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Phoenix Fire by Tim O'Laughlin
(BodhiDharma, $15.00, 343 pages, paperback; 1999.)

Between the covers of this book there lurks a very good novel trying to get out.

A group of friends in California adds to its number retired psychiatrist Larry, who has had a long interest in past-life hypnotic cover scanregression. He tries this out on first one and then all the individuals of the group, and they discover that it is not accident that has brought them together in this lifetime: they have been friends, spouses, etc., in previous incarnations, notably in Nazi Germany and, before that, as members of a massacred Sioux tribe. They are older companions than they have known. A dramatic manifestation occurs when Larry realizes that in countless previous lifetimes Audrey, who is not part of the group, has been the spouse of Ryan, who is; when the two are introduced they instantly "recognize" and are in love with each other.

In each of their prior lifetimes the group members have been threatened and generally killed by the vindictively hate-filled man called The One without a Soul, who has manifested in this lifetime as tycoon Raymond Baker, boss of Amalgamated Insurance, which not only has an atrocious record of failing to settle claims but also functions as an asset-stripping company. For reasons he himself does not fully understand, Baker has just seized the traditional family firm Miller Lumber -- renowned for its sensitivity to the environment -- in a hostile takeover, and is intent on felling a preserve of old-growth redwoods that the lumber company owns.

Audrey is a stalwart of Project HOPE, a small, volunteer-run conservation organization. It and the other group members set themselves against Baker to save the redwoods and the trees' associated population of rare birds. In this they are aided by group member Gayle's psychic talents and her and Larry's rediscovery, through revisiting their Sioux incarnations, of the ability to spirit walk. Of further assistance is the avatar called Ariel, currently a purely spiritual being but soon to be incarnated -- unless Baker is victorious -- as the female expression of the Divinity, set to reverse the long dominance of the world by the male principle and thereby to attain a harmonic balance.

But Baker has his own supernatural weapons, and these increase in both number and strength as he begins to recall his own previous incarnations, right back to when, sometime in the Golden Age where generic fantasy stories happen, he was apprentice to an unwilling sorcerer, whom he murdered for the last word of a Spell Too Terrible To Use. One such weapon is the ability to wrest a person's soul from their body and cast it into a limbo from which it can be recovered only by the power of Love and through Larry's spirit-walking facility. More often Baker relies on orthodox methods -- such as hired assassins -- to get rid of his foes. But, for the ones he has come to recognize as his enemies through many lifetimes, he sadistically anticipates using his full gamut of magical nastiness, including the Spell Too Terrible To Use -- which has the additional advantage that it will throw the entire universe out of kilter and create misery on a correspondingly enormous scale.

What seems at first like merely yet another skirmish between voracious Big Business and the conservationists thus evolves, unknown to anyone but the participants, into a truly cosmic struggle...

Phoenix Fire reads rather as if it were the (hypothetical) unpublished first novel by Charles de Lint, an impression reinforced by a de Lint strapline ("A Promising Debut From A New Author Worth Watching!") on the back cover and a hefty plug for him in the text. Comparison of an author's work with early de Lint is, however, something of a double-edged compliment, because Phoenix Fire shares not just the virtues but also the flaws of that writer's early work.

There is the attitude towards folk and derived-from-folk music, which is regarded as a lifeblood by some of our heroes and at the very least adored by all the rest; the notion that some perfectly good and reasonable, law-abiding people of great musical sensitivity might have tried folk music and not liked it much is obviously not one that has crossed the author's mind. The text is liberally sprinkled with his own (I assume) and other songwriters' lyrics; here O'Laughlin deserves great credit because -- whatever their merits -- the original-to-the-book song lyrics actually read like song lyrics rather than, as in most fantasy novels, mere written verses. Nevertheless, because of O'Laughlin's hammering away at the theme of how utterly marvellous music of the folk tradition is, by the time one's halfway through the novel one has begun to regard attendance at one of our heroes' regular jam sessions as something approaching purgatory.

