Saturday 16 November 2013

Recommendation: Phoenix by Steve Byrne

I was lucky enough to win a copy of Phoenix by Steve Byrne in the Andromeda One con raffle, and after just finishing it I can safely say it was a fantastic prize. Phoenix is a horror-thriller set in the Vietnam war, moving from 1967 all the way to the fall of Saigon. The horrors of war, the sheer bloody waste of it all, are all too evident, as the central character - an Englishman called Bram Curtis -  travels around Vietnam, initially accompanying his sister who is looking to adopt a Vietnamese orphan from a village deep in the combat zone... and near an ancient Montagnard temple. 

It's a tricky thing to do, to make mere supernatural creepiness seem relevant amidst the man-made horrors of war, but Phoenix pulls it off. Partly that's because the supernatural element is part of the war, or of all wars, and the scope of the story keeps expanding as Bram's quest becomes ever more desperate. There's a touch of early Dan Simmons evident in the skilful way Byrne sets his story against real life events and in the expertly written set pieces, including a particularly thrilling attack on a steam train. But Phoenix is darker, and more nihilistic in its ultimate message than most pieces of commercial fiction. It's a long book but never boring, and it has a large cast of characters, nearly all of whom - American, Vietnamese or English - are well realised. Bram in particular changes out of all recognition from the somewhat purposeless, naive young man we meet at the start of the novel. And the final chapter - hell, even the final word - provide a final surprise, a final twist to Bram's journey. Or maybe not so final at all.

Phoenix (UK | US)

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