The Meq has an interesting origin for a fantasy novel. Its author is a rock musician who once wrote and played for a 70's AM-radio, one-hit wonder outfit called The Ozark Mountain Daredevils. I've downloaded (don't tell anyone!) one of their songs that Cash co-wrote, and while there's nothing explicitly in the band's style that might lead you to think he'd be a person to go on to write moody, atmospheric fantasy novels, I'm impressed that Cash could stretch himself so.
The Meq is, if nothing else, beautifully written. Cash has a poet/songwriter's facility for evocative, even mesmerizing language. The story, I'm sad to say, is a self-important bore, with a plot that meanders like a drunk driver. It crucially lacks both an appealing hero and a consistently applied sense of conflict. There are lush and dreamlike scenes aplenty. But those alone do not a novel make.
The premise is intriguing. The Meq are a race of Basque gypsies who remain frozen at the age of twelve, until the day they meet their soul mate. Our hero is Zianno Zezen, nicknamed Z, a Meq boy whose twelfth birthday arrives as the novel opens, in May of 1881. Unfortunately, that day his parents are tragically killed, as the train on which they are headed west across the U.S. runs right off a demolished bridge. Only then, with their dying breaths, do Z's parents fill him in on his true nature. He is given a set of magical stones which he is told to guard with his life, and is told to locate someone named Sailor. Then Z is promptly rescued from the wreckage by Solomon, a Jewish traveling businessman who takes him to St. Louis.
This scene establishes a pattern for the narrative that fast becomes irritating. This is one of those books in which characters impart earth-shaking secrets as they lay dying, and in which questions are answered with other questions or cryptic clues that lead characters off on interminable quests. Cash seems to think there is mystery in utter obscurantism, and while suspense is certainly one of those things that is well built by leaving out key details for characters and readers to fill in as the adventure unfolds, a story still has to meet the reader halfway.
For instance, Z's quest for Sailor takes him on a voyage to Africa and back that spans years. When he returns to St. Louis (where the orphan girls who were his childhood friends are now grown women, leading to one of the book's more intriguing dramatic scenes), he finds Sailor suddenly brought right to him by Solomon, who belongs to that class of characters who pop up when stories require them to and vanish when stories don't. Even if I were eternally young and the passage of decades meant nothing, being led on a wild goose chase for years only to find my quarry back on my front doorstep would probably piss me off something righteous, and most people I know as well. But Cash allows Z to be insouciant about it, so that he can do it to the poor kid again. Halfway through the book and we're in China, where Z and Sailor and others embark on an eight-year search for one of their ilk named Zeru-Meq, who finally pops up when he feels like it, and without so much as a "Sorry for stringing you along for eight years." How can I relate to or sympathize with these people if they're such jerks to one another?
What is the point of all this tireless, tiresome world tourism and questing? Well, it's all to locate one of their number named the Flower of Evil, who has, as his name might indicate, gone evil and assassinates seemingly at random. Le Fleur du Mal wants the stones that Z and other Meq carry, and then there's some other stuff that sort of slipped by me as my interest waned and waned.
This is not a bad novel, in that Cash does have a gift for emotionally rich drama and the occasional, electrifying setpiece. The first appearance of the Flower of Evil is really a shocker, and in an inspired touch, Cash throws in a tornado. He also does a lovely job of conveying time and place. There's a rich early detail, for example, involving the still young sport of baseball, and the way Cash uses it as a backdrop for all that is Americana rings true.
But as a fantasist, Cash still needs to iron out a lot of kinks. He's too enamored of mystery for mystery's sake, and readers are dragged for far too long in pursuit of revelations that aren't that revelatory, and a sense of wonder that, by the time it's arrived, you're too exhausted to be swept up in. The Meq hints at a potentially rich future for Steve Cash as a fantasy novelist, if only he lets his next book really rock.