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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Terence Blacker, The Angel Factory, Simon &Schuster, September 2002, $16.95
Vivian Vande Velde, Heir Apparent,Harcourt, 2002, $17.00
Jane Yolen, The Sword of the Rightful King, Harcourt, May 2003, $17.00

I have suffered with this column from an embarrassment of riches. Every so often, I like to read genre fiction aimed at younger audiences. Sometimes, as I've said before, I like these books because they cut to the heart—both of the matter, and of the person I once was (and can't often be anymore). But this time, my life is momentarily running on what passes for an even keel in this house, and I didn't read for comfort or escape, but rather for pure pleasure. A luxury. What was more of a luxury was the number of books that I picked up and actually read cover to cover. As reading often takes a back seat to everything else—and this is something to cry over—I tend not to finish things that don't hold my attention. In most cases, I blame my attention. Although I couldn't give each book the attention they deserved, let me quickly mention other titles that you might want to seek out: Hannah's Garden by Midori Snyder, a lovely blending of this world and an older, wilder one; Stravaganza City of Masks, by Mary Hoffman, a thoroughly odd fantasy about a terminally ill young boy and the fantasy which makes his dying bearable—a fantasy that happens to be real; Thorn Ogres of Hagwood, by Robin Jarvis, in which small and humble werlings face a battle far beyond their abilities, and manage to succeed—at great cost; The Bagpiper's Ghost, the third in the Tartan Magic series by Jane Yolen, a more traditional contemporary YA about a family visiting Scotland and what they encounter there (the first two books,The Wizard's Map and The Pictish Child are also a lot of fun); The Wizard Alone by Diane Duane, a book that blends autism with magic in perhaps my favorite of Duane's series; and the thoroughly charming Great Ghost Rescue by Eva Ibbotson.

*     *     *

Let me start with an author I'm completely unfamiliar with. Terence Blacker has, according to the promotional material that came with The Angel Factory, written a number of books—and I now plan to seek out Homebird and the others.

This novel is told from the viewpoint of one Thomas Wisdom, a boy who is cursed with a perfect family. His parents are kind, generous, and lacking in the social infelicities that often populate YA novels—they're reasonable, they're not abusive, they're not quirky. Pale skinned, blond, tall, and slender, they project the aura of the idealized happy family—both outside of the house and inside it. Thomas has a sister, a budding genius named Amy whose new boyfriend Luke is a keeper. His parents have each other, and Thomas has them all.

Outside of his family, he has a friend—Gip Sanchez, sometimes known as Gary—who is the antithesis of the Wisdom family: fatherless and burdened with an alcoholic mother who usually can't be bothered to give him the time of day, he is also burdened with a short leg and the awkward gait that comes of it. He's a loner, immersed in the virtual universe, and he doesn't much seem to care if he's treated with suspicion or contempt. Thomas has always liked him, although half the time he's not sure if it's because Gip is on the opposite pole of the world the Wisdom family also inhabits.

But one day, while Thomas is feeling a bit down, he tells Gip that there's just something too strange about his perfect family, and Gip takes it into his head that no family can be as perfect as Thomas's. His parents, Gip theorizes, must be CIA agents. Forgetting just how tenacious Gip can be, Thomas finds himself letting Gip into the house, and from there, onto his parent's computer. What he finds—encrypted—is the first of many things to shake Thomas's life completely. Gip's not enough of a genius to be able to decode the document; he takes to Mr. Rendle, often called The Beast, and Mr. Rendle finally solves the puzzle.

Thomas, it seems is adopted.

That would be fine—but Thomas's parents are not the people he thought they were; they're something entirely different; something not entirely human. In fact, they're Angels. And they're part of a plan to save the world.

In other hands, this might be trite or humorous, but Blacker's deceptively simple narrative lifts it into a different realm. Thomas Wisdom's voice is as true a voice as you find in fiction; angry, alienated, standing on the uncomfortable edge of puberty—a position that makes us all reevaluate our lives. If he has more to deal with—and he does— it's not glossed over; he goes through of the rage and the fear, the pain and the hope, the desire for a place and a position of his own, all accentuated by the strangeness of a life he thought he knew. It deals with the inadequacy felt by someone who isn't as confident or certain as the people he's come to trust—and we've all been there.

This is a book about good and evil, or rather, about good and the muddled, muddied state in which most of us end up living; it's about the relationship between family and friends, and the way it shifts with experience; it's about the past that you know and the past that you need to know to move forward. It's about having to make a choice that affects not only you, but everything you've come to love and hate.

And it's also a compelling mystery in its own right; I couldn't put it down.

*     *     *

Heir Apparent, by Vivian Vande Velde, is a near-future sf novel that feels a lot like a contemporary. Giannine is fourteen—exactly fourteen, given that it's the grim occasion of yet another birthday—and she is living with her grandmother; her mother and father have busy and successful lives that include holidays and other than that, little time for her. On her birthday, her father's secretary phoned to ask her what she would like, and Giannine chose a gift certificate to Rasmussem Enterprises Gaming. And wouldn't you know it? On this particular day, there's a picket line in front of the building. It seems that CPOC, Citizens to Protect Our Children, have decided that far too much time is spent on the dangerous pasttime of fantasy gaming. Giannine manages to avoid the pickets (barely) in order to redeem her birthday present.

