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December 2000
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE - J. K. Rowling
Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, 2000; 752pp; $25.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0439139597

Just to put this in perspective, I'm writing this column a few days after the release of the new Harry Potter book and have yet to read other reviews or final takes on the marketing of it. I mention the latter because, in this case, the marketing has been almost as interesting as the book itself and certainly more controversial.

Much as I enjoyed the first three books of this projected seven-book series, I was prepared to be disappointed by volume four. Don't get me wrong. I'm delighted with Rowling's success to date, but all the hoopla surrounding this latest release seemed, from my increasingly cynical perspective as the release date approached, to be hiding a bad book behind the hullabaloo:

No review copies before publication. Keeping the title a secret almost up to publication day. Only one or two interviews allowed per country. Threats against booksellers who might jump the gun on the book's release (those found guilty would never be able to buy another Potter book from the publisher again). And the length: at 752 pages, it's long (or as Jim Mullen said in his "Hotsheet" column in Entertainment Weekly, "for kids 12 to 14. They start it at 12 and finish at 14").

It appeared that Ms. Rowling's publishers were intent on getting as many first day sales as possible before the truth set in that it wasn't that good a book. The length of volume four (almost twice that of the last one) and scarcity of interviews made me think that the author had decided she didn't want to be edited any more and had gotten a bit of a swelled head about her own importance.

Well, after reading it and viewing a recent interview, I now feel that I was wrong on all accounts.

First off, the book is a welcome addition to the Harry Potter canon as it now stands. Yes, it's long. The first chapter could have been dropped, and it takes about eighty pages to get into the main story. There are also any number of asides taken. But the thing is, it's all readable and entertaining, nonetheless.

The story's darker than the previous volumes, dealing with mortality and racism and human rights issues, but all of them treated with a light sure hand; as part of the story, rather than the author preaching to us. But it's funnier, too, such as the addition of tabloid reporter Rita Skeeter who'll make up a story if she can't find anything shocking enough to write about. And the characters are all a little older, entering puberty now, so there's still growth and change in the series.

As for the marketing of the book, I've come to believe Rowling's assertion that she didn't want any of the story spoiled for her young readers by advance reviews. My jury's still out on the editing issue, but if Rowling's not being edited, then she knows what she's doing because the book works. And her reluctance to being interviewed? Having just seen a documentary/interview about her on CBC's Newsworld, I can understand her wanting to back away from the furor. After all, she's a writer. If she gives in to all the demands on her time, she won't actually have time to write any books. And at her current level of popularity she could be doing media 24-7.

For those out there who feel that the attention the Harry Potter books are getting is too much: sure, the series isn't going to be for everyone. But it does have children who normally wouldn't be reading--especially boys--excited about books once again. And don't kid yourself. They will go on to read other books.

Remember when Stephen King got adults back into bookstores? People were complaining then that all those new readers were looking for was new Stephen King material. But the truth of the matter is that many of them, when they couldn't find a new King, went on to try other authors because his books had shown them that books could be as entertaining as other media.

So this is a good thing. And my final take on the marketing of the Harry Potter books is, it was fun. There were parties in bookstores, children were excited about something printed on a page, and the idea of reading and books was all over the media for more than a few days. It can't have hurt.

*     *     *

J. K. ROWLING: THE WIZARD BEHIND HARRY POTTER - Marc Shapiro
St. Martin's Press, 2000; 107pp; $?
Trade paperback; ISBN 0-31227224-3

A biography of Rowling seems appropriate at this time, considering all the interest in her Harry Potter books, but this is a lightweight entry that, while it might appeal to the young reader in your life, won't be of as much interest to adults. There's simply not enough substance.

Shapiro gets some facts wrong, which makes one wonder about the rest of the information. For instance, the bound galley has the wrong title for book four in the series, which suggests that he didn't have any inside information at all. And he perpetuates erroneous information such as Rowling living in an unheated apartment while writing the first book (in the aforementioned Newsworld interview, Rowling makes a point of debunking the mistaken mythology built up by the press of which the unheated apartment is a prime example).

