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April 2000
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

SANDMAN: THE DREAM HUNTERS - Neil Gaiman & Yoshitaka Amano
DC Comics, Vertigo, 1999; 128pp; $29.95
Hardcover: ISBN 1-56389-573-0

It strikes me that writing an illustrated book presents a real risk for the author, something that requires a certain measure of bravery to undertake. The reason for that is simple.

The illustrations have the potential to undo the compact between author and reader inherent in a book, intruding into that no man's land between the page and the eye where the imaginations of the participants meet to create a greater whole. As readers we make movies in our heads from the raw data of the words on the page and there's really nothing that can compare to that magic. It's why the movies based on our favorite books often fall flat: they simply don't--can't--match the pictures we call up in our own heads as we're reading.

Now sometimes the illustrations and text are so entwined in our consideration of the experience that we can't imagine the one without the other. Ernest Shepherd's drawings for The Wind in the Willows and the Pooh books are like that for me. But mostly they tread that same uneasy path as do film adaptations.

When they work, they enhance the experience. When they don't, nothing can bring the words to life. And the sad truth is--readers on a whole being so subjective in their likes and dislikes--what works and doesn't work is different each one of us. So I'd think a writer would be cautious entering into such a project.

Neil Gaiman doesn't seem to worry overmuch about it. I suppose his bravery comes from his long association with the comics field. Having written scripts for so many years, the combination of pictures and words must seem completely natural to him. And even in regular books, his collaborators have certainly been high-end: British artist Dave McKean on any number of projects, World Fantasy Award-winning artist Charles Vess on Stardust, and now the evocative work of Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano for the book in hand.

The Dream Hunters is Gaiman's first visit back to the Sandman mythos in many years and doesn't require any familiarity with that long-running comic books series to work. The story is based on the Japanese folktale "The Fox, the Monk, and the Mikado of All Night's Dreaming"-- something Gaiman discovered while researching Japanese history and mythology in preparation for the work he did on the English dialogue for the film Princess Mononoke. In his afterword to The Dream Hunters Gaiman remarks on the similarity between the folktale and the Sandman series, and it really is eerie how well the folktale fits in.

It begins with a wager between a badger and a fox, the prize being the monk's temple that the winner will use as a den. But the fox falls in love with the monk and later, when she discovers that a lord of a nearby estate means him ill, she goes into the land of dreams and strikes a bargain with the Japanese counterpart of Morpheus to save the monk's life. How it all works out is for you to discover, but I will say that this is one of Gaiman's most exquisite and evocative stories to date.

Equal praise must go to Yoshitaka Amano's artwork. Profusely and gorgeously illustrated throughout--in many styles, but always with a stunning sense of design and rendering--this slender volume is as much of a delight for its art as for its words. The two mesh as perfectly with each other as did Gaiman's prose with Vess's art on Stardust. But that reminds me of something else. We can only hope that, down the road, Gaiman won't market a prose-only version of The Dream Hunters the way he did with Stardust. In a case such as this, it's just not necessary.

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THE SANDMAN COMPANION - Hy Bender
Vertigo/DC Comics, 1999; 274pp; $31.00
Hardcover; ISBN 1-56389-465-3

And speaking of the Sandman, in the tradition of George Beahm's exhaustive chronicling of Stephen King minutiae, Hy Bender weighs in with a rather fascinating analysis of Gaiman's most famous creation--just in time for the comic book's tenth anniversary.

Bender approaches the series by the story arcs that were collected in ten omnibus editions, rather than individually tackling the seventy-six issues of the run. His commentaries are interesting, and even insightful at times, but what makes the book the success it is are the extensive interviews Bender conducted with Gaiman. These detail everything from source material and character origins to thematic underpinnings, insider anecdotes, and discussions on the creative process in terms of writing for a serial medium, matching the mood of a story with an artist, and the other pitfalls and joys of creating a work of such length. (The Sandman ran over two thousand pages by the time it reached its end.)

Also included are snippets of commentary by most of the artists involved in the series and a generous sampling of art, including some rare items.

There's some indication in the opening text that The Sandman Companion might attract new readers to the trade paperback collections, but frankly, I find that unlikely. Its focus is simply too narrow for the casual reader. However, if you are an aficionado of the series, or intrigued by either mythic fiction or the creative spirit as it manifests in collaborative endeavors such as comic books, then you'll find this a treasure trove.

* * *
THE VEILED WEB - Catherine Asaro
Bantam Spectra, December 1999; 368pp; $5.99
Mass market; ISBN 0-553-58151-1

Now this is a fun book, dealing as it does with a whole bunch of my favorite things (cue in music from the Julie Andrews hit): other cultures (Moslem), creativity (a flamenco/ballet dancer), Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Realities (future web software and technology), and what it means to be human, to have a soul (see all of the above).

Catherine Asaro has combined these elements, along with the pacing of a thriller and a dash of romance, to great effect in her latest novel.

She introduces us to ballerina Lucia del Mar, a Mexican dancer from the American Southwest, whose main loves are her art form and the World Wide Web--the former for how it allows her to express herself, the latter for how it allows her to overcome her shyness and interact with a community of friends on the web. A chance meeting at a White House reception with software wizard Rashid al-Jazari soon plunges her into a world as alien (for her, and probably many of us) as any science fictional/fantasy creation.

For when Lucia, touring Europe with her dance troupe, meets al-Jazari again and agrees to go to dinner with him, the pair are kidnapped and barely manage to escape with their lives. There follows a marriage--of convenience, it seems at the time--to allow Lucia to travel in propriety with al-Jazari. But rather than provide her with transport back to the States, al-Jazari brings her to his family home in Morocco. It's for her own safety, he tells her, since while the kidnappers were initially after him, it must be assumed that she is now in danger from them as well.

Cloistered in the women's quarters of his Moroccan estate, Lucia is cut off from her own home, thrust into a land where she doesn't understand either the culture or language, and finds that al-Razari had long been enamoured of her. Is he keeping her here to ensure her safety, or so that she can't be with any other man? She also discovers a project he's been working on, a computer program that has the ability to learn, and perhaps even feel.

It all makes for a wonderful ride, a Lawrence of Arabia, perhaps, or The King and I, for the cyber age. I particularly liked the way Asaro allowed each of her main characters their strong religious and cultural beliefs; she presents the conflict between them, but doesn't choose sides for us. And Lucia's interaction with Zaki, the AI program, has inspired, tender, and even heart- breaking moments.

* * *
VIOLET & CLAIRE - Francesca Lia Block
Joanna Cotler Books/HarperCollins, 1999; 169pp; $14.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-06-027749-1

While there are no "on stage" magical elements in this particular outing, Block's newest novel will still delight her loyal readers, as well as regular readers of this column. It's the story of a friendship between Violet, an aspiring filmmaker, and Claire, a poet who half-believes she's a faerie. As usual, Block manages to tackle serious concerns with charm and whimsy, without forsaking the drama. The prose sings in what might well be her best book to date.

*     *     *
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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