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August 2005
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Enchanted, Inc., by Shanna Swendson,
Ballantine Books, 2005, $12.95.

THE THING about fantasy novels—the majority of all novels, really—is that our main viewpoint character is usually extraordinary. And if they don't appear to be so when we start the book, by the time it ends, our hero or heroine turns out to be some mighty mage, or the warrior princess of prophecy, or some other high-falutin' savior of the world.

That's not particularly surprising, I suppose. We read books for a vicarious peek into lives that aren't as mundane as our own usually are, so we're not as quickly attracted to a novel about some ordinary person (unless we're led to understand they're going to become more during the course of the story).

So it's refreshing to read a book like Shanna Swendson's Enchanted, Inc. in which our heroine Katie Chandler is as ordinary as they come.

And stays that way. Sort of. But more on that later.

She's from Texas originally, sharing a one-bedroom apartment in New York City with three college friends from her home town. She doesn't really fit in—not on the dating scene, not at work where she has the boss from hell, not really anywhere but back home. Except this is her one chance at being something more than she could be in small-town Texas. This is her big opportunity, if only someone would take a chance on her.

Well, it turns out that Katie is so ordinary that there is someone who is not only willing, but eager, to take a chance on her. And that would be the folks at M.S.I., Inc. (Magic, Spells, and Illusions, Inc.), a curious company that is desperate for the services of an ordinary person. Because it turns out magic is real, but hidden from most of the world. Spells work. As do illusions. But for a company to see through the enchantments that might be hidden in a contract, for instance, or to keep watch for invisible corporate thieves, they need that rarest of beings: an immune.

As Katie explains to another immune who's being offered a job: "I'm as nonmagical as you can get, to the point that magic doesn't work on me. And you're the same way. That's why you see the things you do. Most people have just enough magic in them to be influenced by it. They don't see weird things because the magical people have ways of masking them so they look normal. But we don't see the illusions. We see the truth. So we see the wings and ears and the results of spells."

In other words, they're invaluable to a company that deals in magic, and with other magical beings.

Now what I liked most about Enchanted, Inc. is that Katie stays an immune, right through to the end. She doesn't suddenly develop hidden latent magical abilities, or turn out to be the long-lost daughter of the company's CEO, or any such thing. She's simply an immune, with a down-to-earth attitude and common sense.

But that doesn't make her uninteresting—no more than anyone really is, once you start to learn their story. And she does have a touch of the extraordinary—again, just as we all do—because she's willing to stand up for herself, because she's brave (even when she's scared), and she's willing to roll up the figurative sleeves to work through a problem, rather than wait for some magical solution.

I liked her, and I think other readers will, too. I enjoyed watching how she coped both with her new job, and with how that job impacted on the mundane aspects of her life. If I had any disappointment, it's that Swendson lays all sorts of hints to romantic entanglements, but never follows through on them. Maybe that'll come in another book. Or maybe it's just like life, where romance simply doesn't always work out.

Swendson's style is light and breezy, but not without substance. It has a bit of the sense of a screwball comedy, only updated for these times that we live in. For touchstones, think of Thorne Smith's delightful books, or Jack Williamson's early fantasies, with a hint of Sex in the City, and maybe a dash of Bridget Jones.

But with that said, Katie Chandler is still very much her own woman, with her own voice. And if she's ordinary, then we should all be so ordinary.

*     *     *

Casa Azul: An Encounter with Frida Kahlo, by Laban Carrick Hill,
Watson-Guptill, 2005, $15.95.

A few months ago we had a look at The Spirit Catchers, the first book in Watson-Guptill's new Young Adult series "Art Encounters," featuring fictional encounters with famous artists. The Spirit Catchers was set during the Depression in New Mexico and featured a young man and told how he both influenced, and was influenced by, Georgia O'Keeffe. It was a wonderful book, mixing history, mythical desert spirits, and an absorbing exploration into the heart of the creative impulse. Although marketed as a YA book, it was one of those all-ages books that appeal to everyone, not simply the young at heart.

I had high hopes for the second book in the series since it would be focusing on a couple of my favorite things: the art of Frida Kahlo and Mexican culture. Mostly, it succeeds, but I do have a couple of caveats that I'll get to in a moment.

But let me start with the set-up. The plot switches between two storylines. First up we meet Maria and Victor Ortiz, fourteen and eight, respectively. Upon the death of their grandmother, they leave their small village to go by bus to Mexico City, where they hope to find their mother. To keep Victor occupied on the trip and once they're in Mexico City, Maria continues an ongoing story, her own version of a meeting between two famous wrestlers, El Corazón and El Diablo.

Once in Mexico City they run into a street urchin named Oswald and things go rapidly downhill from there.

The other storyline features Frida and her husband Diego Rivera, beginning on the day of their divorce. Anyone familiar with their history will know that their love-hate relationship continued for long after that.

It's in the Frida sections that Hill brings to play the magical realism one associates with Latin literature. Frida's home, Casa Azul, is a sanctuary for the lost and lonely, a place where those with no voice can have one. Literally. So the characters in this section range from monkeys and a cat to figures from paintings and a Day of the Dead sugar skull.

The two plots collide, naturally, but I won't go into how. Hill is a fine writer with an inventive sense of humor and imagination, though she can also be serious. There's a good biographical section and timeline of Frida's life, and of course the cover bears a reproduction of one of her gorgeous paintings, Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.

But the problem with the book is that it has a very young feel to it. Whereas I would happily recommend The Spirit Catchers to readers of any age, Casa Azul won't be fully absorbing for anyone much older than our fourteen-year-old heroine Maria.

This isn't the worst thing in the world, of course. Because it's such a good book for what it is, I can heartily recommend you give a copy to your favorite younger reader. It's a terrific introduction to magical fantasy and the creative impulse, with the added bonus of being set in a different cultural milieu than the usual Tolkienesque fantasy.

*     *     *

Spectrum 11: The Best in Contemporary Fantasy Art, edited by Cathy & Arnie Fenner,
Underwood Books, 2004, $29.

I love the Spectrum series of the year's best art. If you're not a big convention goer (I'm not), and can't afford to keep up on all the books and magazines that come out in a year (I can't), it's a great way to stay familiar with the best artists our field has to offer.

There are text features. This volume contains a short essay on 2004's Grand Master winner Michael Whelan, and a longer essay by Arnie Fenner that is certainly informative. But really, the reason to buy this is for the art. Page after page of sumptuous art, printed on thick glossy stock, and covering everything from old-fashioned Maxfield Parrish-styled artists such as Richard Hescox and Raoul Vitale, to the pure sf illustration of someone like Stephan Martiniere, with every other style you can imagine in between.

Some of the work is previously unpublished, but most of it is drawn from contemporary dustjackets, advertising, statues, comics, and whatever else our field has to offer that utilizes illustration.

While the series is certainly a valuable reference tool for editors, art directors, and the like (not simply for the samples of art, but also for the contact information at the back of the book), it offers pure visual pleasure to the rest of us. And this year's edition is no exception.

*     *     *

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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