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May 2003
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Guardian, by Joe Haldeman,
Ace, 2002, $22.95.

I love it when an author plays with our expectations. For instance, consider the book in hand. I know that Haldeman is a skilled stylist. That he writes thoughtful books, rich with characterization. But who knew he could so completely get into the head of a woman born in 1858? That this master of science fiction, who has made the interior of spaceships and the far reaches of space so believable, could also so readily bring to life the world of the Midwest and Alaska in the latter part of the nineteenth century?

Trust me, he does.

The book is presented as having been taken from the journals of Rosa Coleman, born before the Civil War. A bad marriage sends her fleeing with her teenage son to the wild west, and much of the book details their flight and eventual journey to the gold fields of Alaska. Haldeman conveys the voice of the character perfectly, so much so that you never really think about who's actually writing the book: a male professor at MIT and Vietnam vet. He also does a wonderful job describing this lost time, from train travel and railroad strikes to steamboats and life in the rough mining towns that provided the launching bases for prospectors on their way to the gold fields.

What has any of this to do with fantasy or sf? Plenty, you'll discover if you read the book, but I don't want to spoil it for you. Let me just say that Rosa has an experience that takes her to unexpected places, one that changes not only her, but the entire world.

Highly recommended.

*     *     *

Echo & Narcissus, by Mark Siegel,
Aardwolf Press, 2003, $14.95.

Echo & Narcissus is like a traffic accident: grotesque and grim and bloody, but so compelling that it's impossible to look away. It concerns a pair of runaways, Echo and Max, but this is no YA book.

It starts in New Orleans, where the two become involved with a witch couple named Juno and Z who run their part of the city in a chaos of blood and sex, drugs and violence. In an attempt to take charge of those parts of the city not already under their control, Juno and Z bring catastrophe down on themselves, leaving Echo and Max to flee for their lives.

Echo is a singer, but she carries a curse that renders her unable to speak—only to echo what someone else says. She's desperately in love with Max. Max is a guitarist and songwriter. Unable to love or care about anything, he's constantly pushing himself to the very edge of sanity and life.

They end up squatting in the projects in L.A., in a place ironically called Echo Park, home to gangs and drug dealers. It's also home to a mysterious blind man and to a cult pushing a special Ecstasy-like drug that delivers either the best high you can imagine, or literally dissolves you, leaving only a black stain on the ground where you fell.

When the pair are spotted playing at some bar by a music agent, the fame that follows their rise to the top of the music business allows them to disengage themselves physically from the place. But Echo Park retains a hold on their souls and no matter how far away they get, how much good they do (Echo), or how much they waste their lives (Max), in the end they have to return to face the demons waiting for them in the park.

There's far more to the story, of course. The supporting cast is wonderfully realized—from Z's henchmen and various band members, to a pair of cops trying to solve the mysterious deaths in Echo Park—and the plot never goes quite where you expect it to, but always where it has to go. And while, yes, the novel is gruesome and extremely violent in many of its scenes, there's also a tremendous amount of heart to be found here.

While rock 'n' roll novels aren't new, they are difficult to pull off, and Mark Siegel has done a credible job of making the concert and bar scenes an integral part of the story. His prose throughout is very edgy and now, and the hybrid musical styles he puts forward as the reason for Echo and Max's rapid rise to fame are certainly plausible. Whether it will all seem that way in ten years, only time will tell. But for right now, Echo & Narcissus is a fascinating read, full of flash and thunder, ranging from the hot light of the concert stage to the dark underbellies of New Orleans, L.A., and Las Vegas.

*     *     *

This Cape Is Red Because I've Been Bleeding, by Tom Piccirilli,
Catalyst Press, 2002, $14.

Prose poetry is a strange hybrid. It follows the sentence structure of prose, but the sentences are broken up—arbitrarily, it can seem—and placed on separate lines. Paragraphs become stanzas. And of course the narrative, if existent, also follows a different course from prose because events are compressed, while thoughts and images can swell into long descriptive passages.

But there's a point to it all—at least in the hands of a good poet. The way the sentences are broken up, the choice of focus on specific event and image, have all been carefully considered to deliver the most impact, whether that be drama, irony, shock, or even a bittersweet nostalgia. In the hands of that aforementioned good poet, a prose poem can pack all the punch of a novel. Or at least a short story.

Tucked away behind a very effective cover by Jeremy Caniglia, the verses in this slim collection show that Tom Piccirilli understands the potential of a prose poem. From the opening meditation on the distances that lie inside the family unit ("Jones Beach, Thirty Years After the Last Sand Castle") to the near-death experience chronicled in the final poem, "The Last One," the verses here all play on the strength of the medium. The stories they tell cover the full range of the human condition, in prose that's matter-of-fact, but then suddenly soars to lyric heights. They're inhabited by ghosts, both literal and imagined, and like the best poetry does, they make us see the commonplace in a new light. And while Piccirilli is certainly capable of handling difficult issues, he does it in a manner that's still very accessible.

So if the idea of reading a poetry collection feels a bit intimidating to you, but you think you might like to give it a try, This Cape Is Red would be an excellent place to start.

*     *     *

The Last Oblivion, by Clark Ashton Smith,
Hippocampus Press, 2002, $15.

The Black Diamonds, by Clark Ashton Smith,
Hippocampus Press, 2002, $15.

If, however, you're already an aficionado of verse, or would like to give something more complex a try, I would highly recommend The Last Oblivion, a new collection bringing together the best of Clark Ashton Smith's fantastic poetry. The verses you'll find here aren't easy reading, either in subject matter or in their dense, gorgeous language, but effort spent will be well-rewarded.

For, while better remembered (if at all, these days) for his short story cycles set in Zothique and Hyperborea, Smith was also a master of the poetic form. His strict meters and complex use of language are a joy to read, especially in a time when everything—in contemporary writing as well as the world at large—is feted for its brevity and its accessibility to the lowest common denominator. Smith's poetry isn't for the fast food reader, and neither is his prose.

This collection was put together by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, the former also editing another recent Hippocampus Press book by Smith. The Black Diamonds was written when Smith was fourteen, and while the novel doesn't really stand up to the masterful short stories Smith came to write in the years to follow, it's still a fascinating glimpse into the early workings of his fertile imagination.

I'll recommend the novel to the Smith fan; the poetry collection to anyone who loves verse with a dark, fantastic slant.

*     *     *

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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