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Raymond's Reviews #194

%T Phoenix Fire
%A Elizabeth Forrest
%I Daw
%D March 1992
%O paperback, 364 pp, US$4.99
%G ISBN 0-88677-515-9

The best thing about "Phoenix Fire" is the basic plot concept; the resumption of an age-old struggle between an Earth-demon and a Phoenix. This demon, which was buried beneath a clay seal (and guarded by the famous Ch'in dynasty army of lifesize terra-cotta soldier statues), escapes during an archeological dig and tunnels its way to California, where its old nemesis is struggling out of the La Brea tar pits.

Unfortunately, Forrest does not have the authorial skills to make a coherent novel out of this idea. Her first problem is the English language itself. Some of her complex sentences rival entries in the Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest. Consider the following snippets of deathless prose:

"Victor wore his hair in a conservative pompadour, combed his eyebrows upward as if they were luxurious caterpillars, conspicuous in an ethnic face which was normally devoid of much facial hair, and liked to sing to his dinner crowd." (p. 46)

"It was cloyingly hot, and yellow light streamed in patchily through the old, drawn blinds which had been crisped by years of summer heat and could no longer withstand it." (p. 169)

"One could believe in hell, she thought, and this is heaven singing its warning." (p. 333)

Forrest does a little better by her characters, which one might expect to be made of cardboard. They're one step above that; they're stock figures from California-esque soap opera. They include a gay Hispanic interior decorator, an executive recovering from open heart surgery who's tired of the rat race, and an elderly Holocaust survivor. Because the reader is familiar with these characters, Forrest has little to do to make them seem plausible and natural, and that little she does rather well.

The worst disappointment is reserved for those folks brave enough to ignore Forrest's flaws and plow on with the story. After taking over 300 pages to arrange the confrontation of demon and phoenix, Forrest not only refuses to show us its outcome, but has the effrontery to have her characters react as though this collision of supernatural forces was not even important. The effect of this unexpected letdown is to make the novel seem, in retrospect, shallow and trivial.

I don't place all the blame on Elizabeth Forrest for the failure of "Phoenix Fire." I think DAW is also to blame for buying her novel (presumably on the strength of its concept alone) and failing to give her the editorial assistance necessary to refine it into a story worth reading. I will think twice in future about spending my time on any book bearing DAW's logo. [CCO]

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Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>