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September/October 2013
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Grail of the Summer Stars by Freda Warrington, Tor Books, 2013, $27.99.

 
IT APPEARS that Freda Warrington's Aetherial Tales has become a trilogy, if not a full-blown series. Time only will tell, but for now, this is the third Aetherial novel. What I find interesting is that while books one and two (Elfland and Midsummer Night, respectively) didn't have a lot of connections to each other, the new novel feels like a sequel to either of them, and in fact, to get the full resonance of what's going on in Grail of the Summer Stars, you'd probably do well to read both of the earlier novels.

You don't have to do so, of course. Unlike writers of many series coming out today, Warrington gives the reader a complete story each time out. No cliffhangers at the end of these books.

Grail of the Summer Stars opens with an introduction to one of those charming characters that Warrington does so well. Stevie Silverwood is a museum curator and metalworking artist with a particular fondness for clocks and clockwork mechanisms. She lives alone above the small museum—along with a cat-like creature that no one else can see and that she can only sense most of the time.

She has a mystery in her past—she has no memory of anything before she turned fifteen—and a great supporting cast of fellow workers at the museum and a few friends. She's relatively content with her life, but all that changes with the arrival of a triptych of fantasy paintings that her old college sweetheart Daniel has sent to her. When she tries to reconnect with Daniel, she discovers he's missing. She knows it's serious when Daniel's mother—who has never liked Stevie—asks her for help in finding him.

Stevie's search soon has her crossing paths with an Aetherial named Mist. We first met Mist in Midsummer Night when he was the captive of his brother Rufus. After centuries of various torments at the hands of his brother (his recent captivity was only the latest in a string of awful occurrences), Mist is now determined to hunt Rufus down and kill him.

When Daniel's disappearance appears to be connected to Rufus, Mist and Stevie join forces in a quest that soon takes them right out of the world, and Stevie discovers that the missing first fifteen years of her life are only the smallest part of the mysteries that fill her past.

I'll be honest. This is my least favorite of the Aetherial books to date, though the fault lies with me, not the author. I could have spent the whole book just with Stevie and her friends, but I began to lose interest not long after her old life was left behind and the book basically became a secondary world novel.

I love the play of the unknown, of faerie and magic juxtaposed against the real world. Warrington did such a beautiful job of it in the other two books. Yes, there were trips into the otherworld, but most of those books were set in the here and now. This one's basically a mashup of contemporary and high fantasy with the emphasis on the latter.

Grail of the Summer Stars is still compelling and beautifully written. And I will certainly read whatever Warrington puts out next. I also doubt that most readers will be put off by the inventive elements of the Aetherial realms, and the cosmic sweep of the story the way I was. But I would have been happier if Stevie's story had been smaller, a more intimate exploration of her art and her journey of self-discovery, and one that hadn't required entire worlds to be imperiled.

It's probably unfair to hold an author to task for not writing the story I saw unfolding in my head at the beginning of the book, but that's the way it works sometimes.

Sometimes the author's vision and reader's expectations simply don't connect.

 

Cat's Cradle Book 1: The Golden Twine, by Jo Rioux, Kids Can Press, 2012, $9.95.

 

Suri is an orphan tagalong with a merchant caravan, well liked by everyone except for the caravan leader, who keeps trying to get rid of her. But Suri's a spunky character, quick-witted and agile, and always manages to stay one step ahead of his pursuit.

The caravan travels through the valley of Galetea, a land that is kept safe by monster tamers from marauding creatures that come from the mountains. Suri claims to have come from the mountains where the monsters live and wants to be a monster tamer herself, but in this first volume of Cat's Cradle, it's not clear if this is true, or if it's just something she's made up to impress the other kids.

But then a horseless vehicle joins the caravan, driven by a man with a metal heart and a monster for sale. Suri accidentally comes upon a magical ball of golden twine that the monsters known as caitsiths use to make themselves appear human, and the chase is on. Suri doesn't know that caitsiths are after her because of the twine, but as she flees, she discovers that not all monsters are evil—but the ones that are, oh, they're more than a match for a monster tamer in training who has only the old stories to guide her.

The Golden Twine is for the young and the young-at-heart. Rioux channels the wonderful antics to be found in the stories by classic comic book creators such as Carl Barks and Jeff Smith without ever losing the spark of her own originality. The artwork is simple and utterly enchanting. Rioux brings her characters to life with animated facial expressions and body language, and the story is propelled forward with great panel-to-panel flow.

Needless to say, I'm looking forward to Book 2.

 

Faeryland: The Secret World of the Hidden Ones, by John Matthews & Matt Dangler, Abrams, 2013, $27.50.

 

I want to like this book much more than I do, but surrealist artist Matt Dangler just seems to be an odd choice for an illustrator. His work is kind of flat, definitely creepy, and…well, surreal rather than enchanting.

