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March 2008
 
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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

The Sword-Edged Blonde, by Alex Bledsoe,
Nightshade, 2007, $24.95.

EDDIE LaCrosse is a private eye of sorts. I don't mean he's treading Repairman Jack territory, living on the outside of present-day society, helping people out for remuneration; instead of F. Paul Wilson, think Glen Cook's "Garrett Files" series which are basically PI novels set in a fantasy secondary world.

But just because it's been done before doesn't mean it can't be done again. Look at how many mystery series there have been, and that are still ongoing. The trick to doing a hardboiled story well (beyond good characterization, plot, etc., etc.) is to have a strong, individual voice for your point-of-view character. We'll have seen a hundred variations on the plot before. What we want is that fresh view of the world from the character's viewpoint, and a voice we want to keep listening to.

Alex Bledsoe does both with Eddie LaCrosse, and once you get past the novelty of a hardboiled fantasy novel, you'll forget that it's a novelty because there's meat on the bones of the story to be found here.

The book opens with LaCrosse being followed while starting a new case. When he finally manages to confront the man dogging his trail, the stranger turns out to be bringing him a message from the past, along with all the baggage that might entail. There was a reason LaCrosse left his homeland of Arentia all those years ago and never returned. Only one thing could bring him back, and the person who sent the stranger with this message is that one thing.

Naturally, things get messy, and eventually, LaCrosse has to confront his past, whether he wants to or not.

I liked this book for a lot of reasons—some of which I've already mentioned above. LaCrosse is an interesting character with good PI traits: he's smart, a little bit of a wiseacre, stubborn, and has a code of ethics that he follows. I also like that this is mostly a gritty, on-the-streets sort of a book, even when scenes are set in a palace. And Bledsoe keeps his magics to a minimum. There's enough here to make the book a fantasy beyond its setting, but not so much that it's all smoke and fireworks.

In other words, it's real people with real problems that they have to solve the old-fashioned way. The magics are tools—like a modern PI's use of the Internet, say—not solutions.

Nightshade Books is an indie publisher, and I tend to think of them for story collections and risky books, but this novel is in a more commercial vein (like I would expect from the larger paperback houses) and I wonder if it marks a new direction for this publisher.

* * *

Blood Bound, by Patricia Briggs,
Ace Fantasy, 2007, $7.99.

"Alpha and Omega" by Patricia Briggs,
in On the Prowl, Berkley, 2007, $7.99.

I really liked Briggs's earlier book Moon Called. In this new one, her continuing character Mercedes "Mercy" Thompson says, "Sometimes I wish I was an average citizen."

I'm glad she's not.

Instead, she's a confident, smart, shapeshifting coyote mechanic, who hangs out with werewolves, vampires, and other inhuman beings.

In the past decade or so there's been a virtual tsunami of books with vampire, werewolf and/or witch protagonists. They usually have a bit of a romantic slant (some edging into the erotic) and the protagonists are invariably solving crimes of some sort while coming to grips with being a vampire/werewolf/witch/inhuman, or dealing with a boyfriend or love interest that is so afflicted.

When I put it like that, I might sound a little condescending, but I don't mean to be. Because, like anything else, if it's done well, it'll keep our interest no matter what sub-genre, or even sub-sub-genre it happens to fall into.

And Briggs does it well.

Truth is, sometimes she seems to forget that she's writing fiction with a romantic slant, because she's so caught up in Story—and that's the way it should be. Everything should come from the characters and their stories. If there's romance to complicate their lives, that can work just as well as a twisty plot turn, so long as we care about the characters, and stay caught up in how it will turn out.

In Blood Bound, Mercy gives a helping hand to a vampire friend named Stefan, but what starts out as her simply coming along to observe Stefan's passing along a warning to a visiting vampire soon spirals out of control, endangering Mercy and everyone around her.

