Can a writer go home again? Can a story that seemingly had closure and attained classic status be revisited, only to bring those elements of closure into the open again? Those are just some of the questions inherit in Steven R. Boyett’s Elegy Beach, the follow-up to his cult-classic Ariel.
It has been a few decades since the world Changed and rules for magic replaced rules for technology, long enough for a group of people to grow up and come of age without knowledge of technology. To these people, working cars, computers, and airplanes are all just legend. Magic and spell-making has become both a way of life and a way to survive. We learn this through the words and actions of Fred, who tells the reader the story as the novel’s first-person narrator in the California beach community of Del Mar. At the outset of the novel, Fred is a caster apprenticing to Paypay the owner of a magic shop where Fred makes unicorns and other magic trinkets for people.
Fred and his best friend Yan are working on seemingly more complex applications for their spells. Freezing and preserving frogs and eventually moving what was once and old train car. Yan is also fascinated with the world before the change, how technology was used and manipulated. In particular, he has made theoretical connections between software and magic, devising a method of understanding magic he calls spellware. Payapy cautions Fred, as does Fred’s father about the magic with which he and Yan are toying. Fred’s father has some experience with the dangers of magic, he befriended a unicorn, got separated from it and fought a Necromancer and his forces in order to regain Ariel, the abducted unicorn.
When Paypay’s shop burns down, nearly killing Paypay, Fred immediately knows who his responsible. Yan receives an ultimatum from Fred – leave town immediately and Fred won’t say anything or don’t leave and Fred will tell the leader of the town. Yan leaves but Fred is later given some ideas of just how dangerous Yan can be when he learns that Yan has acquired a unicorn’s horn – the most powerful magical object in the world. Fred then realizes stopping Yan is something that must be done because he has aspirations of reversing the Change.
While I only finished reading Ariel for the first time a few days before starting Elegy Beach so I don’t have the personal history with the book that may readers do. That having been said, not comparing the two novels is impossible. From the first page of each book descriptions of a unicorn kick off the story, though with different reactions from the narrator telling the story. From that point, even though the novel is told in the same type of narrative voice, Fred is quite different from his father. One of the most interesting elements of the novel, obviously, is comparing the Pete Garey protagonist from Ariel to the supporting character of Pete Garey in Elegy Beach. A little older, a lot more hardened, a bit less outgoing.
Boyett’s voice in Ariel was crisp and honest, and much the same can be found here. The framework of the two novels is similar as both are essentially quest fantasies wherein the heroes must travel to the enemy’s stronghold and bring him down to save the world. One thing about Elegy Beach is that despite a similar voice and structure, Boyett gets experimental with the style and employs a different tone. In the style, he decides many sentences, regardless of whether they are declarative or inquisitive, end in periods. It is off-putting for most of the novel, but it does eventually feel a natural fit for the story. Tonally, Elegy Beach is a more somber story. The interaction in Elegy Beach between Pete and his son Fred are minimalist at best, but that sparseness speaks more volumes than words. Interestingly, Fred learns more about his father’s past through hearsay and being a fly on the proverbial wall than through Pete’s own words.
Where Ariel was essentially about a lone man, an orphan, growing up in a world reawakening from a nightmare, Elegy Beach is about parents and children – fathers and sons specifically. Fred who has issues with his father and his mother’s absence is a powerful presence, seems to have a relatively well-balanced outlook on life. Yan, on the other hand, is part of a large family, with both parents living and he’s developed a dangerous obsession. Joining Pete and Fred on their journey to stop Yan is Yan’s father who is also one of Pete’s closest friends in Del Mar. In a sense, Yan’s father Ram feels a great responsibility for his son’s action. All told, Boyett has a real knack for depicting strong and even uncomfortable relationships because in real life, some of the most important relationships can be uncomfortable.
The only similar experience to which I might be able to relate is The Talisman and its sequel Black House by Stephen King/Peter Straub, with publication separated by 17 years. That worked because the two novels were so different and the sequel only hinted at the events of the previous novel. Boyett takes the opposite approach and succeeds just as well. He’s managed to integrate the feel of the previous novel, keep the two connected very well and genuinely, without making that connection in anyway superficial.
With all the comparisons I’ve made in the review between Ariel and Elegy Beach, the sequel-of-sorts is a novel that can stand on its own. The events of Ariel are covered sufficiently and smartly, and not off-putting to a reader who has just read Ariel. Conversely, it is a worthy sequel. One element that seemed a bit overwrought for me was the detail in which Boyett described the intricacies of spell casting and creating magical objects. Despite that, the language of spells as a concept and spellware itself was a nice concept.
Elegy Beach is an emotionally powerful and inventive novel that plays with genre tropes and some of the rules set up by it’s predecessor Ariel. In the end, I don’t think fans of Ariel will be disappointed in Elegy Beach, whether they waited 25+ years to read it or they read the two books back to back.
© 2010 Rob H. Bedford