Ahab’s Return: The Last Voyage by Jeffrey Ford. William Morrow, 2018, 259pp.
In the mid19th century, a man named George Harrow works as a fabulist for a penny dreadful called The Gorgon’s Mirror, making up absurd stories for a willingly gullible readership. It’s hard work making up the right kind of nonsense and he’s going through a bit of a dry spell, so it seems a stroke of luck that brings a one-legged sea captain to his office, claiming to be ‘the’ Ahab from Moby Dick. Which, of course, was actually written by Ishmael, a former writer/copy editor at the Mirror, and not that Melville fellow.
Ahab, it seems, did not drown attached to the great white whale after all, and is now returned, looking for his wife and son who believed him dead. Harrow, of course, sees the possibility of a series of stories based on Ahab’s experiences and his search for his family, and offers his help in exchange and we are off and running.
Ahab’s wife has long since passed away and his son, Gabriel, is one of many young men in the thrall of a Fagin-like criminal boss called Malbaster, who keeps the so-called Jolly Host in line with opium and appeals to bigotry and racism. There’s also a sad zombie(ish) assassin named Bartleby, and a manticore who eats people and recites poetry. Ahab and Harrow assemble their own team: Arabella, an apparent opium fiend who is much more than she seems. Mavis, a courier for the Mirror and genuine badass, and Madi, a former harpooner and fellow survivor of the Pequod. Many alarms and excursions as the group attempts to rescue Gabriel from Malbaster’s clutches and put a stop to Malbaster.
All of which is and is not what the book is about. Malbaster himself drops a hint at what’s really at stake:
“…Love generates great energy with which to form the world. But Fear and Ignorance aren’t bad themselves, producing their own grim yet powerful magic. The secret, Harrow, is e pluribus unum.”
I don’t think I’m giving away too much by stating that a great deal of the book revolves around Malbaster’s true nature, and true danger. Any reader well in is going to pick up on that, and plainly see the correlation to certain events taking place in this country now. If you’re not into subtext, you’re still left with a rousing magical adventure taking place in the New York of 1853, including references to and plot points depending on: changing street names, Seneca Village, and John Jacob Astor’s secret stash of opium.
Reading over the above, I have to say that it just doesn’t do the book justice. Ford is at the top of his game here, and there isn’t anyone better (or at all) doing what he does. Read the book yourself and you’ll understand what I mean.