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February 2003
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold,
Little, Brown, 2002; $21.95

Sometimes I think I live in something of a literary vacuum. Alice Sebold's debut novel is a good example. I picked it up because of a short, paragraph-long, pre-publication description I'd read somewhere and it sounded intriguing. I had no idea how she was going to pull off a coming-of-age book about a dead girl who is brutally murdered in the first few chapters and spends the rest of the book as a spirit, observing and trying to protect her family from the murderer.

Considering the book's description, it seemed particularly odd that the novel was described as uplifting and light-hearted, for all the grim events upon which the story is based.

Well, all of the above is true. Sebold has given her protagonist Susie Salmon a delightful voice, peopled the book with a wonderful and well-realized cast of characters, and does manage to tell a coming-of-age story about a dead girl. Her take on heaven is fascinating. As is her ability to mix truly horrific and tense scenes with a light narrative voice with neither taking away from the other.

I pretty much fell in love with the book. And then I started to notice all the mainstream interest in her and the novel and realized that I wasn't alone--not by a long shot. The positive praise lavished on The Lovely Bones is strong and well-deserved. But what I found the most interesting is that this book has about as fantastical a basis as anything in our genre, but that's . . . not exactly ignored in the mainstream reviews, but it isn't dwelled upon either.

They don't ignore the fact that the book is narrated by a dead girl. Instead, they simply accept it and move on to discussing the characters and story. As, apparently, are the novel's growing legion of readers.

It's a curious phenomenon that I've noticed before, particularly with films. A surprising percentage of movies over the past few years are of a fantastical nature (Amelie, Big, Liar, Liar, etc. etc.) but they're not considered fantasies and are enjoyed by reviewers and viewers who, if asked, will usually say they don't really care for fantasy.

Why does this bother me?

For two reasons. The general public is missing out on some great material created by authors working in our genre (Tim Powers, James P. Blaylock, Nina Kiriki Hoffman . . . I could make a list that would be pages long), and those same authors aren't reaping the benefit of a larger audience which would allow them to live a bit better and devote more time to writing. When I think of someone as talented as William Browning Spencer not making a living as a full-time writer, I think it's criminal.

But unfortunately, there's nothing much we can do about it except simply enjoy the best of both worlds ourselves. And perhaps try to convince those friends of ours who don't read fantasy to try a book or two. They might like them. Because fantasy doesn't all have to be wizards and elves and quests. And with that said, a novel with those elements isn't by and of itself a bad thing, either. It all depends on the skill of the writer, and our field has some great ones.

*     *     *

Coraline by Neil Gaiman,
HarperCollins, 2002; $15.99

Is there anything Gaiman doesn't do well?

Coraline isn't his first foray into children's fiction, but it's certainly his most successful. In fact, it's astonishingly good--an instant classic, if you'll excuse the hyperbole--and one that I can imagine both children and adults reading a hundred years from now with the same enjoyment they do Lewis Carroll's Alice books.

Carroll is actually a good touchstone, since Coraline reminds me of nothing so much as a macabre Alice in Wonderland. The title character doesn't go through a mirror or fall down a rabbit hole, but she does go through a door that normally opens on a brick wall to find herself in a twisted version of her own world. There she meets her other parents, the ones with buttons for eyes who want only the very best for Coraline, which includes making her one of their own.

Our plucky heroine escapes, only to find that her real parents have now been kidnapped and taken into that other world. Calling the police doesn't help--they only suggest she's having a nightmare and that she should go wake her mother and have her make a cup of hot chocolate. So it's up to Coraline to rescue not only her real parents, but also the spirits of the dead children that were taken before the "other mother" set her sights on Coraline.

The book is illustrated throughout by Dave McKean's pen & ink drawings that are both charming and strange. The prose is simple and lovely, the subject matter both dark and whimsical (sometimes whimsically dark, other times darkly whimsical--you get the idea). In accompanying material Gaiman writes that it's a story "that children experienced as an adventure, but which gave adults nightmares," and while I didn't get nightmares (I'm too much of a child, I suppose) I can easily see how both hold true. I do know that images from the book pop into my head at surprising times with an accompanying little shiver and thrill, and that I plan to reread it very soon. Now that I know the story, I want to savor the wonderful prose.

Collectors might be interested in tracking down a signed (by the author) limited edition that HarperCollins have also produced. It features a color frontispiece by the book's illustrator as well as almost twenty pages of extra material that includes some more black & white art as well as commentaries by Gaiman himself. At around twenty-five dollars, it's a good price for a collectible book.

Or you can buy the peanutpress e-book version at around eleven dollars which also includes the additional material.

*     *     *

A Fistful of Sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman,
Ace, 2002; $23.95

Did you ever get something you wished for, only to discover that it wasn't what you wanted at all? That's what lies at the heart of Nina Kiriki Hoffman's new novel, though, of course, being Hoffman, it's about so much more.

Gypsum LaZelle is the only normal child in a Californian family of magically-gifted witchy folk . . . that is until she reaches twenty and has a late Transition (when one's powers manifest). Unfortunately, rather than gaining some useful power, her gift is the unkind power of curses. Complicating matters, LaZelles have to use their powers a few times a day, or the power builds up inside them to their own detriment. So not only does Gypsum finally have a power, she also has to use it.

Being a fairly kind-hearted person, she doesn't want to curse anyone or anything. But since she had to use the power, she tries to do the least amount of damage--with predictably awful results because the curse always manages to find a way to manifest, no matter how carefully Gypsum thinks through her spell. Her family stands by her through her misadventures, assuring her that she'll gain control over her power.

The real question is, will any of them survive long enough to see that happen?

There's magic galore in Hoffman's new novel. Joyous moments when Gypsum can revel in finally having a power. Dark moments when those she loves are imperiled. Hilarious moments at the turns some of the curses take. She also enters into her first relationship and gains an unexpected ally who might prove to be more dangerous than her newfound power.

It's partly a coming-of-age novel, or a coming-into-one's-power one--literally, in this case, but it also serves as an analogy for what lies at the heart of all such stories. It's also about family dynamics and trust and all the messy, sad, and happy things that make up our lives. But mostly it's a great story with delightfully eccentric characters and more of a sense of wonder than you'll find on a whole bookshelf of most other fantasy books being written these day.

Highly recommended.

*     *     *

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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