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Castles Made of Sand

by Gwyneth Jones

(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 cover scanPender. 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 sex.

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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