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January 2007
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Lisey's Story, by Stephen King,
Scribner, 2007, $28.

I WASN'T going to review a second Stephen King book this year. King certainly doesn't need reviews, and most readers have already made up their minds as to whether they'll read him or not. And while King can be somewhat of an uneven writer, he hits the ball out of the park far more often than he strikes out.

But sometimes even established writers can surprise us by stretching in a new direction, or telling a new kind of story while still using the favorite tools in their toolbox. That's the case here, and it's worth talking about.

I think the most surprising thing about this book is that it's a slow burn. Usually a King novel starts with a bang, and then keeps on rolling. (Cell is a perfect example—by the third or fourth page, people are dying in droves.) But Lisey's Story doesn't really kick into gear until you're about halfway through.

Which doesn't mean it's boring—not by any means. It's just slow…and thoughtful.

Earlier I mentioned a writer's favorite tools. One of King's is to write about writers. He's had author characters as far back as 'Salem's Lot. But this time out, his best-selling Scott Landon has been dead for two years before the book opens and the story is told from the point of view of his widow, Lisey.

There's still plenty of opportunity to talk about the creative process (which King has always done so well), and even for Landon to be on stage through flashbacks, but mostly, as the book's title tells us, this is Lisey's story. Lisey is haunted not by the ghost of her husband so much as her memories of him.

Some of King's other writing tricks are present: the made-up words used by the characters that seem goofy (like "smucking," or "bool") but acquire poignant resonance the deeper we get into the novel; the Maine language tics of certain characters; the presence of a crazy-ass, dangerous character (here it's a stalker named Dooley); and of course, the supernatural.

But every place where he employs these old tools feels fresh in the context of this novel—as though King had just bought a new tool set at the hardware store. And he doesn't overuse them. So where another writer (even King, in other books) might have used the stalker element as the main plot thrust, here it's only one element of a much deeper story. And while the supernatural certainly has an enormous role (even a pivotal role, in the end), it takes a back seat to the exploration of Lisey and Scott's relationships—with each other, with their families, and with Mystery.

As usual, I'm not going to go into specific plot elements. In fact, if you're reading this column before the book, don't read the dustwrapper copy. It will be much more satisfying for you to come to the story without expectations and be surprised, horrified, and delighted by each new plot turn.

I'm always so proud of writers such as King who can still—this far in their careers, with such large bodies of work behind them—deliver a book as fresh and satisfying and moving as Lisey's Story.

*     *     *

The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages,
Viking, 2007, $16.99.

Okay, it's not really science fiction. But it is fiction, and it's about science, and the author is a recent Nebula winner, so I figure that's more than enough connections for me to cover this book in my column.

For her first novel, Ellen Klages goes back to one of the most pivotal moments in modern history: the development of the atom bomb. Secreted in Los Alamos, New Mexico, scientists work night and day in a race with their counterparts in Nazi Germany to unravel the secrets of the atom. Whoever manages to do so first, will end—and win—the war.

We all know how that turned out, but Klages isn't as interested in explaining the workings of the research, or even that much in the scientists, as she is the families that accompanied them. In particular, she focuses on two young girls: Dewey Kerrigan, a frail eleven-year-old girl whose idea of a good time is to read The Boy Mechanic and make gadgets; and Suze Gordon, a large girl of about the same age whom the other kids call "the Truck" and studiously ignore.

Now you'd think Suze would have some empathy when Dewey is bullied by the cool kids (there's always a bunch of cool kids, aren't there, who, through their spite and meanness, aren't really all that cool). Instead, Suze picks on Dewey as well, thinking it will ingratiate herself with her own tormentors. It doesn't work, of course, but she doesn't learn anything from it.

I think I dislike this sort of bully more than I do the other kind, because they understand what it's like to be powerless. But rather than siding with someone else who's being picked on, they transfer their own frustrations to bullying the person lower down from them on the ladder of power.

Dewey is a terrific kid, smart, kind, and wise beyond her years. The kind of kid you really want to protect from the ills of the world. So it's all the harder when we have to share the tragedies of her life.

As events unfold, the two girls get thrown together, and…well, I'm not going to tell you where it goes from there.

Set against this very human front story is the background story of the scientists and their project: their excitement and joy with what they're discovering that becomes tempered by the realization of what their research will eventually unleash. It's that moment when the research is no longer theoretical, but real in how it will affect human lives, that creates the clash between practicality and conscience.

You'd never know this was a first novel from reading it. Klages writes with a simple assurance, vividly bringing to life the world of the forties, as well as the mores and mindsets of the people inhabiting it.

It's an entrancing novel from beginning to end, and if you'd like a taste of it, the short story upon which it's based is still available on-line at Strange Horizons (www.strangehorizons.com/2004/20040906/greenglass-f.shtml).

*     *     *

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones,
Firebird Travel, 2007, $9.99.

Here's another book I wasn't going to review, since I've mentioned it in passing a number of times over the years I've been writing this column (and actually reviewed it about eight years ago), but with this new edition in hand, I find myself unable to resist bringing it to your attention once again.

It's laid out a bit like the U.K. travel series of Rough Guide books, using the conceit that it's a guide through a "tour" of Fantasyland—though it should be noted that the full experience usually requires three trips. Along the way, it points out, and at times mercilessly lampoons, the tropes of the genre. It'll probably bring to your attention things that you never considered before, while reading a fantasy novel, such as:

"COMMON COLD. This is one of many viral nuisances not present. You can get as wet, cold and tired as you like, and you will still not catch a cold. But see PLAGUE."
Or perhaps:
"INDUSTRY. Apart from a bit of pottery and light metalwork, or some slagheaps around the domain of the DARK LORD, most Tours encounter no Industry at all. Even EMBROIDERY factories are kept well out of sight. "See also ECONOMY."
I could pull out my original edition of the book to compare it to this "Revised and Updated Edition," but really, what's the point? What's important is that, after being hard to find for too many years, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is finally back in print in a readily affordable edition.

That's all you need to know, except maybe, who's this book for?

That's easy:

  • Anyone who's thinking of writing a fantasy novel or story. Seriously. You need to read this to see how easy it is to fall into cliché, and so, hopefully, avoid it.
  • Anyone who reads fantasy. You'll laugh, trust me. And you know, Jones isn't laughing at you; she's laughing at all the people who don't get it.
  • Anyone who hates fantasy. Because it points out all the reasons you don't like fantasy, and does so with killer humor.
What else can I say to convince you? How about that this edition is "Dark Lord Approved"?

*     *     *

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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