The creepiness isn't necessarily a bad thing—after all, read enough fairy tales and collections of anecdotal folklore, and you'll quickly realize that half the denizens of Faery lean more to the grotesque than otherwise. But the flatness of the paintings has them lie lifeless on the page.

One could probably get used to it, and even come to appreciate his stylistic quirks, if the whole book featured only his art. But scattered throughout are paintings by artists such as Brian Froud, John Bauer, Arthur Rackham, John Duncan, Gustave Moreau and even J. M. W. Turner, all of which vibrate with such life—even in mere reproductions as they're presented here—that the Dangler paintings suffer in comparison.

Mind you, art is so subjective that someone else might turn around and say they love the strangeness of Dangler's work and wish that the publisher hadn't also included paintings by more traditional artists. You'll have to be the judge.

Faeryland: The Secret World of the Hidden Ones does have other charms.

John Matthews is one of my favorite contemporary folklorists, and he does his usual impeccable job here. The text is light but it makes a great jumping off point for readers unfamiliar with the faery realms. There are some fun interactive bits—my favorite being the envelope in which one can find three postcard reproductions of early twentieth century "fairy photographs"—as well as a delightful foldout facsimile of a nineteenth-century map of Faeryland (the original being housed in the Library of Congress).

Between the material Matthews covers in the text, and the bibliography at the end of the book, the newcomer to faery lore will have many touchstones to do further research on their own. I was particularly pleased to see Katherine Briggs's A Dictionary of Fairies cited as I feel it's still the best and most comprehensive book on the English fairy tradition published to date.

 

This Case Is Gonna Kill Me, by Phillipa Bornikova, Tor Books, 2012, $14.99.

 

On the surface this is one more vampires/werewolves/elves contemporary fantasy—not the kind where the preternatural creatures live hidden from us, but where they basically rule the roost after having "come out" long before this story takes place.

Actually, go a little deeper into the book and that's still the basic premise. Vampires run law firms, werewolves go into the military or law enforcement, and elves—well, we don't really meet any in this first volume of what is set up to be a series. We do meet a changeling (the elf left in place of a stolen human) and he's a private eye.

Our viewpoint character is Linnet Ellery, raised by a vampire family, and the book begins with her first day at a prestigious law firm where she's given a dead-end case that could make the firm millions but has been dragging on for almost twenty years and shows no sign of ever being resolved.

This Case Is Gonna Kill Me is an entertaining novel but it does lack some focus. It can't seem to decide what it wants to be.

Sometimes it feels like a novel about a young career woman trying to make it in a large firm with the odds stacked against her. Sometimes it's about a young woman and her love for horses. Sometimes it's a private eye novel. And every once in a while there's an abrupt attack by werewolves from which (impossible as it seems given that the werewolves are depicted as savage killing machines and she's anything but) Linnet manages to emerge relatively unscathed.

I'm assuming that the latter will be picked up on and explained in further books in the series.

At this point you might be asking me, so what? Lots of books have different plot threads running through them. Which is true. The difference here is that when we're in those different sections, that's the sort of book it appears to be. For instance, the opening section absolutely reads as though it's a young career woman novel until the sudden werewolf attack.

So what I'm saying is that I would have enjoyed the book a bit more if it had kept to one tone throughout. But I still had fun with the story and put it down to being a first novel (and it is, so far as "Phillipa Bornikova" is concerned). I was willing to forgive the inconsistency of tone because new writers tend to throw all their enthusiasms into their first book and are still working out the best way to tell a story.

But I happened to notice on the copyright page that Bornikova is actually Melinda Snodgrass, who's been around and publishing fiction since the mid-eighties. Knowing that, I can only assume that future volumes in this series will bring the various disparate threads together and give the next book a more consistent tone.

At least I hope it does, because I really liked her worldbuilding and the idea of a paralegal supernatural book. And Linnet could grow to be a really interesting character.

 

Summoning, by Carol Wolf, Night Shade Books, 2012, $14.99.

 

In a recent column I wrote about how if you're going to write a werewolf novel, you have to consider the deep swath that Patricia Briggs has already cut in the genre. Nobody really does pack politics as well as she does—not only the insular politics of the werewolves themselves but also how the pack interacts with the world at large, containing as it does vampires, faerie, and of course humans.

A good way around not being compared is to focus on a solitary wolf the way Carol Wolf does her debut novel Summoning.

Amber is a sixteen-year-old runaway, living in Los Angeles where she's hiding from her pack. The latter have nothing like the loyalty and solidarity we find in so many recent werewolf novels. Amber's pack is brutal, and the only reason she's hiding is that she's waiting to grow strong enough so that she can go back home and kill them.

In the meantime she has to save L.A. from the World Snake which is coming to devour the city, deal with a soul-eater, and help a demon regain control of his own life after Dr. John Dee trapped him into an endless parade of servitude for the past four centuries.

