Jon George Faces of Mist and Flame. Tor Books, 2004. Pp. 496. ISBN 1405033975. £10.99.

Reviewed by Djibril

The premise of this novel by first-time author G. combines a time-travelling, 21st century, Cambridge professor, an American marine storming Guam in 1942, and ancient Greek mythology, and requires a complex narrative structure. The story is framed by Professor Serena Freeman, prodigious Cambridge mathematician and inventor of Odysseus, the machine that allows her to send her mind through time and experience history through the eyes of a participant. Her chosen subject for the test-drive is Phoenix Lafayette, a journalist attached to an American marine squad storming the beaches of Guam during the US Pacific offensive against the Japanese in July 1942. Serena discovers to her shock that she can communicate with the man in the past, and her obsession with Greek heroes causes her to unwittingly implant the idea of the myth of Hercules into Phoenix's head, and he then proceeds to try and mirror the twelve labours of the Greek hero. The bulk of the book, however, is taken up by the experiences of the marines as they press forward across the island, and as such is a good old, boys' own war story, narrated by Phoenix in the first person and present tense. The 'modern' element, Serena's experiments and life in Cambridge, along with a rather weak retelling of the life of Hercules, are little more than occasional punctuation and diversion from this main story.

The writing style of this novel tends unevenly to the amateurish, and then requires tolerance and endurance to stay with it. The pace is generally fast though, and a reader impressed by the subject matter would no doubt forgive the occasional infelicity and naivety of expression or attempt at humour. The normal, narrative sections are occasionally supplemented by secret service reports, missives to and from various experts, and the like; it becomes clear that the government wants to acquire the time machine (and no one has thought to recruit its inventor). These texts are unconvincing for several reasons, among which: the tone is inexpertly achieved, and therefore comes across naive; the missives and reports give far too much information (this is the author's attempt at an 'info dump', of course); the need to create tension early on, combined with time for the plot to develop before the threat materialises, leads to an unrealistic series of delays before any action is taken. One of the most unconvincing scenes in the whole book arises when Serena's brother Alex runs in over half way through, with the news that no one knows whether Phoenix survived the war or not. It was already clear that Phoenix's fate must be hidden from the reader to maintain some tension; to have Serena never having even checked this small fact is heavy-handed and incredible.

It is worth commenting on the title of this work: Faces of Mist and Flame, which seems to bear little relation to the content matter (although I'm sure G. had something in mind). More importantly, it does not successfully conjure the image or the tone that the book goes on to build. Both this, and the front cover slogan, 'Time has no copyright on heroes', seem particularly clunky. More evidence of G.'s attempt to sell this as an SF rather than a WW2 novel, I suppose.

The science behind the speculative fiction element of the story is introduced when Serena sits down to write an academic article about her time-machine, and we are treated to yet another clumsy 'info dump'. Not only is the language of this passage inappropriate for a scientific article, but she outlines what any expert in her field would presumably be expected to know: namely the three related techniques within disciplines such as physics and psychology, that she has combined to make a machine that tunes the human brain by the use of 'vibrations' recorded from psychics in action. This genius scientist who has discovered time travel, has in fact found a way to use music to turn a person psychic. Even the background science so painfully introduced here is not particularly convincing, although I suppose it is meant to be futuristic. (About the only clue this reviewer was able to discern as to the exact date of the 'modern' elements of the story, was the comment by a former school-master of the now 29 year-old Alex that, 'we still had the cane in those days, dear boy' (64): corporal punishment was fully banned in British state schools in 1986, in private schools not until 1999. You do the math. It is not all that likely, however, that G. thought this calculation through. Of course the fact that a WW2 veteran may still be alive also needs to be factored into this equation.)

The labours of Hercules take up an inordinate amount of space in this book—especially considering the at-best-marginal relationship Phoenix's 'labours' bear to the Greek hero's. The tales themselves, which have no canonical form in any one ancient source, are taken directly from Robert Graves' Greek Myths (1954, many reprints). Graves is notorious among classicists for having chosen a single, very selective strand from among the far-from-monolithic ancient sources, and presented them in his own, partisan narrative; G. adds to this his own anachronistic details, and a certain childish repartee which I can only assume is meant to provide light relief.

The war story itself is not particularly imaginative, although it is apparently faithful to historical accounts. The soldiers' experiences are related sympathetically and sensitively, but rather too little is said or suggested to question their unquestioning dehumanisation of the Japanese for this reviewer's comfort. As this is the heart of the book, it is probably a good sign that it is the most competently handled; other reviewers have commented that without the SF and fantastic elements, this would have been a perfectly good war novel. I'm sure that those who like that sort of thing will like this book very much.

In the end, though, it is hard to find a very sympathetic character in this novel. Serena is a former child prodigy, very young academic bordering on the sociopathic (though I suspect G. has tried to make her alluring by constant references to her newly discovered sexuality, dancing around her flat, hints at masturbation, etc.). Phoenix is an uncontrollable alcoholic who is more of a danger to himself and his comrades than he is a useful member of the squad. Even the hero Hercules is an insufferable bully who wins the admiration even of his victims by being overbearing and invincible. If these characters combine to form what G. thinks make a true 'hero', then I dread to think what that person would look like.

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