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April 2003
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
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Chris Moriarty
 
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

A Shortcut in Time by Charles Dickinson
Forge Books, 2003; 304pp; $24.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-79-65-30579-8

I'm a sucker for a good time travel book, especially when it plays fair and details all the anomalies as part of the story, rather than bogging it down with endless exposition. A Shortcut in Time is strong on both counts, catching my interest from the very beginning and never letting go.

This isn't Charles Dickinson's first book, but I was unfamiliar with his work before I started A Shortcut in Time. I could go into one of my usual apologias at this point, but frankly, there are so many good books being published that only the most dedicated of book review editors is familiar with them all, not to mention their authors. And no one has the time to read them all. So instead, I'll just plead my ignorance and crib from the promotional material that accompanied the book to let you know that Dickinson is a Chicago-area journalist and has had at least one previous novel, The Widow's Adventures.

I can't say how his previous books might have helped him, but his journalist's eye obviously knows how to find and then convey all the right details we need in terms of character, setting and story, while his familiarity with reporting lends credibility to the various snippets of old newspaper articles that prove central to the plot at various times.

The novel centers around Josh Winkler, a rather unsuccessful artist and longtime resident of Euclid, Illinois, a town criss-crossed with shortcuts. It's on one of these well-known paths that cuts between the town's long blocks that Winkler stumbles upon the possibility of time travel. First he appears to have gone back fifteen minutes himself. Then a young woman appears who claims to be from the year 1908.

No one quite believes any of it, but the story gets out, and the local teenagers start exploring the possibilities. Before you know it there are some unexplained disappearances, with Winkler standing at the center of the mystery.

As I write the above, I realize that there's no way to capture the plot of Dickinson's novel without spoiling surprises, so I'm going to stop here. Instead, let me simply say that like Jack Finney, Alan Brennert, and other fine writers before him, Dickinson gives us a thoughtful, well-considered time travel story that focuses as much on the complex relationships of his characters as it does on the plot devices that drive the story.

You won't necessarily like everyone you meet in this book, and the way events unfold won't always be to your liking, but Dickinson plays true to both the characters and their story, and if you give the book a try, I doubt very much that you'll be disappointed.

*     *     *

And while we're on the subject of time travel, a couple of other books recently made their way into my P.O. box that are worth at least a mention:

Time Machines (Carroll &Graf, 2002; $13.00), edited by Bill Adler, Jr., is a wonderful collection of what the cover copy claims are "the best time travel stories ever written." I'm sure that you, like me, will question omissions of personal favorites (what, no Fritz Leiber?), but Adler has brought together enough high quality stories--many of them unfamiliar to me--to make up for them. And when you consider a line-up that includes everyone from Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Allan Poe to Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Rod Serling, you know you're in good hands here.

For a more scholarly look at the subject, there's Worlds Enough and Time (Greenwood, 2002; $59.95), edited by Gary Westfahl, George Slusser, and David A. Leiby. The essays collected here explore time travel from as far back as Dante through to books and films that appeared in the 1990s. It's dry but fascinating reading, and certainly makes you want to track down the cited works, but considering its steep price, you might want to make sure that your local public library acquires a copy for you to borrow.

*     *     *

White and Other Tales of Ruin by Tim Lebbon
Night Shade Books, 2002; 342pp; $27.00/$15.00
Hardcover; ISBN 1-892389-30-4
Trade paperback; ISBN 1-892389-34-7

Ruin is the operative word in these six novellas, two of them new to this collection. Tim Lebbon writes about a world that is all too easy to imagine, showing us how easily we could lose all the advances we've made in terms of technology and social benefits. But he balances this bleakness with characters who persevere, even in situations that should leave them empty of all hope.

The title story (which deservedly won a British Fantasy Award) is a good example of how quickly everything can fall apart. Set in an old house in Cornwall on the coast of England, it's about a group of people, cut off from the world by a sudden, deep snowfall. And the steady accumulation of snow remains an ongoing concern, because it doesn't let up. The drifts are so deep that one becomes exhausted travelling a few hundred meters, never mind the ten kilometers to the nearest village.

Before the power died, the characters watched reports on the television of thousands of people falling ill and dying from an inexplicable new disease; food riots in London; a nuclear exchange between Greece and Turkey. As the protagonist says, "We'd known something was coming--things had been falling apart for years--but once it began it was a cumulative effect, speeding from a steady trickle toward to decline, to a raging torrent."

So when the snow first began to fall, they stayed where they were because it seemed they were better off, distanced from the rest of the world. Now, as the story opens, it's too late for them to leave. And worse, there's something out there in the snow, hungry for them. Something new and dangerous that they see only as ghostly shapes against the white snow. Then one by one, they begin to die.

It's a horrific story, but it doesn't read as horror. Lebbon has more of a mainstream touch with his prose--especially when it comes to his characterization--and his speculations feel like science fiction. In fact, what he writes is a hybrid of styles that mesh perfectly, playing on all our senses and sensibilities. One moment readers will feel the need to avert their eyes, the next they'll be caught up in the emotional undercurrents that pull the characters through the story. In another, they'll stop to consider the possible ramifications of not only what's happening in the world of the story, but how readily it could strike our own.

"White" alone is worth the price of admission, but Lebbon goes on to take us on five other journeys, each calling up a similar mix of emotions in his readers. It's a dark and bleak world he paints for us, but one that's impossible to ignore.

*     *     *

The Furies by Mike Carey & John Bolton
Vertigo/DC, 2002; 96pp; $24.95
Hardcover; ISBN 1-56389-935-3

It's been three years since her son died, but Lyta Hall is still stumbling through a blur of grief that she tries to ease with one night stands. Unfortunately, the meaningless sex in which she attempts to lose herself ends too often with her beating her partner senseless--and she has no idea why. Things just . . . set her off.

It's after a visit to the police station following the latest such incident that she becomes involved with a theatre troupe on its way to a festival in Athens. Born in Greece, Hall still speaks the language. She accompanies the troupe to help facilitate their visit, and hopefully to put some distance between herself and the madness she can feel stalking the edges of her mind back home.

But once in Athens, things only get worse and Hall finds herself in Hades--literally--a pawn in a struggle between the gods of Olympus and the ancient Titans.

This is a powerful story of loss, vengeance, and redemption, rooted in the mythos that Neil Gaiman created with his stories of the Endless. Some familiarity with his The Sandman series (particularly the last two installments, The Kindly Ones and The Wake) will enrich your experience of the book in hand--or at least add a resonance to the events. As will a basic knowledge of Greek mythology. But neither is necessary as author Mike Carey does a fine job of explaining things on the fly without ever bogging the story down.

And what a story it is: dark and redolent in drama and mystery.

As for John Bolton's art, he returns here to that style of photo-realistic painting that worked so well in Harlequin Valentine, but eschewing the black outlining of the figures which I, at least, found somewhat distracting in that earlier book. He's also using a bold, rich palette here that fully realizes the larger-than-life struggle of the gods. This is nicely balanced by the more subdued palette utilized when the scenes are wholly in the human world.

Considering the glossy stock on which this is printed, and how beautiful the art looks on it, the $24.95 cover price is certainly fair. But those on a more limited budget might want to wait for the inevitable trade paperback that might even be available by the time this review sees print.

*     *     *

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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