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June 2004
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Midnighters: The Secret Hour, by Scott Westerfeld,
Eos, 2004, $15.99.

MAYBE IT'S just me, but there's something seductive about walking around in a city so late at night that you have the streets entirely to yourself. It's a magical time when the whole world seems to be full of possibilities one can't imagine in the daylight. The late Richard Laymon had a take on it in a book called Night in the Lonesome October, reviewed in the March 2002 issue, but being Laymon, it was a very dark and grisly perspective.

Westerfield's book has its moments of darkness, and more than a few thrills, but it's a kinder book. The opening scenes are especially fascinating as we meet the various Midnighters, including the newest one, Jessica Day, newly moved to Bixby, OK.

What's a Midnighter? Well, apparently the day actually has twenty-five hours, but one of them has been compressed into the moment of midnight. It's a place of refuge for dark creatures, banished there eons ago. But a few humans can also experience that hour.

This is what happens to Jessica on her first night in Bixby. She wakes in what she thinks is a dream and goes out walking in the rain, rain that is frozen in place and looks like a million diamonds floating in the sky. Until she touches the drops and then they turn to water.

She soon discovers that there are other Midnighters, each of whom has a "power"—that only manifests during the day's twenty-fifth hour. One can float in the air, almost weightless; another can read minds, and that sort of thing. Unfortunately, the creatures that inhabit the midnight hour have taken an instant dislike to Jessica and are appearing in ever-growing numbers and ever-larger, more fearsome shapes in an effort to destroy her.

So unless she can figure out why, and what her midnight power is, she might not live through the next midnight hour.

Westerfield's book starts out intriguing, and remains a fun read, but it's not much of a Big Think novel, and turns out to be more like an episode of a WB teen series. Which isn't a bad thing, but it does mean that while the main story here resolves, a larger story arc carries on, presumably to go further in a future book.

* * *

Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz, Bantam,
2003, $26.95.

There aren't many writers with a body of work as large as Koontz's who can still grab me with their ability to surprise and delight. At this point in a career as long as his, we expect the author to have a handle on the usual elements of good story—evocative characters, tight plot, strong prose—and Koontz certainly does. But book after book, he continues to find the sort of innovative takes on his themes that always make me smile in anticipation when I start to understand where the book is going.

The title character of Odd Thomas sees the dead and has prescient dreams. Both require him to take action, because if he doesn't, he knows that Worse Things will happen.

Now before you say, oh come on, like we haven't seen that before, let me tell you that Koontz really makes it his own. That, however, is all I will tell you, because I don't want to spoil the surprises for you except to mention that a mute Elvis is one of the peripheral characters.

And while Koontz writes thrillers with a dark edge, he doesn't lose sight of either the light we carry in us, or his sense of humor. The mix of these elements have been present in most of his titles over the past few years, but in Odd Thomas, the blend is seamless. It's creepy, wise, and funny, and the character of Thomas himself has an especially big heart.

But the ending.

I think a little piece of my heart broke when I got to the end of this book. But that doesn't stop me from recommending it highly.

* * *

Restless, by Rich Wallace, Viking,
2003, $15.99.

Another book dealing with ghosts, except this one focuses on only a pair of them: that of Eamon Connelly, a long-dead Irish dockworker, and Frank, the book's narrator and brother to high school senior Herbie. Most of the book functions as a third-person narrative of Herbie's life, balancing sports, studies, a new girlfriend, and, oh yeah, the dead spirit of Connelly that he keeps seeing in the cemetery where he goes running.

But Herbie doesn't want to see Connelly, much though he's intrigued by the idea of ghosts being real. What he wants is to connect with the brother he misses so much.

How the three lives (or unlives, I suppose, in the case of two of them) connect makes for a fascinating and moving book. I especially liked how Wallace handled Herbie's character. Herbie is a jock throughout, and for a non-jock with preconceptions (borne out through my own high school years) I was pleasantly surprised with the likability of the character. It made me realize that my own generalizations about jocks were as unfair as theirs were of the weird little hippie kid that I was (and doesn't that date me?).

I'd recommend Restless for any number of reasons, from Wallace's insightful characterizations to his interesting take on ghosts, but mostly because it's just a really good story.

* * *

The Double Shadow, by Clark Ashton Smith,
Wildside Press, 2003, $15.

Let me get my carps out of the way first: The Double Shadow has, hands down, one of the worst covers it's been my misfortune to run across in years—and trust me, I see some bad ones. I can't imagine the cover inviting anyone to pick it up in a bookstore, except perhaps to show it in disbelief to a friend before hastily shelving it once more.

Less important, but still aesthetically displeasing, is the inside layout: the text has the appearance of being double spaced, making it look like a manuscript, rather than a finished book.

They're unfortunate choices because neither element will attract most readers, especially not contemporary readers accustomed to more attractive packaging and design who might not be familiar with Smith's work.

The good news is that these six stories are fine examples of Smith's exotic storytelling talents. They're full of strange names, curious landscapes, and convoluted plots, all decked out in a prose that might seem overwritten, but is actually quite charming in the same way that a good print of an old black-and-white film can be. You enter the story slightly amused at the quaintness of it all, but the storytelling soon pulls you in and you forget everything but the events that are unfolding.

These stories originally appeared in a limited edition pamphlet, self-published back in 1932, and most of them haven't seen print since—certainly not in the author's preferred text. Although "The Maze of the Enchanter" has been subsequently reprinted in an edited version, the other stories aren't familiar to this reader who was introduced to Smith's work through Lin Carter's series of fantasy reprints, the wonderful classics that appeared from Ballantine under the Unicorn banner in the early seventies.

If you're interested in the history of the field, and aren't familiar with Smith, this slim collection makes an excellent introduction to his writing. For a touchstone to Smith's work, you could say that his stories fall into those borderlands where the books of Lord Dunsany and H. P. Lovecraft might meet.

* * *

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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