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November/December 2012
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
 
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Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
 
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Dust Girl, by Sarah Zettel, Random House, 2012, $17.99.

 
I LIKE THE fairy tale traditions from the British Isles. And I don't even mind when a writer transposes them to North America. What I don't understand is why these traditions are unchanged when the fairies cross the Atlantic. If we're writing new fairy tales here in North America—creating a North American tradition—wouldn't it make sense to have the fairies echo differently from the Victorian fairies in their gowns and gauzy wings, or even the Irish fairies, all tall and stern?

Dust Girl is doing its bit to rectify that. Yes, there are Seelie/Unseelie Courts and iron is deadly to them, but that only serves as a touchstone to the British fairy tradition—a tip of the hat, as it were. Everything else is very much linked to the landscape and culture of the Americas.

The novel is set in the Dust Bowl during the thirties where the fairies and their magic echo the setting and times. They're born from dust storms and locusts, jazz music and dance marathons (very popular in those days), cornfields and carnivals and train yards. It makes for an extremely refreshing change.

(I have to smile at the irony of writing that last sentence; throughout this book with Zettel's evocative descriptions of dust, droughts, and dust storms, my mouth felt continually dry and I drank a lot of water. But I digress.…)

Our viewpoint character is Callie LeRoux, a young girl of mixed race and indeterminate age, but we can assume she's in her early teens. She lives in Slow River, Kansas, helping her mother run a hotel that doesn't get much business because of the Great Depression and the drought. Her mother won't move because she keeps hoping Callie's father, an itinerant musician, will return. Instead, as the book opens, she is swept away in a dust storm and Callie is left on her own.

A mysterious stranger comes along to tell Callie that she can find her parents in "the golden hills of the west," which she takes to mean California, so she sets off, accompanied by a hobo boy named Jack who's looking for his sister.

Things get weird very fast—before they even leave the hotel. Their journey is plagued by what they come to realize are faeries, but they're nothing like the kind from storybooks. These are dangerous creatures that appear in deadly shapes, but also turn up wearing friendly glamours when they're trying to win the pair's trust. It comes to the point where Callie and Jack end up feeling the entire world is against them, and they're not far off. Even ordinary people treat them badly because Jack's a hobo kid and Callie's of mixed race. It's instructive to remember such old injustices so that we don't allow them to be repeated in our own lifetime.

Callie's a bit reactive—things happen to her more than she makes them happen—but otherwise I liked her and this book quite a lot. Zettel, with some eighteen adult novels under her belt, knows how to tell a story. The historical aspects ring true, but what I appreciated most is how she's transposed the British fairy tradition to the Americas and made them our own.

 

The Battle of Blood and Ink, by Jared Axelrod & Steve Walker, Tor, 2012, $25.99.

 

There's a lot to like in the story we get with The Battle of Blood and Ink. The set-up's certainly intriguing. Let me quote from the cover blurb, since it's more succinct than I could be:

 

"If you're visiting the flying city of Amperstam without the latest printing of The Lurker's Guide, you might as well be lost. This one-sheet is written, edited, and printed by Ashe, a girl raised on the streets of the flying city, and is dedicated to revealing its hidden treasures and deepest secrets—including many that the overcontrolling government doesn't want anyone to know. The stakes are raised when Ashe accidentally uncovers the horror of exactly how Amperstam travels among the skies and garners the attention of those who would rather that secret be kept in the hands of the city's powerful leaders."

 

Ashe is a spunky heroine: perhaps a little more headstrong than she should be, since her urge to leap before she thinks often gets her and her friends into trouble, but her heart's in the right place and you can't help but like her.

But uncovering secrets and journalistic integrity often spell trouble, and that's certainly the case here. Before Ashe knows it, her investigations have her on the run from assassins and street thugs, and there's a good chance she might not survive to write her big story.

Much as I liked the characters and story, this is a case where the art got in the way of my enjoyment. The Battle of Blood and Ink is a steampunk story. Where it should be filled with the rich detail one expects from steampunk (which, let's face it, is as much style these days as it is content) the art here is surprisingly simplistic, even bland.

I know artist Steve Walker is better than these pages show him to be. You only have to look at the sketchbook at the back of the book to see all the warmth and detail that the actual story lacks. I don't know whose choice it was to go with the stark, bare-bones approach, but it was a big mistake. I like this book, but I can't help thinking the art could have been better.

 

Hidden Things, by Doyce Testerman, Harper Voyager, 2012, $14.99.

 

Calliope Jenkins and Josh White were bandmates and lovers. The band broke up, they broke up, but when Josh started a detective agency he convinced Calliope to work for him. By the time Calliope gets the late-night call from him, they've been co-workers and best friends for some time.

