Monday, February 22, 2016

Book Review: Chasing the Phoenix by Michael Swanwick

Chasing the Phoenix by Michael Swanwick

In a distant future the world has passed through a utopian period and settled back into a more mundane existence. China is reduced to several warring provinces. Into the Abundant Kingdom comes two con men--Aubrey Darger (self-named "the Perfect Strategist" who is good at coming up with schemes) and Surplus (a genetically-engineered dog-man who is good at wooing women and fighting without killing). Darger is dead but that is a small problem since Surplus is certain he will find a cure at the home of the Infallible Physician. To bad the Physician is a dottering old man who refuses to teach his only child (a daughter) the tricks of the trade. Surplus and the daughter are both wily enough to get what they want out of the exchange.

Word of their exploits with the Infallible Physician gets out and many people are willing to employ the Aubrey and Surplus for the right price. Being con men, the duo finagle the lowest "right price" with most everyone. Their adventures bring them to the attention of a ruler called the Hidden King. The Hidden King wants to reunite China, through bloody war if necessary. With an advisor such as the Perfect Strategist, the king's fortunes may be less bloody and more fortunate than he could ever imagine. The king has a military advisor, Powerful Locomotive (that's just his name, he isn't a Transformer or cyborg), who conducts battles, and an archeological advisor, White Squall, who finds ancient military technology to give them big advantages in battle. The king's greatest ambition is to find the Phoenix Bride, a thermonuclear device, which he will use to become emperor of all China. Aubrey and Surplus have a lot of people to con and an end result they'd rather not be around for.

The plot unravels as a delightful series of audacious and humorous cons put on by Aubrey and Surplus. As they are swept up in the war to reunite China, they are able to pass themselves off as noble warriors without ever killing anyone or coming up with great military strategies on their own. The situations are not entirely plausible but that's fine since they are entirely delightful. I laughed out loud many times reading this book and heartily recommend it as a comedic sci-fi yarn.

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