The Wind City, by Summer Wigmore, (Steam Press, Wellington, 2013), 319 pp., $NZ30.
‘Want to go get that drink now?’ Steff said. ‘We can watch old episodes of Buffy or Doctor Who or something.’
‘You are so immensely geeky,’ Saint said, ‘you’re, like, Geeky McGeekface, sole resident of Geekville, Silicon Valley. But,’ he added, magnanimously, ‘I suppose so. As a favour.’
Steff rolled his eyes. ‘You love those shows as much as I do or more, come on.’
‘Blasphemy! I am entirely too excellent to like lame-person shows.’ Saint paused. ‘Is Firefly on the table?’
This is the climax to Summer Wigmore’s urban fantasy novel The Wind City, set – appropriately – in Wellington, with Māori gods and monsters as its principal characters. (I should insert a warning at this point: Spoiler Alert! I don’t really see any way of discussing the novel without revealing essential details of the plot, so please do consider that before reading on …)
The extract should give you some idea of Wigmore’s prose style. There’s a lot of dialogue, mostly in this sort of retro hipsterish vein, and to say that most of her characters are preoccupied with image is the equivalent of saying that they breathe air. There’s scarcely a moment when they’re not posing or planning future cool gestures (if they happen to be on their own for a moment).
Put that way, it all sounds rather tiresome (though I should acknowledge that the press release does specify the age range it’s aimed at as between 18 and 35, which puts me firmly out of the running). The fact that the author is 19 and that this is her first book might also give one pause. Should one have enough talent to write a novel at such a tender age? To say nothing of knowledge of the world?
To put things more in context, Saint, above (by far the most irritating member of her cast of characters), has been massacring large numbers of the atua and other spirits who inhabit Wellington at the instigation of a phantom called Noah (whom we have gradually come to realise is actually that old trickster Māui up to his fun again). A kind of fire-making apparatus has been imbedded in Saint’s hand, and he’s cut quite a swathe with it, including burning down the Hikurangi, an otherworldly café which inhabits roughly the same space as the Wellington Public Library, with most of its patrons left to die horribly inside.
Saint was, however, (at least at first), under the impression that he was doing good by purging the urban neighbourhood of these supernatural visitors, and – given it’s not really possible for anyone to tell him anything – he persevered in the killing long after any other more reasonable person would have stopped.
When he did discover the truth – that these spirits are, more or less, ‘people’ (what C.S. Lewis would call ‘hnau’: sentient, non-human beings) – he countered his first impulse to commit suicide with the rather less predictable one of just keeping going. If you’re already a murderer, why not murder a lot more people just to boost your tally?
His ‘geeky’ friend Steff, who manifests such odd habits as reading books and working on university assignments, has finally managed to talk him down and persuade him not to go out in a blaze of glory in the scene quoted above.
I suppose that I disliked Saint from the moment I met him; just as I had a more-or-less equal and opposite positive reaction to Tony, the major female protagonist, who finds out that she’s a taniwha – the guardian taniwha of Wellington, in fact – fairly early in the piece. It wasn’t till the very end that I realised that this was integral to the author’s intentions.
The name ‘Saint’ should probably have alerted me in advance. He did rather remind me of that repellent albino priest character in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code who goes around flagellating himself for his sins and murdering as many people as possible at pretty much the same time. And yet, so expert is Wigmore in reproducing the mindset and vocabulary of so vapid a narcissist as Saint, that I saw her as endorsing his absurd and self-serving views until quite late in the story.
There’s a crucial moment in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ where he quotes G.K. Chesterton’s justification of the stark black-and-white judgements of the traditional fairy tale:
‘For children are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy’ … Andrew Lang was confused on this point. He was at pains to defend the slaying of the Yellow Dwarf by Prince Ricardo in one of his own fairy-stories. ‘I hate cruelty,’ he said, ‘… but that was in fair fight, sword in hand, and the dwarf, peace to his ashes! died in harness.’ Yet it is not clear that ‘fair fight’ is less cruel than ‘fair judgement’; or that piercing a dwarf with a sword is more just than the execution of wicked kings and evil stepmothers – which Lang abjures: he sends the criminals (as he boasts) to retirement on ample pensions. That is mercy untempered by justice.
