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March 2001
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

DANCE OF KNIVES - Donna McMahon
Tor Books, 2001; $25.95

I always enjoy discovering a new writer who gets everything right the first time out. Not only for the entertainment value at hand, of course, but in anticipation of the books that are to come as well. Well, Donna McMahon doesn't just show promise with Dance of Knives, she delivers the real goods from the first page through to the last, so I know I'll be looking for whatever she writes next. But for now:

After a mysterious prologue that soon fits into the ongoing plotlines, we meet our main point of view character, a rather innocent young woman named Klale Renhardt, as she arrives in a twenty-second century Vancouver that has deteriorated to barely workable levels. Klale is also determined and spunky, but her innocence makes her a perfect view point character to lead the reader into this brave, if somewhat dilapidated new world. It's a tried-and-true trope of sf, but it also works because it allows us to get a handle on what everyone else takes for granted in the metropolis; the commonplace is new for her (and of course for the reader) and we get to explore it together.

Klale has left behind her old life in the fisher guild to the south to make a go of it in the big city but she soon manages to run afoul of the Harbour Patrol (the local police force) after coming to the rescue of the bartender of the KlonDyke during a brawl in the bar. Then, after a politically-charged strip tease during the "open mike" portion of the evening, she lands herself a job in the same bar and begins to make a new life for herself among the other employees of this gay bar.

But if this is great near-future sf, it's also part spaghetti western by way of Mary Shelley.

There are classic showdown shoot-'em-ups between the bar employees, the various tongs that run the city, the Harbour Patrol, and the disenfranchised guildless. There's fascinating sf speculation into how the world got to this state and how the various elements of life in this city work in particular. And then there's our Frankenstein monster--the mute, deaf, genetically enhanced and changed "tool" known as Blade. A towering tragic figure, at once as innocent as Klale and as deadly as anything from a raptor to the Terminator.

What gives the book its heart, are the deft interactions that connect Klale, the dangerous Blade, and the bartender Toni with her mysterious past. The characterizations ring true throughout, but the triangle formed by these three is what captures a reader's interest and holds it there, from when we first begin to understand the tangled relationships between the three, all the way through to the book's surprising and satisfying conclusion.

It doesn't hurt that McMahon, for all that she's a new author, has the writing chops of a seasoned pro.

This is a wonderful debut.

*     *     *

ALL THE RAGE - F. Paul Wilson
Gauntlet Publications, 2000; $50.00

It seems that Repairman Jack, first introduced to us in The Tomb (1984), has now become a series with this fourth volume chronicling the adventures of a man living on the outside of society who "fixes" unusual problems for a fee.

In some ways Repairman Jack is like a middleclass version of Andrew Vachss's Burke character. Unlike Burke--who survived a childhood and adolescence of abuse, living on the streets and in prison to become the man he is today--Jack appears to have chosen his lifestyle. It makes for a worldview that is less dark, and certainly less desperate. Vachss's character also undergoes major changes from book to book. The latest, Dead and Gone, is a prime example; by the end of the novel, everything about Burke's life has been redefined, though his core persona remains fixed and true.

Repairman Jack is more of an Indiana Jones type of character. Each new adventure takes the reader on an entertaining roller coaster ride while Jack's circumstances remain constant. But I don't mean to imply that this is a bad thing. I've been fond of the character since his initial appearance and was delighted when Tor published a new book early in 2000 (Conspiracies), with the promise of more to come.

Tor will also be publishing the trade edition of All the Rage, but I'm reviewing the book from the galley provided by Gauntlet Publications who have done the limited signed hardcover. Because it's a galley, I can't comment on the production values, but I can certainly recommend the story itself.

This time out Repairman Jack is hired by Nadia Radzminsky, a young researcher who's worried about her boss's safety when she sees him being bullied by a gangster named Milos Dragovic, an arms and drug dealer. Complicating matters is the appearance of a new designer drug that in small doses, boosts one confidence, in larger ones, creates a berserk rage in the user. Jack gets a firsthand glimpse of the latter when a reunion of preppie businessmen runs amok in downtown New York, endangering the lives of Jack's girlfriend Gia, and her daughter Vicky.

Further complicating matters is the reappearance of one of the demonic rakoshi (first seen way back in The Tomb) that's being harbored by the Ozymandias Prather Oddity Emporium, a travelling freak show that readers might remember from Freak Show, the anthology Wilson edited for the Horror Writers of America.

Drugs, freaks, gangsters, rakoshi, and drug designers all combine to make a fast-paced thriller with Repairman Jack at the center of the action, working a desperate balancing act to keep his clients and friends alive while making sure justice is served. If you enjoy a hardboiled mystery, with a dash of the supernatural and a good helping of suspense and action, then Wilson's latest is the book for you.

*     *     *

FANTASY ART MASTERS - Dick Jude
Watson-Guptill, 1999; $24.95

The book's subtitle says it all: "The Best Fantasy and Science Fiction Artists Show How They Work." Though I'd quibble at "best" since--and yes, I know this is subjective--there are some telling names missing from the roll call of those included here. Just for starters, where are Michael Whelan, Brian Froud, J. K. Potter, Charles Vess, or the Dillons?

But no matter. Those artists who do appear between this book's covers are all strong contenders: Rick Berry, Brom, Jim Burns, Fred Gambino, John Howe, Alan Lee, Dave McKean, Don Maitz, Chris Moore, and Steve Stone.

And I love the scope of the work as it's been presented to us, from fine-line pencils and watercolors, through oils and acrylics, all the way to work created on a computer.

But the best part of the book, beyond the stunning reproductions, is that most of the text is from the artists' point of view--direct quotations from interviews conducted by Jude that give great insight into everything from the nuts-and-bolts of their approaches through to their artistic philosophies and anecdotes concerning specific illustrative jobs.

The reproductions, as I've already mentioned, are gorgeous, but we're also treated to a lot of background material: sketches, photo references, and various stages of the work before the artist says, "This is done," and signs the final painting. As can be the case (or at least it often is in my case), many of the preliminary pieces are so strong in their own right--painterly, filled with energy--that they overshadow the actual finished paintings.

Every lover of fantastical art, not to mention any artist entering the field, should definitely get themselves a copy of this book.

*     *     *

SPECTRUM 7 - edited by Cathy & Arnie Fenner
Underwood Books, 2000; $27.50

And that last sentence of the previous review is probably a good place for me to follow up with a brief mention of Cathy & Arnie Fenner's annual collection of the best fantastical art of the past year, now in its seventh volume.

Like the two wonderful St. Martin's Press Year's Best anthologies of short fiction put together each year by Gardner Dozois and the editorial team of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, the claim that what we find in these pages is the actual best work of the year is certainly open to discussion. But with that said, it's difficult to fault the quality of the selection that is represented and where else will you get so much of the year's top art between two covers? Considering the high quality of the paper stock and the superb production values, Spectrum 7 is a bargain and also a must-have for any serious fantasy art lover's library.

*     *     *

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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