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Books To Look For
Simon & Schuster, 2002; 310pp; $16.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-689-84924-9
I know that my enthusiasms can sometimes seem . . . too enthusiastic.
Perhaps this is a good time to restate what I perceive to be the mission of this column: I have so little space--three books a month, eleven months a year, gives me only thirty-three books to review out of the hundreds that are published. That being the case, I'm not interested in taking up column space with reviews of bad books. There isn't room enough to tell you about all the good books. And the truth is, there's a certain selfishness involved. I'll only review a book I've read all the way through and I don't want to read crap, never mind review it.
So that's why the bulk of the reviews you'll find under my by-line are so positive. The danger of this is that when something's astonishingly good, I feel as though I've already used up all my superlatives and good will and I'm uncertain how to convey my passion in a manner that will convince you that you really need to try a particular title such as the one in hand.
But that won't stop me from trying.
There are a couple of hurdles I know I have to overcome for many of you in regards to Holly Black's debut novel. The first is that it's being published as Young Adult fiction. But before you stop reading and skip to the next book discussed below, let me just say that Tithe, for all its youthful exuberance and young protagonist, approaches its material with far more self-possession and sense of wonder than do most adult novels that I consider for this column.
The second thing is that the basics of the plot--- young girl caught in a conflict between two warring courts of Faery in an urban setting---might not seem to be the freshest of ideas, but let me assure you that Black not only puts a bright new spin on the material, she makes it her own.
There are many positives to be found in Tithe. Black writes with an edgy confidence belying the fact that this is a first novel. She has a true gift for the entirely appropriate name. She brings characters to life with a sketching splash of details that still recreates them fully-realized in the reader's head. She tells her story in such a way that it is as immediate and contemporary as a charted song, but also as timeless as a beloved fairy tale. But mostly it's that she returns wonder and true danger to the plot device of mortals interacting with Faerie.
The denizens of Black's magic realms aren't the fuzzy warm faeries that many New Agers have turned to now that they've lost interest in crystals, aromatherapy, and the like. Nor are they the militaristic might-as-well-be Marines and ninjas that seem to populate far too many high fantasies these days. No, these are the amoral creatures that predate the banishment of fairy tales to the Victorian nursery. Some shifting and untrustworthy, others honorable. Some dangerous and sly, others instilling hearts-stopping awe. And the trouble is, it's hard to tell which are which.
And then there's Kaye. New Jersey native. Part Asian, part nomad (her mother is forever in one failing rock band after another), and all heart. Tithe is her coming-of-age story. Like Kaye herself, it's brash and edgy, full of hope and longing, full of loss and discovery and wonder. Always that wonder.
This is literally one of the best fantasies I've read in years, never mind it being one of the best debut novels. And I'm immediately finding room for it on the small shelf of books that I can always unequivocally recommend when someone asks me for my favorite books in the fantasy field.
Did I mention that I loved it?
Or that you will, too?
Are We Having Fun Yet?: American Indian Fantasy Stories by William Sanders
The subtitle of William Sanders's new collection is a bit misleading. They aren't all fantasy stories (there are at least a couple that are sf and another is a straight mystery). And while Indians certainly appear in each piece and many of the stories unquestionably speak from the Native American experience, their appeal is far more universal than that.
In setting, they range from the historical past to the speculative future. In theme, we have everything from an encounter with Egyptian gods (the Zelaznyesque "Ninekiller and the Neterw") to a tongue-in-cheek revenge fantasy that would do Sherman Alexie proud ("The Scuttling"). In between we can find one of the best alternate histories I've read in a long time (William Shakespeare living as a captive among Indians in "The Undiscovered"), erotica ("Tenbears and the Bruja"), a pair of near-future speculations (the heartbreaking "When This World Is All On Fire" and the hilarious "Elvis Bearpaw's Luck"), and three more stories, each better than the next.
What I love about Sanders's fiction is that it isn't one-note. The erotica and thrillers can also be humorous. The funny stories have a dark streak of seriousness running through them. They can flit from a helicopter crash to a conversation with a jackal-headed god. From the plight of adopted captives to a tribe putting on a localized version of Hamlet. From a tobacco ceremony to the Holmesian solving of a murder.
The prose ranges from ribald and earthy to passages with great spirit and hints of deep mystery. The characters stumble as often as they prevail and they always come across as real people.
And while it's true that the stories collected here might give you some insight into the Native American experience, they only do so in terms of these particular characters's experience. Sanders writes about individuals, not culture heroes, although a sense of the mythic always seems to be bubbling under even the most mundane scene.
He has also supplied an overall introduction and notes to each story that both provide welcome background to the material and reveal insights into how Sanders has come to understand so much about makes people tick. Trial and error, folks. Sanders has obviously lived a hard life. But to his credit, he has not only persevered; he has also found a way to turn those life lessons into art.
The Warslayer by Rosemary Edghill
Here's a book that's the perfect summer read--and I apologize for telling you about it late in the year, but I'm reading it way back in August 2002 (this is almost like time travel, isn't it?) and in the heat we've had this week, it was with happy relief that I found a spot of shade and stretched out with Edghill's novel at the end of a day of work.
Now by calling it the perfect summer read, I don't mean to imply anything negative. The Warslayer simply delivers what it promises: a fun, mostly light-hearted romp.
It's the story of ex-Gymnast Gloria McArdle who plays the lead role in Vixen the Slayer, a new and extremely popular TV series. (Think Buffy meets Xena in Victorian England.) While on a publicity tour in the States (the show is filmed in Australia), McArdle is approached by three mages who think she's really Vixen, not an actress playing the part. They need her help to rescue their world. She tries to explain the truth and turns them down (thinking they're fans inviting her to a con), but something goes wrong and the next she knows she's in a fantasy world and if she doesn't learn to channel Vixen very quickly, she's in deep trouble.
I know. GalaxyQuest already covered some of this ground. But Edghill knows this, too; in fact, one of her characters cites the movie. What's important here isn't to Think Deep Thoughts, but to have fun. And fun it is. McArdle's a likeable character, and part of the charm is her down-to-earth Aussie take on the whole unlikely situation.
To add to the fun, Edghill has roped fellow author Greg Cox into writing a "making of the cult phenomenon" introduction to start us off, and a first season episode guide at the end, both of which will surely make you smile.
You probably need to be a fan of the sort of TV show The Warslayer is based on to get all the jokes, but even if you're not, I'm sure you'll get a kick out of the whole fish-out-of-water scenario that drives the plot.
Origami Bird by Steve Resnic Tem
I got this Independence Day card during the last week of June and certainly hope the little story by Tem that takes up two of its "pages" gets a wider readership than the three hundred recipients of the card.
"Origami Bird," in all its brevity, manages to capture not only a moment of great beauty--I love the image at the end of the story when dreams fly free--but also the day-by-day small beauties we can all make (transformations from dross into a gold that can't be held, only felt), no matter how seemingly empty our lives might appear to be.
I usually hate the short-short form, but this is more like a prose poem, something that can be reread and savored, over and over again. Thanks, Steve, for giving life to this story, and to the folks at Wormhole Books for sharing it. Now please make it available to a wider 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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