Johnny's Reviews > Jack Faust

Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick
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Nov 29, 2008

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bookshelves: fantasy, historical-fiction
Read in November, 2008

Jack Faust is a retelling of the “Faust” legend. It is richly evocative of the medieval setting and presents Mephistopheles in the most fascinating way as a supernatural being who appears almost randomly as both disgusting and appropriate creatures—visible to the eyes of Faust only. The use of a first name to personalize the protagonist rather fooled me, particularly since the action of the novel all takes place in an alternate medieval history in Europe. The contemporary name led me to believe that this alternate historical novel would reach its climax in either the modern or cyberpunk era—especially given the author’s work in the latter.

I was disappointed in my presumption, but encouraged by the narrative flow. Unlike Doctor Faustus or Faust, the rather poetic stage versions of the legend I had previously encountered, this novel spent less time engaging in philosophical discussion than in dragging the protagonist inexorably downward into the expected tragedy of a life wherein the power to bless (in this case, by scientific means) becomes the reality of a curse.

I was less convinced by the motivation attributed by the author to the demons. [Spoiler alert!] In this recounting of the legend, the author posits that the demons have a shorter lifestyle than that of the humans and that they are, understandably, jealous of the human advantage in this regard. So, their intent is to wreak revenge on humanity by allowing them unlimited knowledge such that they will destroy themselves. I understand the motivation of offering the knowledge such that it can be twisted back upon humanity—such was the promise of the serpent in Genesis 3. I don’t understand the idea of having powerful supernatural beings who survive for a shorter life-span than humans. It seems like the idea of beings beyond time would have added to the idea of a “race” with superior knowledge rather than enhanced it. I think the author was deliberately trying to avoid the traditional idea of demons being jealous of humans because the demonic fall was presumably permanent after Lucifer’s rebellion and the human fall was “reversible” by means of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In this case, I don’t believe anything was gained by jumping the shark of tradition. Of course, if you like novelty for novelty’s sake, it is at least a fresh take on the meta-struggle for humanity’s soul. But then again, if you were looking for novelty, you probably wouldn’t have picked up a novel with a name like Faust in the title. Why go for a retelling when you could get something…er…completely different.
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