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

The Last Unicorn: The Lost Version, by Peter S. Beagle,
Subterranean Press, 2006, $35.

BOOKS DON'T always begin their lives the way readers finally meet them in a library or a bookstore. Sometimes the story just dies on the author. There's nothing wrong with it, per se. It's just not right for him. He runs up against a wall, or runs out of words, and that's it.

He may abandon it forever. Or he may come back to it and work on it again, and by the time he's done, nothing of the original remains except perhaps a character, or a character's name, or just the title of the book.

Of course, we don't know this when we meet that book—not unless we read about the author's travails in an interview somewhere. And we certainly don't get to read those false starts.

At least, not usually.

But for all of us who loved The Last Unicorn (which, by the way, is a far more meaty reading experience than one might expect from a book about a unicorn), we have that opportunity with this edition.

Now first let me say that this story doesn't end. It stops abruptly and that's that. You can't go on to the finished book and pick up the story because this lost version of The Last Unicorn bears little resemblance to either the published version or the film which was scripted by Beagle.

So why would you read it?

For one thing, it's instructive, especially if you're at all interested in the creative process. For another, it's a thing of beauty, even in its truncated state. Yes, it comes early in its author's career, but remember, Beagle wrote A Fine and Private Place before he started this story. I don't know about you, but I still consider that to be one of the major classics of our genre.

I know it's frustrating not to have the complete tale in this little booklet, but it's bookended by an introduction and an afterward, and there are scenes and ideas and just plain luminous prose in here that no lover of good writing should miss.

Some parts are serious without being overbearing, the themes working as well today as they did in the early sixties when Beagle wrote it, such as the dragon complaining that children today taste too much of "clocks and coal oil." Think about that analogy for a moment.

And it's funny—the soliloquies of the butterfly, the arguing demon heads—but better still, it's smart funny, written with wit and good nature rather than a Jackass the Movie sensibility.

One last thing. If you read it, but you're still frustrated by the incomplete story, go to your library and dust off a copy of the published version. It's got all of the above in it—minus the dragon and the talking demon heads, of course.

*     *     *

Flora Segunda, by Ysabeau S. Wilce,
Harcourt, 2007, $17.

I loved this book. I liked it so much that I read it twice. Once to see how it all turned out, then again because I just adored the voice of Wilce's protagonist: Flora Nemain Fyrdraaca ov Fyrdraaca. Or just Flora, for short.

What's it about? I'm going to quote from the dustwrapper:

(But first a quick aside. While some readers might not be aware of this—heck, some readers don't even read covers and book flaps—writing the copy that appears on the inside flaps and the back of a book is a real art. It has to capture our interest, but it can't give too much away. And if you think doing that while summing up the mood and plot of a book is easy, then you've never tried it.

(As a reviewer, I don't like to talk too much about the actual elements of the plot for fear of spoiling the readers' joy of discovery, so I'm always in great admiration of those copywriters who do as good a job as was done for this book. I could have paraphrased it, but why ruin a beautiful thing?

(Now back to that quote:)

"Flora Fyrdraaca knows taking shortcuts in Crackpot Hall can be risky. After all, when a House has eleven thousand decaying rooms that shift about at random, there's no telling where a person might end up. But it's not just household confusion that vexes Flora, what with Mamma always away being Commanding General of the Army, Poppy drowning his sorrows in drink, and Crackpot Hall too broken down to magickally provide the clean towels and hot waffles that are a Fyrdraaca's birthright.

"Yet Flora is nothing if not a Girl of Spirit. So when she takes a forbidden shortcut and stumbles upon her family's biggest secret—Valefor, the banished Butler—she and her best friend plunge happily into the grand adventure of restoring Valefor to his rightful (or so he says) position. If only Flora knew that meddling with a magickal being can go terribly awry—and that soon she will have to find a way to restore herself before it is too late."

Just typing those words makes me want to read the book again, but I shall keep it closed and concentrate on writing this column.

Simply put, this novel is one of the freshest fantasies I've read in years.

The Houses of the City of Califa, and the Butlers that oversee their maintenance, are wonderful inventions, and rival, in my affection, those in classic works by E. R. Eddison and John Crowley, not to mention more recent books like James Stoddard's The High House. (I have an inexplicable fondness for huge rambling houses.)

The magics are plausible—within the context of the story, of course.

And that story. It's so personal, yet also manages to take on epic proportions (if only—at times—in the minds of Flora and her best friend Udo) as the pair get deeper and deeper into trouble.

But it's Flora's voice that will have me return again to these pages. It's individual, full of odd turns of phrase, light as froth and wise beyond the speaker's age. It's the kind of voice that will make you forget about everything you had planned to do so that you can sit and listen as the story unfolds with all its entertaining asides and commentaries.

And while the tone is light, Wilce still touches on many serious issues, and does so in a non-condescending and believable manner. Flora's life is plagued with difficulties—try being named after one of your deceased older sisters, for starters. Then there are the matters of being shoehorned into a career she can't bear the thought of (to be a soldier, like the rest of her family; she wants to be a ranger scout); dealing with a volatile, alcoholic father; understanding the responsibilities of belonging to one of the Great Houses (even when it's as rundown as Crackpot Hall); and more trials and tribulations than I have space to list here.

But as the cover flap says, Flora is a "Girl of Spirit" who faces all her challenges, great and small, with an indomitable fortitude. Even when every time she's sure she knows how to make things better, they only get that much worse.

It's January as I write this, so the year's too young for me to say that Flora Segunda is one of the year's best books. But I will say that it's gone right up to the very small shelf of my favorite books, period.

*     *     *

The Night Journal, by Elizabeth Crook,
Viking, 2006; 454pp; $24.95.

It's probably going to tax my editor's considerable patience—because after all, The Night Journal doesn't fit a genre definition by any stretch of the imagination—but I found this to be a riveting novel, and you might, too.

First let me mention an odd bit of synchronicity that was at play when Elizabeth Crook was writing her book: at the same time, Jane Lindskold's Child of a Rainless Year was in production at Tor, and it just proves that when it's time for something to happen, it will. Even if two people will be doing it at the same time.

As you might remember from the January 2006 installment of this column (and if you don't, and are interested, you can go read it on the Web at: www.sfsite.com/fsf/2006/cdl0601.htm), Lindskold's book was set in the New Mexico town of Las Vegas (which is not the same as the Nevada city of the same name), and featured two storylines. One was of a woman returning to the small desert town of her past, the other was found in the journal of her ancestor that she was reading.

The details are completely different, of course, in terms of character and motive and all, but that brief description also fits Crook's book. How often does it happen that a small town sees two novels published about it in the space of two years? As I was reading The Night Journal, I found that I quickly grew familiar with streets and landmarks, both in the past and the present, and happily recognized them when they came up in the narrative.

Crook's novel is mainstream and much darker than Lindskold's, but they both deliver a loving portrait of the area and address the importance of history in our lives—the personal, and that spread out on the larger canvas of the world around us.

I highly recommend both titles to you, and I know one thing for certain: the next time I'm in the American Southwest, I'm going to make a point of visiting Las Vegas, New Mexico, for myself. As it is, I already feel at home in the place.

*     *     *

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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