Book Review by Steve Solomon

The Millennium Quartet, Book 3: Chariot

by Charles Grant

Tor. © 1998, Charles Grant. 309 pages (paper).

GAMBLERS, AS EVERYONE KNOWS, have their superstitions and quirks, and Wallace Thackery Falkirk is no exception. He wears a lucky casino chip depicting a charioteer on a cord around his neck. He goes through a ritual of preparation after entering a casino but before approaching the slots. Another ritual precedes the actual gambling: He talks to the one-armed bandits and lays his hand on them, moving from machine to machine until he finds one that "talks back." A second-generation gambler, he even has a gambler's nickname given to him by his card-playing mother: He is Trey, her third child.

But for all that, Trey is not your typical gambler. For one thing, Trey Falkirk wins. Consistently. So consistently, in fact, that he has to be careful not to win too much or play the same casino too often, lest he be banned as some sort of cheat. For another thing, Trey's reason for gambling is different from that of most professional gamblers: He didn't exactly choose the "career"; it was thrust upon him. Undergraduate studies of English and music did not lead to lucrative positions, and when his plans to attend graduate school came to naught, Trey fell back on subsistence jobs such as clerking in doughnut shops and convenience stores. He might have remained the world's most literate full-time retail clerk had it not been for another factor, a sort of curse that dogged him from job to job and from city to city: He is a magnet for violence. Everywhere Trey has ever lived, he has suffered severe injury. He has been beaten up countless times, lain in countless hospital beds. Everywhere, that is, except Las Vegas.

In Las Vegas, in fact, it seems Trey can't be hurt at all. Despite numerous close brushes with death (including a rattlesnake bite, an encounter with a gun-toting maniac, and nearly being run down by a car), he is barely scratched. Superstitious gambler that he is, Trey has become convinced that, as long as he is within the Las Vegas city limits, he is essentially invulnerable. Moreover, he has also become convinced that he is in some mysterious way returning the favor: Las Vegas has been spared the Sickness. The world is in the grip of a horrible epidemic, a new form of smallpox that spreads in patterns that have doctors baffled. Yet despite continuing to receive visiting gamblers from all over the globe, Las Vegas has not suffered a single case. Trey and the city Bugsy Segal built have become each other's lucky charm. So Trey holes up in the dying, ironically named little development community of Emerald City, out in the desert but just inside the city limits. From this hideaway he sallies forth to "battle the dragon"--to literary-minded Trey, the city's countless neon lights suggest iridescent, reptilian scales--gambling just often enough to pay the bills and put a little away for the rainy day he is certain will come. 

Trey's neighbors are a collection of oddballs and outsiders with whom he gets along reasonably well, although some of them resent his obvious ability to live without working and his natural physical strength, which he maintains without any need to visit a gym. His real friends are the Levins, hippie Jude and her two daughters, Starshine and Moonbow. Little Moonbow is Trey's best friend of all, and she would very much like Trey to marry her mother. Trey would like that, too, for he loves Jude despite the disfigured face she hides behind a veil. But Jude is the unnamed Queen in the little medieval fantasy world Trey and Moonbow have created, and Trey does not see himself as the sort of man a queen could ever love. 

Often enough, Trey thinks of leaving Emerald City--but he can't. He's afraid. Afraid he'll die, afraid the city will die, afraid to think about the probably paranormal origins of his luck and the reciprocal invulnerability he and Las Vegas share. And you'd be afraid, too, if you were marked to oppose one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

By now you know the signs: You are roaming the millennial imagination of Charles Grant. Chariot,  the third volume of his Millennium Quartet,  takes up the apocalyptic tale begun in  Symphony  and continued in In the Mood.  The foe this time around is Plague, who, like the other Horsemen, appears in human form. The appropriateness of Plague's avatar is perhaps a matter of the individual reader's taste, but there is just no quibbling with Plague's methods: Whether spreading the Sickness or enticing human minions, this Horseman works as insidiously as pathogens slipping from one host to another. This is creepy stuff.

The earlier novels' twin apocalyptic metaphors, music and riding, are both present in Chariot.  The musical metaphor is ambiguous here, because it is linked to characters on both sides of the conflict. There is no ambiguity about riding, however: Horsemanship is the exclusive purview of Plague and its human servitors. Trey is, by pointed contrast, a charioteer (like the fellow depicted on his lucky chip) rather than a horseman. When Moonbow tells him that a warrior needs a horse to ride into battle with a dragon, Trey replies that his old black pickup truck is his "chariot"--and Moonbow eventually decides that the idea makes perfect sense (pp. 27-28).

The theological questions I voiced in my reviews of the previous two installments find no resolution here. If seminary-trained Reverend Casey Chisholm couldn't unravel the conundrum of the Horsemen's place in God's scheme of things, it's no surprise that Trey, who shares John Bannock's lack of interest in religion, can't either. Confronted with the knowledge that Plague is, "theoretically, one of the Good Guys," all Trey can do is tell himself, "just keep it straight and simple, don't get yourself lost in a Biblical swamp" (p. 259). Despite indulging in vices such as anger, cruelty, and vengeance, and despite subtly playing on human weakness to build an army of willing murderers, Plague bridles at any identification with the Devil (p. 220). The Horsemen remain terrible destroyers who are somehow on God's side, yet shirk at no evil to accomplish their goals.

Chariot 's theological shortcomings are no reason not to read it, though. Grant continues to engage and entertain in the style to which we've become accustomed in this series, with an exciting and unpredictable plot, evocative prose, imaginative takes on the apocalyptic theme, and characters who are believable despite their eccentricities. As usual, Grant keeps us guessing: What is the origin of Trey's incredible luck and his sympatico with machinery? Who are Lord and Lady Harp, and why--if they really are just ordinary human beings, as they claim--are they able to do things other people can't? How can an old black pickup truck possibly help a man face down one of the dread Horsemen? I can't answer these questions, and wouldn't if I could. I wouldn't want to deprive you of the pleasure of drawing your own conclusions. So climb aboard and join Trey on his wild, apocalyptic chariot ride. You'll enjoy the trip--and making it is the only way to prepare for humanity's final confrontation with the Horsemen in the series' conclusion, Riders in the Sky.

Edited September 24, 2000.

Copyright ©2000 by Steven R. Solomon. All rights reserved.
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