He also annoyed me when he wrote that the appeal of fantasy is that there are no rules in it--anything can happen. As most aficionados of the field know (and Rowling reiterates this point in that Newsworld interview), there have to be rules, because if anything can happen, then what's the point of reading the story? If the characters can simply pull a rabbit out of the hat every time they're in trouble, then the story loses all its tension.

But with all of that said, Shapiro has a nice breezy writing style and is obviously enthusiastic about his material. If you approach this book expecting to get no more out of it than you would a profile in People, then you won't be probably won't be disappointed.

*     *     *

SPINDLE'S GOLD - Robin McKinley
Putnam, 2000; 432pp; $19.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-399-23466-7

There is only one word to describe this book, and that's luminescent. What begins as a somewhat lighthearted take on the classic fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty" soon evolves into a book that shines like spun gold, but also carries the weight of that precious metal in the depth of its mythic resonance and the sweet, simple kind-heartedness that rings out like birdsong on a perfect spring morning.

All of which tells you nothing about the book, I know. But the thing of it is, sharing with you some of the plot and set-up (which I will in a moment) can't begin to capture the heart of this wonderful story. There is more here than words on the page, but it's as hard to explain as it ever is when you try to map what lies between the lines of what one can actually read.

Still, let me give it a try.

As in the fairy tale, a princess is born, cursed to die on her twenty-first birthday by pricking her finger on a spindle. However, instead of being locked away in a tower, this princess (who comes to be known as Rosie) is spirited away by a peasant fairy named Katriona and raised in a village far off from the center of things, her heritage and whereabouts unknown to all but Katriona and her Aunt.

This princess grows into a tall, strong girl who keeps her hair cut short and wears men's breeches. She becomes a kind of veterinarian, something made easier for her by the fact that she can understand and speak with animals. Much of the book, in fact, is less a fairy tale, and more a coming-of-age novel as we watch Rosie grow from a wild little girl into a competent (but still a little wild) young woman.

But the fairy tale is still present and when it comes back into her life we see the connection between who she is, her life in the village and her friends, and how all of this will help her stand up to the evil fairy that cursed her when she was an infant.

McKinley does a fabulous job all round, but I was particularly taken the system of magic she set up for her secondary world--its whimsy and its dangers--and utterly enchanted with her depictions of Rosie's conversations with various animals. Somehow McKinley manages to capture the dialogue of the beasts so that their personalities ring true and don't feel at all anthropomorphized. For example:

"Rosie spoke to the half-wild birds in the mews, who answered in images as sharp as knives and flung as quickly as a falcon seizing a smaller bird out of the air. They spoke of death and food, and of their handlers, whom they both hated and loved, for they were only half-wild, and they knew it."

Or:

"Cats were the easiest of the beasts for humans to talk to, if you call it talking, and most fairies could carry on some kind of colloquy with a cat. But conversations with cats were more or less riddle games, and if you were getting the answer too quickly, the cat merely changed the ground on you. Katriona's theory was that cats were one of the few members of the animal kingdom who had a strong artistic sense, and that aggravated chaos was the chief feline art form, but she had never coaxed a straight enough answer out of a cat to be sure. It was the sort of thing a cat would like a human to think, particularly if it weren't true."

Throughout the novel, McKinley plays fair with the original fairy tale, but hardly ever does any of it work out the way one would think it would, which only adds to the fun. But to be honest, this is one of those rare occasions when the writing is so good, and the novel has so much heart, that the plot almost doesn't matter. That there is a strong storyline only adds to the book's unequivocal success.

*     *     *

THE STONE FEY - Robin McKinley
Harcourt Brace, 1998; 52pp; $17.00
Hardcover; ISBN 0-15-200017-8

While we're discussing McKinley, I'd like to make a brief mention of this older picture book just in case you hadn't seen or heard of it before. It was certainly new to me.

It's the story of a young shepherdess named Maddy who finds something mysterious in the hills where she keeps her flocks, something that can completely change her life around if she lets it.

The many watercolors by John Clapp are lovely--a couple are even inspired--while McKinley's prose reads like an adult short story, rather than a children's book. Though perhaps that's simply the mark of a good writer: one who doesn't write down to her audience.

*     *     *

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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