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Books To Look For
Ace Books, 2002; $22.95
I often get disillusioned with high fantasy, a genre I grew up loving and still enjoy. It's especially tough right now. As I write this, the first book of Tolkien's trilogy is one week away from hitting the big screen. I've already seen the massive marketing machine roll in and I cringe at the thought of yet another wave of derivative stories arriving to join the multiple versions of The Lord of the Rings that are newly available.
At times such as this, my only comfort lies in a small handful of authors that do what fantasy is supposed to do: kindle our sense of wonder with novels that tell their own stories, rather than retelling something we've already been told.
Patricia McKillip does this for me, and has been doing it for years. And what's especially satisfying about her work is that the prose is rich and evocative. The paragraphs swell with mysteries and hidden meanings. The characters are fully defined, but so splendidly other.
In her latest novel she introduces us to Ombria, a broken-down city being dealt its death blows by a squabbling ruling class. But this is also a city that has a hidden mirror version of itself that lies in shadows, or underground, separated by no more than a door or a window, unremarked by most. And its only hope for survival lies in a mismatched threesome: the cast-off mistress of the city's late prince, the bastard cousin of the same prince, and a strange feral child--a "waxling"--who lives under the city with a sorceress as strange and riddling as the shadow city.
Ombria in Shadow is pure magic from start to finish. And having read it, I'm once again content that no matter what so many others do to this beloved genre of mine, at least there remain writers such as McKillip who remember how stories should be told: individual, and from the heart.
St. Patrick's Bed, by Terence M. Green
Early in this new novel by Terence Green, two characters try to think of a piece of classic literature detailing a relationship between a father and a son that isn't abusive, or has them fighting--the way you might pick The Grapes of Wrath if you want to read the definitive novel about the Great Depression. Neither of them can think of a single book to match their criteria.
If I had been present at that conversation, I would have recommended the novel in hand, St. Patrick's Bed.
Father and son relationships drive this book. There's the narrator (whom we first met in an earlier novel, Shadow of Ashland) and his recently deceased father. There's the narrator and his stepson. And finally, the stepson and his father.
The book opens with the stepson finally asking about his birth father, a man he has never met. His desire to meet him sets the narrator on a road trip to meet the man himself. He's not sure why. He thinks it's to vet the birth father, to make sure his stepson won't get hurt, if and when the two finally meet, but discovers on the trip that it's also a way for him to reconnect with his own father.
Green's novels don't tell the big story. Civilization isn't imperiled. Worlds aren't saved. But they're big stories in his characters' lives, and they become important to us as readers.
When you add to that Green's deft touch with prose and characterization, and his thoughtful explorations into just what it is that make people tick, you end up with deeply satisfying books, for all their slim size. His novels have just enough of the supernatural that we can claim him for our own genre, but they are also books that will appeal to a wide readership, one I hope he achieves. One he deserves to achieve.
The Ferryman, by Christopher Golden
Janine Hartschorn has lost her baby in childbirth. During the traumatic ordeal, she has a dream of a dark river with a boat upon it, guided by a cloaked man holding a lantern. She knows he wants her, but she flings the coins she finds in her hand into the river and escapes.
Unbeknownst to her, she has just had a close encounter with Charon, the legendary ferryman of Greek myth. Worse, she wasn't dreaming. And while she's able to forget the "dream," the ferryman can't forget her.
Cut to teacher David Bairstow, Janine's ex-boyfriend. When he is reintroduced to her, David's life takes on a surreal quality. He's plagued, first with visions of ghosts who have reason to hold a grudge with him, and then with physical attacks by them. Needless to say, we soon discover the connections to Janine's encounter with the ferryman.
All of this might sound rather run-of-the-mill for a horror novel, but the book itself isn't that cut and dried. There's an extra spark here that kept me reading long into the evening on more than one night.
Over the past few years, I've lost a lot of my interest in the horror field. Too many books I've sampled are mean-spirited, and forget to concentrate on the characters, or don't give us even one likeable one. Their idea of plot appears to consist of constantly upping the ante in terms of gore and grue and general unpleasantness to the degree that all I come away from the book with is a negative feeling.
Now some might say that's what the horror field is all about: a catharsis in the sense that we can experience the worst that the world (the supernatural as well as our own) has to offer, without the actual dangers.
But I want more from my reading, and I don't find grotesqueries and gore either entertaining or amusing. I can accept their presence in a book, but there needs to be a balance. I don't necessarily mean a happy ending. But I do mean a point beyond simply pulling back the curtain and showing us the horror in all its detailed carnage and fury.
Golden delivers what I'm looking for: good, old-fashioned storytelling with a contemporary sensibility. There's no lack of tension, and he doesn't back away from the consequences of the darkness he has set upon his characters. But neither does he wallow in them.
I liked his deft touch with his characters, his crisp prose, and how he lets the story unfold. I liked the fact that the Catholic priest called in to help is a good man with an open mind. And I especially liked the relationship Golden built between his characters--how they maintain their faith in, and their trust and love for, each other through some very trying circumstances.
We should all be so lucky as to have such friends.
Bran Mak Morn: The Last King, by Robert E. Howard
I didn't grow up on Robert E. Howard's stories, because I didn't come upon them until I was in my late teens, but I certainly devoured them when I finally was introduced to them. My favorite character wasn't the more famous Conan, or even Kull. I was most drawn to Howard's Pictish king, Bran Mak Morn, and treasured my two hardcover collections of those stories when Donald M. Grant published them in 1974: Worms of the Earth and Tigers of the Sea. (The latter was actually a collection of stories about Cormac Mac Art, my second favorite Howard character, containing "The Night of the Wolf," in which both characters appear.)
I still hold a fond place in my heart for these stories, so I was delighted to discover that Wandering Star has published a truly complete edition of them as the third volume in their Robert E. Howard Library of Classics series. And this is complete. Besides the stories in the Grant editions, this volume includes a wealth of extra material: poetry, fragments, early drafts of stories, manuscript typescripts, a handwritten manuscript, comments by Howard taken from his correspondence, and other related material.
The book is also profusely illustrated by Gary Gianni with numerous color plates and pen & ink drawings. I'm not entirely enamored with his color work--it's reminiscent of illustrative work from the early part of the last century, but not as polished. However, I love his pen & ink illustrations. They remind me of Roy Krenkel's work, and that's a good thing.
As for the stories . . . rereading them all these years later, I found they stood up surprisingly well. They're a bit over-written in places, and they're certainly high drama, but these are stories Howard obviously cared about, and his delight in them shows. And while Howard, it seems to me now, is more a young man's author--much as I find Burroughs and Lovecraft to be--there's still a special verve to his storytelling that makes his fiction compelling despite its occasional artistic flaws.
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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