Josh has been away from the office working on an off-the-books case. He's calling in to say that he won't be back to town that night as planned. Just before he hangs up he leaves Calliope with the enigmatic statement, "Watch out for the hidden things."

The next day Calliope is confronted by the police. Josh has turned up dead back in Iowa where they both came from and the police want to know what he was working on. She can't tell them because she doesn't know. Then a few hours later she finds a message from Josh on the office answering machine, time-stamped hours after the police found his body.

That phone message is Calliope's entry into a hidden side of America that most people never see. Most people aren't even aware it exists. Most people wouldn't want to know about it. Calliope sure doesn't.

But all too soon she's on a road trip back to the last place she wants to go—Iowa. When she left, she swore she'd never go back, but here she is on the road with a companion who looks like a homeless man in a hoodie but she's pretty sure he's not even human. She thinks she's going to find out what happened to Josh, but it turns out, she's really going to find herself and try to survive her encounters with the hidden things.

This is a terrific book from start to finish. I love the hidden side of the world that Testerman shows us as Calliope delves ever deeper into the unknown that's just a step sideways from the world as we know it. The fantastical elements are richly strange and innovative, dark and quirky. Calliope is an endearing, spirited character, and you never have any idea where the story will take you, but I guarantee you'll always find the journey interesting.

Apparently this is Testerman's first novel. You'd never know it from his assured writing style and his ability to tell a story. And like Zettel, he is helping to build a uniquely North American mythology that still has its roots in older traditions.

It's a winner.

 

Silver, by Rhiannon Held, Tor, 2012, $14.99.

 

As has happened with vampires, many writers have taken on the idea of the werewolf and run with it. The field doesn't feel quite as crowded as that of people writing about vampires, but there are enough werewolf novels out there that a writer would still want to have a pretty fresh approach before starting to write their own.

Or if you don't have a fresh approach, you'd darn well better offer up a stellar job of storytelling.

Debut novelist Rhiannon Held falls into the latter category. Her werewolf packs and their politics owe a lot to Patricia Briggs's Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega series, but happily she writes with such assurance I was too caught up in the characters and story to care about any similarities. And to be honest, I don't think the fact they're both focusing on the dynamics of pack hierarchies is anything but a smart way to write about werewolves.

Silver's connection to the Briggs books isn't anything like those many unfortunate high fantasies that followed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings. It's not a copy. It's more that writing about pack dynamics is like focusing on the interior workings of a detective squad. They are what they are. Mystery writers don't try to reinvent the wheel because within the squad context certain interactions and politics are simply the norm. To do otherwise simply to be different is just dumb writing.

And while Held might be a new writer, she's certainly not dumb. Werewolf packs are based on wolf packs. Extrapolating what we know about their pack dynamics and carrying it over to their supernatural cousins makes good sense.

The main focus of Silver is Andrew Dare, the enforcer for the Roanoke Pack, whose territory spans most of the East Coast of the U.S. It's his job to keep the peace and make sure Roanoke's borders are secure from intruders. Intruders are either captured or killed.

But then he finds the woman who calls herself Silver. She was tortured in a way that Dare hasn't seen since he used to live in Europe: injected with liquid silver. It leaves Silver forever unable to shift to her wolf shape. It has also—she claims—left her with the ability to see and speak to Death.

The book alternates viewpoints between Dare and Silver and gives a much fuller realization of what's going on than would have worked with a single viewpoint. One moment we're with Dare, frustrated by the nonsense coming from Silver. All he wants to do is track down the one who did this to her—not only for her sake, but to protect the rest of the North American packs. Then we're with Silver and her "nonsense" makes perfect sense.

The nice thing is that there's room for both Briggs and Held on our bookshelves, and readers come out the real winners. I, for one, am looking forward to whatever Held writes next—just as I look forward to each new book by Briggs.

 

7th Sigma, by Steven Gould, Tor Books, 2011, $24.99.

 

This near-future coming-of-age novel is a little different from the contemporary sf with which I associate Steven Gould, but it's no less captivating.

The southwestern United States have become known as the Territory ever since metal-eating bugs showed up fifty years ago and devoured any metal they could find. The bugs are solar-powered, self-replicating, and a constant danger since they'll go right through a human being to get to the sustenance they crave. The Territory has been quarantined from the rest of the U.S., and the survivors eke out a life without using metal of any kind.

Gould does his usual terrific job of setting all this up, and the details he provides are fascinating in the best speculative sense—from the hardships of this new frontier life to the added danger of coexisting with the ever-evolving deadly bugs.

But much as I enjoy Gould's worldbuilding and extrapolation skills, it's his characters that delight me the most, and he didn't let me down with Kimble and his sensei Ruth Monroe.

