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August 2008
 
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Mind the Gap by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon,
Bantam, 2008, $12.

THERE'S something I really enjoy about the conceit of hidden people living on the edge of our own world, secret either because we don't pay enough attention to notice them, or because they're so good at staying off our radar.

It would seem that tiny people would have the easiest time staying hidden. As a kid I loved books like Mary Norton's The Borrowers series, or T. H. White's Mistress Masham's Repose with their diminutive characters living behind our baseboards or in secret cities. But there have been many books about full-sized hidden characters as well. In Christopher Fowler's Roofworld, the people live their lives never coming down to ground level. Neil Gaiman's characters have a whole other world below ground in Neverwhere.

I suppose the reason those last two examples came to mind is because Christopher Golden's and Tim Lebbon's Mind the Gap is set in London, England, and the city's been on my mind since I finished reading the book. Their hidden world exists in abandoned subway stations, deep underground (hence the title; "Mind the gap" is something you hear over and over again as you get on and off subway cars in London).

But while the city's the same, Golden and Lebbon have a whole other take from previous books touching the subject.

It opens with Jasmine "Jazz" Towne coming home from school. Her paranoid mother is forever passing along dire warnings to her about not trusting anyone, and has instilled in her numerous warnings about what to do if things go wrong. What might go wrong, she never explains, but they live an odd secluded life, looked after by mysterious "Uncles" who pull up to their house in big black cars.

Today Jazz has a weird premonition and instead of going directly into her house after school, she sneaks into the neighbor's place (he's off at work) and slips through a connecting passage that her mother had previously made as an escape route. (I told you she was paranoid, but—how does the saying go? Are you still paranoid when everybody is out to get you?)

Slipping into her bedroom from an attic hatch, Jazz discovers that the previously benevolent Uncles have killed her mother and plan to kill her. Why? She doesn't know. All she can do is read the words her mother has written in her own blood on the floor: "Jazz hide forever."

And then she flees.

But she has nowhere to go. There is nowhere safe. Not until she stumbles on a bunch of kids living in an abandoned subway station, far below ground, led by a Fagin-like figure. But the kids aren't the only ones living down below. There are also ghosts—spectres that Jazz can see and hear, while the others can only sense them sometimes.

Even though the community is Jazz's first taste of an extended family, all's not wonderful in the world below. The Uncles are still after her and they bring havoc in their wake. I loved the resolution of why Jazz is so important to so many people (it's not only the Uncles who want a piece of her), but I especially liked the choices she makes at the end and how it all plays out.

Golden and Lebbon do a wonderful job with this book, pulling you in with a strong opening and a likable protagonist in Jazz, and then maintaining the story with an array of mysteries and puzzles, and a cast of engaging characters.

This is the first book in a series, but the next will be in a different city, with different characters. On the strength of this opening gambit, I can't wait to read it.

* * *

Heart of Stone by C. E. Murphy,
Luna, 2007, $14.95.

House of Cards by C. E. Murphy,
Luna, 2008, $14.95.

And speaking of hidden people living close to, but not part of, our world.

I didn't even know that C. E. Murphy had a new series out until the second volume of it showed up in my P.O. box for review. After a quick trip to the bookstore for the first volume, I settled in to give it a try.

I liked her Urban Shaman series a lot. I know I complained in previous columns that I wanted its lead character Joanne Walker (the police mechanic who turns out to also be a shaman) to just get over it: There's magic in your world. You've been given absolute proof. Deal with it.

But I liked everything else about the series. The inventive storylines. Murphy's use of mythology and folktale. The mix of Native shamanism and Celtic folklore. The Seattle setting.

The new series ups the ante and gets everything right.

It's set in New York City, which if you don't live there (and maybe even if you do), seems the perfect place to have a bunch of secret Old Races living alongside humanity. There were five of them originally—dragons, djinns, gargoyles, vampires and selkies—and these days they are much diminished from their earlier numbers, especially the selkies. But they are still very much present.

Stumbling into their world is a young black lawyer named Margrit Knight. (I mention her race, because it plays into her firsthand understanding of the racial dynamics between the Old Races, as well as how they feel towards humans.)

What I like about Knight is that she's not a reactive character. She doesn't wait for things to happen to her; she goes out and makes them happen. It's also fun (and integral to the series) that she's a lawyer. She's the logical sort of person who doesn't believe in what can't be proved, but when the proof is offered, she doesn't waste any more time worrying about what's real and what isn't. She carries on.

That said, she's often in far over her head, but rather than being overwhelmed, she puts on her "courtroom face" and works through the situation.

In the first book that situation includes falling in love with Alban, a man who turns out to be a gargoyle and is wanted for murder. The main investigator on the case just happens to be Knight's ex, Tony Pulcella. Circumstantial evidence makes it look bad for Alban, but Knight is convinced of his innocence and sets out to prove it, a course of action that's complicated by having to keep secret exactly what Alban is, like the fact that he can fly and turns to stone at dawn.

Before Knight knows it, by trying to help Alban, she not only puts the relationships of her human life at risk, but she's also drawn into the complex jockeying for power and position among members of the other Old Races where a misstep can mean death.

It all plays out like a breath of fresh air over the course of these two books, with a third title due for release in the fall.

Murphy has a fine sense of pacing, her prose moves the story ahead, rather than simply calling attention to itself, and her dialogue crackles with true-to-life energy. But what I liked best about these books is the range of characters, and especially their range of emotion and motive. It's all shades of gray here, from the inhuman cast to the human.

* * *

Jumper: Jumpscars by Nunzio Defilippis, Christina Weir, and Brian Hurtt,
Oni Press, 2008, $14.95.

Just an addendum here to previous reviews of Steven Gould's Jumper books. I finally saw the film based on them and while it's not nearly as good as the books, if you shut your mind off and go with the flow, it's at least entertaining. I don't think Gould did himself any favors by playing off the movie for his third book, rather than sticking to his own mythology (much like it annoyed me when David Morrell brought Rambo back from the dead for more books, without any explanation except to keep the movie franchise going), but that's not the point behind this.

Oni Press recently put out a prequel to the movie that focuses on the Paladins, trying to make them more human, with understandable motives. (In Gould's series and the movies, Jumpers are teleporters, while the Paladins are a clandestine organization that's been butchering them for years with a religious fervor.) It'd be like telling a story to show how the SS in WWII were really just people who happened to have an agenda most of the world disagreed with.

What really bugs me is that nowhere does it mention that this is based on work created by Gould, except—considering what a shambles they made of it—maybe that's a good thing for him.

* * *

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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