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Dark Cities Underground & Reading List
Lisa Goldstein
Tor Books

A review and a compilation by Margo MacDonald

Lisa Goldstein
Lisa Goldstein was born in 1953 in Los Angeles, California. She received a B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1975 and was the co-owner of Dark Carnival Bookstore, Berkeley, California, between 1976 and 1982.

Lisa Goldstein Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Lisa Goldstein is, I think, one of fantasy's best kept secrets. In spite of having won the American Book award for her first published novel in 1983 and being nominated for Hugo and Nebula awards for her work since, not many people can claim to have read all 9 of her books and many more have never heard of her at all. Well, I'd like to set about changing that. The recent release of her new novel, Dark Cities Underground, seems like the perfect opportunity for me to let everyone in on my undying affection for the work of this quiet and compelling author.

Like Tim Powers and Jonathan Carroll, very little of Goldstein's work is set in traditional fantasy settings and therefore, much of it remains unclassifiable. Goldstein herself offers this advice to would-be authors, "Pick a genre and stick to it." Her career has been plagued by publishers not quite knowing how to market her work. Is it fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction, what?! Now, years later, the decision seems to have come down for fantasy, but very little of her work, especially the short stories, fits comfortably within this description in its traditional sense.

Most of her stories take place in more or less contemporary settings where characters gradually get caught up in encounters with one form of strangeness or another, which they were never previously aware existed. Often woven into the context of the story are historical facts and events which help to lend the excitement of possibility to what would otherwise be merely contemporary fantasy. And then of course there are the stories which don't fit into this description at all.

But no matter what the context, Goldstein's style remains unerringly unaltered. There's a subtle beauty to all her work; a charm which draws the reader in and keeps them there, not wanting to put the book down until it's finished. And this is another thing I like about Goldstein -- no sequels. Her books are solid and complete in one volume and never seem to leave you with that 'unfinished' feeling.

She writes with a sense of what I have come to call 'complexity through simplicity.' The characters, for example, seem simple and likable enough. It is only at the end of the book that you realize that the journey the characters have taken has changed them and their way of life from now on. The stories, the journeys themselves, are easy to follow and simple enough while reading the book, but try to tell someone the story afterwards and you will realize just how many elements were involved and how convoluted the connections, in fact, are. And how the story had not so much to do with the plot, as the way it was told.

Dark Cities Underground (1999) Dark Cities Underground (1999), Tor Books
Dark Cities Underground is classic Goldstein. It takes place in her current hometown of Oakland, California, with the action moving to London, England. Goldstein undertakes the ambitious task of creating an alternate world underground which combines the settings of all the major children's classics, such as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, etc., as well as the world's major myths. The theory Goldstein is working with here is voiced by one of her characters:

"There's a tradition of adults making up stories for children, but maybe -- maybe... the children were the ones who actually told the adults the stories. The established view is that Lewis Carroll -- Charles Dodgson -- made up his stories for Alice and her sisters, and that J.M. Barrie told his stories to five young brothers, one of whom was named Peter. But what if it worked the other way around? What if different children at different times stumbled on this place -- this World Below -- and tried to explain it to some adult?"
It's a compellingly simple idea. One that Goldstein makes more complex by adding to it a myth of her own making -- that subway systems are the entrances to this underground world and that all subway systems are linked by portals which allow passage between one system and another. The construction of these systems has been overseen by various factions vying for control and access to the world underground. Here's where Goldstein really works her magic. By combining real incidents and people from the histories of subway construction with fictional characters and episodes from her own imagination, she is able to leave a convincing impression that, if not her theory, then at least something unusual is connected with subway systems and the London Underground in particular.

It's an exciting, whirlwind adventure as a man discovers the truth about the children's books his mother became famous for. Goldstein has a lot to thank the classic children's authors for in this volume, and the main character's attitude towards his life as a storybook character brings to mind interviews given recently by the real Christopher Robin. But the winding layers of this adventure are purely Goldstein's.

The book reels you in right from the start. You know from the prologue that something extraordinary is about to happen. And it does -- several times over. My only wish is that Goldstein had allowed more room for the various elements of the story to grow. There is so much here that the progression sometimes felt a little forced. Nevertheless, it is a great read and a good introduction to her work for those who may not as yet have had the pleasure.

And if you haven't, here's a guide to her previously published work to get you started:

The Red Magician (1982) The Red Magician (1982), Tor Books
This is Goldstein's first published novel. It won the 1983 American Book Award and has recently been re-released in a lovely trade edition.

Powerfully moving, the story takes place in Hungary at the arrival of the Nazis. While the Nazis are fighting their war, two magicians battle each other for the souls and safety of a small village. The writing effortlessly blends history, fantasy and mythology. The reader is brought through the horrors of a nazi concentration camp into the strange and powerful world of magic; magic that has the power to heal souls.

