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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

The Wizard Hunters, by Martha Wells, Eos, 2003, $24.95.
Joss Whedon, The Genius Behind Buffy, by Candace Havens, BenBella Books, 2003, $15.95.
The War of the Flowers, by Tad Williams, DAW, 2003, $24.95.

I DON'T know if I'm typical among genre readers—or even if there is a typical genre reader—but I've learned over the years that I respond slowly to change, and that my frequent first reaction, when offered one, is "No." It's usually followed by thought, which goes against the very good advice of "Brain first, mouth later." These last few months have seen some changes in my life, and I'd like to mention the first one here.

The biggest of the changes in my life: Bakka Books, the place I worked at part-time for years, managed for years, and worked at part-time after the children were born, underwent its first change of hands in over twenty-two years; I've been there for seventeen of them, first at the original Queen St. location, and then at the new location on Yonge. John Rose has always been a bit unusual. When I started there, Tanya Huff had just sold her first couple of short stories to Amazing, and was rewriting the novel that became Child of the Grove. John, who never read a lot of fantasy—he was a great horror and sf reader—was entirely supportive of her work, and later of mine. Cory Doctorow and Nalo Hopkinson also worked there during my tenure, and Robert J. Sawyer worked there before I joined on.

The plethora of writers that Bakka fostered speaks to the fact that the store itself was a special place, and John really encouraged us all in our writing, diverse as it was; it makes the store unusual, as far as I know. Both the publishing world and the store itself underwent many changes over the two decades, as sf became more and more popular and more readily available in other bookstores. The opening of the superstores also made things more challenging, but during this period John continued to run the store, and to oversee us all with quirky humor and real dedication.

I'll miss him. The new owner, Ben Freiman, is very much a genre reader, and purchased the store partly because he thinks of Bakka as an institution or a landmark of Canadian sf which he wished to continue. He's the age I was when I first started, and has that youth and dedication going for him. I think the store will do well in his hands. But it's still a big change for me.

*     *     *

So, in the hectic upswing of change, of moving shelves and rearranging the old into something newer, I did what I often do: I retreated into the familiar and the private: I read. It has been said elsewhere, by other authors, that reading for comfort seems an intellectual affront, a way of somehow supporting the status quo. Let me cause affront, then. Or perhaps, let me point out that no single reader reads for one reason, and one alone; that enjoyment comes in different stripes and flavors; that the thrill of the new and the disturbing is one of them, but that the affirmation of things hopeful or things beautiful is not, in and of itself, a guarantee of retreading the same comfortable ground or turning the brain off. It's simply—for me—a way of finding some part of myself when the ground beneath my feet shifts in a way that the Richter scale wouldn't track.

Martha Wells is new to this column, although she is not new to the field. Her first novel, The Element of Fire, was a fabulous first book, and she followed it with a number of others, City of Bones, The Death of the Necromancer, and Wheel of the Infinite. If you haven't read Wells yet, you've missed one of the more graceful wordsmiths currently writing fantasy, and if you have, you're in for a treat. The Wizard Hunters is the first in an ostensibly new trilogy. The trilogy itself is new, but there are familiar characters who make cameo appearances, and the tone of the novel is very much like her earlier books: smart, witty, and highly entertaining.

Tremaine Valiarde is a young woman who is searching for a way to commit suicide that will not be noticed as such—she's not a woman who wants her death to cause damage to anyone else, but also not a woman who feels that her life has either meaning or value in the grander scale of things. And the scale of things is grand: the Gardier have declared war on the city she calls home, and with it, death has followed, taking from her everything that could be considered family. All she has as reminder is a toy that her uncle once gave her—a sphere that comforted her when she was lonely or sad.

In another land, and in another place, two men, Ilias and Giliead, who are not bent on death—but rather, on protection—are facing the same enemies, the deadly and mysterious Gardier. These men fear and loathe wizards, and with just cause. When fishing boats and merchant ships go missing, they set off on a mission to discover whether or not wizardry has indeed reared its ugly head, and they find out quickly that, in spite of earlier sacrifices, it has.

I have a weakness for clever dialogue. I have a weakness for wry observation. I have a weakness for clever people. Wells delivers all of these things, but without obvious flash; it's so much a part of her writing that you couldn't separate the two without stripping the book of words.

When Tremaine and her guardian Gerard discover that the research being done by Tremaine's dead uncle was in fact a complicated translocation spell, the two worlds begin to merge. Wells handles this with aplomb—of course—and with a real sense of the strangeness of the clash of different cultures. Alliances and friendships are made, and, in the end, Tremaine discovers exactly what the significance of her uncle's gift was.

