Elizabeth Hand has always impressed me with her prose, and yet apparently never enough for me to get through more than a few pages of any of her novels. still, whenever i find something of hers, though admittedly from secondhand bookshops, i've rarely been able to resist getting a copy. i've enjoyed a page or two or maybe a bit more each of Waking the Moon and Glimmering, still have no idea why i passed-up getting copies of Winterlong and Aestival Tide when i found them some months back - oh wait, yeah, i'd been saving up for the change - and still occasionally wonder why i never just finish reading either of her books in my library.
Saffron and Brimstone is the first brand-spanking-new copy of an Elizabeth Hand book i've ever gotten, and i'm relieved to be enjoying it as much as i am. thus far, i've made my way through Cleopatra Brimstone and Pavane for a Prince of the Air, and while i was initially uncertain of the rather pulpy, predictable, almost cheap twilight-zone-ish premise behind the first story, and the wearyingly detailed examination of suffering, ritual and magical ephemera comprising the bulk of the second, in the end, i found i couldn't easily dismiss either story. these are 'uneasy' stories, not least because they are strange without (particularly with Pavane) necessarily submitting to the all-too-familiar models of 'fantasy'; however, Ms Hand's use of language makes them anything but unreadable; her prose makes these stories the fascinating studies of inevitability that a thoughtful slow motion sequence might make of a film.
John Constantine must have one of the rawest deals in the history of serialized (anti-)heroes; i thought he had it bad with Garth Ennis' run on Vertigo's Hellblazer series, what with the cancer and the having-his-heart-ripped-out-and-stomped-on and all that, and with Warren Ellis' relatively breezy run, allowing John to just be the cheeky, smirking hard-boiled bastard for a change (i'd missed and have never been able to catch up on Azarello's run), i woulda thought he'd seen the worst.
well, maybe he had; but Mike Carey's run makes a strong argument against that.
like Ennis' run, Carey's Hellblazer story arc is a veritable downward spiral for John Constantine. the raw intensity of Ennis' run is easier to grasp, even though his politics, for a non-Englishman, might drop accessibility down just a tiny notch. Carey's run is far more complicated, more cerebral; does this make any of it less raw? less intense?
hard to say, because John Constantine gets it pretty bad; at the start of Stations of the Cross, John is pretty much at the bottom of the barrel, and Mike Carey is utterly unforgiving here: sure, John gets a few licks in, but it's hard to see anything substantial in these little victories (although if Carey's run is to be considered notable for only one thing, it may well be for surprising you with the significance of little throwaway details he gets in under your radar), and the only glimmer of hope we have at the end of the story arc is the fact that John gets to be his wily old bastard self again.
if i have one complaint about Mike Carey's run, it's this: he doesn't give John much of a chance to really shine as a character. every writer has taken a different slant on the character; Jamie Delano's John Constantine had a definite slant towards being a magic user, if an unconventional one; Ennis and Ellis showed John to be more con man than mage, though Ellis seems to let John use magic more than Ennis; Mike Carey somehow manages to strike a balance between these two aspects of the character, but unlike previous writers, he seems to have gotten John much too busy to really be himself. my fave John Constantines are the ones in Ennis' 'Forty' from the Fear and Loathing story arc, and from Neil Gaiman's 'Hold Me' and Books of Magic. these are the stories that really let John be a *character*, and not simply a device to drive the plot.
still, Mike Carey's Hellblazer story arcs are some of the best in the series, with each story arc setting the bar higher with a cliffhanger ending that promises even bigger things; so far, Carey has managed rather well, and though the one-shot All His Engines is still my favorite Mike Carey Hellblazer book, i'll definitely be following his run through to its end; and then, it's off to the Denise Mina story arcs.
John Constantine with empathy? Holy Hell-freezing-over, DinkMan!