For all its dark plot elements, Summoning is a really entertaining novel. Carol Wolf does a fine job of bringing her characters to life, she's inventive with her mythology, she knows how to keep the plot moving forward—and rarely where you expect it to go. She also delivers a big fun aspect to the proceedings without ever getting twee or slapstick or resorting to puns and the like.

This is due in a large part to the voice of Amber—Wolf's viewpoint character—and Amber's irreverent view of life in general. I could listen to her all day long, and when the book was done I wasn't nearly ready to let her go.

Ignore the generic cover and give Summoning a try. I think you'll fall in love with Wolf's fresh voice and individual take on the tropes of the genre just as much as I did.

 

Strange Attractors, by Charles Soule & Greg Scott, Archaia, 2013, $19.91.

 

Mathematician Heller Wilson needs to complete his thesis but he's short the one big idea he needs. Then he tracks down Dr. Spencer Brownfield, a brilliant but disgraced pioneer in complexity theory, and Wilson agrees to work for him if Brownfield will share his theorems. It seems like a good plan to the benefit of both of them except Brownfield proves to be either a genius or insane, and the longer Wilson is in his company, the less sure he is which description best suits the professor.

Brownfield claims that New York City is a giant machine, and that he's been keeping it running ever since 9/11 through complex applications of the Butterfly Effect. The only reason he's agreed to this arrangement with Wilson is that he sees a disaster looming but he doesn't know if he'll live long enough to prevent it. By taking Wilson on as an apprentice he believes that Wilson will come around to his thinking and step in to take his place.

Using scientific principles that I don't understand, Brownfield creates graphs to figure out how random actions can force a certain outcome. The first time Wilson actually sees it work, he stands there in awe and says, "It's magic."

"No," Brownfield tells him. "It's math."

This is a fascinating book, and you can be a complete science dummy such as myself and still appreciate the methodologies. But more importantly is the handling of the characters.

I wasn't familiar with Greg Scott before reading this book, but I like his art. It has good attention to detail when needed but the panels aren't too cluttered. His storytelling flow takes the eye nicely from panel to panel, and I really like his people. Not only do they show a wide range of expression, but they're individual enough so that the reader's never confused as to who's who—and all without superhero costumes!

It's really great to find a hard-science book that doesn't forget the characters. Their emotions and motivations are what draw us into the story while the story itself keeps us there.

If you've ever felt that comics are just for kids, have a look at Strange Attractors. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

 

Invisibility, by David Levithan & Andrea Cremer, Philomel, 2013. $18.99.

 

A few columns back I wrote about David Levithan's Every Day, a wonderful book with a fresh concept that played out beautifully over the course of the story (from birth, a boy wakes up in a different body every day; one day he falls in love with a girl and, needless to say, complications ensue).

This new collaboration with Andrea Cremer starts off with a concept that's just as fresh.

Stephen was born invisible. He's a teenager, living alone in an apartment near NYC's Central Park ever since his mother died a year before the story starts. No one has ever seen him. He has never even seen himself. And if you have any questions as to how such a life is possible, the authors answer them with heartfelt eloquence.

The novel is told from alternating points of view. The second chapter introduces us to Elizabeth, who has just moved into an apartment two doors down the hall with her mother and her brother Laurie.

Elizabeth carries a lot of anger in her. Back home in Minnesota, Laurie was brutally beaten for being gay. That was bad enough, but the reactions to the incident are what really turned Elizabeth bitter. Her schoolmates and friends didn't stand by her. Worse than that, her father didn't want to press charges against the attackers because it would ruin the lives of these "promising young men."

Which is why Elizabeth's mother moved them to New York City.

Now, as I mentioned before, no one has ever been able to see Stephen, so imagine his shock when Elizabeth can. And Elizabeth's when she realizes that no one else can.

The first third of this novel is equal to Every Day in every fashion. Thoughtful, joyful, sad—everything rings true. And let me just say that while Laurie doesn't get any viewpoint chapters himself, he's probably one of the best characters I've met in a book in a long time. You don't just admire him for how well he copes with the awful thing that happened to him. You like him for his irrepressible good humor and wisdom beyond his years (though he never stops being a teenage boy at the same time).

After that first third, when the characters begin to discover why Stephen is invisible, the book doesn't so much get bad as different. It changes from being an utterly captivating character study of these three teens into a fairly predictable urban fantasy. Still great characters, still great writing, but the heart found in the earlier section is replaced by non-stop action and the kind of extrapolation one can find in any contemporary supernatural book.

Did I dislike it? Not in the least. I read it in big gulps to find out what would happen to these characters I'd come to like so much. But my enjoyment was slightly tempered by the bittersweet memory of how different, and so much better, the first third of the book was.

 

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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