Elegy Beach: sequel to Ariel, a sword-and-sorcery post-apocalyptic adventure story about the reinvention of software in the age of magic

Back in August, I gushed about the long-overdue reissue of Ariel, Steven R Boyett's classic post-apocalyptic sword-and-sorcery adventure novel about a world where technology stops working and magic returns. I mentioned then that there was a sequel coming in November, and today Elegy Beach, the sequel I've been waiting for for 26 years, hit the stands.

Elegy Beach is an odd kind of sequel. In Ariel, the world Changed sometime in the early 1980s, meaning that the post-apocalyptic adventurers in the tale were wandering through a society littered with the nonfunctional remnants of 1980s society. For Elegy Beach, Boyett has moved the Change forward, so that technology dies and magic takes over somewhere in the early 2010s. As Boyett notes, "to not update the pre-Change world would be even weirder. Do the characters just never talk about cell phones and the internet and relay towers and all of the pervasive evidence of such progress? To avoid the issue would be to risk losing the reader's identification with the world that has been lost, because that world would no longer be the one in which the reader lives."

More to the point, the premise of Elegy Beach requires that the Change take place after the rise of the Internet and widespread, civilian use of software. In Elegy Beach, we meet Fred, the adolescent son of Pete Garey (himself the adolescent hero of Ariel). It's been decades since Pete went adventuring and now he is a single parent settled in a coastal California town, a close-mouthed loner who is lethal with a sword and passionate about books. Fred and Pete don't get on very well. Fred is apprenticed to the local sorcerer, and he does scutwork for the old man, grinding herbs for potions, doing routine castings, though he yearns to do more.

What Fred wants to do -- along with Yan, his best friend -- is codify the rules of magic. As members of the first post-Change generation to come of age, Fred and Yan understand the non-technological, magic society as normal and approach magic without the reverence and mysticism of their generation-gapped elders. More specifically, Yan and Fred yearn to create "macros" for magic, software-like constructs that allow non-casters to make use of spells that have been bottled by a new kind of spell. These bottled enchantments could become a kind of renewable resource, a kind of technology -- a system that would give the remnant of humanity that remains a hope for out-competing the centaurs who hunt them for sport and the marauders who destroy their fragile settlements.

That's the plan, anyway. But Yan and Fred's partnership dissolves when it becomes apparent that Yan craves power for its own sake, and betrays Fred's trust. Enter Ariel, Pete's unicorn familiar who has not seen Pete in 25 years, and once again Pete is on the road, this time with Fred and Yan's father, the four of them set on stopping Yan before he unmakes the world.

It's as good a setup as Ariel, and the story is every bit the cracking yarn that Ariel was, but I admit that I was distracted by the discontinuities between the two books -- Elegy Beach amounts to a kind of contra-factual future-history of a world I've been in love with since I was just a boy, and it was hard to keep the two straight.

Considered as a variation on the themes in Ariel, Elegy Beach is fantastic, a nonstop adventure that you can easily swallow in a couple of intense, white-knuckle readings. As a sequel, though, it's a little odd and distracting. Kudos to Boyett for trying something different, and what a wonderful thing that he's turned his hand back to novel-writing again after a long hiatus.

Elegy Beach


  1. The thing that really bugged me about Ariel was the question of what happened to the people?

    In a way it’s very much a kid friendly version of SM Stirling’s ‘Dies the Fire’ series, but in that the question of how you feed a population that’s expecting refrigerated trucks and electric hobs is central.

    In Ariel you’ve got the sense that 95% of the population have gone, but they went so quickly that six years on it’s still possible to scavage food from disused malls. So where did they go? Shai-tan doubtless ate some of them, but there’s no sense that long distance travel is nigh lethal.

  2. I thought Ariel was just…stupid–yet another cookie-cutter magic-returns urban fantasy novel–but THIS sounds flatout awesome. Magical macros are a wonderful idea! I’ve got to pick this one up.

  3. Arial was an excellent, overlooked novel — it’s great to see it get overdue love, and a sequel, holy crap. Everyone, go buy this so Boyett can finish “Architect of Sleep”, too!

  4. I’ll second Wiz Biz. Talk about a short, entertaining book with some cool concepts.

    If you like seeing how a modern day programmer in a magical world goes about developing a magical compiler and programming language from scratch with a team of developers you’ll love it. There’s also lots of ethical issues when suddenly humans gain an unfair magical advantage over the other magical critters of the world since everybody can use extermination spells and they start committing genocide…

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