Everybody who writes about supernatural creatures these days comes up with their own take on them—some variation to the accepted, traditional lore—and Briggs is no different. I love the politics of her supernatural beings, the pack mentality and pecking order of the werewolves, the ebb and flow of détente between the more powerful groups. Also, in her world, some of these beings have "come out" to the world at large, allowing her room to explore the social ramifications of the human world suddenly realizing that there are others among them.

And speaking of voices—as I was above in the Bledsoe review—Mercy's is that perfect likable, charismatic viewpoint to draw us into her world.

On the Prowl is a collection of four novellas with no editor cited. I tried to read them all, but Briggs's "Alpha and Omega" is the only one that I finished. It features a bit player from the Mercy books, Charles Cornick—the son of the Marrok, which in Briggs's world is the werewolf boss of bosses—and a new werewolf named Anna. Charles is in town to investigate some discrepancies with how the local werewolf pack leaders are operating.

It's not a long story—only some seventy pages—but does a great job of capturing and keeping our interest while going a little deeper into pack mentality and exploring the wolfish concept of mating for life. And it also serves as our introduction to characters that will play out on a larger canvas in one of Briggs's upcoming books.

You might also like the other three novellas—the ones I can't comment on, because I didn't get very far into any of them—but for my money, the Briggs story is worth the price of admission all on its own.

* * *

Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor,
Dark Horse Books/Edgeworks Abbey, 2007, $19.95.

Shatterday, by Harlan Ellison,
Tachyon, 2007, $14.95.

I hate to say this, because I write stories for a living, but what makes or breaks a comic book or graphic novel is the art, not the story. Sure, you need a story (and characters and all the other good writerly bits and pieces), but if you just wanted that, you wouldn't need to read a comic. There are prose books to fill the bill quite nicely.

One of my favorite things you can do with a comic, that you can't do in other two-dimensional narrative media, is tell two stories at the same time—one in the pictures, and one in the captions. Or you can just utilize that trick with two scenes unwinding at the same time in a longer piece, which can make for a nice punch in that part of the story. But I digress.

We were talking about art.

Now, what makes the artwork in a comic a dangerous enterprise is that art is so subjective. What one reader thinks is wonderful, another might hate, and vice versa. But more importantly to the medium, good art doesn't necessarily make for a good comic—just think of all the wonderful underground comics with their bad proportions and scratchy inking.

With good art, each panel might be fabulous on its own, but if it doesn't have a narrative flow, it's not working as a comic. It's just an illustrated story with a lot more illustrations than stories usually have.

This collection of comic book renditions of Ellison stories has a mix of all of the above, and a few that didn't appeal to me on any count. Yes, we have Neal Adams, Rags Morales, and Rafael Navarro, and a curiously fascinating piece by Gene Colan—that has his original pencils fronting the same page, only the second version is inked and colored—but a lot of the others just didn't work for me.

I know everybody loves Richard Corben's work, and I find it interesting panel-to-panel, but he's the stiffest storyteller around and I don't think I've ever fallen into the story when he's done the illustrations. I'm always aware that I'm reading. And while I like old-fashioned cartooning, Jay Lynch's work just sort of annoys me.

The thing is, to some degree, comics are like movies. When you get as visual a writer as Ellison can be, it's very difficult for an artist or filmmaker to match the movie we've already got playing in our head. Because of that—because I know how these scenes should play out visually—this isn't my favorite collection of Ellison's work.

However, if you're jonsing for some Ellison, or just want to give his writing a try, I'd recommend you pick up the Tachyon reprint of Shatterday instead. It has a terrific Arthur Suydam cover and features a treasure trove of the author at his best: the title story, "Jefty Is Five," "Django," "All the Lies That Are My Life".

The confrontational and shocking Ellison is always entertaining, but these stories open the reader up to the poet in the soul of this one-time "angry young man." They are never sentimental, but they resonate with heart and sentiment, and when you reread them as I just have, you'll remember again why Harlan Ellison is considered one of America's best short story writers. Or if you're new to his work, you might well discover a new favorite author.

* * *

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