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Books To Look For
The Barrens & Others, by F. Paul Wilson, Smashwords edition, 2012, $2.99.
Happily, after all this time and with the way I'd built the story up in my mind, it still managed to stand up just fine on a reread.
The setup is simple: Troy Jonson originates somewhere in our future. He goes back in time to New York's Greenwich Village in the early Sixties, bringing with him knowledge of the times and a box of seminal vinyl records that have yet to be produced at the time when he arrives.
Jonson is an incredibly gifted musician with one major flaw—he can mimic anything he hears, but he can't create works of art on his own. But he does his research and sneaks back to a time when pop music was about to explode with the music of The Byrds, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, etc. He figures that instead of, say, Jim (now Roger) McGuinn inventing folk rock, he'll do it. And after that success he'll be able to anticipate every trend in music and finally be successful in a way he can't be in his own time.
If we set aside the moral implications for the moment, it's a pretty exhilarating idea. Kind of every fourteen-year-old's dream at the time. Instead of listening to the pop stars, he can be the pop star. The fun comes in how Jonson tries to go about impressing Bob Dylan so that Dylan will give him "Mr. Tambourine Man" instead of letting McGuinn be the first to have a hit with it.
Of course it isn't right. Never mind that Jonson will remain a sham no matter his stolen success. There are also the complications that arise when curious people stumble across his record collection.
Although a paper version of this book is available from Forge Books, it retails for about six times the cost of this ebook. All this great back catalogue by writers, whose older titles might not be viable in the print medium, are relatively easy to put up in a digital format where they will be available forever. (Or until some new format comes along, I suppose—maybe glasses, that when you put them on the words scroll across the "screen" directly in front of your eyes?)
The price is right for this collection. And if you're at all curious about this particular story let me assure you that the rest of the book is good and in places better—I'm thinking here of the title story, "The Barrens," which might still be one of Wilson's best pieces to date. You also get to hang out with Repairman Jack, the Joker (from DC Comics's Batman, but there are no capes here), Dick Tracy, serial killers, and others. Oh and then there's "Pelts," a gory, anti-fur industry tale that will have you squirming in your seat.
Tempest, by Julie Cross, St. Martin's Griffin, $17.99.
And speaking of time travel, Julie Cross's YA novel Tempest has some fresh elements that make for a terrific read. But before I get to them I want to digress for just a moment to explain why I like YA takes on tried-and-true SF tropes as much as I do. I appreciate a new spin on an old idea as much as the next person, but what I especially like about novels such as this—and Martyn Bedford's Flip which we discussed in an earlier column—is the limitations put upon the younger characters to solve their problems.
They don't simply have the problem itself to deal with. There are also the roadblocks put up by all the authority figures in a teen's life: not only the police, or perhaps government agents; they also have to deal with parents, teachers, basically anybody who is an adult. They can't simply jet off, or throw money at a problem, because for the most part they don't have access to either.
Instead they have to solve their problems the hard way: on their own, or with the help of one or two close friends. But it's still so much harder for them and that makes for compelling storytelling.
So, back to Tempest.
It's 2009 where Jackson Meyer is an ordinary college student with a girlfriend. What sets him apart is that he can also travel into the past. But what's interesting is that nothing changes when he jumps back. While he can interact with people, when he returns to his present time those people have no memory of him. Only he remembers.
That changes the day a pair of strangers burst in on him and his girlfriend Holly. During the ensuing struggle, Holly is fatally shot. Panicking, Jackson jumps back to 2007, except this time there's a huge difference. Now he's stuck there. He can still go back to earlier times, but he can't go to a time beyond 2007.
Given no other choice, he settles in, trying to learn everything he can about his abilities and figure out a way that he can stop Holly from being hurt in the future. The easiest way to do that is for him to make sure that they never meet, but he realizes that he loves her and is determined to find another way.
There are lots of interesting surprises and revelations as the story plays out but I'm not going to go into them and spoil things for you in case you decide to give the book a try. (And you should!) What I will tell you is that Cross writes like she's been doing it for years instead of this being her first book. Tempest is engrossing from start to finish with a satisfying if bittersweet end. And since (as is inevitable these days) this is only the first volume in a series, one can expect many good things still to come.
The Hum and the Shiver, by Alex Bledsoe, Tor Books, 2012, $15.99.
This book sat in my to-read stack for a while. Not because I don't like Alex Bledsoe's writing. I do. But his previous books were the kind that I have to be in the mood to read as opposed to the book putting me in the mood.
The other books I've read by Bledsoe are in the Eddie LaCrosse series that is set in a secondary world. LaCrosse is a typical private eye except he carries a sword and that secondary world is one of those mock-medieval settings that are so familiar from countless heroic fantasies where magic works. As you'd find in a more traditional PI mystery, the stories are fast-paced, funny in parts, dramatic in others. And always entertaining.
