by Dave Truesdale
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Off On A Tangent: Novel Reviews columns.]
Joshua Alan Parry's debut novel appeared in April 2013 as a mass market paperback, and a good one it is. Holding a degree in molecular and cellular biology, Parry postulates a near-future where cloning on a small scale has been achieved and GeneFirm Inc., "the largest and most esteemed biotech company in the world," has found a cure for cancer. Unfortunately, the cure has not been inheritable -- until now. A recent breakthrough has made it possible to transfer genetically modified DNA from generation to generation on an individual level via an easily performed, one-time procedure involving the removing of, genetically altering, and then replacing a human embryo in the womb. Sounds great, doesn't it? A permanent cure for cancer. But there are, of course, consequences. With increased life spans populations explode, leading to other real world problems. As well, it is not foolproof, for there are those who fall between the cracks for one reason or another and the procedure places a heavy financial burden on the health care system.
With this backdrop in place, the story takes off like a rocket when the world is hit by a bioterrorist superflu for which there is no cure. People begin dying en masse and GeneFirm -- with our husband and wife team of scientists at the forefront -- is tasked with finding a cure. Things begin to get hairy when several plot complications are introduced, including armed government agents, the husband of our scientific team falling ill when he has been given the anti-cancer treatment and is supposedly protected (which turns out to be one of the two major plot lines), and several traitors, one of whom comes as a total, well-disguised surprise, this person being the most unlikely to sabotage GeneFirm's efforts. But traitors act on conscience and principles they believe are as moral, or even more so, than those they oppose, and Parry offers the reader their brand of logic as well, introducing ethical arguments with which the thoughtful reader must grapple while simultaneously keeping track of the front story as it continues to unfold.
The story is an engaging page-turner, one of the major attractions for this reader being how Parry skillfully explains the all-too-possible genetic science on a level the lay reader can easily understand, and what we learn about how the human body reacts to -- accepts or denies, or something in between -- genetic mutations (artificial or otherwise), and the rather unexpected answers that some may find disquieting. Parry's not shy about speaking his mind on certain hot topics, either, allowing his wit and sarcasm a chance to shine.
Couple several important, timeless ethical and moral questions brought about by advances in the exploding field of bio-medicine with a world-wide terrorist-induced pandemic for which the deadline for a cure is measured in days, and all the ingredients for the thinking reader's action story are present in Virus Thirteen, an intense, cautionary scientific thriller of the best sort.
With Wisp of a Thing, Alex Bledsoe returns to the hidden world of the fae Tufa he created in The Hum and the Shiver, which Kirkus named one of the Best Fiction Books of 2011. The Tufa mythology -- what bits and pieces there are of it -- holds that they are a reclusive mountain people, swarthy and black-haired, who have inhabited (centuries before any white settlers arrived) a small area deep in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
The story begins when promising guitar musician Rob Quillen is taking a long, lonely drive to Cloud County, Tennessee following the death of his fiancée in a plane crash. He has been told that the Tufa have a song ("heart-healing magical music"), written in stone, that will ease his broken heart. With nothing to lose and needing time away from the tragedy that has left him grief stricken, Rob finds himself deep in the heart of late-summer, early-fall Appalachia, renting a room in the only hotel in the half-deserted and mostly forgotten, difficult to find on a map, rundown town of Needsville.
Before long Rob gets to know a few of the town's well-known inhabitants: the amiable woman who smokes, drinks, and runs the hotel, the father and son who run the only garage, and the pretty Iraqi vet, part-time EMT who befriends him. All are open about the existence of the Tufa but only to a point, the dark secret of who and what they really are not forthcoming to a mere stranger, one who, like occasional others, stops briefly in Needsville in hopes of tracing their ancestry to the Tufa only to depart disappointed and none the wiser, resigned to the fact that the stories about the Tufa are nothing more than colorful bits of local folklore handed down and invariably enhanced through generations of retellings.
Things get interesting when another couple arrive for a visit and get a room at the hotel. Older man, beautiful wife, they are not happy and argue. She goes for a walk one morning and fails to return. Rob helps the husband search for his wife, and after numerous inquiries and digging around town for clues Rob begins to uncover frightening secrets he can hardly believe. He is able to see the crumbling remains of a small, out of the way graveyard only those with true Tufa blood have the power to see -- with what he believes are the partial lyrics to a poem or song worn almost smooth on one of the tombstones. Something visits him in his hotel room at night, leaving only small muddy footprints.
Lest I divulge too many of the book's dark secrets, I will say that there are deep divisions separating segments of the Tufa, and that one clan has broken away and keeps to its own evil agenda. An irresistably handsome young Tufa is able to seduce into sexual slavery any mortal woman he desires, while the ruler of the evil Tufa, one Rockhouse Hicks, holds his breakaway Tufa followers with deception and a power he fears losing -- for if Rob Quillen discovers the entire magical song he now knows exists, and is able to sing it aloud, cataclysmic changes to the entire future of the Tufa are in jeopardy. And Rockhouse Hicks and his gang of cutthroats are not about to let this happen.
Clandestine meetings deep in the heart of mountain caverns, large winged creatures flying across the light of the full moon, a young girl cursed and changed into a bestial creature of the forest whose sexual appetite may prove to be her undoing -- or salvation, and the bizarre, somewhat incestuous relationships among the Tufa -- both good and evil -- all merely scratch the surface of this thoroughly engaging contemporary dark fantasy. For lovers of gritty supernatural no-holds-barred storytelling I heartily recommend this book, but with a single caveat for parents with youngsters of a certain age. There is one instance of explicit sexual language referring to a specific sexual act, and one sexually charged scene (not quite brought to fruition) between a man and a young shape-shifting girl.
If you need a label, a short-hand catch phrase to pigeonhole what Wisp of a Thing delivers, the Wall Street Journal reviewer came pretty close when he called The Hum and the Shiver a "rustic version of urban fantasy." Which is accurate as far as it goes, except that Wisp of a Thing is much grimmer than a "rustic version of urban fantasy" might indicate.
Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
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