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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Set This House in Order, by Matt Ruff,
Harper Perennial, 2004, $14.95.

THE problem with having limited reading time and column deadlines is that I often find that, if I'm not paying attention, some of the books I've set aside to read end up disappearing into the lower reaches of the "to be read" stack until they're finally lost and forgotten. This is because I'm usually reading the newer books for the column, so I rarely get to the older titles. But occasionally I'll pull out one of those forgotten books and then find myself regretting that I couldn't have read it in a more timely fashion so that I could discuss it in these pages.

But you know, a good book is a good book, and if it's still available…well, I don't want to make a habit of this, but Matt Ruff's Set This House in Order (originally published by HarperCollins in 2003) is simply too good to ignore and deserves a few column inches even at this late a date.

It's the story of Andy Gage who has a house in his head. It's an imaginary house, but the hundred or so souls with whom he shares it are real. That's because Andy is a multiple personality. Brutalized by his stepfather as a little boy, Andy's soul broke into pieces; each personality that subsequently arose being individual from the other.

Like most multiples, Andy didn't know he was one. He just had these holes in his memory. He might be at his job, then the next thing he knows, it's hours later and he's sitting in some bar with no idea where he is, how he came to be there, or how he's going to get home.

When he understands what's happening to him, he tries working with various therapists to integrate the personalities. Nothing helps until he connects with someone with the radical idea that instead of trying to integrate the personalities, he should learn to work with them.

So we have Andy at the beginning of the book with the house in his head (the above's all backstory that we learn as we read along). He's sharing his body with the various personalities, all of them aware of each other. In fact, they can even "talk" to the dominant personality that's in control of the body.

It's all fascinating, especially delivered as it is in Matt Ruff's elegant prose, and the fact that he knows just how to capture all the different voices of the various characters.

Things get complicated when it turns out that Andy's new coworker Penny is also a multiple, something only some of her personalities understand. When those particular personalities ask Andy for help, he's reluctant, but eventually agrees, only to find the stability of his own fragile balance thrown off, and he finds he has to set his own house in order.

This is the sort of book for which the f/sf field exists. It's moving, dramatic, funny, and completely original, using the speculative strengths of the genre to tackle real world problems in a way that allows us to understand something with which most of us have no firsthand experience. How terrifying it would be to be in a situation such as the one in which Andy and Penny find themselves. And how much have we failed those supposedly under our protection when the actions that cause multiples to exist continue unabated? Not just in some other state or country. Sometimes it's just down the street, and we remain all unaware.

Now before I leave you to consider whether or not you want to try this book, let me assure you that as dark as some of the subject matter is, Ruff doesn't write with unrelenting gloom. You'll feel uplifted more than you might expect.

This is a gorgeous and important book from a writer who always challenges the norm, and inevitably does so with success.

*     *     *

Raven, by Allison Van Diepen,
Simon Pulse, 2009, $15.99.

I think I mentioned Allison Van Diepen in a previous column—an aside, really, because her books up to that point had been set squarely in the mainstream. But now she's ventured onto our turf and I can talk a bit more about her. And I'm happy to do so, because she's one of those rare storytellers that grabs you from the first page, yet layers her stories so that everything's not on the table from that opening. She understands pacing, her prose crackles with energy, and her dialogue rings true to the ear.

Like Stephenie Meyer, Van Diepen also brings a fresh point of view to f/sf, although in her case, she seems quite familiar with genre conventions. But happily, she's not a slave to them.

Van Diepen usually writes in gritty, contemporary settings. In this case, a lot of the book is set in a Brooklyn club where our first-person protagonist Nicole works as a waitress. It's also where she and her break dance crew, the Toprocks, have dance-offs against rival crews. Don't worry. The dance sections aren't long, but they're full of energy and you get what's happening without having to know much about break dancing, or needing to go watch a few episodes of So You Think You Can Dance to catch up on what's going on.

This is all background, however. For her first foray into fantasy, Van Diepen tackles the big theme of immortality.

Nicole's life is complicated enough. She's juggling school, dancing, and work, but that's better than being at home where the fact that her brother's a junkie living in flop houses and sucking money from their parents hangs like a pall over everything. As Nicole puts it, the house is "haunted by a ghost that isn't dead."

The bright point in Nicole's life is her best friend Zin. He's the leader of the Toprocks, and works at the club, and Nicole is totally in love with him, though he just sees her as a friend. But while he doesn't reciprocate her feelings the way she wishes he would, at least she has him in her life.

Then she finds out about the immortals, the Jiang Shi.

I don't want to get into their differences compared to other literary immortal characters because it would spoil too many surprises. But what I will say is that Van Diepen plays with all the preconceptions we might have for this sort of story, taking the plot in directions one wouldn't expect while still remaining true to the characters and why they would do what they do.

In the end the Jiang Shi pervade every part of Nicole's life—the club, Zin, the Toprocks, and even her brother—and it's up to her to find some way that her friends and family can survive.

I love the fact that in the right hands, the hoariest tropes can still be made fresh again, and then turned on their ears. Raven is a terrific example of how to do it right.

*     *     *

Heroes Volume Two,
by Wildstorm/DC Comics, 2008, $29.99.

Like volume one (which we discussed back in the May 2008 installment of this column), the newest Heroes compilation was originally published online and features short strips telling the stories that took place before and in between the actual aired episodes of the television show.

Also, as in that first volume, the art ranges between serviceable and great; it's the stories that make it a worthwhile addition to your library. Or at least it would if you're a fan of the show. If you're not, the barrage of short-short pieces on such a wide variety of characters probably won't make much sense.

But for those of us who are fans, the book's a treasure trove of unexpected, surprising, and at times, moving glimpses into things that didn't make it onto the screen. We get the origin of the Haitian, Elle's first job for the Company, early assignments of the Horned-Rimmed Glasses guy, a solo adventure featuring Hiro's best friend Ando, the first manifestation of various characters' powers, and all sorts of other tasty bits.

If it seems a bit pricey, you could always sample the most recent issue online at http://www.nbc.com/Heroes/novels/.

*     *     *

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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