I won't spoil it. But I will say this: although Wizard Hunters is the first of three, it doesn't end on a cliffhanger, and by the end of the book, enough is known that it changes the way war will be dealt with in future novels. It won't rip your heart out and stomp it flat—but it will entertain, amuse, and move you, which is high praise indeed.

*     *     *

Candace Havens's book reads as if it were a long and well-researched interview with Joss Whedon. His obviously clever take on his own work (see above re: my weakness for clever people) informs almost every page, and his wry observations about his own life do likewise. He is up front about his intentions for Buffy, and speaks quite openly about his experiences with the movie—and with movies in general, and the place that a writer occupies in Hollywood in particular (not quite the slime on the bottom of people's shoes, but pretty darned close). These provide some insight into what drives him, but he takes no pains to hide it; he is not entirely diplomatic.

Havens is clearly a fan of both Joss Whedon and of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and she's had the opportunity either to talk to the cast of the three shows Whedon has worked on for television (Buffy, Angel, and Firefly), or to read a lot of interviews written by other people who have. It's not clear which of the two is true, but she integrates the information she's pulled together well, and the whole of the book is almost seamless. Given that there are academics who have made Buffy their focus, one might expect that the book would be dry; it's anything but.

Whedon comes from a television writers' family. But it was movies that were his first love, and Havens has access to the woman he credits with much of his focus: a professor at Wesleyan.1 

She, too, has something to say about his work, and again, Havens inserts the professor's comments throughout. It's an interesting viewpoint, and one of the few that I hadn't encountered before.

If you're looking for a critical commentary, this is not the book for you. The use of the word Genius in the title sort of gives that away. But if you appreciate Buffy, you'll find it interesting.

Toward the book's end, Havens touches on Firefly, the only television project of Whedon's so far to fail. She mentions the difficulty with the original pilot that didn't air when it should have, although she quotes Gail Berman's public take on the matter.

Because of Whedon's work, I was sort of curious about Firefly—but having been told it was a Western in space, I was also a bit reluctant to watch it. One of these years, I'll forgive myself. I fell in love with the first episode I managed to catch, and then went back and watched everything else; I am so much a Firefly fan now that even though it's off the air, I still hand people the original pilot (not the first aired episode) when they display even a passing interest.

*     *     *

The War of the Flowers, by Tad Williams, is another departure. If Williams can be accused of anything, it is not repeating himself. Tailchaser's Song was a Watership Down for cats (and cat lovers), Memory, Sorrow and Thorn was a wonderfully characterized classic fantasy, and Otherland was a foray into the realms of virtual reality. Williams's newest novel is a stand-alone, and it takes place—or rather begins—in the here and now, with the midlife crisis of a thirty-year-old musician who never quite made it big.

Theo Vilmos is part of a band. This is nothing new to him. But his girlfriend is expecting their first child, and that is. Things spiral out of control very quickly—or out of Theo's control—and his life begins to lurch from one crisis to another. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would be an almost unforgiveable amount of pointless pathos—but in the hands of Williams, with his attention to detail and his ability to make Theo's pain and confusion real, it's perfect. In the end, left with nothing, Theo retreats to a log cabin to rethink and reinvent his life.

And his life is reinvented, but not in the manner he intended—because, in spite of the fact that he's a passive drifter, he's also sane. Two unexpected visitors make their way to his retreat—the first a walking corpse, and the second a very short, very feisty…faery. The first convinces Theo to listen to the second, and when she opens some sort of odd hole in the air, he jumps through and finds himself in a very different universe.

The pastoral, medieval world of the Faerie is not for Williams. His Faerie are peopled by a diversity of creatures—none of them human—and a power structure that resembles something Victorian, if you don't count cave trolls, little flying faeries, and warring, fractious Faerie clans. He carries with him the diaries of his dead uncle, Eamonn Dowd, a man who claims to have visited these lands, and, accompanied by the diminutive and demanding Applecore, the winged creature who saved his life, he begins his travels through that land, hunted from the start by unknown adversaries who clearly don't have his welfare at heart.

On the road, he discovers a lot about himself, makes friends, and even begins to recover from his grief at the loss of his previous life—but not without cost, and not without confronting the weaknesses that led to the disasters of his other life. As in the best of fantasy novels, Theo Vilmos discovers who he is, and what he is, and learns in the end what bravery, that antiquated out-of-date concept, truly means.

For readers who adore de Lint's contemporary fantasy, this is a must read; for people who have appreciated anything else that Williams has done, this is also highly recommended. I'm not sure what Williams will try next—I'd love to see what he'd do with a high tech sf setting—but it's clear that wherever he's going, it's worth following.


1 Joe Reed, husband of longtime F&SF contributor Kit Reed and a professor of film studies at Wesleyan, was not consulted, but he is proud to have spotted a character in the show with traits that strongly resemble his. ---ed.

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