Archive – Band of Gypsys – Gwyneth Jones

I’ve had it in mind for a while to reprint some of my older reviews (not the oldest, at least not yet, as they need to be either scanned or retyped; and some not at all as they should probably never see the light of day again). So, let us begin by working through my archive of reviews for Interzone.

Band of Gypsys – Gwyneth Jones
Victor Gollancz, London, 2005, pp.297, £10.99

Band of Gypsys is the fourth volume of Gwyneth Jones’s counter cultural reworking of the Arthurian stories, a rock Matter of Britain. And once again the reader is enrolled as part of the crazy retinue of rock and roll king, Ax Preston, and his twin consorts, Sage Pender and Fiorinda Slater as they continue their quest to bring some sort of peace and order to a kingdom that has become seriously disunited as a result of economic depression, environmental disaster and the activities of deep-green anti-globalisation activists. Most recently, the world’s fossil-fuel reserves have been destroyed in a blast of psychic energy generated by the A-team and elements of the UK’s government is now wondering whether the Zen Self experiments might yield their very own Neurobomb, in the shape of Sage Pender while the Wiccan grouping, currently in the ascendant, is taking its turn at going after the lords and ladies of rock and roll.

I hesitate to say that this seems to be familiar territory, but initially it is difficult to avoid that conclusion. The names and faces may change, the party attempting to seize power may be different, as may be the manner in which they impose their will on the masses, the manner in which one of the golden three will suffer before being rescued may vary, but the basic plot has been transferred from one book to the next almost intact. We have to assume this is a deliberate artistic decision, Jones being far too intelligent a writer to simply settle for repeating an attractive formula – though there is no denying that Ax, Sage and Fiorinda are a very attractive group of people.

The answer, I think, lies in Jones’s own description of the series as a romance. If the reader looks on the series not only as an exercise in counter cultural ‘what if’, in which the ‘lunatics’ have taken over the asylum and made it work in so far as anyone can make it work, but also as a return to the literary style of the original Matter of Britain, certain stylistic issues become less problematic and make a lot more sense: the absence of ordinary people and their suffering during the Dissolution and beyond is a prime example. Medieval romances rarely featured peasants because, well, they were almost invisible to the noble audience. Likewise, the way in which time passes in fits and starts, with important events brought to the fore, tedious daily life left behind; the vagueness of the geography, the occasional extreme violence, and perhaps most important in these terms, the ‘courtly’ set-pieces, in this instance the concert performances. To use the trappings of medieval romance like this is to signal that these novels are operating in a region more liminal than perhaps a more traditional science fiction novel would offer. Jones is thus able to experiment with the possibilities of a counter cultural revolution in ways that modern fictional structures might not easily allow. Thus we are in a situation where the Rock and Roll Reich might just happen, rather than one in which we are shown a hundred and one ways that it never could.