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June 2006
 
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

The Black Angel, by John Connolly,
Atria Books, 2005, $25.

ANYONE who reads a lot knows that it's impossible to keep up with everything. But we're usually at least aware of the classic and popular writers. If nothing else, word of mouth keeps us up to date. We might not have read John Steinbeck, but we're aware of his importance (and if you haven't read Cannery Row, might I humbly suggest you do so at your earliest convenience?). We might not have read Stephen King, but we're certainly aware of who he is, and can probably even rattle off a title of two. Margaret Atwood might not be your cup of tea, but you'll have heard her name.

And then there are the books that are—for a time, at least—inescapable to the public consciousness: remember Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County? Or how about the still-current The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, or any of J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" books?

As a reader, I'm comfortable in this knowledge. Sure, I'll miss a book here and there by making the reading choices I do, but while I've not necessarily read them, I've usually at least heard of the author before.

So it was a complete surprise to me to find, when I started to read John Connolly's The Black Angel and discovered just how good a writer he is, that he has published six well-received books but I've never heard of him before.

His novels and one short story collection are filed under some variation of mystery/thriller/crime fiction, and while that's an accurate enough classification, it doesn't tell the whole story, because this is definitely an author for the interstitial crowd.

The main character, Charlie Parker, is a private investigator, and the sections from his points of view follow a traditional first-person narration that's insightful, hard-boiled, and evocative of character, with absorbing observations of societal conventions, mythology, street life, theology, and the human condition.

But the novel opens with a description of the rebel angels falling from heaven, and we soon realize that the presence of some of these fallen angels isn't going to be simply allegorical. They're the book's principal antagonists. The fallen angels are real, walking hidden among us.

Now if this were a horror novel, we know how it would all play out: the protagonist faces terrible odds, many characters meet a horrific fate, but in the end, good will probably triumph.

And some of that is true. But the heart of this book isn't a thriller, or a P.I. mystery, or even the tangled Da Vinci Code-like revelations of centuries-old conspiracies that thread their way through the plot. Connolly's main concern here, and the struggle facing Parker, is the balancing of his responsibilities to his friends, his clients, and his family. They are, unfortunately, not mutually inclusive, and he's already lost one family (in one of the previous books, I assume).

There are also hints that Parker himself might be a fallen angel—or perhaps it's just that the villains think he is.

I was going to say that The Black Angel is a novel that transcends the various genres that mingle in its pages, but that would be a disservice to those very genres, all of which boast some of the best writing available to readers today. So instead, let me say that The Black Angel is that rare book that never goes where you expect it to, but the journey it takes us on is perceptive and intriguing, and it will leave its readers thinking about loyalty, families of choice and of blood, and the morality of the choices we are sometimes forced to make.

It takes us from NYC's mean streets to French monasteries, from charnel horror chambers to auction houses that specialize in outré collections. The prose is engaging throughout and—especially in the sections with Parker's first person narration—absorbing.

I can't guess at your reaction to this novel, but I'm going out to pick up the rest of his books to catch up.

*     *     *
Midnighters 2: Touching Darkness, by Scott Westerfeld,
Eos Books, 2004, $15.99.

Midnighters 3: Blue Noon, by Scott Westerfeld,
Eos Books, 2006, $15.99.

A quick recap here for those of you who haven't been following this series, or missed the discussion we had about the first volume way back in 2004:

Apparently, in the town of Bixby, Oklahoma, a day actually has twenty-five hours. One of those hours has been compressed into the moment of midnight, creating a place of refuge for dark creatures, banished there eons ago. But a few humans can also experience that hour.

These are the "Midnighters," of which there are only five at the present time, 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 the others have similar powers. During the Midnight Hour, the world is frozen, touched with a blue light, and the only thing standing between the darklings and the people trapped motionless in the blue are the five teens introduced to us in the first book.

Looking back at my review for Midnighters: The Secret Hour (in the June 2004 issue), I likened the book to a teen TV series such as you might find on the WB, and was a little dismissive with my comment that it wasn't a Big Think novel.

Well, it's not, really, and neither is the series as a whole, but it's addictive and entertaining, and turns out to have a lot of heart—all good qualities in a book, so far as I'm concerned.

If we continue the TV show analogy, Midnighters 2: Touching Darkness would be a "mythology" episode. We've already been introduced to the characters in the first book, so this one deepens the background, the mythology of Midnighters, darklings, and the secret hour of Midnight when they are the only ones who can walk in the world while everything around them is frozen.

We learn about ancient conspiracies, the not-so-benevolent history of previous Midnighters, and unhealthy alliances between humans and darklings. The dynamics of the five are also put to the test and the ending of book two leads nicely into the third volume, Midnighters 3: Blue Noon, which ups the ante considerably.

I don't want to talk too much about the details of the plots for fear of spoiling surprises for you. Just let me say that Westerfeld keeps the story going at a good pace and has deepened not only the mythology of the series, but also the characters. I really like the way the individuals and group dynamics continue to evolve and change, the characters reacting the way real people do, showing petty traits as well as selfless heroics.

And when they change, the changes remain. There aren't any cop-outs or easy answers.

The series is marketed as YA, but if you've enjoyed (going one last time to a TV analogy) shows such as Roswell, Smallville, or even Buffy, I think you'll appreciate what Westerfeld's doing here. To be honest, I don't know why some enterprising TV executive hasn't already picked up the rights to these books, because the world and characters that Westerfeld has created here would lend themselves to many seasons of entertaining television.

For now, we'll have to watch them on the movie screens in our heads, which—as any long-time reader will tell you—is always a better experience anyway.

*     *     *

A few issues back I reviewed Tim Pratt's The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl (Bantam Spectra) and mentioned that I would have liked an appendix of one or two Rangergirl adventures in illustrated form as they were described in the book.

Well, they still don't exist, so far as I know, but Pratt does have a nice Rangergirl Web site at http://www.sff.net/people/timpratt/rangergirl.html on which you can find a brand new Rangergirl story that you can download and read at your leisure. The whole thing's set in the world of Rangergirl, rather than that heady mix of our world and the alternate one that was in the novel, but it's a fun excursion, and it's free, so go check it out.

*     *     *

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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