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February 1999
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
 
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Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
 
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

KING RAT, by China Miéville
Macmillan, 1998; L9.99

Anyone familiar with the tropes of fantasy and fairy tales already knows the story: the young man who, all unbeknownst to him, is of royal lineage, something he only finds out when either mysterious people suddenly show up, trying to kill him, or he leaves his known life (of his own will or not) to go adventuring, often both. There's usually an elder figure involved from whom he learns of his lineage, responsibilities, special powers (if he has such), and the like.

In a general sense, that's the basic plot of King Rat.  Saul Garamond returns to London from a vacation to find his father dead.  He's arrested for the murder, rescued from jail by a mysterious figure and then the fun begins.

You see, the royal blood Saul carries is rat blood.  Unlike umpteen other fantasies, King Rat takes us out of the high courts of fairy tale, away from the romanticized city streets of many current fantasies, down into the sewers with the rats.  And not cute, cuddly Muppet rats, either.  No, these rats stink, eat garbage, urinate to mark their territory…in short, do all the things rats do.  And so do humans with rat blood such as Saul realizes he is.

Miéville's perspective is, if you'll excuse the apparent paradox of this comment, such a refreshing change from the usual take on fantasy and otherworldly beings. 

Of course that's not all King Rat has going for it.  Miéville explores the parts of London most of us won't see.  He writes knowledgeably about the rooftops and crowded market streets, sewers and housing estates, the alternative club scene, jungle music, bass and drum.  And his characters are fabulous, even the bit players such as Saul's friends from his previous life and those he meets in his new: Anansi the King of Spiders, Loplow the King of Birds and the like.  But he really shines with Saul, especially depicting the slow metamorphosis from a normal human disgusted by the idea of living in a sewer and eating garbage to one relishing it.

This is a riveting, brilliant novel.  The language sings, the concepts are original and engrossing, and the villainy…

Spoiler alert.

Allow me, for once, to break tradition with this column and give away a few elements that spoil surprises, but show just how fresh Miéville's take on fantasy is.  His antagonist is a flute-player named Peter, unassuming in appearance, mad as a hatter in temperament.  He also happens to be the original Pied Piper.  I loved the King of the Rats' retelling of the classic story--how it would appear from a rat's point of view--and how Miéville updates it all into the present.  The Piper can control any species with his flute, but only one at a time.  He hates Saul because Saul has both human and rat blood and so he can't touch Saul with his music.  Now imagine how delighted he is to discover the wonders of modern recording technology, the ability to overdub and sample.

It's wonderful touches such as this, the inspired mingling of old mythic matter with the contemporary world, that make King Rat such an utter delight.

If your local bookseller can't get you a copy from the UK, Tor Books will be publishing a North American edition in October 1999, just in time for Halloween.

*     *     *
CHANGER, by Jane Lindskold
Eos, 1998; $5.99

There are two plot devices that always grab my interest.  One is when the protagonist is suffering amnesia and any number of people want his life because of what he "knows," never mind that if they'd just left well enough alone, there wouldn't necessarily be a problem that required such an extreme solution in the first place.  (Mind you, then there wouldn't be a book either, would there?)

The other is when an author purports to explain all of the mythologies and mysteries of the world (within the context of her novel, of course), threading them together like so many disparate beads, each a part of the overall pattern.  The more thorough and connective she can make these threads of explanation, the more fun it is.  I suppose it appeals to the conspiracy buff that most of us have tucked away somewhere inside ourselves, that Nosy Parker who likes to ferret out the secrets behind everything and then connect the lines.

Jane Lindskold's latest novel falls into the latter camp of plot devices, and is a wonderful example of how to do this sort of story right.  From the very start of the book, I got the same buzz as when I first read Jack Williamson's Darker Than You Think, or Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber, that delicious sense of embarking on a grand adventure, a grand fantastical adventure, but grounded in our own world, utilizing our many and varied mythologies, rather than making up new ones that don't necessarily carry the same resonance. 