Tourists (1989) Tourists (1989), Tor Books
The best of the best, this novel is the most brilliantly written of all Goldstein's work. The tale shifts and weaves like the streets of Amaz, the fictional middle-eastern city where the story is set (which also features in several of Goldstein's short stories). The book explores the power of words and language as well as the strength of fears.

As an American professor and his family try to unlock the mysteries of an ancient manuscript and an even more ancient city, they get caught in a web of magic and intrigue which weaves into their own insecurities and fears. Goldstein creates a world both ancient and strange where magic not only exists but is an element in the bricks of the houses, in the paving stones of the streets and in the very air that is breath itself.

Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon (1993) Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon (1993), Tor Books
Set in the Renaissance London of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, this is a tale of fairies, intrigue and alchemy. A widow stumbles onto a fairy celebration and thereafter is followed by a brownie who does her dishes and sweeps her kitchen floor. Marlowe gets writer's block and is roped into becoming a spy for Her Majesty, while a self-made sorcerer will go to any lengths to find the alchemical secrets of turning lead to gold and life into everlasting. Not to mention the re-birth of Arthur...

A quirky mix of old wives' tales and suspense stories, this is a charming book that really has very little to do with the dragons depicted on the cover artwork.

Summer King, Winter Fool (1994) Summer King, Winter Fool (1994), Tor Books
The only one of Goldstein's novels to be set completely in a traditional fantasy world, Summer King, Winter Fool may initially be disappointing to those who have grown to love her more urban/historical tales. However, once into the story, the disappointment will quickly fade.

The reader enters a mythical kingdom where gods still descend to earth and the seasons are literally controlled by the rituals surrounding their worship. The human court is filled with corruption, decadence and manipulation. Various factions struggle to advance through flattering the right people and demonstrating their brilliance. All rolls along smoothly as it has done for centuries, until the whim of a god and an untimely death threaten to bring the kingdom to its doom. A would-be poet is the only hope the kingdom has for survival, but will he fulfill his destiny in time?

Travellers in Magic (1994) Travellers in Magic (1994), Tor Books
The collected short stories of Lisa Goldstein, this volume is a pure delight. A treasure trove of ideas, these stories bear the seeds from which many of the longer works sprung. Goldstein has included notes for each story in the collection which shed light on her sources of inspiration, working style and personality. Not every author can successfully convey their ideas in both short and long formats, but Goldstein has been able to leap back and forth from short stories to novels with ease and grace. This volume includes the Hugo and Nebula awards nominee, "Cassandra's Photographs."
Walking the Labyrinth (1996) Walking the Labyrinth (1996), Tor Books
This is my personal favourite. There is something about the main character's search for the truth about her family background that spoke to me. Of course, since this character is living in a Goldstein book, the truth about her family is nothing ordinary. The search takes her to England where she discovers that her family were founders of a cult known as the Order of the Labyrinth for whom magic was not just a possibility but a reality. Her own reality shifts as she discovers more and more information about her family and she must struggle with re-evaluating her perceptions of truth as well as her feelings about belonging to a family built on illusion.
The Dream Years (1985), Bantam Spectra
A truly fabulous book. If you can find a copy, grab it. The Surrealist movement of the 20s was based in Paris and led by André Breton. Reacting against the horrors of World War I, Breton and his followers operated under the belief that the dreamworld was the one true reality. Little wonder, then, that Goldstein's hero of The Dream Years, a would-be Surrealist, is not too surprised to find out that the fascinating woman he has just met is from the future and one of the key players in the Paris student revolution of 1968. The story weaves back and forth in time like a dream itself and in typical Goldstein fashion, uses pieces of historical fact to mould extraordinary fiction.
A Mask for the General (1987), Bantam Spectra
The images and ideas in this story are great. Taking place in a possible future America, the book looks at the animal nature of people and the tribal instincts of mankind. In Orwellian fashion, society is ruled by the General who dictates the rules of conduct and enforces them through a constant military presence. At Berkeley, students begin a grassroots rebellion that includes such shamanic elements as tribal dances and the creation of totem masks which help individuals become aware of their true nature.

Unfortunately, this work is marred by weak writing, especially in the dialogue. This is probably the main reason you will not find it back in print any time soon. But, if you can find a copy and don't mind the occasional cringe over the wording, you may find, like I did, that this book still has something to offer fans of Lisa Goldstein.

Copyright © 1999 by Margo MacDonald

Margo has always been drawn toward fantasy and, at the age of 5, decided to fill her life with it by pursuing a career as a professional actress. Aside from theatre (and her husband), Margo's passion has been for books. Her interests are diverse and eclectic, but the bulk fall within the realm of speculative fiction. She tells us that her backlog has reached 200 books and she's ready to win the lottery and retire.


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