I get excited when I hear about another book release from a Philadelphia author. That excitement hits a fever pitch whenever that author is Michael Swanwick.
Chasing the Phoenix is the latest entry into Swanwick’s Darger & Surplus series. In the short story “The Dog Said Bow-Wow”, we’re introduced to a pair of lovable scamps named Aubrey Darger and Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux (Surplus). They’re con men in the far-flung future where utopia has collapsed into a somewhat modern victorian era world where genetically enhanced animals walk and talk and the internet is full of AI demons. Surplus is one such creature, a dog that walks and talks and dresses like a sharply stylish and very witty human.
Over the course of a several short stories and a novel, these two have set fire to London, tried to sell the Eiffel Tower, and attempted to con the Duke of Muscovy. Now they find themselves in China where they’ve fallen in with a warlord looking to expand his empire by uniting the various kingdoms. Up to their usual tricks, Darger and Surplus are working their wiles to make off with a warlord’s fortune of their own.
Chasing the Phoenix is a great addition to the adventures of these two tricksters. Swanwick’s prose has that warm and familiar feeling of someone excitedly telling you a story a derring-dos and outrageous adventure. The characters are bold, witty, and occasionally very funny. Darger and Surplus have quickly become beloved con men of fantasy and their newest adventure will certainly entertain, delight, and keep you up reading late into the night. Chasing the Phoenix is a book you want to curl up with and lose yourself in the tale.
To learn more on these two lovable rogues, I had a quick chat with the author himself.
Who is in control of these stories, you or Darger and Surplus?
It’s a symbiosis. I’m in control of the challenges set before them. But their natures and their innate cleverness determine how they respond to those challenges. Which turns out to be a problem. They are capable of handling villains so readily that in Chasing the Phoenix I found it necessary to constantly introduce new menaces just to keep things difficult for them.
You’ve anthropomorphized a number of animals and objects in your fiction. What made you choose a dog this time? Also, what do you makes for a good anthropomorphized character?
I was reading Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and came upon a scene with a talking dog so good that I said, “I want to do that.” To avoid writing a weak imitation, I made my dog anthropomorphic. set him in a Postutopian future, and made him a con man. Which, in a roundabout way makes the series character-oriented because I had no idea what to do with Surplus before Darger approached him with a business opportunity.
A good anthropomorphic character is one who wouldn’t work better as a human or as an animal. I’m afraid I can’t be any more specific than that.
What drew you to set the latest Darger and Surplus adventure in post-utopian China?
Love of the country, to begin with. But also logic. In the original stories, Darger and Surplus are bouncing around Europe. In Dancing With Bears, they go to Russia to run a scam on the Duke of Muscovy. China was the next obvious stop.
China also had the advantage of having a very deep history and literature so there was always interesting material to draw upon. I never had to worry about repeating myself.
Besides the duo of con men, who was your favorite character to write in Chasing the Phoenix?
No question, it’s Fire Orchid. Dishonest as she is, she’s operating from the best of motives, the welfare of her family. Also, she’s comically able to wrap Surplus around her little finger without having to exert herself. Really, she’s a much better confidence trickster than either of the lads, despite that being only one of her many talents.
I know you’re quite fond of China and have visited the country. Have any of your personal experiences made it into the book in some way?
Scrips and scraps. Mostly, I was working from my impression of the country. I wanted to portray the Chinese as not at all inscrutable and their country as being no more exotic than any other. Everyone who goes to China falls in love with the people and the country. (The government is another matter.) I have a number of Chinese relatives and they’re all very sensible, practical people. As are the friends I made in China. I wanted to do justice to them.
That said, the places I’d been were much easier to write about than those I hadn’t visited. Tour books can give you the layout but not the feel. Xi’an is tan and dusty. Beijing is gray. Guilin smells of osmanthus trees. These are the kind of details a novelist needs.
Do you have a grand, overarching plan for these rapscallions? Will we be hearing about their exploits again?
Yes, and yes. Darger and Surplus do not realize it but they are on an accidental journey around the world, always traveling eastward. Surplus has to return to the Demesne of Western Vermont and confront certain secrets about his past, and Darger must ultimately return to London to see what has become of it and of the people he left behind after accidentally setting the city ablaze.
More than that, however, the two scoundrels are unwittingly changing the world behind them. They do not realize it but they are the catalysts for a new age. When they finally arrive back in London, their journey come full circle, they will return to a city that has been utterly transformed.
My intention is to follow their adventures all the way back to London. After which, they will doubtless move on, but I will not follow them. The meaningful part of their adventures will be over and, though they will have more, I see no reason to chronicle them.
The speed at which I write these chronicles, however, depends entirely upon how warmly they are received by the readers.
And here I do not wink and say, “Hint, hint.”