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Chasing the Phoenix
by Michael Swanwick
Tor, $26.99, 316pp
Published: August 2015

I hardly know how to describe this story:  challenging, funny, ironic, sardonic...did I say funny? 

In a dystopian future, humanity fought a great battle against artificial intelligences and won, many centuries earlier.  But the war destroyed much infrastructure, technology and, of course, governments.  Into our story comes two unusual characters:  Surplus, a genetically designed, intelligent, anthropomorphic dog carrying the body of his best friend, Darger, across the mountains into what used to be China.  He is looking for the Infallible Physician who is rumored to have remarkable cures and Darger, who is dead, really needs one.  Once Darger has been revived, the two friends, who happen to be con-artists, set out on a new game:  unite all of China under one ruler (so they can reap the benefits.)  They approach a man known as the Hidden King and offer their services, characterizing themselves as Immortals who were alive before Utopia was destroyed by the AIs.  They find themselves in perpetual quandaries as each time they try to win favor or influence with someone in power, they are compelled to solve that particular person’s desire.  After a while, these desires began to conflict with each other and humor abounds.  With their guidance (and manipulations), the Hidden King wins battle after battle and cities fall at his feet; amazingly, their plan seemed to be working.  But all appears lost when the Hidden King finally locates his Phoenix Bride, for whom he’d been searching all along.  The wedding of the two is the catalyst for another apocalypse, one which will certainly kill both Surplus and Darger.  Since this would definitely put a crimp in their plans to be wealthy beyond belief, they have to find a way to stop the wedding without blowing their con.

The characters in this story were absolutely wonderful.  And all of them were used by the author to their best ability.  From the General Powerful Locomotive who has a crush on White Squall, the archaeologist who unearths pre-Utopia weapons, to Fire Orchid, a sort of warrior gypsy, who declares herself the wife of Surplus, and Capable Servant who attaches himself to our anti-heroes, to their undying gratitude – all are colorful, funny and memorable.

But it’s a long-con story and our favorite con-artists are not the perpetrators, much as they might imagine themselves to be.  There are some lovely plot devices sprinkled throughout, including the remnants of the AIs who still desperately hate humans – enough to start their own con.  The author begins each chapter with a quote – which is, of course, common enough.  But they are funny if you read them carefully. 

I could quibble a bit that the author sprang the ending on his gentle readers without enough preparation but since I grinned and even chuckled aloud so many times during the story, I forgave him.  And I am so hopeful that we have not seen the last of Surplus and Darger. ~~  Catherine Book

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