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Books To Look For
Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, by Lish McBride, Henry Holt, 2010, $16.99.
SOME DEBUT novels are obviously such. There might be all sorts of promise (after all, it did get published, so someone saw something worthwhile in its pages), but the author makes beginner's mistakes in terms of exposition, character development, plotting, and all the other good things that go into a book being something more than just a bunch of ink on paper.
But then you can also find a debut novel that is so assured you wouldn't know it was the author's first unless someone told you.
Such is the case with Lish McBride's Hold Me Closer, Necromancer. It's witty, smart, and focused. The characters are likeable, their dialogue believable. And while it has this thing that makes me uneasy—the further you get into the story, there are more and more magical elements every time you turn around—in this case it doesn't feel forced. And it's not present because the author has run out of plot ideas and is trying to hide the fact with fireworks. Instead the build-up of magical beings and abilities grows out of a natural evolution of our understanding the characters while they learn to understand themselves.
In some ways, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer should be a primer for how good urban fantasy should be done.
McBride begins with a set of characters that we like before anything magical even starts to happen. We first meet them in the burger joint where they work: Sam, the fry cook and narrator for much of the book; his best friend Ramon; the hot cheerleader-like waitress Brooke; the newbie Frank.
They're a nice, normal bunch of kids. Sam and Ramon start a game of potato hockey behind the restaurant on their break and manage to break the taillight of a car that's parked back there where it shouldn't be. A little later the owner of the car comes into the restaurant and that's when things start to get weird.
The man's name is Douglas and it turns out he's a necromancer—he can raise and control the dead. He also has issues about being the only necromancer in town and likes to experiment on other magical creatures. For some reason he thinks Sam is also a necromancer and he wants to control Sam, so later that night he cuts off Brooke's head and sends it as a warning of what will happen to Sam's friends if he tries to fight back.
Gross, I know, but it's also kind of funny, because the head isn't dead. It's still Brooke with her wiseacre commentary on everything going on around her. She just doesn't have a body anymore.
Things continue to grow more complicated. Sam gets kidnapped, he meets a hot werewolf girl and a Harbinger who looks like a ten-year-old Catholic schoolgirl, Ramon is traipsing around town with Brooke's head in a bowling ball bag.…
What makes it all work is that McBride started small. She waited until we were invested in the characters before she started springing her surprises. It also helps that she's a deft writer, has a true gift for dialogue, and an imagination that soars—easily taking us along with her. And it's not all laughs and action. Like the best writing, McBride gives her characters the full range of human experience.
I loved this book from start to finish.
Prince Valiant Vol. 3: 1941-1942, by Hal Foster, Fantagraphics Books, 2011, $29.99.
I've written in earlier columns of my admiration for Hal Foster and his seminal strip Prince Valiant, but Fantagraphics is doing such an exemplary job with this current reprint series that he deserves another mention.
A quick background: the series is set in the time of King Arthur—or at least the romanticized era of the legends. The titular character wends his way through history, legend, and myth. The stories were originally newspaper strips, so while the story flow is somewhat simple and episodic, it's nevertheless engaging. But Foster's graphics—his ink work, coloring, and sense of design—are the real stars here. Anyone with a love for fantasy art can only marvel at his ability to capture both the gritty down-to-earth feeling of the times as well as those sweeping moments that kindle our sense of wonder.
In this volume, Prince Valiant is on a quest to find his beloved Aleta, traveling away from Europe into Northern Africa, Jerusalem, and the deserts of the Middle East. Still not completely mature (he turns eighteen during these adventures), the prince slowly changes from a rash and quick-tempered youth into the seasoned man and leader he will one day become.
This series of hardcovers measures 10" by 14" and truly lets the art shine, with some of the best reproductions I've found to date. That's not surprising since the publisher was granted access to Hal Foster's personal collection of original full-color syndicate printer's proofs, which are housed at Syracuse University.
There is a foreword by comics critic Dan Nadel along with a portfolio of editorial censorship of Foster's work. I had to laugh at the latter's subtitle, which includes "Too sexy for Canadian Catholics!"
Foster created Prince Valiant strips for at least thirty years. Considering that each of these volumes contains a couple of years' worth of strips, the casual reader might consider fifteen hardcovers too much of an investment. To which I can only respond, try one. These books are wonderful—rich and comprehensive, and proof positive that even with the inevitable rise of ebooks, there is still a place for the printed book in our libraries.
A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness, Viking, 2011, $28.95.
Tell me if this sounds familiar:
A professional woman (in this case she's a professor of history) starts a slow-burning relationship with an incredibly romantic and patient vampire. It turns out she's a witch, and a powerful one at that. Many stand against their illicit relationship: not only their families who just don't think it's a good idea (considering how the two species are supposed to be mortal foes), but also powerful enemies who believe that the two are on the cusp of fulfilling an ancient prophecy that will change everything about how magic works in their world.
