Celtic connections; Lopez has been sent by the President himself, to solicit the rock stars' informed advice on the matter. It sounds like a magician to rival the late Rufus O'Niall could be on the verge of seizing power in the US -- but could Fiorinda herself be the problem this time?

The third -- but apparently not the last -- in Gwyneth Jones' Bold As Love series has a bit of an odd feel to it. We've already had the rise and fall of the Rock 'n' Roll Reich in the first two books; now we have the further adventures of the rock Triumvirate on location overseas. It feels more like a sidestep than a direct follow-on, like a 'Bold As Love Christmas Special', if that's not too flippant an analogy. It's a welcome break for the lead characters, I suppose, who deserve a holiday after the titanic fight with Fiorinda's father that concluded Castles Made Of Sand. This is not to suggest that Midnight Lamp lacks incident, but the atmosphere generally seems more laid-back this time round. Perhaps it's just me. The time it takes the narrative to kick in is, if anything, faster than before, and Jones as ever cranks the emotional pace up to "rollercoaster", so there's no danger of the reader's interest flagging.

The central trio continue to mature and develop in relation to each other, and after a quiet first half of the novel they're at it like knives again. To think, life in Camelot might have worked out better all round if only Arthur and Lancelot had buried their differences (to coin a phrase) ... Here we see the once and future King of England and his Queen and Champion -- both with something of the Other World about them -- pulled together rather than driven apart by their quest, and looking like they might actually return in England's hour of need. And like all good quests, theirs is a quest for self-knowledge. By the close of play, Fiorinda has come to terms with her monstrous father and her own magical ability, Sage and Ax have learned to cut her loose once in a while, and an older and wiser Ax is prepared to take control of England again -- even if he does need a little nudging.

What's particularly nice about Jones' writing is that events and characters' actions dovetail in a natural-seeming way. A chance remark by one character to another here might impact on a third character there; events unseen by the protagonists (and by us) may spring sudden consequences on all; loose ends aren't necessarily resolved, but those that are, are resolved for a reason. Such verisimilitude makes Midnight Lamp feel much more genuine, much more a slice of life than a self-contained adventure (or even part of a self-contained adventure). There's the sensation of an entire world revolving behind the story. As a consequence, Midnight Lamp has the capacity to stand in its own right, or (as seems more likely, if the listings on Amazon are anything to go by) lead on into another volume.

Well-crafted and emotionally rich, Midnight Lamp is a novel to be reckoned with; but the way is open for another volume to bring the story full circle, and that's a book I'm looking forward to.

Review by John Toon.

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