So that's the Bledsoe I had in my head and what I was waiting to be in the mood to read. But one day I went ahead and picked up this new novel of his anyway and discovered that it's about as far from the Eddie LaCrosse novels as it could be. Honestly, I didn't think the same person had written it until I went and looked him up on the Internet.
I need to add here that I don't expect writers to remain static in terms of how they approach a story, or to only write one kind of story. And I think I was vaguely aware that he'd written some vampire fiction previous to the book in hand.
But this book...this book is so different and an absolute treasure.
Now I know Bledsoe never refers to the Tufa, his mysterious race of beings, as elves but if you want a quick description, The Hum and the Shiver (and isn't that a great title?) is basically about elves in the Appalachian Mountains. Except the Tufa hide in plain sight. They appear to be human—dark-haired and enigmatic, but human nevertheless—with a gift for music.
Their origins are lost in history. What is known is that they were already here when the first Europeans came to Tennessee's Smoky Mountains.
Our entry into their community comes through Private Bronwyn Hyatt, recently returned from Iraq and carrying wounds both physical and of the spirit. The US government wants to use her as a pro-war propaganda tool, but she knows what she really needs to do is face the problems that drove her from home in the first place: her family, her obligations to the Tufa, and a dangerous ex-boyfriend. Adding to her burden is a restless ghost that wants to reveal her darkest secrets and the fact that she has lost her connection to the music that once defined her.
Bledsoe delivers the story with prose that is both plainspoken and lyric. The characters feel like they could step off the page. The story is moving, touching on important social and political issues as well as those closer to home: matters of family and the heart. And the magical elements, when they appear, are subtle even as they soar with their sense of wonder.
If I read a better book this year it's going to be a very good year for reading.
Crossroads, by Jeanne C. Stein, Ace Books, 2012, $7.99.
Here's another series to which I'm a late arrival. Crossroads is the seventh outing for vampire PI Anna Strong but from the first pages I had no trouble getting into the swing of the story.
There's a hierarchy of vampires in the world Jeanne C. Stein has created, and with the death of Anna's mentor she has to lie low for a while. But then an old flame who also happens to be an FBI agent comes to her with a report that bodies are showing up along the Mexican border, each of them drained of blood.
Anna feels she has no choice but to help out, only her involvement brings her into contact with an old enemy named Chael. Chael, however, has no intention of attacking her. Instead he offers her the knowledge that out in Navajo country is a shaman who can not only bring the dead back to life, he can also give the undead their mortality once more.
In the year since Anna has become a vampire her life has been turned upside down (chronicled in the first six volumes of the series, no doubt) and there's nothing she'd like better than to have things return to how they once were. The trouble with that scenario is that without her vampire strength, humans won't have anyone to protect them from the monsters like Chael who are just waiting to change the status quo. But should she really have to put everything she cares about on the backburner?
All of which explains the book's title since once Anna goes in search of the shaman she knows she'll reach a crossroads and will have to make a decision that will affect the rest of her existence.
Lots of contemporary urban fantasies have some version of a supernatural PI, but when the story takes Anna into Navajo country, Crossroads acquires a bit of Tony Hillerman flavor that adds to its freshness and certainly added to this reader's enjoyment of the book.
The prose has a nice cadence, the dialogue rings true, and the characters feel like people rather than constructs on paper. Some of the elements of the plot were expected but there were enough surprises that I was kept guessing about many of the various mysteries right up to the end.
When I get a little time I'll definitely be looking into some of the earlier entries into this series.
Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Library of America, 2012, $20.
A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Library of America, 2012, $20.
I was probably around eleven or twelve when I discovered six small hardcover books in my father's library. There was nothing special about their appearance: cheap hardcovers the size of present-day mass market paperbacks, printed on what appears to be newsprint only a few steps up in quality from a newspaper. They were published by Methuen in England in the 1920s.
For me, one of the attractions to these books were that they were fiction—most of my father's library shelves were filled with books on archeology, anthropology, geography, geology, and mythology. Three of them were Tarzan books, the other three Mars books.
At the risk of insulting some readers of this column, I think around twelve is probably the golden age to discover books such as these—or at least it was for me. With the barrage of material available to kids today from video games, the Internet, movies, TV, and other entertainment media, I can't imagine a twelve-year-old being thrilled by these books now. Everything about them except for the concepts would seem old-fashioned, especially the language. But for that kid I was, reading the first pages of those books was like an explosion going off in my head.
I can't tell you how many times I read those books.
The John Carter ones were the first three in the series, so I got to follow his story in its proper order. The Tarzan books jumped around from the origin novel to the third (The Beasts of Tarzan) and the fifth (Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar) and it was a few years before I was able to fill in the blank spots. Eventually, through diligent searches in used bookstores, I got to read them all by the time I was fifteen.
