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September 2002
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Evening's Empire, by David Herter
Tor Books, 2002, $24.95

There's nothing quite so exciting as reading a good book by a new (or at least unfamiliar to you) author. You have no expectations, no preconceptions from other books the author has written as to how this one might go. The story can take you anywhere. This is especially true when reading a galley where you don't even have a cover illustration to give you a hint as to what waits for you inside.

That's how I came to David Herter's Evening's Empire, with nothing but the hope of a good read. He's the author of a previous sf novel, Ceres Storm, but apparently this novel is his first foray into contemporary fantasy and what a fine job he's done of it.

The book opens with the arrival of composer Russell Kent to the small coastal town of Evening, Oregon. Evening's claim to fame is its cheese, but it has a darker significance for Kent. Two years previously he and his wife stopped there on a whim. They went for a walk on the cliffs behind an elegant Queen mansion that overlooks the town and there his wife fell to her death.

Kent is haunted by nightmares of her death. Hoping to put her ghost to rest, and needing a quiet place to write a commissioned opera based on Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Kent returns to Evening and takes up residence in the town's one bed & breakfast, operated by Megan Sumner.

But there are strange doings in Evening, as Kent soon discovers.

At this point the book could have gone one of two ways: the horror route, or that curious form of contemporary fantasy previously staked out by the likes of James Blaylock and Tim Powers.

With its quirky characters and hidden histories, we soon discover that Herter opted for the latter.

Evening, it turns out, was settled by one Joseph Evening in an area that, unlike the surrounding landscape, has not collected any legends or folktales. The local Natives avoided the area, calling it "the Land of the Grey Owl." But Evening believed there was a great secret hidden under the town that came to bear his name and while the making and selling of cheese is the obvious concern of most of the town's inhabitants, they have also been digging a route to what they believe is an underground city since they first settled here, many, many decades ago.

Kent doesn't learn of this immediately. At first he only catches the periphery of oddness that pervades the town. He's too busy making peace with the ghost of his wife and working on his opera. But the mystery takes hold of him, surely and with an ever-tightening grip, the longer he stays.

He finds affection, cheese sculptures, and strange little societies such as the Storm Watchers and the Anti-Cheese League who are at odds with one another. There appear to be connections between the townsfolk's secrets and the death of his wife. Jules Verne's books are also involved. Small men in black coats seem to be watching him. An artifact that appears to have no earthly origin is washed ashore and into Kent's hands.

David Herter pulls it all together with a deft sure hand. His prose is a delight and his characters fascinating. And I really loved the way that his composer Kent "hears" colors and, with his perfect pitch, can catalogue the tone of a sound.

The first two thirds of the book is absolutely charming. After that, as the mystery begins to unravel . . . it's not that Evening's Empire falters so much as that it seems to lose steam. I can't quite put my finger on what it is--or at least what it was for this reader. I didn't dislike the last third of the book--in fact, I read through it quite quickly, drawn by that need that every author hopes to cultivate: his or her readers' need to find out what happens next.

The trouble is, as continuingly strange and intriguing as the revealed mystery is, it still felt somewhat mundane. And, at least in my reading of it, there was no real pay-off in terms of the push and pull of the various characters' relationships as set up in the earlier portions.

None of which, I hope, will stop you from reading the book. There is far more to praise in Evening's Empire than to criticize. It's true that I couldn't help but be a little disappointed that it's early promise of wonder and character depth, sustained through most of the book, didn't resolve with a similar flair and innovation. Yet even if the end doesn't quite measure up to Herter's ambitions, at least he made the effort to break some new ground. And mostly he succeeded.

*     *     *

Wolf's Head, Wolf's Heart, by Jane Lindskold
Tor Books, 2002; $27.95

One thing I like about Jane Lindskold's books is that she plays fair with her readers. It doesn't matter that she's writing a series; each book will still stand on its own and be a satisfying read, for all that it adds depth and texture to what went before. That might seem like an odd thing to be grateful for, but one of the reasons I don't read many series books is that I grew tired of coming to the end of some five-hundred page book only to find that the immediate story didn't end and I'd have to wait a year or more to find out what happens next.

I still have to wait a year between Lindskold's titles, but at least she hasn't left me hanging--though she always does always leave me wanting to read more, the way any good writer does.

In last year's Through Wolf's Eyes we were introduced to Firekeeper, a young woman raised by intelligent wolves; she might or might not be the heir to a human kingdom. The novel proved to be equal parts feral child novel (where we get to see civilization through the eyes of someone raised outside its boundaries) and one centering around complicated political intrigues. It ended in a war that rearranged the ruling houses of Lindskold's world and set Firekeeper's place in civilization.

But, as we discover in the opening of Wolf's Head, Wolf's Heart, one of the ousted rulers took with her three magical artifacts that were supposed to remain under lock and key in her former kingdom. At the same time Firekeeper is summoned back to the lands where she grew up by a council of Royal Animals, the intelligent beasts who first held this land before man came into it and to which her own pack of intelligent wolves belong.

The council charges Firekeeper with the task of finding and retrieving these artifacts. So she sets out, with some of her human and Royal Animal friends we met in the first book, on a journey to bordering New Kelvin to do just that.

New Kelvin appears to be somewhat based on Japanese culture, a land of complicated interactions between people, where magic is revered and everyone wears Kabuki-like face-paint. It's a fascinating place, one that I don't doubt we'll see more of in future Firekeeper novels, and it provides a powerful backdrop for much of the action of this book.

I don't want to go into too much detail about the plot, or how it unfolds--much of the pleasure of the read is untangling the skein of treacheries and political maneuvering--but I will tell you that Lindskold once again provides a very satisfying conclusion, while allowing hints for possible future stories in the series. Her prose is clean, her dialogue sharp, and she well-understands the fine balance between exploring a new world and moving the plot forward.

Other series writers might take note of how well this approach works. For one thing, Wolf's Head, Wolf's Heart is as good, if not better than the previous book, unlike so many trilogies where the second book is the weakest part of the whole.

All in all, it's a strong addition to the Firekeeper series in particular, and Lindskold's body of work in general.

*     *     *

A number of readers have written to me concerning my review of Daniel Quinn's The Man Who Grew Young in the February 2002 installment of this column, pointing out other stories and books that use the same concept of a man living backward through time rather than forward. But while a fair number of other takes on the subject were listed, the one that got the most mentions was "The Man Who Never Grew Young" by Fritz Leiber.

And it's a wonderful story, with an original copyright date of 1947 (although Dark Harvest's The Leiber Chronicles where I tracked down my copy, cites it as 1949), and I was surprised that I hadn't read it before. I'd recommend the story to you, as I'd recommend all of Leiber's work. He was a wonderful writer, inventive and gifted, who left us many fine stories and books, although like Roger Zelazny and so many of the other giants in our field, his absence is still keenly felt.

*     *     *

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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