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August 1999
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
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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

THE BORDER, by Marina Fitch
Ace Books, January 1999; 307pp; $5.99
Mass Market; ISBN 0-441-00594-2

In fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, borders are traditionally places of enchantment--potent bridges between what is and what might be. The border between Mexico and the U.S. is a place of heartbreak, hope, and despair. When you combine the two, you have the potential for a heady mix.

In her new novel Marina Fitch doesn't really stray from the World As It Is into the magical fields beyond. Most of the novel takes place in the borderlands, that area where the world is as we know it, but into which magic has strayed. It begins with an Irishman living in Mexico, on the run from an act of sectarian violence in his homeland. He has met and married a Mexican woman and now has two daughters: Rosa who resembles her mother, and Maria/Mary who looks white.

The first half of the book switches back and forth between the past and present. One plotline tells how the family, on the run from Irish assassins, attempts an illegal border crossing which results in only Mary and her father getting safely across. The other takes place in the present where we find a now adult and pregnant Rosa attempting to make the same crossing once more. It's a heartbreaking and evocative section, rich with character and tension.

The second half introduces a number of new characters, one of whom is the now adult Mary who, when she meets her uncle, begins once more the search to find her sister Rosa.

The Border is simply too rich with detail and wonderful characterizations to attempt to condense it here. The problems of the otherworld and ours mingle with equal fascination. We have Mary's search for her sister which brings a tangle of estrangement into her marriage, already suffering tensions because of her despair at being unable to have a child; her artist friend Teddy, crippled by a disease and unable to work at her art; a mysterious Mexican woman, suspected of killing goats and drinking their blood; an another equally mysterious Mexican woman working for Mary's husband, who is mute but has the ability to draw the most private realizations from those with whom she "converses." And then there are the angels, and Rosa's mysterious invisible companion . . .

And, of course, there remain the questions, what happened to Rosa at the border and where is she now?

From start to finish, this is an enchanting, noteworthy novel, one that I know I will be rereading soon. That's just as soon as I track down a copy of her earlier book, The Seventh Heart, and devour it.

* * *
CHOICE OF EVIL, by Andrew Vachss
Knopf, 1999; 293pp; $23.00
Hardcover; ISBN 0-375-40647-6

For some time now, Andrew Vachss has been using proceeds from his secondary career as an author to ensure that he can continue his primary career as a defense lawyer. This is a necessity since his clients don't have incomes of their own--they are children, some of them only infants. Vachss also uses his novels to promote the need for stronger laws to protect the rights of children and other groups of individuals who are often poorly served by society as a whole, groups such as abused women and gays.

All of which is very commendable, but the real proof, so far as we're concerned in this column, is how does the new novel stand up as fiction? Happily there continues to be more to Vachss's novels and stories than an author creating work simply to promote a just cause.

This time out Vachss's continuing character Burke, a street-wise character living on the margins of regular society, is drawn into the search for a man who is murdering known pedophiles and gay-bashers. Burke is pulled in for questioning by the police, which doesn't surprise him--"I was born a suspect," is how he puts it. But as the novel progresses, everything points to a childhood companion of Burke's--a cold-hearted assassin named Wesley. The only problem is, Wesley is dead.

With Choice of Evil, Vachss strays the closest he's come yet into the supernatural. There's the witch Strega, a dangerous woman who always seems to know more than should be possible. There's the concept of the Gatekeeper who will allow the return of an evil man or woman, but only if you bring him a new soul for every soul the killer took. And then there's Wesley. Either back from the dead himself, or someone's bringing him back by cutting a deal with the Gatekeeper.

What's particularly fascinating about this Burke novel is how Vachss explores the creation of a myth, how something can become real if enough people believe in it. In that sense, it's not important whether or not Wesley has come back from the dead, but that people believe that he has.

There's more to the book than simply that, of course. Vachss writes with a lean, hard-boiled prose. His characters are tough and capable, but blessed with great hearts. He takes us down among the bottom feeders of society, a place unfamiliar to most of us (I hope), but one of which we should be aware. Because that world impacts on our own, no matter how far uptown or out in the 'burbs we might live from it. And in that world, innocents are imperiled. What Vachss does is remind us that they are our responsibility. Their safety lies with us. Their lives depend on whether we are willing to reach a hand out to help them, or if we turn our backs upon them.

* * *


THE SILICON DAGGER, by Jack Williamson
Tor, April 1999; 304pp; $23.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-312-86540-6

Though his writing career now spans seven decades, Jack Williamson proves with his latest novel that he still has what it takes to tell an engaging story and make his readers think.

The Silicon Dagger begins when Clay Barstow's brother Alden Kirk is murdered. Kirk had just written a book warning of increased domestic terrorist activity to come in the wake of the advances that have been made in information technology. Since the last place Kirk visited was McAdam County in Kentucky—a microcosm, in Kirk's opinion, of the trouble brewing throughout America--Barstow goes there to see if he can track down his brother's murderers.

As one would expect, things quickly go from bad to worse. Barstow has hardly arrived in McAdam County before he becomes involved in a conspiracy to secede from the union that's powered by an amazing new technology developed by a local software engineer. Barstow runs afoul of the local militia and very suddenly, he's on he run and wanted for murder.

Much of The Silicon Dagger is taken up with discussions involving the impact of the rapid dissemination of information today and the speculation of how new defensive/offensive technologies will change our concepts of national boundaries, as well as sidebars into the impulses that fuel racism, local militias, Libertarianism and fundamental Christianity. And it's to Williamson's credit that rather than bog the story down, these discussions are the story, and a riveting one at that.

Now some readers might feel that Williamson's pulp origins are a little too evident in terms of characterization and how the plot unfolds. And others might find it too distancing in how much of the "action" takes place at one step removed: Barstow following the stories on Internet news/video shows from his various hiding places. But the former only proves the vitality still to be found in such a writing style, while the latter proves to be a fascinating method of presenting all the various sides to an argument.

In short, this is a novel of ideas, and an important one in terms of how it makes us consider where the next few years will take us as we ride into the millennium on the back of the rapid changes in technology and the ever- escalating erosion of an individual's personal freedoms. The arguments are presented fairly from a number of viewpoints and make for a riveting read.

*     *     *
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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