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December 2008
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

The Host, by Stephenie Meyer,
Little, Brown, 2008, $25.99.

WHAT A pleasant surprise this book is. You could say that Meyer's fourth novel—her first for adults—eschews all the long-winded teen angst of her Young Adult Twilight series, but I think she simply had a different target audience, and so wrote a different kind of a book. It's just as long, but instead of being filled with lengthy descriptions of the minutiae and drama of teenage romance, it explores adult relationships, friendship, and the morality of an alien invasion.

When the novel opens, it's been years since the "Souls" (what the parasitic aliens call themselves) have invaded and taken over earth. The Souls are placed in a human host and take over the body while suppressing the human's mind. Our viewpoint character is a Soul named Wanderer who, when she wakes in the body of a young woman named Melanie, finds that her human host isn't so easily controlled.

The aliens have conquered Earth, but there are still pockets of resistance—individuals and small groups of violent humans that still need to be assimilated into the greater Soul society. Melanie, we learn, along with her younger brother Jamie and lover Jared, have all been in hiding from the Souls. Though she's been captured, she'll do anything to protect and return to Jamie and Jared, and her sheer determination and strength of will allow her to resist Wanderer's complete control.

Souls live forever unless their host body dies, and Wanderer is a rarity among Souls because she has lived on nine worlds. She's well-practiced in taking charge of her host, and though she's surprised by Melanie's resistance, she doesn't expect it to last. But then a funny thing happens. Through sharing Melanie's memories, Wanderer finds herself falling in love with Jared and wanting to protect Melanie's brother Jamie.

What follows is a fascinating love triangle that gets even more complicated when Wanderer/Melanie meet another member of the resistance and he falls for her—the Wanderer personality, not Melanie.

If you're familiar with the Twilight books, and then read what I've written above, you might think that this is a romance novel trying to disguise itself as sf, but you'd be wrong. Meyers is interested in human relationships, and does a fine job exploring them, but she also does an excellent job of setting up the aliens and then extrapolating what their presence means on Earth. The Host isn't watered-down sf; it's simply another take on it.

I've read somewhere that Meyers doesn't read sf or horror, nor has she seen any genre films. While it begs the question as to why she writes in either genre, it does mean that she brings something different to the table. Her vampires and werewolves—and her aliens in this book—aren't different for the sake of being different (as a genre writer might attempt, staking out her own niche). They're different because she comes to them without the baggage of familiarity, approaching these tropes of our genre with a fresh eye that I find very engaging.

For adult readers, The Host is definitely the place to start with her books.

*     *     *

Elfland, by Freda Warrington,
Tor Books, 2009, no price listed yet.

Freda Warrington's new novel is another fat book, but unlike Meyers, she's very familiar with the conventions of the genre. In Elfland, she presents a world in which the fairies of folk lore—she calls them Aetherials—live alongside us as though they are human, only we don't know it. Ho-hum, you might think, and in lesser hands you might be right.

Magical beings living hidden alongside us has pretty much become its own subgenre. They might be fairies, or vampires, or werewolves, but the books usually boil down to a familiar template: human discovers the secret, is drawn to or repulsed by the magical beings, his or her life is put into turmoil.

Warrington avoids this by having the points of view come from the Aetherials. She doesn't so much focus on conflict between the races—though some aspect of that is still present—as she does the complicated relationships of the Aetherials themselves, in particular, the Fox and Wilder families who live in the small English village of Cloudcroft.

Lawrence Wilder is a rich jeweler, and the Gatekeeper to the inner realms of Elfland that the Aetherials need to visit on a regular basis to maintain the magical elements of their life-force. His wife Ginny has left him. His one son Jon is a drug addict, for all that he looks like he stepped from a Pre-Raphaelite painting; the other is Sam, who's always in trouble.

Down the hill from their stately, if somewhat rundown, Stonegate Manor, is the cottage of the Foxes: Auberon, the local Aetherial community's voice of calm reason; his wife Jessica who used to sing in a folk-rock band; oldest son Matthew who does everything he can to deny his Aetherial heritage; daughter Rose, enamored with the natural world and the handsome Jon who doesn't even know she exists; and lastly the younger son Lucas who tends to tag along with either or both of his older siblings.

Elfland takes place over a decade or so, opening when Lawrence has to close the Gates because of a danger he says will come through and destroy them all. What's unclear is if the danger is to Lawrence himself, who is carrying all sorts of hidden demons, or the Aetherials in general. All the community knows is that the Gates are closed to them, and they're outraged.

The book starts slowly, but as we come to know the two families, along with their human and Aetherial friends, we are drawn into their lives and relationships, and what begins as a somewhat pastoral novel set in this small English village becomes a real page-turner and a very magical book.

It helps that the principal viewpoint character is Rose. She's a terrific character in her own right—warm, earthy, coming of age in a time when her community is changing drastically. But because of her connections to the other characters, it makes it easier for the reader to keep track of the large cast and make sense of their complicated relationships with one another.

I said at the outset that this sort of hidden-race-among-us storyline is becoming rather commonplace in our genre, but Warrington makes it her own, and even the most jaded fantasy reader will quickly fall under the spell of her characters and the warm, intimate voice Warrington uses to tell us their stories.

Highly recommended.

*     *     *

In the Small, by Michael Hague,
Little, Brown, 2008, $12.99.

In Odd We Trust, by Queenie Chan & Dean Koontz,
Del Rey, 2008, $10.95.

Regular readers of this column could be forgiven for thinking that this reviewer considers any graphic novel a superior accomplishment. But if I've given that impression, it's only because I tend to concentrate on what I think are the better examples. To give a little perspective, here are a couple that didn't work as well for me.

I've enjoyed Michael Hague's illustrative work in the past and the concept of this new book of his (one day every human being is shrunk to under six inches tall) is terrific. The plot's fine, too, and Hague manages to capture both the gruesome and the charming aspects of this change. With six inch tall pilots and drivers, airborne planes crash, as do cars, buses, trains—not a pretty situation. Getting down from the top floor of an office building is a real challenge. As is simply finding something to wear.

The problem is that for such an accomplished artist, Hague's artwork here is really not very good. It's stiff, the figures often have awkward proportions, and much of it's just plain ugly. When you combine that with the terribly stilted dialogue, you don't end up with a pleasant reading experience. If it weren't for his name on the project, I would have thought this was the work of a first time author/artist, still learning his craft. Strange.

Perhaps it can all be explained by the sticker on the cover that reads: "Soon to be a major motion picture!" Maybe this is just a sketch of the final project, a tease that will look and sound much better in another medium.

The Koontz book—the story is a prequel to the first Odd Thomas novel—has none of those problems. It moves quickly, with plenty of Koontz's humor, and it's fun to visit again with some of the characters who are no longer in the prose book series.

The problem for me is that the art is in the Japanese Manga style. While I don't dislike that style in principle, here I found it too hard to keep track of the characters because they all have a somewhat similar look, especially the male characters. But I'm sure other readers—especially those familiar with this style of art—won't have the same problem. And unlike In the Small, the dialogue feels completely natural.

*     *     *

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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