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

GARDENS OF THE MOON, by Steven Erikson
Bantam Press, 1999; 523pp; 9.99
Trade paperback; ISBN 0-593-04470-3

I've been wondering lately when it was that the epic fantasy novel came to be pretty much solely equated with war. It's as if when writing Lord of the Rings, Tolkien had focused solely on the battle scenes, eschewing all the elements that create a sense of wonder and awe.

Steven Erikson's debut novel Gardens of the Moon is a good case in point.

Now don't get me wrong. Erikson gets a lot of it right. To start with, while this is apparently the first in a projected ten book series entitled The Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, Gardens of the Moon, for all the obvious teases and plot lead-ins to further volumes in the series that become apparent towards the end of the action, stands admirably on its own.

Also to his credit, while he doesn't bog the reader down with unnecessary details, Erikson has clearly spent a lot of time building the world in which Gardens of the Moon is set. The background arises as we need to know it instead of being force-fed to us in large chunks of "historical" exposition. Even better, the story is character-driven, somewhat of a rarity in the genre of epic fantasy where all too often the characters are obvious foils, on stage simply to move the story forward.

Mind you, there are a lot of characters, each with a fascinating history and story, and it takes some time getting to know them all and keeping them straight. The many plots and subplots, fast-paced and full of surprises, also feel like a hopeless tangle at first. But to his credit, Erikson quickly pulls it all together.

The overall plot is basic enough: There is the Malazan Empire, bent upon utter domination of all that surrounds it. Standing against it are a handful of Free Cities and a floating fortress called Moon's Spawn that is home to a mysterious and ancient race of sorcerer-warriors. Complicating matters is the internal strife within the Malazan armies, as well as the appearance of a number of this world's gods who have also entered the fray for reasons of their own.

Our sympathetic viewpoint characters range from all sides of the struggle, an interesting strategy that allows no one side to be obviously in the right.

The down sides of the novel (and one assumes the series as a whole, unless Erikson plans some major changes in his approach in later volumes) are two:

The first is the lack of any believable female characters. There are certainly women present, but they are either stoic warriors, assassins, and mages (basically men in women's bodies), courtesans, or in one case, a young girl possessed by gods and turned into a killing machine. Except for one strong female lead, the mage Tattersail, there's no distinct female perspective to set the female characters apart from their male counterparts.

The other is that, as mentioned above, this isn't a fantasy novel that evokes any sense of wonder or awe. Plainly put, it chronicles a war. It's a dark and bloody book, full of battles and campaigns, complex attacks and counter-attacks, Machiavellian plotting and intrigues. Gods appear, awesome magics abound, but it's all treated rather matter-of-factly. Its antecedents can be found in Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian, rather than Lord Dunsany or other classic fantasists.

Which isn't to say that Erikson needs to treat his material differently. He's done a remarkable job of world-building and in describing the horrors and uncertainties of men caught up in the ravages of war. And there's no question that he's a strong writer, adept at characterization and capable of a real vigor in his prose. But by concentrating on the plot and character elements that he has, he's pretty much limiting his audience to boys and men fascinated with the business and heroics of war.

* * *

1632 - Eric Flint
Baen, 2000; 504pp; $24.00
Hardcover; ISBN 0-671-57849-9

There are a number of reasons for me to recommend this new novel by Eric Flint, not least of which is that it's a great story.

The set up is simple: on the wedding day of Mike Stearns's sister, attended by the entire membership of the local chapter of the United Mine Workers of America (who are led by Stearns), the town of Grantville, West Virginia, and a circle of its surrounding countryside is plucked from the year 2000 and dropped into northern Germany during the middle of the Thirty Years War. What follows is the story of how these West Viriginians cope with their new situation and it has the immediate appeal of Twain's classic A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court crossed with a war novel and a dash of a western movie.

In a time when cynicism rules most fiction, even genre, and the founding principles of the United States of America are pretty much considered a joke in too many quarters, it's refreshing and appealing to find a novel that's tells a positive story and is willing to promote good, old-fashioned American values. And by those I mean, the worth of an individual, the generosity to accept other races and religions at face-value, the willingness to help those in less fortunate straits, and the like. In other words, the ideals upon which the very idea of America was based.

