Publisher: Abacus (1992 reprint, orginally published 1990)
ISBN: 0 34910 214 4
Précis: A man lies in a coma after a near fatal acccident. His body broken, his memory vanished, he finds himself in the surreal world of the bridge - a world free of the usual constraints of time and space, a world where dream and fantasy, past and future fuse. Who is the man? Where is he? Is he more dead than alive? Or has he never been so alive before?
Summary: Driving too fast and distracted by the view of rust red coloured bridge our protagonist crashes into a parked car. Bleeding and trapped he awaits rescue, slowly losing consciousness. Awakening he finds himself driving a horse carriage with some dread cargo to a nearby town, with no small amount of urgency. He is obstructed from his purpose by an almost identical, but different, counterpart travelling the same road. Mirroring each other's actions precisely they obstruct each other and eventually the two give up and return the way they came.
This is then revealed to be the dream a Mr Orr is relating to his psychologist. We discover that Mr Orr was found washed up from the sea at the base of the massive construction that is the Bridge and that he had a large round bruise on his chest. Since then he has been treated and cared for as a patient with the eventual hopes of letting him regain his memory. So far this has failed and in an effort to keep his doctor interested Mr Orr has taken to making up dreams.
Called by some friends he goes out late one night to rescue them and to help keep company one Abberlaine Arrol, the chief engineer's daughter. From this meeting the two become friends and begin to meet again.
Meanwhile, a barbarian with a terrible accent and low IQ, has begun a journey up through a Sorceress Queen's tower - all the while being both guided and insulted by a familiar perched on his shoulder. Avoiding traps, guards and a variety of other things the Barbarian finally makes it up to the top of the tower whereupon the familiar and the Queen fight it out, leaving the Barbarian to his own devices. Sneaking back down, just before the top level explodes, he makes his escape back into the world...
Mr Orr has been finding life increasingly grim, moved out of his apartment and reassigned to a new doctor he finds himself stripped of the privileges he had thus far enjoyed and been accustomed to. The one bright point is the depeening friendship he shares with Abberlaine. After she discovers his new housing arrangements she proposes a better solution for him, an old house down on the foundation level of the bridge which is an unused home in her family.
Moving there he begins to settle in and, unexpectedly visited by Abberlaine, they change their friendship to include lovers as they become physically intimate with each other. Later, while trying to satisfy his curiousity about where the Bridge connects too and how it works, Mr Orr decides to take advantage of the confusion generated by an attack on the bridge to ship off in a train.
Back with the Barbarian life has also become more grim since he lost the familiar. Fortune hasn't entirely come his way and he now misses the familiar just as much as he used to hate it and it's jabbering in his ear. However he has had a promising lead on some treasure, and a Sleeping Beauty, to be nabbed, the only snag being he has to descend into the UnderWorld to get it. Not phased in the slightest by this he goes into the UnderWorld, fighting and killing Cerebus before proceeding to wreak mayhem and disaster as he upsets Hell's delicate balance. At the end of it all he finds that the object he has fought long and hard to rescue is in fact the familiar he had lost. At this point he re-discovers why he hates the thing so...
The train journey continues into increasingly unfamiliar territory till eventually Mr Orr is spotted and removed from the train. There problems get worse as he finds a war is occuring. Captured first by one side, then escaping only to be captured by the other side he eventually ends up telling stories to a 'Field Marshal' he despises. Finally an attack on the train the Field Marshal is in brings that to an end and he begins to wander the country side.
The Barbarian however has gone from strength to strength and has now amassed a fortune in both money and equipment, including a functional starship. He has been actively searching for a fountain of youth for a long time now, with little success. Having come to rest a bit at the latest place he has investigated for immortality he comes under a determined attack from a young upstart out to kill him. At the last moment the familiar manages to effect a personality transfer between the two, giving the pair a new lease on life in the young body.
Mr Orr however has wandered into the desert, he comes across a man he has seen before beating bodies on the bottom of a dried up sea basin with a city nearby. Questioning the man for a moment he is given a card and then continues on his way. Eventually prone on the ground due to lack of water and exhaustion he meets and then becomes one with the barbarian. Playing dead he manages to trick the vultures into coming close to kill and gains enough strength from their blood to continue on. He finds the remains of the bridge he left so long ago. Being attacked by sand, and without any life on it, it seems an empty shell now.
A wind swirls up taking him from the bridge and leaving him as a man in a hospital bed. A nearby machine talks to him briefly informing him that the choice of waking up is his, he merely has to make the choice. Unfortunately neither he nor the machine know how to make that choice. So he sweats and he waits and watches from inside his body as the nurses come and go.
Finally, he decides...
Comments: If you never read another Iain book, then make sure that your last book was this one. More complex in some ways than 'Use of Weapons', even with a more linear timeline, this is an incredible tale. Symbols abound through the story and half of the story, told through flashbacks, is the history of the mystery man so that we can recognise and understand the symbols appearing in the world around him.
Part of the complexity is that we are never explicitly told the main characters name. Symbolic of his own confusion and the choices he has to make the name is revealed to us in indirect ways allowing us to piece together who and how this person is. Nearly everything in the story is there for a reason, from the bridge itself to the annoying and almost awkward spelling of the Barbarian - nothing is wasted.
Finally the story itself is uplifting in a way that only 'Crow Road' has matched, the ending of the story itself is a satisfying one. The correct choice for the dilemas facing the hero. All in all a masterful tale told extremely well. Read It. As soon as possible!