First, I have to mention that the book itself is dedicated to people whom the author clearly finds wrong-headed—namely, people who want to protect our children from the dangerous influence of fantasy—and this fact says a lot about the author.

Second, it's clear from reading this book that Vivian Vande Velde either spent enormous amounts of her youth in front of a terminal typing directions at a game called ZORK—a game with no useful save function (as in, you can save the game, but if you die, you have to start it all over again from the beginning); although she creates a gaming environment that is totally immersive, it's clear that she played a lot before gaming companies decided to show a little mercy.

Third, Giannine chooses, for her thirty minutes of free time, a game called Heir Apparent, in which your choices determine your success, and there's no right way to win—but an awful lot of unfortunate ways to lose. The King is dead, and he's decided to make the bastard child of a dead servant the next King, bypassing his understandably ticked off former wife and her three legitimate sons. And all of them are happily ruthless.

This is all very fine, but while Giannine is immersed in her session, some of the more radical CPOC elements decide to take matters into their own hands, and they destroy some key equipment. And when you're neurologically hooked -up to that equipment, it changes the nature of the game.

You see, Giannine—dubbed Janine in gaming context, and Princess Janine, the girl who used to raise sheep, no less—is now racing to finish this game because it's the only safe way out of the net. Brains overload, and without some of the equipment that was destroyed, there's no safe way to pull her out of session without causing damage. Unfortunately, there's no safe way to let her stay there either; she has a lot less time to finish the game than she'd like—or than she needs—and finishing it successfully will save her life, but it's the only thing that will.

Which tells you pretty much exactly what the book is about but gives you none of the feel of it. Vande Velde has a keen eye and a knack for really humorous turns of phrase that makes the endless iterations that Giannine has to go through—and believe me, she's not gaming genius, so she dies a lot—a perverse delight. Her difficulty with her absentee parents very nearly kills her for real (it certainly causes quite a few deaths before she figures this out), rooting the character firmly in context.

I've read a lot of fiction that deals with immersive gaming, but none of them have approached it from this particular angle: Giannine has to learn from her mistakes, and because she makes so many of them, by the end of the book, she's pretty much figured out what she has to do. And even then, there's a very real chance that she'll blow it; having seen her do it so often, there's that element of suspense that doesn't quite let up.

Vande Velde takes a few happy swings at the politically correct, and a few more at corporate branding, without in any way preaching; she's a gem and this book really is one that will appeal to readers of all ages, especially those who were tormented by their fascination with Infocom games. And, although it's not strictly relevant, I really liked the cover.

But a word of warning: If you don't like to laugh out loud in the company of strangers, don't read this book in public.

*     *     *

Last, but definitely not least, is Jane Yolen's Sword of the Rightful King, subtitled A Novel of King Arthur.

Let me say up front that there are very, very few Arthurians that will not put me into a somnambulant state. I already know the story, thank you very much, and having read the first two Mary Stewart novels (The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills), I often feel that there's nothing more than can, or need, be said.

But this is Jane Yolen and her take on everything is always interesting; Arthur is no exception.

Of the three books I'm reviewing this month, this is the only one that isn't written in first person, and of the three, it is also the only one that is written from multiple viewpoints: that of Gawaine, a Knight of Arthur's court, that of Gawen, a young boy who has come to the Court seeking justice—or revenge—for said Knight's mistreatment of his sister, and that of Merlin himself, or Merlinnus, as he is named here. Yolen's prose is, as always, graceful and lean but never flat.

As the title indicates, the book revolves around the Sword in the Stone, and although Yolen doesn't choose to strip magic from her tale—there's plenty of it in evidence—she does demystify the Sword and the reasons for its existence. But she does so without harming the legend and without the loss of the mythic element, which is no mean feat.

Gawaine's mother is the villain of the piece. She has Gawaine and his brothers wrapped around her fingers, and those fingers are curved like claws, and about as gentle. She sends them all to Arthur's court with intent to relieve Arthur of the crown to which he has the lesser claim.

But Gawaine is a loyal Knight, and he—as do all of Arthur's Knights—admires, respects, and serves. The charisma of Arthur is shown through Gawaine's difficult younger brother, because Arthur is able to reach what Gawaine himself can't.

At this same time, Gawen comes to Court and meets Merlinnus. Merlinnus is accustomed to either fear or awe as a usual greeting, and as Gawen shows neither, and also seems to know a smattering of Latin, the old mage is intrigued enough to take him in as a servant.

And it's as a servant that Gawen sees what Arthur is, and helps to ensure that Arthur becomes King of all Britain.

The book ends far before the tragedy for which the Arthurian mythos is now best known—but some element of it shadows the figure of Lancelot—a man whom Yolen mentions two or three times, always to haunting effect. There is something incredibly moving about his attempt to pull the Sword from the stone, and her description of his "ruined angel face" will stay with me for some time.

But there are surprises along the way, none of which I will ruin here; enough certainly to make the return to Arthurian pastures a very happy surprise.

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