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March/April 2013
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Every Day, by David Levithan, Knopf, 2012, $17.99.

 
I'M ALMOST at a loss as to where to begin explaining just how great a book this is. What's easy to say is that it's a perfect example of how some of the most innovative novels are being published in the Young Adult market—and there's nary a vampire nor a dystopian future in sight here.

Beyond that, pinpointing what kind of a book it is gets tricky. It's a love story, but not a romance. It's speculative fiction, but rather than concentrating on the nuts and bolts of strange occurrences, it focuses on how people are affected by those unexpected circumstances.

Maybe a little background will help.

Our protagonist calls himself A, and every morning he wakes up in somebody else's body, displacing the regular inhabitant. He might wake up as a boy or a girl, gay or straight, blind or grossly overweight, a star athlete, suicidal, or a bully. He's sixteen when the book opens and he's lived like this his whole life. It wasn't until he was four or five that he realized that it's not the same for everybody else.

By now he's got his routine down pat. He accesses what he can of his host body's memory as soon as he wakes and tries to fit in the best he can, leaving behind as little baggage as possible. In other words, he's developed a pretty mature moral code. He knows he's only borrowing the bodies for a day. Whatever he does while he's borrowing their bodies will affect his hosts for the rest of their lives.

Except then he wakes in the body of a boy named Justin who mistreats his girlfriend Rhiannon. He feels bad for her and he might have been able to let it go the way he has every other one of his borrowed lives (if you can call one stolen day a life), except he falls in love with her. So instead of treating her the way Justin would, he treats her the way he believes she should be treated and steals her away from school to spend a perfect afternoon on the beach.

Nothing more can come of it, of course. When the day ends he'll leave Justin's body and awake in another one that Rhiannon doesn't know. And Rhiannon will be back on the wrong side of Justin's mean barbs and indifference.

The rest of Every Day is about how A tries to buck the odds and create a relationship with Rhiannon. It doesn't go easily, and with A concentrating so much on making things work with Rhiannon, he gets sloppy with the lives of his body hosts. Soon he's got one of them trying to track him down, and the impossibility of what he's doing grows even more complicated.

I hadn't read David Levithan before this book—or I should say, I hadn't read him writing on his own. I've enjoyed previous collaborations but they in no way prepared me for how good this particular book is.

First off, the idea is fantastic. And while Levithan never explains why this is happening to A (let me add here that I didn't want him to; explanations almost inevitably spoil things), his "worldbuilding"—if you will—is impeccable. A changes host bodies throughout the book more often than we might change a shirt, but each of the hosts has a unique, fully realized life that impinges on A's quest, for good or for ill.

Levithan flirts a bit with painting a larger picture, hinting that there are others like A, but happily focuses on the small story which gives the novel, and its ending, the power that it has.

I like the messages of acceptance and tolerance in Every Day, how if you get to know the stranger (intimately in A's case), they're no longer so scary. Levithan delivers this without preaching. There's no "and here's the message, kids." It simply flows naturally out of the narrative and the choices the characters make.

The Spider-Man mythos has that famous line, "With great power comes great responsibility." But the truth is, with any power comes responsibility, and that holds as much for how we treat the people around us as it does for, say, a politician holding office.

You couldn't get a better example of why that's true than you can with this book.

Highly recommended.

 

The Emperor's Soul, by Brandon Sanderson, Tachyon, 2012, $14.95.

 

Before I even started The Emperor's Soul, it already had a couple of strikes against it insofar as I was concerned.

First, it's a secondary-world fantasy, and having read so much of that kind of story over the years I find my patience sorely tried with most of them. Too many feel interchangeable. They're invariably vast sweeping epics that read more like war novels with magic substituted for weapons of mass destruction and magical beings (elves, dwarves, whatever) deployed as specialized fighting forces. In other words, no sense of wonder.

I know—I'm generalizing. But generalizations come from somewhere, and in the case of the state of high fantasy as it has existed for the past few decades, the exceptions have not proved the rule. I don't say these books shouldn't be read and enjoyed by the many happy readers who appreciate them. I'm just saying I don't appreciate them.

Second, Brandon Sanderson has been finishing off Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, which is not a plus in my eyes, since Jordan's epic is exactly the sort of thing that put me off of a lot of high fantasy. Again, I'm happy it's giving so many people as much pleasure as it does. I'm just not one of them.

But I try everything that comes in for review, stopping only when I lose interest, and that didn't happen with The Emperor's Soul. In fact, satisfying as the conclusion of this short novel is, I would gladly have read more.

Shai is a young Forger who is caught replacing the Empire's prize treasure, the Moon Scepter, with an almost flawless copy. She is slated for execution until an assassin leaves Emperor Ashravan without consciousness. If he doesn't emerge from the hundred days of mourning for his wife who was killed in the same attack, the rule of his faction will be over and the Empire plunged into chaos.

So his advisors come up with the plan of staying Shai's execution if she will fulfill an impossible task: Forge a new soul for the Emperor.

In Sanderson's world, Forging is a magical act of creation that works under strict guidelines and skills. Everything—animate and inanimate—has a spirit and a memory of what it is. What a Forger does is convince a thing that it is something else. To do this the Forger has to know everything that can be known about the final Forgery. The level of difficulty goes up exponentially depending on the complexity of the subject.

Naturally, a soul-Forgery is hardest of all to attempt. An unconscious human—where one can only get information about his life from books and the memories of those around him? Success is unlikely even after years of work. Shai has less than a hundred days.

The task isn't made any easier by her being confined to a tiny, dirty dungeon chamber, watched over by those who hate her (soul-Forgers are considered an abomination by her captors), and her prison room being sealed with a magical ward made of her own blood.

Sanderson proves to be an exceptionally talented writer in the pages of this book. Complex as some of the background is, he never gets bogged down filling in details for the reader. Instead we learn everything we need seamlessly as the story unfolds. His prose is lyrical without ever getting in its own way (you know what I mean; his writing never sits up saying "Look at me"). His characters are fascinating and fully realized.

So here is an exception to what seems to have become the rule: The Emperor's Soul is one of those rare high fantasies that feels fresh and is filled with a sense of wonder.

I definitely plan to track down more of Sanderson's original work.

 

A Fine and Private Place, by Peter S. Beagle, Peter Gillis & Eduardo Francisco, IDW Publishing, 2012, $3.99.

 

Peter Beagle's quiet novel A Fine and Private Place is pretty much the last book I would have thought might get a comic book adaptation. There's not a great deal of action in the prose version. Instead you'll find lots of contemplative conversation and a wonderful small cast of characters, each of them fully realized from the moment they step onto the page.

In fact, if you'd told me the book was going to be adapted, I would have assumed it would be for the stage since—with the right director and actors—it would make a terrific play.

With all of that said, the comic is a very pleasant surprise. Peter Gillis has done a terrific job of retaining the quiet mood of the novel. Eduardo Francisco's art is a little static, by which I mean the flow between panels isn't smooth—the point of interest in one panel drawing the viewer into the next. But it's a style that really suits this book, and he does a fine job of depicting a middle-of-the-twentieth-century New York and the folks living there.

If you're not familiar with the original novel, it tells the story of a pharmacist who has withdrawn from the world to live in a cemetery where his only companions are a helpful raven and the ghosts of the recently dead.

You really should read the prose version—it's one of my all-time favorite novels—but Gillis and Francisco are doing a great job and I'll stick with their adaptation until it ends. And I'm hopeful it'll get people reading Beagle's novels. He's one of the best writers we have still working in our field, and you won't regret the time you spend with his stories and characters.

 

Fair Coin, by E. C. Myers, Pyr, 2012, $16.95.
Quantum Coin, by E. C. Myers, Pyr, 2012, $16.95.

 

I love the way Fair Coin takes a fairy tale motif and first, makes it its own, then transforms it into a solid sf outing.

Ephraim Scott finds a quarter with Washington's head facing the wrong way that commemorates the state of Puerto Rico. That's odd enough, but then he discovers that the coin makes wishes come true when it's flipped.

Or at least it sort of does.

The problem is while a wish fixes one problem, others arise in its place.

I was really enjoying this as a "watch what you wish for story" because Myers does a great job with his characters. Ephraim, his crush Jena, and his best friend Nathan all feel like real kids. Ephraim doesn't try to save the world; he does what a kid would do, and that's try to solve the problems around him—from his mother's alcoholism, to getting Jena to notice him.

But as the book progresses, a darker undercurrent makes itself known, and the characters realize that Ephraim doesn't have a magic coin so much as a device that transports Ephraim from one world into a parallel other world depending on the decisions he makes. He also realizes that for him to appear in this world, another version of him is kicked back to the world he just vacated.

Then there's the fact that in some of these worlds, Nathan's not his best friend. He's a scary guy with a gun.

I won't tell you how it all works out—why would I want to spoil it for you?—and I won't tell you too much about the second book either, since that'll do the same. What I will say is that the first book is fabulous from start to finish.

The sequel, Quantum Coin, isn't quite as good. The first book had a great ending—tidy, with some good character building for Ephraim. It also had the benefit of introducing all these great ideas and characters. The second book's reason for being felt somewhat forced, and I kept feeling the author's need to up the ante. I still enjoyed it—and if there's a third, I'll probably read it—but Fair Coin, where it all starts, is the real gold, and I recommend it to you highly.

 

Taken, by Benedict Jacka, Ace, 2012, $7.99.

 

The touchstone here is Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files series. To be honest, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Jacka is a pen name of Butcher's. I'm not saying the Alex Verus novels (of which this is the third) are copies of Butcher's popular series. Rather they share a similar sensibility, pacing, and tone, and the magical systems in both are just as meticulously worked out.

