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May 2000
 
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Mendoza in Hollywood by Kage Baker
Harcourt Brace & Co., 2000, $23.00

It took me longer than usual to read Kage Baker's latest novel, Mendoza in Hollywood, the third in her "Novel of the Company" series. Not because it's a bad book. It isn't. There are all sorts of interesting things going on in it. But the book is slow going since it takes about two thirds of the way through before much of a plot kicks in.

Let me backtrack a moment to explain.

"The Company" referred to in the book's subtitle is Dr. Zeus Incorporated. When they discovered the secret of time travel, it opened up all sorts of commercial possibilities. But there were complications as well. The time travel only works backwards, then forward again to your point of departure in your present. History can't be changed and you can't bring anything back with you.

The Company solved this by establishing indestructible warehouses in the past, stocking them with the treasures they acquired and utilizing an immortal cyborg workforce that are created at the dawn of time and have to live through the ages, day by day.

One of these cyborgs is the botanist Mendoza, previously introduced in the novels In the Garden of Iden and Sky Coyote. Like her peers, she appears to be human, but with her implants, abilities, and immortality, is anything but.

This time Mendoza is assigned to a stagecoach inn just outside of what will one day be Los Angeles. The Civil War is raging to the east and the City of Angels is a desert inhabited by cutthroats and fortune-seekers. There are a number of other cyborgs assigned to the same area, a motley crew of fascinating personalities, and Baker spends much of the first half of the book delving into their characters and interactions with one another. We're provided with a great deal of history of the area and of the filmmaking business that will one day be its primary business, given tours of where landmarks will be in the future and of the strange occurrences in some of them.

The group at the inn also watch a number of classic films which Baker delves into with great detail, the various characters commenting on and explaining elements of what's taking place on the screen.

It's all quite fascinating, but since there really isn't a story for a while, one can almost read it like non-fiction--dipping into the book, enjoying a chapter or two, then setting it aside to read something with a bit more of a plot. I know this sounds negative and I don't mean it to. That first half to two thirds of Mendoza in Hollywood does make for an engrossing, if desultory reading experience.

Throughout the earlier sections we see that Mendoza has been having dreams/nightmares about her first true love who died in England about three hundred years earlier. When what could be his reincarnation finally shows up in the form of an English spy, that's when the plot kicks in and events begin to move in a more traditional fashion. From that point on, I read the remainder of the book in one satisfying sitting.

Mendoza in Hollywood works well as a stand-alone novel and will appeal to anyone with an interest in the old West, the movie business, the Civil War, sf conspiracies, speculations on immortality, the romantic spirit . . . well, as you can see, there's probably something in there for everyone. And perhaps what seemed slow going to me won't feel at all the same to you.

* * *
Prospero's Children by Jan Siegel
Voyager, 1999, £12.99

It starts in an art gallery in London where we're introduced to sixteen- year-old Fern Capel, about as down-to-earth a young woman as one could meet, and it ends in Atlantis. In between is a long sojourn in a mysterious house on the Yorkshire moors where, along with Fern, we watch the layers of mystery that lie over the world slowly fray and come apart, revealing impossible wonders and dangers.

Fern's father inherited the house from a distant relative, a sea captain, and the three of them--widowed father, Fern, and her younger brother Will--plan to spend the children's summer holidays in Yorkshire, getting the old house ready to sell.

At first it seems to be a gloomy place to spend the summer, but Fern and Will are soon caught up in its mysteries. There are the night visits of a snuffling creature outside their bedroom windows; the watcher, Ragginbone, a mysterious traveler who sometimes appears to be a stone on a hill overlooking the house, sometimes a man; the feral dog who becomes their protector; the masked motor cyclist, haunting the roads and lanes nearby; the house's depressed and shy brownie . . .

And then there's the missing key for which everyone seems to be looking. What does the key open? Ah, that would spoil the surprise.

But what I can tell you is that Siegel has penned a fresh and innovative take on many of the tropes of the fantasy novel. Her characters are variously engaging, mysterious, and deadly. The settings, from moody Yorkshire to the glories of Atlantis, are wonderfully realized. And happily, she keeps us guessing throughout the story. From the malicious strategies of Alison Redmond, an art galley employee who is obviously using Fern's father for her own purposes, through the revelation of what the key unlocks and what lies beyond it, there's a vigor and intrigue to all the twists and turns of the plot.

I can't tell you how heartened I am whenever I find writers such as James Stoddard (The High House, reviewed last May), and now Jan Siegel. They bring to an increasingly moribund marketplace stories that are refreshingly original, yet still have a foot in the mythological past, recreating the wonder and joy that spoke to so many of us when we first read what are now considered to be classics of the field.

Prospero's Children is an utter joy, a treasure worth many rereadings.

An American edition will be available this May from Del Rey.

* * *
The False House by James Stoddard
Warner Aspect, 2000, $6.50

And speaking of James Stoddard, he weighs in with a return to the characters and setting of The High House with somewhat mixed results. The bad news is that his wonderful creation, the High House of the first book's title, no longer feels as fresh and innovative as it did the first time out. That first book was a glorious read--a real delight, especially to those of us who remember the classics by Dunsany, Morris, Peake, Hodgson, and their like. And the house itself was every bit as rich as the creations to be found in those classic novels: an enormous structure, sort of a microcosm reflecting the universe, with rooms and halls and stairwells beyond count. It's a place that can take months to travel through, with strange and enchanting elements on every side, from a dragon in the attic to feral furniture.

In The False House, the villains from the first novel have returned to steal the cornerstone of the High House and also kidnap a young woman. Using the two--one for its power, the other to focus it--they begin the creation of another house in the plains of the Outer Dark, beyond the walls of the High House. As the new house grows, the original High House begins to change, transforming into a place of extreme order, all straight angles and sensible decor. Not even the inhabitants are immune to the influence as numbers of them mutate into strange mechanical versions of themselves--so much more efficient than flesh and blood bodies, you see.

Naturally, Carter Anderson, the Master of the High House, has to deal with it, and so he does.

The good news is that Stoddard does deliver another solid story of quirky mishaps and derring-do. But while the sequel is an entertaining enough novel in its own right, but there's nothing particularly innovative about it--especially when compared to the first book. In some senses, it reads like a franchise novel, by which I mean, come the end of the book, none of the characters have really grown or been changed by their experiences (my one real complaint with all those novels based on popular TV series and films). Although to be fair, the Master's brother Duskin does undergo a bit of character growth. But since he's hardly at the center of the action for most of the book, I'm not sure it counts.

So is it worth reading? If you loved The High House and don't mind more of the same, then, yes. Definitely. Otherwise, do like I plan to do in the future and wait to see Stoddard turn his considerable talents to a new, unrelated project.

*     *     *
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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