Melissa Scott and Jo Graham’s 2015 novel Windraker is the fourth installment in their ongoing Order of the Air series. In this episode, the cast is drawn to Hawai‘i, where they find themselves tangling with modern prejudice, old curses, ancient history, and the rising threat of fascism.
China’s Treasure Fleets reached as far west as Africa; this is known. How far east China’s ship’s reached is a matter of conjecture. Evidence that at least one Chinese ship stumbled across Hawai’i decades before Cook encountered those islands is, at best, inconclusive. When he is offered the chance to lead a field expedition to follow up on an enigmatic find, Jerry Ballard is happy to accept the position; not many field opportunities are offered to one-legged scientists.
Meanwhile, Ballard’s old friend Alma Segura’s company, Gilchrist Aviation, is hired to test a promising new sea plane. By coincidence — or perhaps fate! — the test zone is none other than America’s greatest island territory, Hawai‘i!
True, there is the matter of the abandoned children Alma’s employee Mitchell Sorley and his lover Stasi took in. Sorley has no experience with children while Stasi’s is tragic … but what better way for a newly blended family to adapt to one another than by dragging the kids half-way around the world to an unfamiliar territory?
But even as Alma, her husband Lewis Segura, and their business partner Mitchell Sorley find their test flights complicated by an old curse, Ballard begins to suspect he should have asked more probing questions about his expedition’s mysterious backer. Dark forces are in motion and by accepting his current job, Ballard may have allied himself with evil.
L. Sprague de Camp once lamented that he wrote his Johnny Black stories in the wrong order. The first one had Johnny save the world. The last one had him save his boss’ job. There is something of that in this series: in the first book the team saved the world from a freed demon. Now they seem to be reduced to sparring with recurring antagonist William Pelley, steadfast fascist and, like Alma and her chums, adept occultist.
If there’s one thing Indiana Jones teaches us, it is that eventually you have to stop toying with your extended plot and
melt the Nazis. Scott and Graham are constrained by their choice of antagonist. Pelley is a historical figure who didn’t die until 1965, so cathartic head-melting is not in the cards, at least not in the 1930s. Of course, the authors have only themselves to blame for selecting an antagonist with historical plot immunity. On the plus side, the next thirty years will not go well for Mr. Pelley.
While the long term plots didn’t particularly engage me, the novel works well on other scales. Part of the plot turns on the extremes people will go to in order to shoehorn actual archaeological findings, like Ming vases of unknown provenance, into rather dubious historical models, such as the Nazi conviction that Tibet was settled by Aryans1.
People who are reading the series to watch how unusual people find safe niches for themselves in an extremely conformist society should enjoy this volume. Watching Stasi and Sorley try to work out what being a parent means for them was particularly interesting.
How engaging this volume is depends, I think, on whether you are more invested in the grand scale struggle against Pelley and the Silver Legion or in the day-to-day lives of the characters. I would give it a C on the first but an A on the second. Since I read it for the second, I came away well pleased.
Windraker is available from Crossroads Press.
1: The speculation about the ambiguous phrasing about the eastern fleet’s goal may also be an example, if it turns out the phase in question is not ambiguous in the same way in Chinese as it is in English.