(We didn't live anywhere near a library, in case you were wondering, so I had to hitchhike to town with my allowance and decide how much to spend on used paperbacks and how much on new 45s.)
Anyway, the point of all of this is that I was very happy to open a box of review books recently to find the two titles we're discussing here, published by the Library of America. They're both small hardcovers and published on better paper with well-designed dust jackets.
There's lots of extra material in each book as well: thoughtful introductions, timelines of the history of each character, and historical essays. And the stories, of course.
Best of all the money from these books goes to the Library of America's mandate of keeping in print America's classic books.
I haven't read Burroughs in a long time, but the older reader I am today discovered that while he wasn't much of a stylist, and he had some really unfortunate views on race, Burroughs's narrative thrust and the fruits of his imagination remain as engaging today as they were for the twelve-year-old reader I once was.
Which is one of the reasons that Tarzan is still a recognizable figure throughout the world. John Carter of Mars perhaps less so, but that series did go on to inspire everyone from Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein to Arthur C. Clarke, George Lucas, and even Carl Sagan.
Not bad for a bunch of pulp novels written just after the turn of the last century.
Fair Game, by Patricia Briggs, Ace Books, 2012, $26.95.
Patricia Briggs is beginning to give herself a run for the money because as successful as the Mercy Thompson books are, her spin-off Alpha & Omega series is becoming a real favorite of mine as well.
Anna Latham has come a long way from when we first met her in the novella "Alpha and Omega" (from the On the Prowl anthology that came out in 2007). Low totem on the pole, she was abused by her pack in that story until rescued by Charles Cornick, son of the Marrok who rules all the werewolf packs in North America.
Now she is Charles's mate, constantly honing the skills that make her an important part of the Marrok's inner circle.
In Fair Game the Marrok sends Anna and Charles to Boston to help the FBI investigate a serial killer. There they soon learn that the victims are all werewolves or fae. The mystery is interesting, of course, as is the complexity of the relationship between the two, but what I really like about the world Briggs has created is how she deals with the politics of her supernatural characters.
Werewolves have recently revealed themselves to humans and that has set up a whole new kind of diplomacy between the races. But the game-changing event at the end of this book will affect that fragile truce for both the characters in this series as well as in the Mercy Thompson books and I for one can't wait to see how it will resonate in future novels.
That same major event brings a genuine sense of wonder to play as well—a rarity in most urban fantasies since so many of these books seem to depend on the characters being human beings with special abilities (vampire PIs, lawyer werewolves, that sort of thing) rather than alien beings that only appear to have certain commonalities with mankind.
Briggs always gets it right.
Amped, by Daniel H. Wilson, Doubleday, 2012, $25.95.
Daniel H. Wilson doesn't much like the world. Or maybe he likes the world but he just enjoys bringing it to its knees. He had a robot revolution in Robopocalypse, the robots including pretty much anything that had a microchip in it. This time out it's only the United States that feels the brunt of his destructive pen as a struggle between "amplified" humans and "pure" humans threatens to tear the country apart.
One thing I like about what I've read of Wilson's work to date is that he isn't afraid to take an old hoary sf theme and pump it full of life. Anyone's who's been reading in the sf field for a while will recognize the premises that kickstart these books but no one's going to confuse the execution of them as anything but Wilson's own individual takes. And that's not exactly the easiest thing to pull off.
There are a few stylistic differences between Amped and Robopocalypse, the primary one being that this time he sticks to one point of view instead of jumping from character to character. That makes the entry into this book more immediate because Robopocalypse took some fifty pages or so for things to start to come together. I remember liking the prose a lot in the earlier book, but I almost put it down because it felt like it was only going to be a series of interconnected vignettes. When you read for character, as I do, that kind of storytelling isn't so compelling.
But Amped starts off right in teacher Owen Gray's head as he unsuccessfully tries to stop a student from committing suicide, and compelling doesn't even begin to describe the journey that incident takes him on.
The story's set in the near future where small medical devices have been implanted in the heads of those suffering from epilepsy and other debilitating physical problems. These devices work extremely well, allowing those who have been augmented to function at far better levels than they might ever have been able to otherwise.
But a rising movement of "pure" humans begins to resent those who have been "amped" and when the Supreme Court rules that amplified humans don't have the same rights as pure humans, everything goes downhill very quickly. The sad thing is that the rhetoric and rapidly-escalating violence that soon ensues feel all too plausible.
This is a terrific book on any number of levels, doing what sf has always been able to do best: showing us a possible future so that we can not only attempt to avoid it, but we can also look at its echoes as they already exist in our own time. We might not have amplified humans, but we certainly still have people who are marginalized because of their religion, the color of their skin, or their sexual persuasion.
Amped makes a good case for us to understand "the other" isn't necessarily an enemy and that it's long past time for us to leave such outdated philosophies in the history books, rather than allow them to continue to breed hatred in our own lives.
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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Copyright © 1998–2013 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide