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The Summer Country
James A. Hetley
Ace Books, 361 pages

Lori Earley
The Summer Country
James A. Hetley
James A. Hetley is an architect and retired Kempo karate instructor who lives in Maine. He also served three years in the U. S. Army during the Vietnam war, and has worked such diverse jobs as electronics instructor, trash collector, and operating engineer in a refrigeration plant. The Summer Country is his first novel.

James A. Hetley Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

This recent debut into the territory of contemporary fantasy, a sub-genre most popularly associated with authors such as Charles de Lint, in broad appearance borrows much from the latter's early work, incorporating Celtic myth and elements of popular music and culture, along with a certain gritty, hip veneer reminiscent of de Lint's writing, that should appeal to a similar audience.

James A. Hetley sets his intrusion of faerie into the modern world of Naskeag Falls, Maine. A run-down mill town, it is experiencing a typical winter: not of snow but sleet and ice. Maureen Pierce, a convenience clerk at the local Quick Shop, finds she is being followed home through slushy, midnight streets. Forced to duck into an alleyway to confront her stalker, Maureen finds herself faced with a drama that defies all logic and threatens what may already be a slim hold on reality.

Long treated for schizophrenia and emotional instability, Maureen since childhood has spoken to trees and heard imaginary voices. She is also tormented by revulsion towards men, stemming from a rape at ten by her older sister's boyfriend. She has kept that abuse a secret, from her parents, from her psychiatrists, and most of all from the sister she now lives with. But her troubled past and uncertain future will be overwhelmed by what she witnesses in the darkened alley, a horrific scene right out of "a tale of knights and mages. Swords. Sorcery."

Taking its title from a realm in Celtic mythology that coexists with our own, The Summer Country spins a tale of two sisters whose unknown bloodlines make them something more than human. Pawns trapped within the intrigues of the Old Blood, they are lured to a land that exists always only two steps from our own, where they'll confront wonders and perils that threaten not only their lives, but offer answers to a past and hopes for the future never envisioned in their mundane, worldly existence. And, in the process, both women will grow and come to terms with their true identities, an affirmation that will at once both embrace and reject the inheritance offered.

While not significantly covering new ground here, the author nonetheless turns in a competent story, in the main well written and offering divertissement. Though lacking the power of imagery, mystery and language that de Lint can summon, or the intellectual challenges of a Robert Holdstock, the author nonetheless infuses his narrative with a well delineated and envisioned mythography and landscape that, despite any previous appearances elsewhere, in many respects constitutes the novel's principal strengths. An incorporation of genetics into the history of faerie offers a novel approach, as does dissociation posed as a form of counter-magic. The horrific description of the Green Marriage is particularly effective, and there is a whimsicality to Maureen's visit to Fiona's cottage that serves as an adept counterpoint to her previous torment during her imprisonment at Dougal's keep. And though only touching briefly upon contemporary issues such as abortion, sexual politics and the enervating wasteland that too often describes the modern experience, the inclusion of these elements elevates the novel above the usual story.

Unfortunately, the fantasy is marred by moments of clumsiness. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the novel's opening, where the author attempts to jump-start his narrative too quickly. Within the first six pages Hetley introduces a heroine that hears voices, a mysterious stalker, a night manager with roving hands, "dark thoughts about the entire male race," a .38 Smith & Wesson, and incidents reminiscent of an opening for a Buffy episode. This heavy handling is further abetted by a generous helping of familiar stereotypes -- Japanese junk heaps; papermill cretins carrying six-packs; grasping a crucifix to ward off evil; football players identified with Java Man -- a habit that reoccurs elsewhere in the novel. And, after witnessing the magical immolation of a body whose parts remain animate even after severing, the heroine's spontaneous response is "God, what the Mob would pay to be able to get rid of a body like that..." Presented as humor, such contrived reaction only further weakens the credibility of a first chapter already overburdened by a lack of subtlety and impatience. Granted, it may grab one's attention, but not in the manner the author intended.

Once finding its proper footing, the story rolls along well enough, drawing upon narrative action and its unfolding plotline in a way that largely overshadows its earlier deficiencies. Nonetheless, too often familiar devices -- ubiquitous green eyes; a secret organization defending the border between faerie and human; sentient woods; magical hedge mazes; witches and cats; etc. -- pepper the narrative. Nor are later assays at humor any more successful: quips of a dragon needing "a good dental hygienist... and tartar-control toothpaste..." or posing it riddles such as "How many Republican's does it take to change the light bulb in the Statue of Liberty's torch?" inevitably fall flat, posturing more as bad burlesque than comedy. And, when called upon to resolve a plot issue, such as Jo finding her sister, the author is far too willing to simply announce to the reader, without previous foundation or suggestion, that the sisters possess a psychic locational connection that allows one to track the other's movements. Nor will many, I suspect, find the final conflict resolution with Fiona satisfying, though its conclusion does leave room for further development in future books, assuming this is desired.

Despite these criticisms, this is nevertheless an entertaining if not entirely compelling debut. The author's work may prove worth watching in the future. However, for the present, the jaded reader, having already read a fair amount of fantasy, is unlikely to discover much of novelty or interest when visiting The Summer Country.

Copyright © 2003 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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