In Changer we share our world with a race of immortal beings who we've mythologized into legend: the story-cycles of King Arthur and Anansi the Spider Trickster (him again--must be a trend), Norse sagas, Greek Myths, North American Coyote and Raven tales, and the like.  Some of these beings have abilities beyond our own, such as the shape-changing title character, some have a non-human appearance, some merely live forever.  They live side-by-side with us, hidden from our view--especially the non-human ones.  And therein lies the problem that sets the plot in motion.

The story begins when the title character, living in coyote form, returns to his den to find his family slain.  Because he doesn't have the resources to track down who hired the killers, he turns to the self-styled king of these immortals, a man named Arthur, once known as Gilgamesh, who attends to the needs of his subjects from his most recent home in New Mexico.  At the same time as Arthur and the Changer worry at this problem, someone else is stirring up the non-human immortals, asking why they shouldn't be allowed to walk among humans, and who is Arthur to stop them from doing so?

Frankly, the plot then gets so complicated it would take far more than this column to do a summary any justice.  Let me just say that however tangled it does get, turning in on itself, this way and that, Lindskold never loses control.  From start to finish it is, and remains, a smart, funny, well-detailed romp of an adventure story that still finds room to address serious concerns--a fabulous Romance in the best, and old, sense of the word. 

I liked so much about this book, from figuring out which legendary figure was which before the story told me, to Lindskold's ability to tell a fast-paced, contemporary story that still carries the weight and style of old mythological story cycles, that Changer will definitely remain part of my library and be reread more than once.

*     *     *
BAG OF BONES, by Stephen King
Scribner, 1998; $28.00

It seems to me that Stephen King is actually two writers, and, no, I don't mean King and Richard Bachman.  It's more how King's work appears to fall into two camps: the more character-driven stories such as The Green Mile, "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," and Dolores Claiborne, and the "idea" stories, usually kind of goofy, a combination of shock and schlock, such as the recent simultaneous releases Desperation and The Regulators.

The two styles often bleed into each other.  The schlocky material gets a boost, because even with the most preposterous plot, King retains that gift he has for characterization and story-driven prose.  The character stories don't fare as well, as when fine novels such as It and Insomnia get derailed by giant turtles or silly aliens.

The trouble is, one never knows which writer is coming up to bat with each new book.  Although, please don't get me wrong.  It's not the horrific aspect of some of the books that weaken them ('Salem's Lot, The Shining, and their like will remain forever classics), but the plain silliness of some of them.  And to be fair, a writer has to take chances.  Vampires in Maine probably sounded pretty off the wall back in 1975.  So I suppose it's a fifty-fifty chance whether it works of not.  The one thing King has never been afraid of is taking a chance, more power to him.

All of which brings us to King's latest, Bag of Bones.  This is definitely a character-driven story involving Michael Noonan, a widowed writer who, suffering writer's block, returns to his summer place in an area of rural Maine known as "the TR."  With well-sustained and effective supernatural elements, King takes us through Noonan's discovery of something that haunts not only this rural area to which he's recently returned, but also haunted the last few months of his wife's life and might have brought on the aneurysm that killed her.

King invokes the writer's life well enough, but really shines here in his depictions of rural Maine, the close-knit community where Noonan has his summer home, and that most fascinating device of writers, exploring how the past can wreck the havoc it does upon the present.  Secrets never stay hidden--not forever--as the inhabitants of the TR find to their regret.

Although not a happy book, King's new one is a powerful, moving novel.  I'd say Bag of Bones is vintage King, but that's only in terms of the storytelling spell he weaves.  He hasn't forsaken the spookiness and scares that have made him a brand name, but he uses them more judiciously now; rather than overwhelming the story as they sometimes have in the past, they are firmly a part of it instead.  The present-day King has far more insight into the human condition than did his younger self, and better yet, all the skills required to share it with us.

*     *     *
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