July 2004

Adam Lipkin

fiction

One King, One Soldier by Alexander Irvine

Alexander Irvine's debut novel, A Scattering of Jades, showed a ton of promise, mixing historical fantasy, magical realism, and horror into a eminently readable package. Given the genres he played in with his debut, it's no surprise that more than a few folks compared Irvine to Tim Powers. His second novel, One King, One Soldier, won't make any of those comparisons go away, as he tells a Fisher King story that manages to somehow cram Arthur Rimbaud, Jack Spicer, baseball, and the Knights Templar into a thoroughly enjoyable sophomore effort.

When the story opens, we meet Lance Porter, a former GI who was wounded in Korea and has just been released from the San Francisco VA in 1953. He receives a mysterious letter from his girlfriend telling him that she's in Berkeley, and he's torn between his desire to see her, and his suspicion that she may have fallen in with Communists. While he vacillates, he meets Berkeley Renaissance poet Jack Spicer. Spicer points out Lance's potential to be the Fisher King, and although Lance doubts this for most of the book, he still gets drawn into the conspiracy -- irrevocably so when an assassin attempts to kill him.

Porter moves between Spicer, his old friend Jerry, and a mysterious stranger named Gwen, all of whom eventually reveal more information about his past and the story of the Holy Grail itself. They also start telling Lance (and the reader) about Arthur Rimbaud's gunrunning career after he gave up poetry. Irvine suggests Rimbaud was embroiled in his own conspiracies, searching for the Holy Grail (a piece of the Ark of the Covenant, not the traditional cup) in ancient Africa while dodging and manipulating Church conspiracies. We also get a third story tossed in, the tale of George Gibson, a 19th century semipro ballplayer who is saved by the Grail and ends up possessing it for a while.

Irvine seamlessly moves between three eras, although Lance remains the unquestionable focus of the novel. As the plot progresses, Irvine throws in everything from the magic of baseball to a vast Templar-driven Grail conspiracy, to the Egyptian god Thoth. It's hard not to make the Powers comparison given both the complexity of the plot and the subject matter itself. Like Powers, it's a plot that threatens to get out of control at times, and Irvine occasionally forgets to rein it in. He also falls victim to some obvious nameplay (Lance's girlfriend, of course, is named Elaine, in case major characters named Arthur and Gwen weren't enough to establish the Grail connection). But he's improved vastly since A Scattering of Jades, and the complexity, in the end, serves to enhance his story.

I don't doubt that some hack reviewer is going to blurb something like, "if you liked The Da Vinci Code, you'll love One King, One Soldier."* That would be patently untrue. Unlike Dan Brown's beach read, Irvine has written the sort of novel that works best when you actually sit down and think about it. It's not quite as solid as the best efforts of an author like Tim Powers, but it's a surprisingly strong and deep second novel.

* Note to Del Rey publicists: If you blurb that quote from my review, I'll trash every book you ever publish. You've been warned.

One King, One Soldier by Alexander Irvine
Del Rey
ISBN: 0345466969
352 Pages