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July 2006
 
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Charles de Lint
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Moon Called, by Patricia Briggs,
Ace Books, 2006, $7.99.

Shadows in the Starlight, by Elaine Cunningham,
Tor Books, 2006, $23.95.

PARDON ME if I sound like the old guy sitting down beside you at the bus stop who won't shut up about what it was like when he was a kid. But when I was a kid.

Seriously, having read fantasy since before it was a genre (it used to be marketed as part of sf), I've found it interesting to have watched fantasy as it split off from the sf ghetto into a whole little ghetto of its own.

In those early days, the new genre was either a riff on the Conanesque warrior, or some variation on the Tolkien books. And sometimes a combination of the two.

When fantasies with contemporary settings began to appear (such as Megan Lindholm's Wizard of the Pigeons, or R. A. MacAvoy's Tea with the Black Dragon), they were considered innovative and daring. And they did have that fresh feeling about them, even though authors such as James Branch Cabell had already done it long before. But for most contemporary readers, the early part of the twentieth century (Cabell's "contemporary setting," since he was writing of his own time) didn't feel as immediate as the latter part of the century in which they lived.

There weren't a lot of these books, but the few that came out took the real world and the fantasy elements seriously and were well-loved by the core audience reading them. Then, after a while, the innovations didn't feel quite so innovative anymore and the tropes of high fantasy seemed like they were simply grafted onto the contemporary settings.

As if to counteract that, we started to see a lot of humorous contemporary fantasies. Or books that combined the elements of the mystery genre with elves and dwarves, or more popularly, vampires and werewolves. Or, again, combinations of all of the above.

I was never much of a fan of any of that, although, like switching on the TV for some light entertainment, I'd browse them from time to time. Mostly they left me dissatisfied because they seemed to leave the best out of each genre. Humor stole the mythic underpinnings and sense of wonder from fantasy. From mysteries—especially the hardboiled style of mystery—it took away that sharp, unflinching narrator's voice with its commentary on social mores and the mess we can so easily make of our lives.

Humor in a hardboiled mystery is wry, or a kind of tough, wiseacre style, not slapstick or puns.

So I was happy to run into not one, but two authors recently who treat both their fantasy and mystery elements seriously, while not forgetting that you can have fun without buffoonery.

Patricia Briggs's Moon Called is the better of the two. It's set in a contemporary America about ten years after it's been revealed that some of the lesser fairies (hobs, gremlins) are real, but the world remains unaware of the more powerful and dangerous beings still living hidden among humans.

Like werewolves, vampires, and witches.

Mercy Thompson is a mechanic. She's also a shapechanger raised by werewolves. She can take a coyote's shape, but she's not bound by the clan affiliations of the werewolves, which suits her just fine because all she wants is to be left alone. The werewolves run in packs and they're forever on call, as it were, to the alpha male pack leader. Mercy's more independent than that and has managed to keep her distance and her own space.

Until a runaway shows up at her garage, looking for work, who also happens to be a new werewolf—a danger to both himself and those around him. And everything goes rapidly downhill from there.

Mercy's not a P.I. or a policeman, but as the body count rises and the mysteries deepen, it seems that she's the only one who can objectively investigate the problems, although doing so puts her on the outs with pretty much everyone in her life.

I liked this book because it was inventive and fast-paced without sacrificing characterization. The histories and "world" of the fae are integrated seamlessly into the narrative, and Mercy's first person narrative voice is a treat throughout. And best of all, the fantasy elements retain their dark mystery and sense of wonder—even though they're being described from the perspective of a shapechanger.

It's an entertaining book from start to end, and although that end is satisfying as it is, the characters, and Mercy's voice, are so likable that I could easily visit with her in another novel.

In Shadows in the Starlight, Elaine Cunningham's lead character Gwen Gellman is an ex-cop and a P.I. who appears to specialize in missing persons cases, especially those involving teens and young children. It could be because she's an orphan herself with a less than happy upbringing.

The book starts with a murder, and then a chapter from the viewpoint of some of the antagonists, before we settle mostly into Gellman's third-person perspective as she starts work on the case of a missing wife and child. Things, as one would expect, immediately get complicated, particularly because the case seems tied to the mysteries of Gellman's own elfin heritage.

Yes, this time it's elves living hidden from us—dark and scary elves who seem to have more kinship with the Mafia than forest legends, though there's also an edge of Neo-Nazism with the elves' focus on racial purity and the "Qualities" for which their young are bred. Each of them has three Qualities, but until all three manifest, there's no way to tell if the breeding has been a success.

