Staying Dead

by Laura Anne Gilman

Published by Luna

304 pages, 2004

Buy it online




Suspending Belief

Reviewed by Andi Shechter


One of the coolest things I learned spending a lot of years hanging out with science fiction fans was the expression "a willing suspension of disbelief." To this day, it comes in handy and it makes me feel very erudite to quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge, not something I tend to do all that often. A suspension of disbelief is what we rely on in order to buy into a fictional world and the story within it, both in science fiction and in fantasy fiction. Happily, Laura Anne Gilman excels in offering a world full of magic that works, and for which the reader can suspend whatever disbelief may be lurking.

Gilman's not only a writer but also an editor and her skills hold her in good stead in Staying Dead; the pacing is very good, things move. There's little rehashing of plot, the characters show you who they are by what they say and do, not because there are lumps of explanation. And the suspense holds from the start of the story to the end.

There are times I got lost in reading this book; it has an intricately woven plot, with lots of threads that I didn't always follow, even on rereading. But that doesn't stop me from wholly liking and from recommending it now. Staying Dead works. Whether it's because it's modern-day, right now Manhattan, with all the problems of high rents, unsafe streets, coffee shops everywhere and knowing your good neighborhood restaurants from the dives, or because it's a world were non-magic users live alongside mages and demons and all forms of otherworldly beings, it's an oddly familiar world. And you gotta love the Cosa Nostradamus. While there are attempts by councils and other agencies to control magic, which is, in this tale, extremely closely related to electricity and current (magic is current, in fact) there are still freelancers who use their own Talent the way they choose. And while ostensibly, they're free to do so, it irks the big shots. So that Wren Valere is always on the borderline of working on her own and getting in trouble.

Someone's just sort of taken the cornerstone of a building; it's a building with security of normal and magical types, and something happened here. Wren's job is to find the cornerstone and get it back where it belongs. Simple. Yeah, right.

Wren is in her 20s; she's known about her Talent most of her life and was taught well by John Ebenezer who guided her in how to channel the current that flows through her, how to ensure she doesn't get hurt, how to use magic as a tool, and not to let it overwhelm her. Like drug burn-outs, there are "wizzarts" who just live to take current into themselves and end up dead. Or mad. Or worse.

Wren's partner is Sergei. He's several years older and he owns and runs an overpriced, very popular art gallery. But he seems to know way too much about the world: he's not just some artsy snob. He carries a gun, except when Wren won't let him (that is, any time she's around) and can hack into government databases. And he knows things and is just more than he seems. He knows at least four languages, always seems ready for anything and, at times, is protective of Wren. Though, sometimes, it's not protection that shows, but a clear concern. And more.

Gilman is truly adept at creating and maintaining tension. Not only within the main story, but in the indolent, unspoken, yet clear attraction between Wren and Sergei. They're both so damn careful to remain partners, agent and retriever, friends, "after all he's older and so sophisticated," " after all, I want to protect her, no I don't, yes I do," that you want to sneak up on them and bop their heads together while yelling: Would you two just just just pay attention? But it's so well done. And Sergei is, without a doubt, sexy. There are scenes in Staying Dead which remind me of other "no we are so not in love" couples, and I admire authors that are able to write this type of tension well. You get why Wren and Sergei keep their distance: they work so well together. Yet they know each other so well and it's so clear that they care. There are situations Wren can handle so much better than Sergei, who's got no magic skills, no Talent and isn't all that comfortable around weird folks like P.B., Wren's demon friend, but she can be as tough and protective and caring as Sergei can. And there's work to be done, darn it.

This is a book that left me definitely wanting to read the next one. While I hope to iron out my own confusion over the council, and their power and where lines of control and power over people intersect with the shadowy folks Sergei used to work for, I don't know that the confusion stems from my lack of interest in baroque politics or if the they're so clear to Gilman that it's not necessary to explain. | January 2005


Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.