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June 1999
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, by Robert Nathan
Tachyon Publications, 1998; 118pp; $14.00
Trade paperback; ISBN 1-892391-03-1

All too often when you read a classic story, you find yourself enjoying it in a way the author undoubtedly never intended. You think, "How quaint" or, "Yes, I can see why this was considered so good, or innovative, in its day," but you're reading it with a certain amount of condescension. Rather than being caught up with the immediacy of the story, the characters, the setting, you're viewing them through a patronizing filter that sets everything at a distance.

Then there are those stories that truly transcend the boundaries of their era, timeless tales as relevant and expressive now as they were the day they were written, even if that day lay decades in the past.

Portrait of Jennie is definitely one of the latter. And it really surprises me that I've missed it until now because I try to pay attention to this sort of story. For somewhat contemporary touchstones, consider Richard Matheson, or Jack Finney, or Alan Brennert's classic Time and Chance. It's not that Robert Nathan's short novel is exactly like any of those books, but it does have a similar feel in terms of characterization, how the story unfolds, and how it deals with time travel in a unique and heartfelt (rather than scientific) way.

The narrator is a destitute artist who meets a young girl by chance in a park. Upon parting, she tells him about a wishing game she plays. When he asks her what it is that she wishes for, she says "I wish you'd wait for me to grow up. But you won't I guess."

So begins a strange relationship. The artist keeps meeting the girl over the next year or so, but whenever he does, she's older than the last time--years older. He realizes that, somehow, she's travelling in time. How everything works out, I won't tell you, but I will say that Nathan plays fair throughout. More importantly, he's crafted a beautiful book here--one that brings to life the earlier part of this century, exploring creativity, character, and the paradoxical nature of time. He manages to be sentimental without being cloying, literate without overwriting, and passionate without a need for graphic detail.

If you've somehow missed this over the years, as I did, don't let this reprint edition slip by. Should your local bookseller be unable to get it for you, try writing to Tachyon at 1459 18th Street, San Francisco, CA 94107.
*     *     *
SEIZE THE NIGHT, by Dean Koontz
Bantam, 1998; 384pp; $26.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-553-10665-1

Since we started out following this series by Koontz in these pages, I thought we might as well check in to see how the second volume fares--especially since it relates to the Nathan title with another take on time paradoxes.

Seize the Night is narrated by Chris Snow, a young man we first met in Fear Nothing who suffers from a rare genetic disorder that leaves him dangerously vulnerable to almost any form of light (sunshine, computer and TV screens, fluorescent and regular bulbs, etc.). Once again set in the night world that Snow inhabits, this time around children are disappearing from seemingly tranquil Moonlight Bay and the police appear to be more concerned with hiding the fact, than capturing the killer. But if the police won't investigate, Snow and his friends will.

The trail soon leads them to the deserted military base of Fort Wyvern and they no longer know if they're dealing with a serial killer, or some genetic changeling created in the labs that lie under the abandoned fort. By the end of the book, we've delved a little further into the governmental experiments in genetics introduced in the earlier book, but things get more complicated still with a generous helping of time travel paradoxes added to the stew.

Present here are most of Koontz's strengths: the clean prose, the fast pace, the snappy dialogue, the fascinating speculations into things not quite of this world, but perhaps closer to reality than we might like to think, given the recent advances in genetics and the other sciences. But something still seems to be missing. The new novel is longer than Fear Nothing, but it doesn't have as much meat. It's not so much a sophomore slump (which occurs all too often with the middle book of a trilogy) as that the characters aren't really affected by all that goes on (and there are some staggering things that go on here). Puzzles are unravelled, secrets left over from the earlier book are deepened, but the characters themselves don't change or grow from their experiences.

Because of that, Seize the Night reads more like an installment in an adventure series. An excellent, fast-paced, keeps-you-on-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure, mind you, but I missed the depth of characterization I've come to expect in a Koontz novel. Hopefully that'll come to the fore in the third and final volume of the series.
*     *     *
THE GUMSHOE, THE WITCH AND THE VIRTUAL CORPSE, by Keith Hartman
Meisha Merlin, 1999; 450pp; $16.00
Trade paperback; ISBN 1-892065-05-3

If you can get past the unwieldy (and rather too cutesy) title, there's a fine debut novel here by Keith Hartman. What kind of novel, I'm at a little of a loss to say. Equal arguments can be made that it's a police procedural, a contemporary Wiccan fantasy, a gay PI novel, a near future sf thriller, a novel of social commentary, and even, in the sections from the point of view of one character, a YA coming of age story.

In the end, it's a bit of them all, I suppose, which is part of what made me enjoy it so much. I love a book that breaks down the walls between genres, that just tells a story, the author trusting himself and the story enough to let it go wherever it leads him.

Here the story begins with a series of mysterious, occult-related murders set in a near future, or alterrnate world, where magic (of Wicca/shamanistic variety) is real and a certain tension lies between the practitioners of it and those who follow more traditional religions. As the murders continue, that tension escalates into armed confrontations between the more militant of these groups, and Hartman does a fine job of exploring the ramifications of the case and the growing social upheavals as they impact upon the investigating officers and other characters.

But that bent towards strong characterization for even the smaller players does have a downside. There's a lot of point-of-view swapping throughout the book, some of which don't appear to have any connection to the main story at first, and a handful of others that are present only to explain things (those from the villain's pov), but the former begin to coalesce into one fascinating narrative about a third of the way through, while the latter are only momentarily distracting.

Without getting too much into details for fear of giving away too much, I was stopped cold by a moral question that arises at the end of the book when we find out who's behind the murders, and why they were committed. I still don't know quite how I feel about what the murderer did. Obviously, it was despicable and one can't condone it, but it's the mark of a good book when you can still understand, and in some way even empathize, with a character such as that.

The Gumshoe, the Witch, and the Virtual Corpse is, like it's title, a somewhat busy book, but there's enough payoff in characterization, story and ideas to make the trip through its pages a real pleasure.

*     *     *
Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.

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