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One-Eyed Jack by Elizabeth Bear

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The One-Eyed Jack and the Suicide King: personifications of Las Vegas – its history, mystery, mystical power, and heart. When the Suicide King vanishes – possibly killed – in the middle of a magic-rights turf war started by the avatars of Los Angeles, a notorious fictional assassin, and the mutilated ghost of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel – his partner, the One-Eyed Jack, must seek the aid of a bizarre band of legendary and undead allies: the ghosts of Doc Holliday and John Henry the steel-driving man; the echoes of several imaginary super-spies, decades displaced in time; and a vampire named Tribute, who bears a striking resemblance to a certain long-lost icon of popular music.
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Bear’s afterwork to One-Eyed Jack says she wrote the novel over the decade from 1996, when she was Vegas-based; that familiarity with the city, with the (a?) essential essence of Las Vegas, is clear, but on the other hand, the book feels like something that evolved…

That’s principally a function of the plot of One-Eyed Jack. Told from multiple points of view, it feels less like an integrated whole than like a film that has been assembled by a cut-happy director; we switch from viewpoint to viewpoint, character to character, so quickly that sometimes we lose everything else, just trying to keep up with the changes – and are hence somewhat thrown out of their place in the story, and their emotions. They’re there-and-gone, far too fast for us to get any kind of grasp on them – or for them to get one on us. While the spy-versus-spy, film-and-TV influenced plot does indeed demand a fast pace and a certain amount of cutting and jumping around, that emulation is here taken too far, forgetting the impact of the long single-take shot. However, the intricacies of the plot, once it is pinned down, are fascinating, and a stripped-back version of One-Eyed Jack would be a fascinating experience from a plot perspective, a really interesting piece of spy-versus-spy, Cold War-era fiction.

The Cold War era element comes in no small part from the cultural allusions and references Bear has used for her novel; inevitably, in a story about the genii of places and about shared myths, a number of mythised characters appear. One-Eyed Jack, in that regard, goes a little over my head; of the many different myths involved – including, I’m reliably informed, I, Spy, The Man From UNCLE, and others – I recognised The Avengers, Elvis, and James Bond; hence a whole lot of references passed me by. Indeed, Bear has written a novel which is almost in code; if you understand the cultural allusions involved I suspect you will get a whole lot more out of the characters than I did, simply because I did not know their background, history, or “mythic origins”. Bear’s crediting of fan communities for some of these references is also interesting, as the development of the characters within the novel demonstrates some of the same shift that those communities apply to characters, especially in things like fanfic, wherein characters change to match our expectations of them; in One-Eyed Jack, and indeed the whole Promethean Age series, characters are defined by our expectations of them. It’s an interesting idea but without the base frame of reference, lost a lot of its power for me.

However, one aspect of it didn’t lose any of its power; fanworks famously often have “slash fiction” as a key component, and One-Eyed Jack is all about the slash. Not only is the key central couple a pair of male avatars of Las Vegas, but various of the spies called up also seem increasingly queered as the novel goes on. Bear plays it low-key and neatly, but the creeping queering of the characters is a wonderful bit of writing, so what starts the novel as a shared glance of professional understanding becomes complicity becomes emotional connection; whether this is in the eye of the reader – and some of the characters – or in the text is a meaningless question, almost, given what One-Eyed Jack is saying about reality and fiction.

This latest (last?) entry in the Promethean Age series is a bit of a mess, but also brilliant; the uneven, choppy plot and required cultural reference points are easily outmatched by Bear’s fluid writing style and her fantastic characters, making One-Eyed Jack a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

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