Thursday, August 18, 2011

Stations of the Tide - Michael Swanwick

About the Book

The "Jubilee Tides" will drown Miranda beneath the weight of her own oceans. But as the once-in-two centuries cataclysm approaches, an even greater catastrophe threatens this dark and dangerous planet of tale-spinners, conjurers, and shapechangers. For Gregorian has come, a genius renegade scientist and bush wizard. With magic and forbidden technology, he plans to remake the rotting dying world in his own evil image — and to force whom or whatever remains on its diminishing surface toward a terrifying, astonishing confrontation with death and transcendence.

256 pages (paperback)
Published on: 1991 (first published)
Author’s webpage

Thanks to Tor for sending me a copy of this book to review.


There is a reason I’m not an English major. While I enjoy the subject, I can’t stand sitting in a classroom for hours discussing what such-and-such author was trying to symbolize when he/she wrote this one obscure passage in some book. I took the classes I needed to take before I could get my degree, but by the time I was in my last class I felt like screaming to the professor, “I don’t know what he was thinking when he wrote that and I can guarantee you don’t either. How about, instead of navel gazing and discussing obscure symbolism and profound topics, we either write the author a letter or go find a medium so we can discuss this with his ghost? How does that sound?!”

Now, why on earth is this important for the intro to a review?

I really struggled with Stations of the Tide and after a few days of wondering what it was about the book that really set me off, I figured it out. It was the sense of, “I’m trying really hard to be really profound and here, look at all this hardcore symbolism I heaped onto this passage here….and here….and here…” that really got to me. While I tend to enjoy deeper-than-surface reads more than anything else, there’s a definite line an author can cross where deep just becomes annoying. By the time I put the book down I felt like sending it to every English professor I ever had because I have a feeling that university English professors would start foaming at the mouth with their desire to psycho analyze a book like this.

Despite the fact that Stations of the Tide did get on my nerves, I enjoyed it. It’s an incredible, almost surreal, jaunt through a strange world. One reviewer on goodreads called the atmosphere “carnivalesque” which is a good term for it. Another good way to think of Swanwick’s work is by describing it as the literary equivalent of a Salvador Dali painting. All of the details I’m use to being sharp are rounded, dripping and completely off kilter. If it does get bogged down by moments of, “OMG guys, look at all my hardcore symbolism,” there are moments where the layers of the world and plot itself are, simply put, quite amazing.

The main character is known as nothing more than the Bureaucrat, and while the reader learns more about him as the book progresses, he has a way of staying as illusive as his name implies throughout. Accompanying him is an artificially intelligent briefcase and a woman named Agent Chu. These three characters are well worth reading the whole book for. While they are all quite mysterious, they are also entertaining and serve to peak the readers curiosity. While I never actually felt engaged with them, I found them to be odd enough to keep my attention focused throughout the book – even through the parts that frustrated me.

Stations of the Tide is both a mystery (the hunt for Gregorian) and a race against time, as the characters need to find this individual before the ocean rises to basically drown everything. In the process of this is an incredible transformation that overtakes the Bureaucrat. While the plot is interesting, and many of the details are nothing less than fascinating, the book itself is unevenly written. The start is great at setting all of this up, toward the middle it becomes hard to distinguish between reality, dreams and memories. This can cause readers quite a bit of unnecessary confusion and possibly some frustration as they try to figure out what exactly is going on.

The ending, however, is haunting. It will leave the reader with an image that will confound, puzzle and haunt them for quite a while after the book is actually over. It may also leave many readers with a sense of, “wait a minute… what??” In my opinion, this is a mark in the book’s favor. Swanwick has an incredible ability to pleasurably confound his readers and leave them wanting more, which isn’t something many authors can do.

All in all, Stations of the Tide has baffled me. It’s a wonderful, surreal book told with a rather interesting writing style. The characters and world are never quite engaging, but they remain incredibly interesting throughout. The overuse of symbolism and the obvious attempt at amazing depth in some places were frustrating, as was the inability to tell what was reality and what was fantasy in parts. However, despite this, the ending left me haunted. Stations of the Tide is one of the rare books I’m putting down completely unsure as to whether I loved it or hated it, and in my opinion, that’s actually a mark in Swawick’s favor.

3/5 stars 

1 comment:

  1. Swanwick is one of those authors with good ideas and bizarre execution. And you are right, his work normally smacks of "Look how awesome I can be" and yeah, it put me off his stuff.