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March 2007
 
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Charles de Lint
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Go Ask Malice: A Slayer's Diary, by Robert Joseph Levy,
Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2007, $9.99.

Queen of the Slayer, by Nancy Holder,
Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2007, $9.99.

ASK ANY Star Trek fan: a TV series doesn't necessarily disappear once it goes off the air. And I don't just mean that it lives on in syndication or DVD collections. When a show has enough of a fan base, a whole industry can grow up around the original material, providing an endless array of new product, even if the show itself hasn't aired a fresh episode in years. Sometimes there are feature films. There can be comic books, action figures, calendars, lunch boxes, video and board games—you name it.

And books.

Lots and lots of books.

Although the final episode of Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer ran a few years ago, the characters have appeared in variations of all of the above except for new feature films. I enjoyed the show a great deal, but I haven't kept up with the peripheral matter beyond noting its existence in various ads. Still, every once in a while I get a jones for something new in the Slayer universe, rather than rewatching an episode on DVD, so I'll pick up one of the books.

I was glad I did with Go Ask Malice: A Slayer's Diary. Robert Joseph Levy takes us back to the character Faith's early life—her troubled teenage years, how she began as a Slayer, what sent her to Sunnydale where we finally meet her in the TV series.

Levy tells the story in Faith's voice, in diary form, and does a good job of catching some of her speech quirks while fleshing out the reasons that she became the "bad girl" Slayer of the show. It's always smart to take something away from the "known history" of a show. Yes, the character has to end up who she was when we meet her on the show, but there's an opportunity here to show growth in her character arc that isn't available when you're writing stories using the major characters in situations that take place during the known history, or that follow up from where they were left at the end of the show.

Levy does a great job here. I felt I was reading a real book, not a novelization.

Not that there's anything wrong with novelizations, or books that feel like them. I just don't personally enjoy them. And I didn't much enjoy Queen of the Slayers, the latest Buffy tie-in novel by Nancy Holder. There were three main reasons for this:

No character growth. The cast all stayed the same from start to finish, and let me tell you, they were put through some trying times.

Related to that was my second annoyance. Nancy Holder does a good job of capturing the characters' voices in prose, but I often found their joking and quips inappropriate to the situation they were in. This kind of thing works on screen, because the actors can convey the seriousness of what's going on around them with their facial expressions and body language while they make jokes to alleviate the tension. On the written page? Not so much.

And lastly, this was far too busy a book. It starts up when the school bus is leaving the great big crater that was once Sunnydale (I figure at this point, it's no longer a spoiler to say something like that), and goes on to show us that closing the Hellmouth there actually made things worse, rather than averting the apocalypse.

Holder spends on-stage time with pretty much the entire cast of the series (even bringing in long-gone characters such as the werewolf Oz and the ghost of Tara, and she ties the events of her story in with the end of the Angel TV series) while also introducing us to a whole slew of villains, other Slayers, and members of the Watcher's Council. The constant shifting of viewpoint means you never really get into the skin of any character—but it doesn't matter, because as I said above, they stay the same from start to finish.

Queen of the Slayers is an ambitious book—too ambitious, in my opinion. It's a big story—big enough for a couple of seasons of TV episodes—and feels crammed into these pages.

I don't really blame Holder for this. I've read other books by her that I've liked, and I think she was trying to give the fans of the show (and of the Angel series) a big-bang sense of closure. Unfortunately, she was constrained by the limitations of her page count, and the final result is a hectic hodgepodge.

This would have worked much better as a series of novels, each focusing on various characters, that would eventually tell a larger story. And it would have been even better if she'd been allowed to show the changes in the characters that events of this magnitude would have wrought.

*     *     *

Pride of Baghdad, by Brian K. Vaughan & Nico Henrichon,
Vertigo, 2007, $19.99.

Here's a story that would have done Kipling proud. Brian K. Vaughan has taken a news item about four lions escaping from a Baghdad zoo in 2003 during the bombing of Iraq and turned it into a meditation on war, freedom, and the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. (Though "interpersonal" is perhaps the wrong term since the characters are all—or at least, mostly—animals.)

Vaughan anthropomorphizes his characters to some extent, but while they speak and express individual worldviews and values, they remain very much the animals that they are.

One of the lions is already planning an escape when the zoo is bombed and all the animals are freed—at least those that survived the bombing. The lions don't understand the war-torn countryside they travel through as they look for a new home—because all most of them knew is the zoo—but their journey creates a window into the horrors of the situation that the rest of us can certainly understand.

I'm not going to tell you too much about the plot for the usual reasons—why should I spoil the experience for you?—but I will say that Niko Henrichon does a fabulous job with his art.

There are good artists who can do wonderful individual panels, but they can't create a narrative flow. Then there are artists who aren't as skilled, but are terrific storytellers. Henrichon is one of those rare finds who does both extremely well. He puts so much expression into the faces of the various animals, without resorting to "cartooning," and his panel-to-panel art has a wonderful, cinematic flow.

I wasn't familiar with his art before this book, but I'd like to see more. I wonder what his take on The Jungle Book would be like. Certainly not Disney-pretty.

As for Vaughan, every project he undertakes is a treat. My favorite is the ongoing series Y: The Last Man (also from Vertigo) which he does in collaboration with artist Pia Guerra (whose work I love). Though the series has been going for a while you can easily catch up with the story in trade paperback collections.

*     *     *

A Soul in a Bottle, by Tim Powers,
Subterranean Press, 2007, $22.

I don't know how familiar this is for you:

You have a stack of books you haven't read yet, many of which you're really looking forward to starting. And still, every time you're in a book shop—if you're feeling at all flush—you'll pick up one or two more and add them to the stack. So far, so good. The problem comes that whenever you pick one up—a first novel, one by a favorite author, whatever—none of them appeals to you.

In fact, you realize that you haven't really been reading much of anything lately because too many books make you feel like you're just going through the motions. You've always been a reader, so you read, but they're all so easy to put down and there's no burning desire to pick it up again—even when they're not particularly bad.

You don't even wonder why the shine has gone off something that brought you so much pleasure. You just find yourself doing other things instead.

Until the book shows up.

Maybe you can't relate to the scenario above, but it will at least give you my frame of mind when, late one night, I found myself picking up this slim volume by Tim Powers.

I just meant to have a look at it—it was too late to start a book. So I admired the illustrations—photo-collages by the inimitable J. K. Potter—then read the first couple of pages.

And I kept reading until I was done. It was a very late night for me.

Now, Powers always a delivers a fine story—but they usually come with dense, convoluted plots, and huge helpings of quirkiness that often become really strange. That's not the case here. A Soul in a Bottle is a sweet, almost understated story. It's mysterious, certainly, from the moment its middle-aged protagonist has his first chance encounter with a young woman on the pavement in front of Hollywood's Chinese Theatre, to its bittersweet end.

There isn't a great deal of character introspection, but you know these characters from the first moment they step on stage. And when the Lady or the Tiger moment comes, Powers doesn't reveal the character's choice, only that he makes one. He pulls it off without giving anything away, but doesn't leave us frustrated either, because he ties it all up in the last few pages.

Powers is responsible for many of my favorite novels and stories, but I particularly loved this book. Not least because it reminded me why I love reading—more, that I do love reading. I haven't lost that joy; I'm just not finding enough books that do it for me.

But here was a book that utterly absorbed me. I wasn't distracted by showy writing (though the prose, in retrospect, is lovely) or the author parading his cleverness. Instead, I was given a lovely tale that wasn't afraid to tell a small, simple story with freshness and a great deal of heart.

The only problem now is, what do I read next? (Check back next month to see.)

*     *     *

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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