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Bold as Love

by Gwyneth Jones

(Victor Gollancz, £10.99, 308 pages, trade paperback, 30 August 2001, ISBN 0553583743; hardback also available, £16.99. Mass market paperback: Gollancz, £5.99, 403 pages, May 2002.)

In the near future, a motley selection of rock cover scanstars will be recruited for a government Countercultural think tank. It is the year of dissolution, as the United Kingdom breaks up into separate nations. The think tank is almost wiped out at its birth, in a bloody political coup. Many die, but their leader, Ax Preston, guitarist with The Chosen Few, saves many of them. As England descends into nightmare, these rock stars emerge as the new princes and princesses who will lead the country back from chaos. Maybe.

The first of a trilogy, though not particularly advertised as such, this is a major work from Gwyneth Jones. It is by no means an easy read, however. It begins with Fiorinda, a teenager whose aunt deviously arranges for her to be seduced by a rock star known for his preference for little girls. This is soon revealed to be even more devious and tragic than it initially appears (yes, really). Although dark and unpleasant, this a superbly executed sequence. (A brilliant opening track for the album.)

The remainder of the opening third of the book is less successful, but there is method in Jones's madness. It seems there is too much happening, all of it extremely bleak. You don't know any of the characters sufficiently well to much care about them as the indignities unfold, and the large cast is difficult to keep track of. (On the accompanying website,, there is a cast list identifying the members of each band - someone really should have thought to include this in the book.) But it is worth persevering through this early part of the novel, the Deconstruction Tour, because the three major characters do eventually emerge from this chaos to take centre stage. A powerful story emerges with them.

Bold As Love is not like other fantasy trilogies. There is little in the way of escapism here. The opening part is a carefully thought out (but pessimistic) sociological extrapolation. Add to that the depiction of neurological implants and possible new power sources. The book looks like a dystopian science fiction. But what Jones is actually doing is creating a war torn English landscape for the future, rather than the past. And in this setting she can then create her own version of a fantasy trilogy. The book is dark and bleak but it is also amusing and romantic. It rewards you handsomely if you let it.

The story really starts to come alive when Ax Preston and Sage Pender, a kind of music-and-visuals trance DJ-musician, are ordered to go sort out the "Islamic Problem," a war occurring in Yorkshire. When Ax and Sage sit around the campfire just talking to each other on the eve of battle, I really started to care about them. By the time they return to London, and they are reunited with Fiorinda, the book well and truly had my attention.

As England struggles from one political calamity to another, the rock stars tour. Giving free concerts to keep the country from falling apart. This may sound a little unlikely but it is convincingly portrayed. Jones seems to see, and know, England with an amazing clarity - its history, geography and future.

My favourite moments, however, are the simpler scenes. For example, when Ax, Sage and Fiorinda escape from the turmoil for a couple of days to sit around in an empty cottage and chat - assembling jigsaw puzzles and getting high. Surely what any real rock stars would do. The three are easy to love when Jones gives us a chance to know them. In fact these quieter scenes are the only ones that remotely resemble the England suggested by the book cover. A landscape of rolling green hills, with a lovely little stream flowing through, and no people. For much of the book, the landscape of the story is entirely the opposite.

A few plot threads are left hanging, presumably to be picked up in later volumes. Fiorinda has some magical ability but this is barely explored in part one. I suspect that Fiorinda's father must also be returning at some point. But the novel does stand on its own feet and builds to an appropriate ending.

The chapters are long at thirty-ish pages each. Presumably this is deliberate so that the book has only nine chapters (tracks). About right for a classic album. Tellingly, in the last few pages, Jones quotes briefly from a traditional English folk song, the last line of which observes that sometimes a cloudy morning, brings in a sunny day. This perfectly captures the structure of the book. It's a bold approach.

But just who, or what, is as Bold As Love? I'm sure I know but I'm not telling. Figure it out for yourself. Or you could just ask the Ax, he knows everything.

Review by Chris Butler.

Bold as Love is also reviewed elsewhere in infinity plus in Adam Roberts' round-up of Arthur C Clarke Award nominees.

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