That was my initial feeling when I read the scene where Saint schleps off home with his buddy to watch Firefly instead of getting his just deserts: ‘Mercy untempered by justice,’ I thought. ‘This author is simply too young to understand the irrevocable, unforgiveable nature of murder – she lets off her villain simply because he has a cute butt and a bit of a way with him …’ But then:
They used an uhi, for a knife was not fit for this kind of work. Positioned it carefully so the chisel blade rested on the joint between his thumb and his hand, then lifted the club, then brought it down upon the uhi hard, driving the pounamu tip into his flesh. It wasn’t neat: it took several hits before the thing was severed and at first Saint didn’t make a sound, grinding his teeth to keep quite. He gave up when they started on his index finger, though.
Now that’s a bit more like it. There’s no nonsense here about retiring the criminals on ample pensions. It’s not that this strictly functional form of rehabilitation is likely to prove much more effective. As Hinewai, the glamorous white-haired patupaiarehe, puts it: ‘You’re poison, you’re a cancer that will spread if you’re not cut out.’ So why, then, doesn’t Tony the Taniwha do precisely that? It would be easy enough – his memory could be wiped, even if the rest of his physical body was spared.
At this point the morality of the book becomes quite complex. There were a number of murders by atua in the early part of the book – enough to attract the attention of Saint’s friend Steff, a student of statistical anomalies. So if you stick to the simple concept of revenge, who actually committed the first offence?
Also, Saint did genuinely believe himself to be a hero while he was torching those first groups of otherworldly beings. It was only afterwards, when his mentor Māui realised that the city was beginning to generate its own guardian spirits – radio-headed Cuba from Cuba Street for instance – that he tried to call a halt to the massacre. By then Saint had gone too far to back out so easily.
Nor is the almost exaggeratedly fair-minded Tony entirely dismissive of the idea of vendetta:
Secretly, in her heart of hearts, she occasionally thought this was kinda fair, really. Saint had killed so many atua that it seemed only reasonable for a few humans to be killed in turn – nooo no not good, that wasn’t fair at all! It was the dark ancient taniwha-heart of her that thought it, mainly, the part that thought revenge was a totally good idea and murder was justifiable.
I like very much that word ‘mainly’ – it was mainly the taniwha-heart that thought in terms of an eye for an eye. Mainly – but not exclusively.
As Tony weighs up these dilemmas of the ethical responsibility, her resemblance to another supernaturally gifted guardian, Buffy Summers, the heroine of Joss Whedon’s long-running TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, comes ever more clearly into focus. Saint, too, assumes his proper place as a kind of avatar of Spike, her conflicted, English-accented, vampire boyfriend. Are Wigmore’s characters mere echoes of Whedon’s – or is it just that they’ve watched and read so much fantasy fiction that they have no other way to react to things? That certain stereotypical patterns of teen angst have been programmed into them by simple repetition of the same memes? The latter explanation seems a better fit with the intense self-consciousness of Wigmore’s Tony (named by her comics-fan mother after Marvel’s Iron Man, Tony Stark) and Saint (actually Santiago – or, if you prefer, Saint Iago).
I don’t want to claim that this is – yet – a faultless work of fiction. It’s an intensely lively one, though – with a complex and well-thought-out plot which continues to deliver surprises right to the end. Perfection is pretty boring, anyway. If you accomplish everything you can accomplish at the age of 19, then there’s not really much left to do afterwards besides running off to Africa like the young Rimbaud. Better instead to cultivate your craft, and concentrate on writing more novels as entertaining and intriguing as this one!
JACK ROSS is a poet, fiction writer, anthologist and editor, who teaches at the Albany Campus of Massey University in Auckland.