The witch and vampire try to stay apart, but they just can't help themselves.…
I'm being a little unfair because if you strip most books to their basics, they all kind of sound the same. And what's important isn't the bare-bones outline of the plot so much as what the author does with it.
Deborah Harkness does some fine things indeed. Although she isn't above borrowing from material that came before her.
And that, again, is a little unfair, because all writers borrow from each other, especially when it comes to the tropes of a fictional genre.
Her heroine Diana Bishop is an unwitting witch and orphan who discovers she has a destiny—Harry Potter anyone? Or if you only focus on the orphan aspect, pretty much any high fantasy novel of the past thirty years or so.
The vampire Matthew Clairmont can trace his lineage from Anne Rice's Lestat, through the Cullens of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books to any number of urban fantasy novels to appear in the past decade.
In fact, plot-wise, A Discovery of Witches falls comfortably into the current urban fantasy field with its love-crossed protagonists and hidden races of magical beings (in this case demons as well as witches and vampires). The difference is that most urban fantasy seems to take its style from a mix of mystery and fantasy while Harkness's book feels more like a historical novel.
It moves more slowly as well—mostly in a good way, because what makes this a book I'm happy to recommend is the author's close attention to detail, and that can sometimes take a while to convey.
A Darkness of Witches is a novel to read at a leisurely pace, to savor rather than simply rush through to find out what happens next (though it certainly has aspects of that). There is an enormous cast of characters and Harkness gives us the time to get to know them all. The descriptions are lush, whether it be the bouquet of an old wine, an ancient castle in France, or a fascinating witches' house in New England with a mind of its own. And best of all, the characters act like the adults they are—though they're certainly capable of screwing up as much as any teen.
The echoes of other genre books I mentioned above are quickly swept away as the pages unfold. Harkness isn't inventing the wheel; she's making one that looks better and turns better. I should warn you, however, that even at 570 pages, this is only the first book in a trilogy. It leaves off at a good place to take a breath, but there's also a bit of a cliffhanger.
And that's where the attention to detail and large cast might work against her, because it's usually a year between books and I'm not sure anyone's going to remember the finer points of the plot and character relationships after a year.
But I'll certainly be willing to give it a try.
Otherworlds, by Tom Kidd, Impact, 2010, $30.99.
I wasn't going to review this book at first. With its subtitle of "How to Imagine, Paint and Create Epic Scenes of Fantasy" I initially thought that its audience would be too limited. But the more I read it, the more I realized that while not a lot of us are necessarily aspiring artists, we're almost all interested in the creative process and how one does the job well.
First of all, Tom Kidd is a terrific artist. No matter how realistically he portrays a character or scene, he always retains a painterly quality in his work. I'm not sure how important that is to everyone, but it's paramount to my appreciation of a work of art.
I don't want something that could have been photographed, or even Photoshopped to be a perfect reproduction. I want to see a bit of the pencil, the watercolor washes, the mark left by the brush. The sense that a human hand was involved in the creation. It's like the difference between sampled music and someone playing the actual instrument. You hear something in the latter—space, variation, the human spirit—that you simply don't get in the perfection of the former.
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with sampling an instrument you can't play because you need that sound for a few bars. Just as there's nothing wrong with using a computer art program for its convenience (and its own challenges). And while photography is definitely an art form in its own right, and is certainly capable of as much power as the best painting, it still evokes a different response in the viewer.
Now I do have to admit that some of the writing in here is very technical about how to get a job done, but a great deal of it is about looking at things from a different point of view. Which—perhaps surprisingly to anyone not involved in multiple forms of artistic creation—is something that can actually be used to jump-start sticking points in other types of expression.
But probably the best reason to get this book is that it displays so much of Kidd's distinctive and expressive art in a wide variety of mediums and stages of completion.
Having said all of that, I should also add that OtherWorlds is an excellent resource for artists interested in improving their work, or learning a trick or two from a master at his craft.
Pale Demon, by Kim Harrison, Eos, 2011, $26.99.
I've dipped into the Hollows series before and enjoyed the few previous books I've read. The basic set-up is simple: Rachel Morgan is a bounty hunter and a witch who shares her home with a vampire named Ivy, a family of pixies headed up by their patriarch Jenks, and a young gargoyle named Bis that has bonded to her. They live in a world that is aware of the supernatural creatures living openly among them.
When Pale Demon opens, Rachel has been condemned to death for using black magic (this must have happened in the previous book, Black Magic Sanction, 2010) and has just three days to make it across the country to the annual witches' convention in San Francisco to plead her case. Since she has been banned from the flight lists, she has to go by car. Complicating matters, she's going in the company of an elven tycoon named Trent Kalamack with whom she has an unpleasant history, there's a sun-walking demon abroad causing havoc, and the witches are actively working to make sure she doesn't arrive in San Francisco on time.
