This is one of those odd novels in which I really liked all of the component parts, but the way in which they all came together didn’t quite work for me. Swanwick has great ideas, but the way he tells this story left me cold.
The planet of Miranda (named, as many things here, after a character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest) is a human colony where most advanced technology is forbidden. Sea levels will soon rise dramatically in the planet, and most human settlements will be inundated. The central character, known only as “the bureaucrat” arrives shortly before these floods are due to begin to investigate a strange Mirandan man named Gregorian who presents himself as a wizard but may be using stolen advanced technology. The bureaucrat ends up uncovering Gregorian’s past while trying to find him, though much remains obscure until the novel’s end. He encounters other “magical” people, he’s seduced, attempts are made on his life, and he begins to uncover a parallel mystery about the "haunts," the intelligent native species of Miranda that seems to have gone extinct early in the colonization process.
There are lots of literary allusions, and a pervading noir feeling with the investigator, the threatening off-screen nemesis, and a few femmes fatales, and all of this works well. I also like the way Swanwick blends science fiction and fantasy elements – the “magic” here blends future technology and psychology but still feels fantastic.
Honestly, it’s hard for me to say why I didn’t love this novel, but I’m quite sure I did not. Swanwick plays a shell game of sorts – revealing new aspects of his world and characters at certain moments to advance his story and themes. Nothing is quite as it seems, and, in the end, some characters are so much more than they seemed and others so much less. I often felt cheated by the gamesmanship, which reminded me of the new wave sf of the late 60s. As with those novels, I never connected to the characters and the world because of their shifting nature. And, while Swanwick's prose shows his talent, the writing left me cold as it leans on dialogue and simple description. I was fascinated by Miranda and its interstellar environs, and I wanted Swanwick to dive in and tell me more about this world and the characters populating it. Instead, he played coy. In a way, I disliked this novel because I liked its premise too much; Swanwick kept getting in the way of his own world and characters.