And perhaps it works so well here because Flint has chosen to tell his story from the point of view of blue collar workers--union men and women all. While they may be considered the "common people" by intellectuals and politicians, they are also the backbone of any country. These are the people who keep everything running and while you might find rednecks and intolerant types among them, for the most part they are hard-working, community-oriented men and women who believe strongly in individual freedoms and rights, who will help a neighbor at the drop of a hat, and who will stand up and be counted whenever the going gets tough.

One of the things I enjoyed most about 1632 was how problems were solved by the good common sense and personal heroics of these ordinary people, rather than by some political or intellectual elite. There are no supermen in this book, though there are characters of extraordinary worth.

It's also interesting to note that while the novel certainly has its fair share of battles and war campaigns (the characters did end up in the middle of the Thirty Years War, after all, when Europe was torn apart by both), and the Americans defend themselves with ruthless gusto, the overall thrust of the novel is anti-war. Stearns, leading the Americans and their German allies, is always more concerned with how they can bring peace to the situation, even while having to defend themselves from armies of maurauders and looters, and it's this that sets it apart from books like Erikson's Gardens of the Moon discussed above.

Where books like Erikson's appear to glory in the battles, Flint's characters are reluctant, but effective defenders of their property and people, and always appear to be willing to explore other avenues before actually taking up arms. Mind you, when they do take up arms, they do so with the same single-minded vigor that they throw into the rest of their lives.

To be honest, I was less than enthralled with the actual battle scenes themselves, for all that I knew that they were necessary if the story was to be told with any honesty. I would rather have had a lot less detail on them because I was far more taken with the ingenuity of the Americans in the face of overwhelming odds and how they looked ahead at how they needed to conserve their diminishing modern resources.

The characters are portrayed in broad sweeps as well, the good are brave and true, the villains despicable, and there's not much gray area in the makeup of any of them. Yet my interest in these people never lagged, especially in the relationships that formed between the modern, transplanted Americans and the native Europeans of the time. And if the characters are painted in broad strokes, Flint still allows for a great variety of political, religious, racial, and gender types.

But none of this makes for a boring, or a bad, book. Instead, it all comes together to pull the reader through, full-steam ahead. The history (before it diverges from what we know) is well-researched, the ramifications of the situation are wonderfully thought-through, and as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, at the heart of the book is just a fine, thoroughly engaging story about real people in an extraordinary situation.

* * *

THE WONDERFUL EDISON TIME MACHINE - Malcolm Willits
Hypostyle Hall, 1999; 224pp; $65.00
Hardcover; ISBN 0-9675253-0-6

I was amused by the hand-written note that was stuck to this book when it arrived in my P.O. box that read: "This is not a children's book."

It certainly looks like one. It's an oversize volume with large print and lots of wonderful black & white and color illustrations. And it reads a bit like a children's book as well, as four young boys from our time travel back to the 1920s to stop one of their ancestors from losing all his money, which left the present-day family broke. There are all sorts of improbable adventures in the past, and clever plot twists, written in a style that's part Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee (sorry, there's that touchstone again) and part Tom Swift.

But it's a children's book from an earlier age, one that would appeal to a boy growing up in the '50s or '60s, or to the adults who were boys then, but not necessarily boys growing up today who might find it somewhat too old-fashioned. It's also terribly politically incorrect, from the boys' smoking cigars, drinking and general carousing (which I took with a grain of salt--it is a story after all) to the hackneyed Fu Manchuian "yellow menace" of some of the villains, which I found rather unnecessarily offensive.

I understand that such villains existed in the pulp fiction of the earlier part of the last century, but Willits didn't need to use them here. It's not that I don't think that there can be evil Asians. There's good and bad in every race on this planet. It's the stereotypical representation of them that annoyed me, and will probably offend any Asian readers. And as they play such a small part in the book, I wonder why Willits even bothered with using them.

All of which is too bad, because otherwise this is an entertaining book, if a little one-note, and the production values are certainly stunning.

* * *

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