The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons
One does not dive in and devour a Dan Simmons historical speculative fiction so much as slowly immerse yourself and gently tread water so that you are not drowned in the literarity. It’s a word now. Suck it.
Dan Simmons writes whatever the fuck he wants, straddling like five different genres expertly. My introduction to him was his historical fiction — The Terror. Which was excellent, if not problematic. I then read the first of the Hyperion Cantos, which was also excellent, but there’s no way you can shotgun those. Then I read Summer of Night, his vampire story, which was my favorite of his by far. Then I read Drood, which I should have been shoving in my face with both hands, as it was basically Dickens as told by Wilkie Collins hopped up on opium. It made me go out and add Wilkie Collins books to my list of to reads. But I didn’t quite love it. And that’s pretty much how I felt about this one.
The Fifth Heart is a story about author Henry James teaming up with Sherlock Holmes to stop an assassination plot by Irene Adler’s bastard son and Professor Moriarty. It alternates between James and Holmes, Holmes constantly shooting heroin or cocaine and James being a flibbertigibbet. It changes styles and apes Victorian literature, something Simmons is awesome at. It works in Simmons master class on the history of the day all while having a blast. We get a crotchety ol’ Samuel Clemens and a badass Adlai Stevenson.
The story is bogged down with so many complexities, because it can’t decide if it’s supposed to be a Henry James novel, a Sherlock Holmes potboiler or a Wild Wild West era steampunk version of Patriot Games. Further complicating matters is this existential throughline where Holmes is trying to determine whether or not he’s a real man or a fictional construct — complicated further by Holmes’ constant costumes and personalities. So we never really know if Holmes is Sherlock Holmes or a Talented Mr. Ripley. The novel is already patchwork enough without twisting this barbed wire of “What is Reality” like it’s Jules Verne’s The Matrix.
I give it three stars but it’s probably two and a half. But it’s probably four. I don’t even know. Like with all Simmons speculative fiction, the research is remarkable, the fun being had is delightful, but the overall plot is so languorous and convoluted. I love the set pieces but I hate the arrangement.