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December 1999
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
 
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Coming Attractions
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 MARRIAGE OF STICKS, by Jonathan Carroll
Tor Books, September 1999; 256pp; $23.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-312-87193-7

While Jonathan Carroll has been steadily publishing books since 1980 when Viking published his now-classic The Land of Laughs, it's been some time since he published a book in the genre. And since it was the Ace edition of The Land of Laughs (published in 1983) that first built his reputation, his returning to the field for his latest release feels a bit like completing a circle.

The Marriage of Sticks is classic Carroll: witty, wise, strange, elusive, immediate. What's especially fascinating about a Carroll fantasy is, while the fantastic elements may be outrageous, the real world elements can be even more off the wall. Which, when you think about it, is pretty much the way it works in the world as it is. Yes, a talking dog is amazing, but the things people do, and the reasons they have for doing them, often feel far more alien and inexplicable.

The story opens with Miranda Romanac, a procurer of rare books, who is drifting through her life until she begins an affair with a married man. Unlike the way this usually plays out in the real world, her lover actually leaves his family to make a life with Romanac. This should be where we cue in the "happily ever after" theme music and cut to the credits--at least that's how Romanac perceives it--but we've only just begun the story.

I'd like to discuss the plot in more detail, but I feel I've given enough away as it is. The best books keep you guessing from the first page, twisting and turning in on themselves with perfect internal logic that only becomes apparent after the surprises are revealed, and The Marriage of Sticks is no exception. Suffice it to say that Romanac's life doesn't play out the way either she, or we, the readers, would have expected. But en route we're treated to a cast of eccentric characters, fantastical situations, secret societies, ghosts of people who never were, and all sorts of other fascinating diversions.

The Marriage of Sticks is Carroll's most overt fantasy in some time and it also continues his recent trend of producing endings as satisfying as one could hope for from the quality of how the novels begin and the stories build. Which is what I meant earlier in this review when I said that this is classic Carroll. He hasn't so much stepped back as built upon the strengths of his earlier books to give us something new again.

* * *

LORD DEMON, by Roger Zelazny & Jane Lindskold
Avon, August 1999; 288pp; $23.00
Hardcover; ISBN 0-380-97333-2

Lord Demon is the second of the two books that Roger Zelazny asked Jane Lindskold to complete for him, should he not live to finish them himself. Neither Lord Demon nor their earlier posthumous collaboration Donnerjack are cobbled-together affairs. Nor is either book a case of a senior autho basically adding his name and a few ideas to a junior author's apprentice work. These were works-in-progress that Zelazny entrusted to Lindskold--with good reason, it turns out, for she's done an exemplary job in both books of capturing and retaining that wonderful gift Zelazny had of headlong invention, mythic characters made human, and deft, deliciously-convoluted plotting.

This time out it is the gods and demons of Chinese mythology who get the Zelazny/Lindskold makeover. Kai Wren, the Lord Demon of the book's title, is drawn into a new chapter of the great wars between the demons and gods that first began five thousand years ago. When the book opens, we meet him as a maker of bottles--and such bottles they are, for each can contain a whole world inside it. His latest has taken him a hundred-and-twenty years to complete. In celebration, his human servant goes out to get a pizza for their dinner whereupon he is killed by a gang of minor demons.

Wren begins tracking down the murderers of his servant, but all too soon he's pulled into a Byzantine plot the roots of which reach back for thousands of years. He slowly comes to discover that he has been manipulated for centuries and in the end there is no one he can trust except for a pair of humans: a kite maker, and his granddaughter, a feng shui- expert. With a few other unlikely allies, they have to combat not only the ancient gods, but Wren's own demonkind as well. Along the way, we're treated to wonderfully strange worlds (ever wonder where those lost socks go and why hangers seem to multiply in your closet?) and a fascinating play with certain aspects of Chinese mythology.

As has always been the case with Zelazny's books, and is proving to also be true of Lindskold's solo work, all the characters are fully-drawn, rich with textures and contradictions. Even the supporting cast is fully-realized. Combine that with the rich background, puzzles that keep deepening, and a plot that won't quit, Lord Demon stands as a worthy farewell to one of the best writers this field has produced.

* * *

THE RAINY SEASON - James P. Blaylock
Ace Books, August 1999; 368pp; $21.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-441-00618-3

Now I don't want this to be taken wrong, because Blaylock has long been one of my favorite writers, but it always surprises and pleases me how much better each new book is from the one that came before. While he persists in mining the theme of strange doings in Southern California, it never feels tired or repetitive. His prose continues to mature, his characters are ever more deeply realized, and he's able to blend whimsy and serious goings-on like few other writers working in or out of the fantasy field.

I don't know how he does it, but I'm pleased that he does. I'm also pleased with the way Ace markets his books, combining a literary feel with a strong fantasy element, which pretty much sums up what the books really are. The cover for The Rainy Season--clouds shaped like a woman's face, weeping rain--is truly evocative.

This time out, Blaylock is exploring ghosts and time travel, putting his own unique spin on each. The ghosts are, in fact, memories that are stored in various objects and have great value to those collectors who understand their nature. The time travel comes about by way of mysterious wells that fill during the rainy season and allow the veils between time periods to be pierced.

Phil Ainsworth, our protagonist, is aware of none of this as the book opens. He's a nature photographer, living alone in the old house he inherited from his mother. But when he gets the call that his sister has died and he's become the guardian of his ten-year-old niece Betsy, his world becomes forever changed. Because this is the rainy season, and there are people prowling about the old well on his property, looking for artifacts and people displaced during previous rainy seasons.

By genre terms, there are few truly evil characters in this, or for that matter any, Blaylock novel. Instead, they're more insidious--the sorts of people we recognize as neighbors, or even in parts of ourselves, who allow their greed and self-centeredness to get in the way of common decency, or morality. Which makes them, to my mind at least, all the more horrifying, since the darkness they cast is all too possible. Ainsworth's life is made increasingly more miserable, not by madmen bent on world domination, nor by monsters, but by his niece Betsy's old babysitter who will stop at nothing to regain the child she feels Ainsworth has stolen from her. Or the pathetic owner of a junkshop who is quite willing to sacrifice Betsy to bring back his own daughter. Or . . . but you get the idea.

They're pretty much ordinary people, only something in their make-up has rendered them completely amoral. How Ainsworth deals with them, and also with the wonders that the rainy season brings into his life, makes for an enchanting novel that simply ends too soon. Not because the story isn't complete, but because the reader doesn't want to leave this world that Blaylock has created and is sharing with us.

* * *

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S FAERY TALE - Wendy Froud & Terri Windling
Simon & Schuster, October 1999; 48pp; $18.00
Hardcover; ISBN 0-684-85559-3

This is an utterly charming story of a Puck-like faerie named Sneezle and his adventures on Midsummer Night's Eve when he must find his way to the Heart of the Wood to retrieve Titania's crown from the oldest oak and bring it back the faerie gathering before an evil sorceress takes the rightful queen's place.

Terri Windling provides the prose, perfectly capturing the voice of an old faerie tale, while Wendy Froud gives us the art. And what lovely art. There are over fifty photographs of her hand-made creations to tell the story, three-dimensional figures as enchanting as the drawings and painting of her husband Brian.

While it's certainly aimed at the younger reader, A Midsummer Night's Faery Tale will readily delight the young at heart as well.

*     *     *
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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