The Ninth Wave
Reviewed by Alana Joli Abbott
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:1 (#342) in January 2011.]
The Ninth Wave takes the first branch of the Mabinogion, the story of Pwyll, and transposes it into a near future dystopia. There is no oil in the world, and though some modern technology is still in place, the world has largely broken down into feudal boundaries. Here, Pwyll is a bored aristocrat. He’s served time as a soldier, which he enjoyed, except for the violence. By chance, he encounters another aristocrat, Arawn, who seeks to enlist Pwyll for his military experience in helping destroy another rival lord. While Pwyll runs his espionage out of Arawn’s house, eventually speaking with Havgan, who is burning carcasses for fuel and has a side charity of providing illegal euthanizing drugs for those who want to escape this new reality, Arawn sets Pwyll’s lands to right.
The story continues on in much the same vein as its inspiration, from the meeting and courting of Pwyll and Rhiannon to the birth and disappearance of their son, Pryderi. But rather than the magic of a never-full food bag and the simple joy of having a lost son returned (and Rhiannon cleared of the crime), Jones’s Pwyll kills his rival, Gwawl, at a Starbucks, and the author shows just how broken a family can be when a child has been missing for nine years. Apart from moments of happiness when Pwyll and Rhiannon finally overcome Gwawl, the characters are largely marked by their distance from each other. Pwyll struggles to find any purpose in his life—his people only love him because Arawn put harsher rules in order while Pwyll ran the mission against Havgan, and Pwyll keeps them in place despite his ambivalence about their morality. He has no real ambition, no clear ability to act on his desires without being pushed. Likewise, Rhiannon always seems one step away from killing herself. That feeling of disconnectedness is amplified when Pryderi disappears, and the deterioration of their marriage—and the lack of concern that Pwyll is doing nothing to tend to his lands—seem to show the unimportance of either of their lives to anyone but each other.
Does the novel work on its own, without that connection to the Mabinogion? I’m not sure. Like the branch that inspires it, the novel ends with Pryderi poised to become a hero. And it’s in that moment that the novel offers something that hasn’t shown up anywhere else in the text: hope. Pryderi doesn’t seem to want responsibility—or have ambition—any more than his father. And yet, when the opportunity presents itself, Pryderi is the one who takes action on his own, who steps forward, rather than being dragged along by events like his father. That the novel ends with hope makes me think that Jones actually intended it to feel like a conclusion, that a whole story is told here: one son, returning from war uninspired, unready to claim his heritage, and with no parents to guide him, juxtaposed with a son, returned to his parents after years of no responsibility, who steps into responsibility without hesitation. It’s hard to call the novel enjoyable given the dystopian state of both the world and the lives of the main characters, but the ending is utterly satisfying. As a writing experiment—updating an old tale for a new audience—there’s a lot of artistry present, making it worthwhile, if not a lot of fun.