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Firecracker by Sean Stewart
Review by John Berlyne
Weidenfeld & Nicolson Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0297848267
Date: 14 April, 2005 List Price £12.9 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

I'm not sure that until now, World Fantasy Award winner author Sean Stewart has ever been published here in the UK. If that lamentable fact is true (and I couldn't find any info to the contrary) then Firecracker is one hell of an introduction to the marketplace, for this is a really quality novel that is surely guaranteed to earn the author an instant and ever faithful fan base over here. And it is interesting to note that in publishing Stewart's novel under the Weidenfeld & Nicolson imprint rather than their more genre-friendly Gollancz imprint, publishers Orion feel that this fan base may well exist out there in the mainstream.

Previously published in the US under the (far better) title Perfect Circle, Firecracker is a superbly executed and extremely well written spine chilling thriller. William "Dead" Kennedy is a thirty something slightly deadbeat guy who has completely failed to get his life together and seems pathologically incapable of ever doing so. He lives in a dead-end apartment and keeps losing a string of dead-end jobs. His life is still inextricably linked to his failed marriage of twelve years ago and specifically to the product of that union, his daughter Megan, whom he sees, funds permitting, at weekends. This miserable existence, in the wet sour heat of Houston, Texas, isn't helped by DK's peculiar handicap either, for he can, and has always been able to, see dead people.

This talent is a reluctant fact of DK's life, a life that is haunted by the ghosts of his own past as much as by the ghosts he sees. The real curse of his situation is that he is bright enough to recognize the mistakes he's made in his life, but powerless to do anything about them. Stewart infuses his protagonist with a desperate honesty that makes the reader warm to him, even though he is short on redeeming features. The author leads us gently through the introduction of character and situation, only lightly touching upon the business of the ghosts, as if it's been a mere background issue for DK, rather than a contributory factor to his circumstances. And having settled us comfortably into this man's situation, Stewart goes to work with his plot and my goodness, he hits us hard!

DK is contacted by a distant cousin who pleads with him to come and deal with a ghost that is bothering him. It's in his garage, a knocking weeping thing, and the cousin can't sleep for fear of it. Our man is reluctant to get involved with such matters, but really needs the thousand bucks this desperate guy is offering. So along he goes, and on the way the cousin shamefully confesses to hitting a girl with his car some years back on a trip to Europe. When DK arrives at the garage, the ghost he finds is no hit and run victim, but rather a brutally murdered girl, the result of a filthy secret the cousin thought would never come out. This revelation is as strong a sledgehammer moment as I have ever read in fiction and the scene immediately turns on this sixpence into something very dangerous indeed.

Stewart shows remarkable technique, repeating this effect throughout the novel and even though you know it's coming, it's still like being punched every time it happens. The supernatural aspects are continuously and subtly underplayed and then revealed with such a powerful force that I found myself surprised, if not downright scared every time. The result is an intensely gripping read that seems to have pretty much everything I want in a novel. DK is an acerbic, quirky character made up of entirely negative traits, yet for all his faults, Stewart never fails to make us like him. His sad situation swerves gently between comedy and tragedy throughout but is never played for laughter or tears. Instead the reader wills this character towards some sort of redemption and though the culmination of Stewart's beautifully worked plot is a bittersweet experience, there is nevertheless a grace note of that redemption present.

A novel about the things that haunt us, be they ghosts, lost loves, memories or mistakes, Firecracker is a superbly worked piece and Stewart's assured and really very artful style is a joy to read. When I reviewed Greg Bear's disappointing Dead Lines last June I said that "there are writers out there doing this kind of stuff far better than him". I put Sean Stewart at the top of that list and it's certain that the same thing can't be said of him.

Highly recommended.

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