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January 2006
 
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Child of a Rainless Year, by Jane Lindskold,
Tor Books, 2005; $14.95.

I LIKE PRETTY much everything Lindskold has turned her hand to and don't understand why her work doesn't have a higher profile in the field. I suspect it might be for one of the very reasons I like her books so much: she's not afraid to shift gears in terms of style and content.

She excels at big fat fantasies, with large casts and well-developed worlds (such as the Firekeeper/Wolf series). But she has also written a lean tech thriller (Donnerjack, in collaboration with the late Roger Zelazny), a romp of a contemporary fantasy (the Changer books), and a riveting historical (The Buried Pyramid).

I've enjoyed them all, but I think Child of a Rainless Year might well be my favorite to date. I'm not entirely sure why. It could be the New Mexican setting and the well-documented and fascinating history of that state's town of Las Vegas (along with the very fact that it exists). It could be the art which encompasses both traditional painting and collage as well as more craft-like expressions such as house-painting that aren't normally associated with fine art. It could be the fresh takes on magic using color, mirrors, kaleidoscopes and the less-well known teleidoscope (basically, a kaleidoscope with a clear lens so that patterns are made from real objects seen through the tube).

Or it might just be that it's a damn fine story, with likable characters, and that Lindskold isn't afraid to let it unfold at a somewhat leisurely pace, allowing the richness of detail to settle happily in the reader instead of getting lost in a blur of fast action.

The plot, on the surface, is very simple: Mira Fenn once lived in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Upon the mysterious disappearance of her mother Colette, she was sent to live with a foster couple in Idaho, where she grew from a young child into a woman who teaches high school art. When her foster parents die, she learns that she has inherited the old family home in Las Vegas.

She returns to deal with legalities of it all only to become entranced with both the unusual building and its hereditary caretaker, Domingo. Instead of putting the place up for sale, she moves in and begins to help Domingo restore the paintwork on the outside of the building. She also starts to look into her mother's disappearance, which is when she falls into her own looking-glass world.

And soon we're meeting mysterious house spirits, messages in kaleidoscopes, earthy beer-drinking spirits, mirror magic, and all sorts of unearthly wonders. It's all charming and peculiar and more than a little dangerous.

I loved everything about this book, from the subtle magics to the depictions of the house and the landscape, from Mira's character to the diary sections written by her foster mother in which we see a '60s Midwestern housewife blossom with intellectual and mystical curiosity.

As I mentioned, the pace is slow, which might turn off an impatient reader, but it was perfect for me. Everything isn't resolved in a tidy fashion at the end, either, but it answered all the questions enough for me. Where it didn't, I was happy to fill in the gaps for myself.

This one's definitely a career high for Lindskold and highly recommended.

*     *     *

Valiant by Holly Black,
Simon & Schuster, 2005,$16.95.

Now don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the Spiderwick books for what they were. But every time one came out, I knew a twinge of disappointment that it wasn't Black's sophomore follow-up to her brilliant Tithe. I wasn't looking for a sequel. I just wanted to see her tackle another story with a bit more edge and meat to it than the rather light-hearted adventures of the Grace children.

So imagine my delight when recently browsing the YA section of my local bookshop to find Valiant waiting for me on the shelf.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating for readers who shy away from books with a YA designation: some of the most innovative and cutting-edge work is published as Young Adult. The themes are often far more mature than the "adult" books, while the writing can be just as good, and is sometimes better.

Valiant is a prime example. Yes, the characters are young, but they move through a dark and troubling world that is all the more harrowing because it sits right outside our own comfortable homes.

It opens with seventeen-year-old Valerie Russell running away to New York City after discovering her boyfriend in the arms of her mother. She falls in with some other runaways, squatting in an abandoned subway station, and soon discovers that her new companions live on the edge of a world where magic and reality coexist.

In no time at all, Val finds herself bound in service to a troll named Ra-vus and caught up in the mystery of who is killing the fairies of New York.

That brief summary of the plot might not seem particularly innovative, but Black puts enough twists and turns into it to keep even a jaded reader from figuring out where it's going next. And the freshness of her work lies more in the harsh realities that fill the lives of her characters.

Living on the street isn't pleasant or pretty, even without the menace of Unseelie fairies, and Black doesn't shy from viewing it with an unflinching eye. And her characters aren't anywhere near perfect. They mess up—badly—but it's to Black's credit that we still care about them. Maybe we care so much because of their frailties.

It's easy to be brave when you're the Chosen One of Legend—as we meet in so many fantasy books. But it can be more admirable to rise above one's fears and weaknesses when fate and destiny aren't on your side.

Like Tithe, this new novel is a wonderful example of just how powerful and relevant a YA fantasy novel can be.

*     *     *

Batman: The Complete Knightfall Saga,
Time Warner AudioBooks, 2005, $22.98.

Superman Lives!
Time Warner AudioBooks, 2005, $22.98.

I'm at a bit of a loss as to who would constitute the audience for these particular dramatizations. They're taken from BBC radio adaptations from 1994, written and directed by Dirk Maggs, with full cast and sound effects, and they do a wonderful job dramatizing a couple of multi-issue story-arcs from the runs of two of DC Comics flagship comic book titles.

But…

The storylines, voicings and sound effects are very much gee-whiz bang comic book flash. I could see them being big hits in, oh, say, the forties, when they would be state-of-the-art productions. But they seem anachronistic in the present day.

Much of the charm of a comic book, even a gee-whiz bang one, is in the art, but the only art you get here are the covers. Film adaptations can be fun or painful, depending on how they're handled, but again, it's the visuals that carry them, not the story or characterizations.

(Let me just add here that I wish it was different, that story and characterization meant as much to everyone in the adaptation process as it does to the artists and writers who create the original publications, but too often, that's not the case, and not all the wishing or head-scratching bewilderment of the audience seems to make much of a difference.)

Today we have a wealth of comic books, film adaptations, computer games, and other media to attract the aficionado of this sort of material, so it will take a particular old-fashioned mindset to be able to appreciate what's been done in these two audio dramatizations.

I don't think that's a bad thing. It's just that it seems to me that the audience for these is rather limited and I wonder how the titles will do commercially. It would be nice if they sold well enough that some more challenging dramatizations would be made available.

*     *     *

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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