In Taken, Verus gets involved in a mystery involving the disappearances of apprentices. Unlike Dresden, he's not a wizard, but he does have a divination ability that Jacka uses to great effect throughout the story. Verus also has access to a bag of magical tricks—little temporary fog bombs, a cape that makes you almost invisible, a gateway spell, etc.—but it's his divination ability that makes him feel so fresh.

Unfortunately, all his leads in the case bring him to an enormous country manor where his ability and tricks won't work and some mysterious parties don't just want him off the case. They want him and his friends dead.

If my opening paragraph seems harsh, I don't mean it to. I'd happily read new books by both Butcher and Jacka every year. There's room for the two of them. I like Verus's world and the cast of characters that surround him. The obvious history from previous books is seamlessly integrated into the current one so the reader never feels lost.

So if you're jonesing for a Dresden fix, but you've already read them all, do yourself a favor and give this series a try.

 

Fables: Werewolves of the Heartlands, by Bill Willingham, Vertigo, 2012, $22.99.

 

Long before the TV show Once Upon a Time showed up, Bill Willingham was telling us stories in his comic series Fables of displaced fairy tale characters living hidden alongside the regular human world (the Mundy world, as his characters call it). I've never quite warmed to the TV show, partly, I think, because it annoys me that the spin around the show is that it's so cool and original; longtime Fables readers know it's anything but.

Fables is still going strong. It's had spin-offs like Jack of Fables, Fairest, and various mini-series and one-shots, of which Werewolves in the Heartlands is only the latest.

Willingham always brings a bit of grit to his takes on the old tales (which is fitting, since the originals were never meant for children in the first place), and this book is no exception. It features Bigby Wolf (the big bad wolf) on a quest to find a new location for Fabletown, which was destroyed in the regular Fables series a while back.

He comes upon a place called Story City, which seems promising except that it already has a secret of its own that you can probably guess from the title of the book. What follows is a fascinating take on the effects of totalitarianism that also includes some background information on what Bigby was up to during the second world war.

The art by Craig Hamilton and Jim Fern is simple but effective, and the story's gripping. It's a standalone piece that requires no previous knowledge of the series or even Bigby, though naturally there are deeper resonances for the readers who are familiar with Willingham's previous work.

I was particularly amused by Willingham's afterword describing how the book came to be. It turns out there really is a Story City, but what I found funny was Willingham going into a diner there and ordering a meal and a drink…and a story. The waitress just gave him a blank look, so he had to find one for himself.

And it's a good one.

 

Faery Tale: One Woman's Search for Enchantment in a Modern World, by Signe Pike, Perigee Trade, 2011, $15.

 

I read non-fiction books for two reasons. The first is to get information. The second is for the writer's voice. When it comes to the latter, if the voice is interesting, it doesn't really matter what the book is about, I'll keep reading. (Which is a great way to find out about things you didn't think you cared about, but hey, once you're better informed, they turn out to be pretty fascinating after all.)

Now, I've never seen a faerie (outside of gatherings like FaerieCon or FaerieWorlds), but I like the idea of them, I suppose that's pretty obvious from my fiction, and I really enjoy reading about how the idea of searching for faeries and magic impacts peoples' lives, so I was sold on trying this book by its subtitle, "One Woman's Search for Enchantment in a Modern World."

The thing is, while people might set out to look for actual physical proof of faeries or magic, in the best of such quests the seeker eventually discovers that the spiritual connection they're looking for is actually inside themselves, and that the world is full of enchantments and glamour, albeit not necessarily of the fairy tale kind. And I know it's pretty much a cliché, but it's the journey that's important, and therefore of the most interest.

One of the first such books I read was Colin Wilson's The Occult, published back in 1971. Wilson was a skeptic and he wasn't looking for faeries, but in his search for the validity of magic in that book, and in the others that followed, he came across all sorts of fascinating things, including the phenomena of ley lines and the movement of Earth energies.

Which leads us along a rambly road through the decades to some of the current thoughts about faerie, which basically consider them to be some kind of sentient energies that we clothe in the garments of fairy tale characters so that our minds are able to "see" them.

And from there to this book.

Signe Pike was an editor at Random House who decided to take a sabbatical during which she would search for the existence of faeries and write a book about that search. It's part travelogue, part spiritual quest, part memoir. She has a good eye for detail and the story never lags—whether she's interviewing the Frouds (Brian & Wendy) in England, hiking in the highlands of Scotland, or coming to terms with her feelings about her father's passing.

Her voice is engaging and informal, so much so that I—and I'm sure many of her readers—would just like to sit down in the corner of a coffee house or pub for an evening of conversation with her. The book hits all the right notes—lyrical but still down to earth, a little woo-woo but with a healthy dash of skepticism, full of interesting characters and great descriptions of her travels.

Since it's unlikely that most of us will have that conversation in person with Pike, this charming book is the next best thing.

 

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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