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From Black Rooms
Stephen Woodworth
Bantam Books, 340 pages

From Black Rooms
Stephen Woodworth
A First Place winner in the Writers of the Future Contest, Stephen Woodworth has published speculative fiction for more than a decade. His work has appeared in such venues as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Weird Tales, Aboriginal Science Fiction, Gothic.Net, and Strange Horizons. A native Californian, he is currently writing more novels in the Violet universe.

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A review by Trent Walters

Stephen Woodworth's From Black Rooms is a fine example of a quality SF/thriller/suspense/horror story. It's the kind of series full of stand-alones that you can pick up anywhere, but then if you love series characters, you may want to read the earlier volumes first (beginning with Through Violet Eyes) as this one gives away a few revelations from those.

The protagonist, Natalie Lindstrom, develops in the manner of a suspense series -- that is, over the course of the series, her character develops in an overarching manner as she tries to ween herself from the NAACC, North American Afterlife Communication Corps but find herself inextricably linked.

Natalie is a Violet. In this parallel universe, souls communicate to the living world through mediums. Crimes can be solved by talking directly to the victims. Being a Violet means she not only has violet eyes, but that genetically she is one of the rare mediums for speaking to the dead. She has had to be trained to fend off souls from entering her, without her wishing them to. Also, if she wants to speak to a particular soul, she needs a touchstone, something -- usually meaningful to the soul -- that it came in contact with while alive.

Prior to the latest volume, Natalie had helped the Corps and the FBI earlier to track down a mass-murderer of Violets, but she has become leery of the Corps' controlling nature. Since she left them, the NAACC has placed twenty-four hour surveillance on Natalie's new home, where she is a single parent raising her child with her father.

In From Black Rooms, Natalie has become embroiled in a new problem involving the Violets. Quietly, two medical scientists have tried to recreate new Violets, with a horrible lack of success. The new Violets are incomplete, lacking control -- souls flow in and out of the medium at will, leaving the medium no control over his life. One scientist tries to wipe out the experiment entirely, but the remaining scientist simply channels the dead scientist into completing the experiment to its finish -- no matter how awful the outcome.

Unfortunately, Natalie falls in love with one of the doomed experimental Violets -- not to mention that the Violet killer has escaped from his soul-cage prison, buried underground, and that a wholly different faction wants all new Violets dead, even if a cure is found.

The novel is engrossing, told in the smooth style typical of the suspense genre. Woodworth's style used to be more playful. I only found one word-play/pun -- kind of a tricky one, being separated across two paragraphs. There may be more that I missed.

What makes the parallel universe that Woodworth has constructed so dramatically intense is that the author is unafraid to whack off characters -- not that Woodworth is in favor of murder or that he thinks the bliss of afterlife makes murder okay (the afterlife in Woodworth's hands, after all, sounds rather dismal although there may be a place beyond the afterlife, which no one living has access to). Rather, Woodworth's universe keeps the reader on his toes. Much like the real world, no character is safe. Anyone can die, and creating deeper complication, anyone can switch alliances based on their need and the perception (or misperception) of the other side's character. This isn't quite Philip K. Dick territory I'm talking about, but definitely Stephen Woodworth's own niche.

As with any work of good fiction, there are bound to be a few negligible flaws (unless the flaw is in my reading). After Natalie rejects a steep offer of a million dollars to channel dead painters to recreate their famous works, one convicted forger of paintings is presumed to be the next most likely candidate to be hired, but it isn't clear why this should be. But this and other similar gripes are so minor as to be niggling on the critic's part (and quite frankly, this critic can't remember any others now). This is clearly a series with wide appeal. It would not surprise me to see these four novels as a popular Science Fiction Book Club repackaging.

As much as I hope for the Violet series to have continued success, I would love to see Woodworth also try something new. His imagination is rather strange and fertile, which you know if you've ever read his stories in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Weird Tales, or Writers of the Future. Continuing the series is a must, but a novel in a different vein -- the kind of strange wildness that only Woodworth can do -- will help stamp his fertile imagination the linger longer in the minds of his readers.

Copyright © 2007 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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