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January 2000
 
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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

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling
Arthur A Levine Books/Scholastic, September 1998; $16.95

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
Arthur A Levine Books/Scholastic, Sept., 1999; $17.95

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
Arthur A Levine Books/Scholastic, Sept., 1999; $19.95

I'm a late convert to this series, but since you might be as well, I think it's worth a brief discussion. Originally published as YA novels, the Harry Potter books have gained widespread fame outside the limits of both the fantasy and YA fields for one good reason: they really are wonderful books that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. And happily, there are no cliffhangers here; the novels stand up quite well, each on its own.

The series begins with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. For some reason, the US publisher decided to change the title from its original: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone-- perhaps they thought that Americans wouldn't understand the reference? Anyway, here we meet Harry, learn a little bit about his background as a potential magician living in a world of Muggles (ordinary, non-magical folk), and briefly touch on his ten years of hellish adolescence (courtesy of his aunt and uncle who raised him with extreme ill-will), then follow along as he enters Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which exists on another plane of existence from our own.

It's classic British boarding school fiction with the delicious twist of magic and a decidedly different curriculum.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets finds Harry as a second year student at Hogwarts and proves to be just as enchanting and entertaining as the first book--a rarity in itself, when it comes to books in a series. By the third book, readers are welcoming back old friends, hissing at the recurring villains, cheering Harry's Quidditch team (Quidditch is a kind of aerial basketball played on broomsticks with five balls), and completely enthralled with the new mysteries that arise. And let me add here that Rowling is one of the few authors who, while playing fair, has still taken me by surprise with who the villain is in each book.

But it's YA, you say.

Yes, Harry's only eleven when the series begins, but these are not your regular YA novels, though they do bear a superficial resemblance. They're smart and clever, funny and serious, but most importantly, they're not written down to any particular age group so that they can be equally enjoyed by readers of all ages. Harry isn't a little adult either; he's subject to the awful insecurities that plague all children. But he's also a gifted child, so the ways he deals with his adventures don't feel out of character.

Rowling plans seven books in the series, one for each year Harry is at Hogwarts. Each year Harry grows a little more mature and the books reflect that in how the characters react to and deal with situations, so it'll be like watching your children, or those of a neighbor or sibling, growing up.

Yet the real draw is Rowling's language, her grasp of character (and caricature), and her ability to write humourously without being slapstick or cynical. In fact the only thing that surprises me about the success of the Harry Potter books is why they've been so readily embraced by such a wide spectrum of readers, while Diana Wynne Jones, who's been doing this also, and with as much warmth and skill, for so many years, is still best known only within the fantasy and YA fields. No disrespect to Rowling; she deserves all the kudos the books are receiving. But I'm hoping the door she's opened might also allow some of Jones's wonderful books to slip through into wider acceptance as well.

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The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson
Tor Books, January, 2000; $24.95

What a strange love triangle Kij Johnson has shaped for us with her new novel: Yoshifuji is a man fascinated by foxes, a man discontented and troubled by the meaning of life. Kitsune is a fox who loves Yoshifuji and becomes a woman to be with him. And Shikujo is Yoshifuji's wife, determined to win him back from the wild for all that she has her own fox-related secret.

Taking place in ancient Japan, Johnson brings characters and setting lovingly to life through the first person viewpoints of these three. The Japan she describe is a world of formalities and custom, where the exchange of poetry is a form of conversation and everything has meaning, from the color of the silks one wears to who and how one may address others. It's a world that Shikujo understands in all its precise detail, but that her husband Yoshifuji rejects. A world into which the fox-woman Kitsune intrudes with disastrous results for all of them.

And then there's the magic. It lies thick upon everything, from mysterious fox magic that allows shapechanging and the creation of a pocket world nestled under an old gatehouse, to the very real presence of ghosts and spirits and the eight million gods worshipped by mankind. The setting, its formalities and details, ring with depth and clarity, and prove, in all their historical accuracy, to be far more fascinating than the secondary worlds usually created for fantasy novels. For if one sets aside the magics, this is a real historical era, a true part of our world's past, and as such, becomes all the more interesting since it allows us a glimpse into, and an understanding of, the history that shaped the people of one of our world's great nations.

But it is also a story about people, trying to understand each other and the times they live in. When the dreamland of fox magic and the world of man mingle, confusion and danger results. Seeing through the illusions found in either is a task that can bring much pain, but allows for great joy, too, for those strong and brave enough to take responsibility for their own lives and confront the truth of who they are.

The Fox Woman is a wonderfully evocative and gripping novel, a book that will stay with you and resonate in your heart long after the final page is turned.

*     *     *
Hannibal by Thomas Harris
Delacorte, June 1999; $27.95

Like thousands of other readers (if the bestseller lists are anything to go by), I was in the bookstore in early June to pick up my copy of the new Harris novel. I wonder how many of them had trouble finishing the book, because I certainly did.

The book starts out as strong as one might expect from the author who, howsoever inadvertently, created the serial killer genre. We're reintroduced to FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling, following along as first she takes part in a drug bust that goes awry, then becomes a victim of FBI politics. Hannibal Lecter, who escaped custody in The Silence of the Lambs, is still at large, and Starling is still working on his recapture. But now Paul Krendler, one of her superiors in the bureau, not only wants her discredited in the bureau, but is also helping one of Lecter's earlier victims, the multi-millionaire Mason Verger, exact his revenge on Lecter.

So things are as fascinating as one could hope for when Harris takes a hundred page aside to follow an Italian policeman's discovery of Lecter and said policeman's subsequent role in delivering Lecter to Verger. What bothered me about this section is, first, that it distracts from the main story, and secondly, it begins to set Lecter up as a sympathetic character.

We finally return to Starling's investigation, hampered by her superiors, and then more so by Krendler getting her removed from active service to, unwittingly on her part, serve as bait for Lecter. It's here where the book veers into a truly unpleasant storyline.

Ignoring all that he has done with the character of Starling to this point, Harris has her improbably fall under Lecter's spell and continues the earlier device of making Lecter a sympathetic character. It simply doesn't work and the storyline reads more like a bad Hollywood movie---implausible and somewhat misogynistic in its cavalier treatment of what had been such a strong female character---than the taut, intelligent thriller one has come to expect from a writer of Harris's caliber.

Hannibal is a huge disappointment--not because it's not the book I wanted, but because of its disturbing subtexts, which are disturbing for all the wrong reasons. A monster such as Lecter shouldn't be set up as a sympathetic character, and Harris should have played fair with Starling, instead of twisting her so out of character simply to provide a "shock" ending.

Because of the scheduling of these columns, this review will come too late to save the money of those, who like me, paid the big bucks for the hardcover. But perhaps it might give fair warning to those of you waiting to buy the paperback edition: Don't bother.

*     *     *
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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