As the ninth book in a series, there's a lot of backstory to pick up on, but Harrison does an excellent job of filling in the reader without bogging things down. Her prose is matter-of-fact but her plotting is inventive and her characters are lively and well-drawn.
It's really the characters who make the book, especially how Harrison explores their friendships. Most urban fantasy books these days feature a fairly hot and heavy romantic angle, but that's played down here, allowing Harrison the room to explore the other relationships in Rachel's life, which are changing and growing as she and her companions cross the country.
There are many urban fantasy books crowding the shelves these days, so many that it's hard to figure out which are the cream and which are simply riding the popularity wave. Harrison's books are the real deal—fast, funny, dramatic, and full of life. If you haven't tried her yet, you should.
How To See Faeries, by Brian Froud & John Matthews, Abrams, 2011, $24.95.
When I first picked up the pop-up book How to See Faeries, my initial reaction was, oh here's another excuse to reuse a bunch of Brian Froud's faerie art. And I suppose in some ways it is. But there's also a lure to the proceedings that quickly won me over.
For one thing, I was delighted to discover a light-hearted side to the serious Arthurian scholar and folklorist that I know John Matthews to be from books like The Song of Arthur or The Quest for the Green Man. The prose and verses are charming and—dare I say—fey.
The art you probably know already from so many other books and posters. But presented in pop-up form (which includes lenticular images as well as the more familiar pull-tabs, pop-outs, pull-downs, flaps and the like), they are all given a fresh feel. The lenticular images are particularly intriguing as they move from swirling flares of color—which is how Froud says faeries actually appear to him—to the more "realistic" faerie images he usually renders.
Give this to a favorite child and watch their delight.
River Marked, by Patricia Briggs, Ace, 2011, $26.95.
I get bored easily, especially when it comes to series books, so it's to Patricia Briggs's credit that not only have I enjoyed each outing of the Mercy Thompson series, I actually look forward to each new book.
I can't quite put my finger on what makes her novels work so well for me when others don't. The obvious reason is that she's good at her craft, but let's face it, there are a great many other writers out there who work in the same general fantasy subgenre and are just as good. But while I peck away at their books, reading one here, another there, I don't follow them as faithfully with each new release.
Pressed, I'd have to say that I just appreciate her particular authorial voice.
River Marked, like all of Briggs's novels I've read to date, is a standalone book that requires no familiarity with the rest of the series, though familiarity will certainly add more resonance to the proceedings.
Briggs leaves behind the Tri-Cities setting of the earlier books to take our shapeshifting car mechanic Mercy and her new husband Adam—the Alpha of the local werewolf clan—on their honeymoon on the banks of the Columbia River. The new setting adds a freshness that, while it wasn't needed yet in the series, is still welcome. And this being Mercy—as might be expected by those readers who do know the characters—nothing goes easily or as planned.
Almost immediately the pair find themselves embroiled in solving a number of mysterious deaths along the river, and Mercy gets in touch with her Native American heritage on her father's side of her family. The two elements collide with a good dose of faerie magic to provide us with a fast-paced book that still has room for spiritual resonance.
A satisfying conclusion leaves the reader eager for the next book in the series. At least it certainly did so for this reader.
Encyclopedia of the Vampire, edited by S. T. Joshi, Greenwood, 2011, $85.
Subtitled "The Living Dead in Myth, Legend, and Popular Culture," this is a fine, comprehensive encyclopedia of all things vampiric, covering books, movies, TV, folklore, and world mythology. So you'll find entries ranging from Bram Stoker and Anne Rice to Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer, from Dracula to From Dusk to Dawn, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to True Blood, with excursions into the culture of vampire belief in various parts of the world.
The entries usually run at least a page, with many much longer ones, so there's room for more than a casual examination. Depending on the contributor for the entry, the writing ranges from being a little dry to very readable, and they're all informative.
It would be easy to recommend this to both the casual reader with an interest in vampires as well as those who already have a good background in the subject, if it weren't for the price. I can only assume that the book is aimed at the library market since it's unlikely that anyone else will pick it up in these tough economic times unless they have deep pockets. It certainly won't be an impulse buy.
Apparently, Encyclopedia of the Vampire has also been published as an ebook, but a quick Web search at the time I was writing this brought up only a couple of places where it appears to be available. One is from the publisher, but they ask you to contact them for a price. Another is at infibeam.com which has this amusing description for the book:
Adobe PDF eBook Rights:It made me wonder how they police the "reading aloud" rule.
Your best bet might be to have a look at this book in your local library—just remember to be quiet while you're doing so. (Moving your lips as you read is probably okay.)
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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