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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Perfect Circle, by Sean Stewart, Small Beer Press, 2004, $24 (hc), $15 (tp).
Smoke and Shadows, by Tanya Huff, DAW Books, 2004, $23.95.
A Scholar of Magics, by Caroline Stevermer, Tor Books, 2004, $19.95.

I'M IN the process of reading for the Sunburst Jury, a Canadian speculative fiction award, and I'm a bit burned out. Taking a break to read some novels from this year was therefore not a break, but part of that continuum, and perhaps the wisest thing to do would have been to read only those novels which are delightful confections—not necessarily the things that sustain you, but rather, some of the things that make life seem both rich and indulgent.

Which is why Perfect Circle, the long-awaited new novel by Sean Stewart, was perhaps not the place to start. I've been carrying that book in my head, and unlike the underside of CDs, for which this book is in part—in analogy—named, it plays differently every time I think about it. This is good. But it makes coming up with an opinion decidedly fractured.

On the surface, the book is a read-at-one-go novel. It has a pace that sustains it from start to finish, without those pauses and stops that many novels have, whether by design or flaw. The main character—the only viewpoint—is Will Kennedy (called DK, as in "Dead Kennedy"), a man who, at thirty-two, has just been fired from his job at the Pets R Us (or its equivalent) for eating cat food. Home is a single room apartment, and life revolves around the friends across the hall, his daughter, his suppressed feelings for his ex-wife, his large, extended family, and the dead who populate his waking vision.

Stewart has always been gifted with acute observation, which in turn lends itself to the sparse and affectionate way in which he creates and reveals characters, peeling away layers of present and past until almost everything is exposed. These people are never less than real, and they are always people with whom one can sympathize to a greater or lesser extent. DK is no exception. As a man whose wife left him over a decade past, he's adrift, at odds with his gifts and his life, or with life in general.

His daughter Megan is of an age where bus rides no longer make her squeal with glee; on the verge of adolescence, she's becoming a stranger to him, and though he has history, the now of his life has always been confusing. He loves her. He loves Josie, his ex-wife.

He doesn't really love the dead. He probably would, if they'd stay that way. But they cross his path in black and white, they cause near-accidents when he's driving at night, and they remain enigmatic to him, largely because he's trying to hide from them all: trying to be normal.

Once, when he was young and had a cousin crush on the older AJ, he used the ghosts to make him seem more interesting to her—but that grew old. Now, trying to protect his daughter from having a freak for a father—and face it, at her age, what daughter wouldn't be embarrassed?—he's not interested in being interesting at all.

But he's not interested in welfare, either, and short a job at the pet food store, he's also desperately in need of cash, so when a cousin calls, desperate to rid himself of a ghost, and offers a thousand dollars, DK finally takes the plunge and goes hunting said ghost, which seems to live in his cousin's garage.

And thus DK discovers that some people are haunted for a reason. The cousin can hear the ghost, but can't see her. DK isn't that lucky; he can see her all right, and his cousin's story about a hit-and-run accident are belied by the ghost he does see.

The encounter puts him in the hospital, under some suspicion of possible murder. Unfortunate words, made easy and smooth by morphine, become a newspaper article, and a rude awakening as DK discovers that his daughter has known all along that he can see the dead; his wife told her. DK has a capacity for believing in what he sees and what he knows; he seems to be constantly surprised by the reality of the lives of other people as they move outside of his peculiar tunnel vision.

This, by the way, is afterthought on my part; it's not so obvious the first time through. The first time through, we're caught in DK's memories. He remembers his cousin AJ. He remembers going to the hospital with her to visit a friend who had been molested at a party—something that made little sense to him at that age. And he remembers, clearly, AJ's warning—half-plea—that he not end up letting that definition of what it means to be a man define him.

He recovers with a $20K hospital debt, which he can pay in installments that would beggar most of us. And his talent? He puts it to use. He sells it.

In the process, he discovers that he, too, is haunted; that haunting has many forms and many functions, and that a person is never truly haunted for no reason.

