Review: Mockingbird, Sean Stewart

"When you get down to the bottom of the bottle, as Momma used to say, this is the story of how I became a mother. I want that clear from the start. Now, it's true that mine was not a typical pregnancy. There was some magic mixed up in there, and a few million dollars in oil-field speculation, and some people who died, and some others who wouldn't stay quite dead. It would be lying to pretend there wasn't prophecy involved, and an exorcism, and a hurricane, and I scorn to lie. But if every story is a journey, then this is about the longest trip I ever took, from being a daughter to having one.

It starts the day we buried Momma."

—Sean Stewart, Mockingbird

Mockingbird, Sean Stewart's latest novel, is a funny, moving, and well-crafted tale of a woman's journey towards motherhood. This highly recommended book showcases the strengths Stewart has displayed in his previous novels: a gift for rendering people and places, and an ability to build magical plots around these characters.

Mockingbird takes place in sweltering present-day Houston, a place as strange and as convincing as the frozen Canadian landscapes of The Night Watch, Stewart's previous book. Here, Toni Beauchamp's mother Elena has just died of cancer—an end which Toni thinks, rightly, is completely unfitting for the life her mother led. Elena could "see the future, read minds, perform miracles, and raise the dead," and made at least one fortune with these talents. Besides her own powers, she could call upon the little gods known as the Riders, who would provide magical assistance in return for the temporary possession of her body.

Elena's daughters did not fully inherit her talents. Toni is a 30-year-old unmarried actuary who is her "mother's daughter only in DNA." Candy, her younger sister, has only inherited part of her mother's gift: she can see the future, but she only sees happy things.

After the funeral, Toni drinks Elena's homemade "Mockingbird Cordial," and discovers one of the meanings of her mother's epitaph, "There are some gifts which cannot be refused." The Cordial gives the Riders the ability to possess Toni as they did her mother, much to her horror. Worse, the possessions seem to come at random, not as part of a bargain.

Needless to say, Toni has a lot of adjusting to do after this. The rest of the novel details the ways she and her family react to the changes caused by Elena's death. This focus on the emotional life of one family is something that characterizes Stewart's stronger works. (Indeed, I consider The Night Watch the weakest of his books because it follows a variety of loosely connected characters and thus lacks emotional cohesion.) Stewart's talent for characterization is as strong as ever here—indeed, if you ever need to disprove the tired "men can't write female characters" or "you can tell an author's gender from a novel" statements, simply hand the speaker a copy of Mockingbird.

As stated in the first paragraph of the book, the subject is indeed motherhood. Stewart is wise enough to know that motherhood is not just the relationship between a biological parent and her offspring. Indeed, the novel ends with the birth of Toni's daughter—which may seem abrupt at first, but makes perfect sense after one considers the ways Toni has been wrestling with motherhood with regard to many other people in her life.

The members of her family—including the Riders—each in their way contribute to Toni's journey. As in Resurrection Man, the magic here—while fascinating—is a catalyst for the characters' development, not the focus of the story. The characters drive the plot, and the magic finds its expression through and around them. Those looking for detailed explanations of magic's mechanisms will not find it here, but the magic has an internal logic which fits well with the setting.

In summary, Mockingbird is a vivid, engrossing novel. This excellent book is recommended for anyone who appreciates detailed and precise characterization, and particularly for anyone who has ever struggled with having or being a mother. In fact, I'm going to try to get my mother—who reads no fantasy—to read it. I think she would appreciate it.

%T   Mockingbird
%A   Stewart, Sean 
%C   New York
%D   1998
%G   0-441-00547-0
%I   Ace Books
%O   Hardcover, US$21.95
%P   578pp

Copyright August 24, 1998 by Kate Nepveu. Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written.

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