Gellman has manifested two of her Qualities and much is made of what will happen when her third manifests. But while the plot dances around that, making it a major focus of the book, it doesn't get resolved. (More on that in a moment.)

First let me say that Cunningham has a terrific command of pacing and characterization. Her prose has just that right blend of edginess and wry humor that makes a hardboiled mystery such a delight, and I loved this book right up until I got to the end.

The end of the book, that is. Which is not the end of the story. Cunningham does the unforgivable (for me, at least) by breaking the contract between writer and reader in not resolving her story. Now I know that series books are here to stay, but looking at Shadows in the Starlight, there's no way to tell that all you're getting is only a partial story. To all intents and purposes, it pretends to be a stand-alone volume: "a Changeling Detective novel" is all it says on the cover. One assumes that the author and her publishers know the definition of the word "novel," in a literary sense.

Now I knew going in that there was a previous book, and Cunningham did a fine job in keeping a new reader up to speed, but while some plot lines resolve, the principle ones, the ones that drive the characterization and are why we care about Gellman and keep reading, are just left to hang.

I don't know why authors do this. It seems to me it boils down to one of three reasons: 1) laziness—they can't be bothered wrapping up plot elements; 2) incompetence—they're not capable of properly finishing a book; or 3) avarice—they feel they need to leave hooks in the current book to make sure that readers will go on to pick up their next one (although that might also be a case of a lack of confidence in their work).

Or perhaps they don't read enough books themselves. Instead, they watch TV dramas with their season-long arcs and cliff-hanger episodes, forgetting that viewers can tune in a week later to find out what happens next, instead of the year it takes the reader to get another installment. But the real telling point with TV drama is that you know the story won't be finished until the end of the season. With Shadows in the Starlight there is no indication that the reader is only getting a partial story.

You might think I'm being snippy because I'm having a bad day as I write this, but not so. I just take that contract between writer and reader seriously, and become very annoyed when the writer doesn't deliver, or cheats.

If you'd like a concise analogy of why I feel this way, it was like being invited to dinner, but when I got there, I was given only a few appetizers and then sent on my way.

Shame on both Cunningham and Tor.

My advice? Don't buy this book unless you enjoy being left frustrated. Or at least wait until the full story is published in however many volumes it takes (though considering how informative the cover of this book is, it's hard to say how you'd ever know when it actually does come to a conclusion).

* * *

Cell, by Stephen King,
Scribner's, 2006, $26.95.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of Stephen King's retirement were greatly exaggerated. Not only does he have this new novel in the bookstores, but there's another book due out in October (you get a hand-written snippet of it at the end of this one).

It has been almost thirty years since King first gave us a take on the end of the world (do I need to mention that was The Stand?), and while Cell is certainly reminiscent of The Stand, the differences are big enough to warrant his revisit to the theme.

The reason the world ends seems as arbitrary as the virus that wiped out most of humanity in the earlier book. This time it's a "pulse" transmitted by cell phones. If you use a cell, it wipes your brain clean. The afflicted are struck with a murderous rage before they descend into a kind of zombie state. Eventually they begin to "flock" and evolve into having the appearance of a group mind.

The idea might seem a little preposterous—that so many could be affected—but you only have to walk down any city street and note the number of people with a phone pressed up against their ear. And since so many people carry cell phones, when they see the carnage and chaos created by the first wave of the afflicted, it's only natural for them to use those cells to phone their loved ones, or 911, and so become similarly afflicted.

But the how and why of the end of the world isn't important. Again, as in The Stand, what King is really interested in is how the horror affects ordinary people. This time, however, he's telling a smaller story. Instead of a large cast, spread across North America, he's dealing with only a few people and the setting is confined to New England.

There are a lot gruesome scenes as the afflicted first begin their murderous rampage—and quite a few scattered through the rest of the book. I mention this because, although Cell is a fascinating character study, you need a rather strong stomach. But if that much graphic description doesn't bother you, this is a tremendously engaging novel. Do I need to say how much you'll love the characters? Or how it's almost impossible to put the book down? Because this is King writing at the top of his considerable strengths as an author.

Oh, and considering the subject matter of the book, I really had to smile at the tag line to King's short bio on the dustwrapper: "He does not own a cell phone."

* * *

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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