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January 2008
 
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J. K. Rowling,
Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007, $34.99.

SO HERE WE are at the end. A few thousand pages after Harry Potter stepped onto the stage in the first book of this seven book series, we've finally come to the story's conclusion. 

At this point in the proceedings, everyone has pretty much made up their mind as to how they feel about the books, so there's no point in my trying to convince anyone about their worth, one way or another. But having looked at a number of the installments from time to time in this column, I thought I'd check in one last time, now that we have the whole story.

First, I have to admit that The Order of the Phoenix (book five) pretty much exhausted me — so much so that I didn't get to the sixth book until the week before The Deathly Hallows was released. It wasn't the length of Phoenix that bothered me — I was quite happy through the first 600 pages or so, not at all overwhelmed by the wealth of detail as the familiar cast went about their business in another school year at Hogwarts. 

No, it was the last section of the book, when the action took over, that felt tiresome. I'm not sure why. Perhaps there were simply too many characters running about, fighting the good fight. I got a little bit of that feeling at the end of The Deathly Hallows with the climactic battle in Hogwarts, too. But in both cases, the feeling went away after the Big Action scenes.

Now, I'm not going to say Rowling is one of the best writers we have working today. While her prose always gets the job done, it's sometimes clunky, and it rarely sings. She tends to have her characters tell information, rather than showing the reader. And really. Those kids — while they're seventeen by the last book — have always seemed like precocious fourteen-year-olds. Kids grow up fast. By their late teens they may not have the emotional maturity that they'll grow into later in life, but they're miles away from how they were when they were thirteen and fourteen.

Except in the Harry Potter books.

But with all that said, Rowling is a born storyteller, and that's why her books have been embraced as widely and as passionately as they have been. Sure, we're always looking for someone who delivers the whole package, but for most of us, storytelling trumps everything else. And while you might be able to pick out her influences, like a master chef working with tried and true ingredients, the end result of Rowling's books is something new and different, and effortlessly readable.

So I admire Rowling. She began this series without artifice — a poor, single mother who had a story she wanted to tell. The initial success had nothing to do with the publicity hoopla that accompanied the later books. It was born of reader enthusiasm and word-of-mouth. In other words, she did this on her own and she deserves all the success the series has brought her.

And lastly, in a culture that is fractured as much as ours is with information overload — as well as how that information comes to us — the publication of these last few Potter books has been, perhaps, one of the last instances we'll see of a massive audience, all enjoying the same entertainment phenomenon at the same time. The complex splintered structure of how entertainment is delivered to us these days makes that element of the release of this last book certainly something to celebrate.

*     *     *

Coyote Dreams, by C. E. Murphy,
Luna, 2007, $14.95.

Now, I highly doubt that C.E. Murphy was taking the advice I had for her in my review of her last book, but in her third outing with Joanne Walker, the character finally accepts the magic that's been going on all around her for the past two books and gets down to dealing with her problems. There's still some complaining, but now it's mostly along the lines of Walker wishing she was more prepared — understandable, given her latest predicament.

In Coyote Dreams, the citizens of the city of Seattle are falling asleep and not waking up. Not all the citizens, but primarily people who have had some contact with Walker, and since she's a cop, it's mostly the police who are falling asleep. Needless to say, that does not bode well for the safety of the citizens of Seattle.

Walker figures the cause has to be magical, but now that she's willing to accept her magical abilities, she finds herself needing a crash course on how to use them properly. Unfortunately, her spirit guide is missing, she keeps having weird dreams, people continue to fall asleep all around her, and everything seems to be spiraling out of control.

This series has always been fast-paced and entertaining — and continues to be so — and Walker makes a good viewpoint character, especially now that she's not spending every few pages questioning her sanity. I also like how Murphy feeds us more of Walker's backstory with each book, which adds a certain poignancy to her present situation. 

I'm guessing there'll be more volumes in this series, and I know I'll be reading them.

*     *     *

The Good Guy, by Dean Koontz,
Bantam, 2007, $27.

I'm really not sure how Koontz does it. He takes such simple concepts and unwinds them into hair-raising stories that simply won't let you go until you get to the end of the book. And then the characters stay in your mind for weeks afterward.

The title character of this novel, the "good guy," is Tim Carrier, a man who just wants to be left alone. He's a mason with no real ambition because he likes the idea of looking ahead and seeing himself making walls, having a drink in the local bar after work, and then going home to a life with no surprises. There's the hint that it was different for him once, but before Koontz gets into that, he has Carrier mistaken for a hit man and given an envelope of money with the photo of an attractive woman and her address in it. Carrier doesn't have the chance to protest, because by the time he realizes the stranger's on the level — the man really does want someone dead — he's gone. And then it gets worse, because another man sits beside Carrier, obviously the hit man. Carrier puts him off. Pretending to be the hit man's client, Carrier says he's changed his mind. When this second man leaves, Carrier realizes he has to warn the woman that someone wants her dead.

The hows and whys of what brought her to have a price on her head are beautifully constructed. But at this point in the story, neither Carrier nor the woman know anything except that the hit man hasn't been put off, he might be a policeman, and he certainly has incredible resources to draw upon. No matter how fast or far they flee, he always finds them. Sometimes he's even waiting for them at their next supposed safe haven.

A good thriller runs by a ticking clock, and they don't count off the seconds much more successfully than in a Koontz book. But it's the characters I love: The good ones, with their banter and their secrets. The antagonists who'd give Thomas Harris's serial killers a run for their money, except the difference here is, Koontz writes with great heart. He takes us into a killer's head so that we can understand them, not to revel in their despicable amorality.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: it's a wonderful thing when a writer with such a large body of work continues to write better books each time 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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