Kimble's been living on his own since running away from his abusive father. He's been doing well, but a chance meeting with Ruth turns his life around. Now he no longer has to scrabble simply to survive. Studying Aikido under Ruth and helping her set up her new dojo gives him something he never had before: purpose.

The novel unfolds episodically—much like a TV season with individual stories that play into and build an overall story arc. There's drama and humor and if you need a touchstone, think Mark Twain: either Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, or that Connecticut Yankee who ended up in King Arthur's court. Kimble has the same free-spirited trickster persona—doing the right thing, but finding such clever ways to do it.

There's everything to like about 7th Sigma, as its focus ranges from considerations on artificial life and religious bigotry, through meditations on martial arts, Zen, frontier spycraft, and that stark but beautiful landscape that makes the southwest the treasure that it is.

Much as I've enjoyed all Gould's books that have come before this one, I think 7th Sigma might well be his best yet.

 

The Calypso Directive, by Brian Andrews, Arcade, 2012, $24.95.

 

Strictly speaking, this is probably a thriller, rather than an sf novel, but it's the kind of book that blurs genres, and since the science feels right, and Andrews does a great job with the extrapolation of it, I'm bringing it to your attention.

It opens with a classic thriller opening: ordinary guy in an impossible situation that just keeps getting worse. In this case it's Will Foster who's been locked in medical quarantine without his consent for a third of a year. The doctors claim he's infected with a deadly virus, but Foster begins to suspect that instead of working on a cure, they're infecting him with ever stronger viruses, treating him like a human guinea pig.

He manages to escape from the medical facility, which he thought was in the States, but it turns out it's actually in Prague. And then the chase is on.

Foster is a fine character, but more interesting still are the characters that make up the "Think Tank" that Vyrogen Pharmaceuticals has hired to get Foster back. Foster, it appears, has a natural immunity to all diseases and Vyrogen stands to make a fortune if they can unlock the mutation locked in his DNA that makes this possible. But they haven't shared that information with anyone.

When the Think Tank begins to suspect the real reason Vyrogen wants Foster back, they continue the chase with their own agenda. Complicating matters is a third party also searching for Foster, and their reasons are anything but beneficial to the fugitive.

Often in books like this, when you finally get the real story behind everything, it turns out to be kind of lame. It's only the momentum of the plot and the author's ability to make us care about the characters that pull us through.

Andrews does a fine job on both counts but I really liked the reason why Foster has this immunity. The answer dates all the way back to England in the 1600s and makes as much sense as any good plot device I've run across.

Publicity material accompanying the book says that Andrews is working on a second book involving the characters from the Think Tank. The Calypso Directive was so good on so many levels that I'm certainly looking forward to another outing with these characters.

 

Blackjack, by Andrew Vachss, Pocket Black Lizard, 2012, $13.95.

 

While we're talking about blurring genres and thrillers, Andrew Vachss's latest novel, Blackjack, is a great example, with its heady mix of spy thriller, crime novel, and horror.

Unit 3 is a covert government agency tasked with tracking down a serial killer who might actually be a group of hunter/killer teams. The kills take place worldwide. There are no witnesses, nothing forensics can use, and the targets have no discernible commonality. All that ties them to each other are the gruesome trophies taken from the victims: their skulls and spines.

Unit 3's objective is to locate and capture one of the members of these teams, but they haven't had any luck. They can't even come close. In a last ditch effort they contract a mercenary criminal outfit run by a man known only as Cross.

Cross's team quickly identifies a pattern to the kills and claims they can predict a forthcoming attack. They're ready to undertake a confront-and-capture in exchange for a "Get out of jail free" card to be used at some future date. When Unit 3's bosses agree to the terms, Cross's team gets ready to strike.

Unfortunately, what no one realizes until Cross makes first contact is that the killers aren't human.

Although this is the first novel featuring Cross, the character has appeared in at least a dozen short stories (which you can find in the collections Bad Blood and Everybody Pays) and also a comic book miniseries from Dark Horse that's simply called Cross. He's a fascinating character who exists off the grid. If you want a touchstone, think Repairman Jack, or Vachss's long-running series character Burke, except Cross is like either one of them on steroids. It's not that he's so strong, it's that he's so focused and intense.

Vachss writes some of the most hardboiled fiction around—spare and tough, precision-tuned in its details and full of heart. It's the latter that makes his work stand out so much. While a book like this is full of merciless spies and the gritty unforgiving world of the criminal underworld and the prison system, Vachss approaches it as he does all his work, imbuing it with a strong moral core.

Without that moral core, Blackjack would simply be a better-than-usual take on the thriller genre; with it, the belief in and search for justice and loyalty that permeate the story echo in the hearts of its readers so that they see the world in a new light.

It might seem odd to say that a work as dark as this instills a sense of hope, but you know that's exactly what it does.

 

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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