Saturday, May 29, 2004

Wizard of Isis

Jean Stewart
Bella Books
1931513724, $12.95

Wizard of Isis, opens moments after the close of Winged Isis, and this fifth title in Jean Stewart's Isis novels is possibly the best of the series. As with other Isis books, Wizard is fast-paced and action-packed reading. Tomyris "Whit" Whitaker and Danu Sullivan ended the dogfight that culminated Winged Isis by chasing two jets (one carrying a nuclear weapon) back across the barrier between Freeland and Elysium. In their enthusiasm to defeat the invaders, Whit and Danu find themselves trapped in the racist, patriarchal, theocratic country. Occupying the eastern portion of what was the United States, Elysium arose some nine decades prior to the book's setting in a panicked response to a population-devastating pandemic.

Having established her futuristic, post-apocalyptic world that divided what is now the United States into two extremely divergent cultures, Stewart explores the possibilities of pockets of resistance inside the oppressive Elysium, where women who are not willing to subjugate themselves to men are literally enslaved or killed. She sets this resistance in the difficult terrain of the Appalachias. Dubbed "Amazons Outlaws" by the Elysium authorities, Stewart suggests that these women banding together for survival in mountain enclaves might easily carry the archetypal characteristics of the independent woman, the fighting "Amazon."

While the women warriors of Freeland were lucky enough to preserve and further develop their technology, these Amazon communities have been struggling to maintain what has reverted to a pre-renaissance trade culture in the last three generations. For several years, they have received an added boost in the form of a very psychically powerful Witch. Whit is concerned that the witch might be a nemesis from her past. Certainly, the witch's motivations and control over the community do have a dark side.

One of the interesting points about Stewart's Freeland democracy is that it is not some mystic tofu utopia. The political struggles and factions are a lively, complex element of the society. While these women are not afraid to defend neither their homeland nor their loved ones, the method of rescue for Whit and Danu is subject to debate by the ruling council. During these council negotiations, Kali, Whit's life partner, and Tor, Danu's girlfriend, decide to circumvent the time-consuming political haggling by launching their own rescue mission. Needless to say, this impulsive venture compounds the problem.

As non-mainstream, speculative fiction, Stewart's Isis series raises some frightening questions about our political system, health care, and our environmental responsibility. These issues ring even truer today than when the series first appeared in 1992. Indeed, Stewart's Isis has long been a warning parable for our times. She furthers this exhortation in regard to the controversial issues of freedom, independence, diversity, safety and community; issues with which the United States has been struggling with since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

An exemplifying moment is a scene of Danu reciting the Preamble to the Freeland Declaration of Independence concluding, "We are the summit, the democratic ideal that mankind has been aspiring to throughout the ages. It is our duty to protect liberty and freedom in order to ensure it for those who come after us."(111) Despite the ironically sexist and unlikely use of "mankind," the ideals stated so eloquently sent shivers through this reviewer.

The point becomes more blatant near the book's climax when Kali tells a crowd of Elysians "A long time ago, your ancestors exchanged freedom for promises of safety, and you're doing it still. You stopped being Americans." (210) (Kali was doing great until those last four words since the Elysians present at this moment were not likely to remember or have knowledge of "America" given the repressive cultivation of illiteracy some 90 years after the fall of America.)

Despite the heavy political topics, bleak circumstances, and explicit violence, Wizard of Isis has some charming to downright funny moments. When an imprisoned Kali faces the local Elysian warlord, her strength of will and defiant nature prompt her to use what weapons she has left, namely her wit and voice (and perhaps a touch of her psychic abilities) to strike out at her captors. For this reviewer, the humorous pay-off of this scene is practically worth the book's purchase.

Wizard of Isis has all of the qualities that readers have come to expect from Stewart. The story is thoughtful and intelligent, action-filled and exciting. Her characters are interesting, complex women (and men). While she deals with archetypal elements, not all of her women are noble and heroic and not all men are evil. Indeed, one of the themes of Wizard is the idea that most Elysians are trapped themselves rather than actively supporting the regime. With a signature high-energy climax, Wizard of Isis adds a few surprises to the Isis Saga and it will be interesting to see where Stewart takes readers next.

-MJ Lowe