Far more irritating than this is that, as in early de Lint but taken to the nth degree, our heroes are so thoroughly and unbearably nice. You itch for one of them to have a temper tantrum, light up a joint, kick an old lady, fart at a funeral ... anything at all by way of a bad habit or human weakness (unless you count the obsession with folk music). In any real-life group of people mounting a campaign that demands huge effort and sacrifice there would be constant arguments and quarrels, but not among this bunch; whenever one of them does anything that with hindsight proves to have been unwise, instead of the usual bitchy recriminations that characterize real life there's an instant rallying round of all the rest to tell the individual concerned that it wasn't her/his fault. Any mild differences of opinion that might occur are immediately resolved through use of the kind of cutesy dialogue that has one reflexively reaching for a brown paper bag.

By contrast, all the bad guys are irremediably nasty, which is lazy characterization but more acceptable because it's pretty conventional. Still, one balks a bit to discover that two symptoms of Baker's vileness are that he -- ooooo -- smokes and -- ahhhhh -- drinks spirits. The only one of our heroes who smokes is able to give it up Just Like That in an early chapter, after her first hypnotic regression. The only one who ever hit the bottle a bit did so only in the bad old days and has now successfully reformed. Nowadays they're all clean-living, right-thinking, health-loving folk with hobbies like mountain-bike riding (and, of course, folk music).

Their company becomes suffocating after a while -- one can take only so much piety. The same goes for the expository passages that herald Love as the cure for all the world's -- indeed, the universe's -- ills. It is obviously terribly hard for O'Laughlin to restrain himself from descending into preachiness on the issues that are important to him. Here is Larry in philosophical mode:

Take physical appearance for example. What's the real value of good looks in one lifetime? Good looks, especially the kind of "good looks" that television and magazines tell us are so important, last for only a few short years. Compared to an eternity, what's the value of having unwrinkled skin for a few additional years? [...] You and the others at Project HOPE, on the other hand, are working toward things that are really important. Personally, I believe that the people who devote their time or money to organizations like Project HOPE, or who are otherwise concerned about ecology and environmentalism have more advanced souls.

Fortunately Phoenix Fire is a strong enough novel that it manages to survive the heroes' unbearable niceness of being and the preachiness and the Lurve and all the rest (including the folk music). None of these are fatal flaws, although they are serious enough that any competent editor would have guided O'Laughlin in their avoidance. This book, however, screams at the reader that it hasn't been edited.

Or copy-edited. In the short passage cited above at least two obligatory commas are missing, while the quasi-repetition of other/others/otherwise grates. Throughout the book there are probably on average at least four or five instances per page where a copy-editor's pencil would have dipped -- not to make major changes, but merely to correct trivial grammatical (and some spelling) errors, inconsistencies of usage and minor stylistic carelessnesses. For example:

Larry took the turn-off for Highway 128 at the north end of town, where The Hamburger Ranch, site of Adam's and Michael's clandestine meetings with John Smith had taken place [...]

There are countless other instances. In the same category -- stuff that should have been picked up by an editor or copy-editor -- there's the fact that a very minor character is called Doug. Nothing exceptionable in that, you might think, except that one of the central characters is also called Doug. The page or two where Minor Doug is on-stage is a time of great confusion for the reader: "Hang on a minute! I thought Doug was still in hospital or something..."

A slightly more major difficulty, but again one that could have been cured by elementary editing, is that, in order for the powerful spirit Ariel not simply to grab the plot by its lapels and swiftly make Good triumph, she can act only within certain rules. That these rules are never comprehensively stated lends a sense of arbitrariness to all of Ariel's interventions in the plot; more seriously, the only explanation Ariel can give for these rules' very existence involves painting the Divinity as a callous, heartless gamester -- which is certainly not the author's intention but, rather, something he has trapped himself into.

I have spent a lot of time focusing on Phoenix Fire's defects, but it should be noted that these are defects in the book as published and read, rather than in the novel per se. As noted, it is a strong piece of writing, and O'Laughlin is certainly one to watch out for in the future. For all its legion minor imperfections and several somewhat more major irritations, this long novel is better than many you'll find on the lists of much larger and more prominent houses than BodhiDharma -- for the very simple reason that it is about something, rather than being a slickly written piece of floss. O'Laughlin sets out to affect the way the reader thinks, and -- whether you end up agreeing with his promoted values or not -- achieves his aim in a very readable way. We can hope for great things from him in the future.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 10 June 2001