Stewart pulls no punches. He doesn't dwell on them either; everything is both stated and understated, elegant, full of the mundane horror and fear that inform a normal, frustrated life. There is a stark honesty to the work, but it's mingled with an affection that is unbroken by DK's ability to look in a mirror—even if what DK sees isn't something he understands is himself. He is trying, as people do, to understand the nature of love, loss, and the inevitable rage that loss causes, and stumbling in the attempt, he comes close to a terrifying comprehension of what it means to love someone enough to kill them.

This is a darker book than any of Stewart's other novels in theme; it's deceptive, in that its tone is so much like the others, it catches you by surprise.

And it is well, well worth the reading. A highly recommended work.

*     *     *

Tanya Huff's latest foray, Smoke and Shadows, has emerged in hardcover. She has returned to the Canada of Henry Fitzroy (introduced in what the author calls "the Blood Noun books"), the four-hundred-plus-year-old vampire who was once Prince of Men, and is now Prince of Darkness (when he isn't writing romance). Gone is Vicki; by his side—reluctantly—is Tony, the street kid whom Vicki kicked some sense into and set straight.

Tony has a place of his own, and a job that only the foolish would envy: he's a Production Assistant for "Darkest Night," a cheesy, over-the-top show about a vampire detective. Yes, this gives Huff plenty of opportunities for obvious humor. No, she's too good to use them much.

Instead, she tries to keep her focus on Tony, on the near-crisis state that is filming syndicated television, and on the colorful cast of characters, with equally colorful invective, who man the set, the stages, and the phones with equal vigor. Tony has tried fairly hard to separate himself from Henry, and in this novel, for the first time, you really get a sense of why that separation is necessary (I won't spoil it, but I will say that Tony is emphatically not Vicki); of what it means to be the vampire's local meal on two legs.

But Henry's not Tony's problem: Shadows are. As in, shadows that can move by themselves, whisper to themselves, and literally kill people. When one of the cast—the victim of the week, in a morbid turn of Huff's usual black humor—falls out of the closet of her change room as a corpse, things begin to unravel at the studio.

Is the hardcover worth the price? Yes. Definitely. Because I have no doubt at all that, as the subsequent volumes come out, I'm going to want to read this one again, just for the pleasure of Huff's trademark dialogue, her character interactions, her cutting wit and her clever, if black, humor.

*     *     *

Caroline Stevermer's A Scholar of Magics is a companion piece to the earlier A College of Magics, although it stands well enough alone, given that I haven't had the great fortune to have read the first.

The setting for the book is Glasscastle University, a very prim, upper class, British academic institution. Except that the subject taught in this august place is magic.

Samuel Lambert is an American sharpshooter who manages to catch the attention of a group of Glasscastle fellows, and is invited to take part in an experiment to create some sort of weapon for the greater glory of the Empire. Curious, he agrees to their offer, and as the book opens, has found a place for himself as an outsider looking in. The magical chants of the students—which maintain the protective barriers that guard the university from external attack—speak to him in a way that nothing else in his life has, and perhaps because of this quiet fascination, he has been offered rooms by the mysterious and private Nicholas Fell for the duration of his part in the experiment.

His life is easy, and he often has free time—much of which is immediately absorbed by the unexpected arrival of the determined, attractive, and sharply intelligent Jane Brailsford, sister to Robert Brailsford, one of Glasscastle's numerous professors.

She's come on a mission of import, one which has nothing to do with Lambert and everything to do with his roommate, and without deliberate intent, she draws Lambert into her cause—because Nicholas Fell is one of the four wardens who protect and sustain magical balance in the world. And he's been very reluctant to accept his duties.

But she's not the only person who has a keen interest in the warden of the west. And the other person is decidedly less humanitarian in his intent.

Stevermer's prose is keen and delightful, as are her characters; her world is both intelligently and lovingly detailed, and its tone and mannered society reminded me in some ways of the work of Martha Wells. There are surprises in plenty, but none horrific or unpleasant. No mental gymnastics are required to follow the story; it's a cozy book to curl up with, pot of tea to one side, for a few indulgent hours.

My only quibble—a small one—is that I left the book feeling vaguely unsatisfied; I suspect this is because I wanted more of it, and the fact that it had come to an end was a tad unwelcome.

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