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February 2004
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
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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

The Boys Are Back in Town, by Christopher Golden,
Bantam, 2004, $12.

CHRISTOPHER Golden is the master of the slow creep—the kind of story that sneaks out of the everyday, so quietly that you don't realize anything is really amiss until the world seems to shift and the ground gets all spongy underfoot.

Because of this, his books sometimes seem to start with more detail concerning the background of his characters than you might feel you need to know. Who they are, where they come from. Their day-to-day life. Their hopes and dreams. But for the reader who stays with the story—and this isn't particularly hard, because Golden has a wonderfully smooth prose style—the payoff is immense. And intense.

The Boys Are Back in Town is no exception on both counts: slow start, big payoff.

It starts with an ordinary morning for Will James, a reporter for a Boston paper. He gets passed over for a promotion he was really counting on, but what makes it sting is that the woman getting the job isn't as qualified as he is. But she's a team player and doesn't have his need to debunk occult practitioners, who James feels are robbing decent people of their life savings. The Lifestyles section of the paper needs a broader focus than James can give it.

So far, it's only the kind of disappointment that everyone gets in their lives. But then James gets convinced by some of his high school friends to attend their upcoming reunion. He sends an e-mail to Mike Lebo, another friend of theirs, telling him that he's changed his mind and he's going to the reunion after all. The e-mail gets rejected because the username is unknown.

Still not too strange. Except the next night at the reunion, when he mentions to one of his friends that he wonders where Mike is, he's told curtly that he isn't being funny and is given the cold shoulder.

It turns out that Mike Lebo died in high school. That can't be. James has had an ongoing relationship with him since graduation, visiting once in a while, exchanging e-mails on a regular basis. But as soon as he's told about the death, it seems as though he has two sets of memories. In one Mike Lebo is the victim of a hit-and-run death; in the other, he's still James's living, breathing friend.

The former, unfortunately, proves to be the truth.

It's also not the last bit of confusion James has with his memories, and he soon realizes that either he's going crazy, or somehow, somebody is changing the past.

I don't want to tell you any more, because if you do try this book, you deserve to have all the mysteries and puzzles unfold for you in the natural course of the story. But I can tell you that it's an eerie, fascinating tale in which discrepancies between what actually happened and what James remembers pile up until you're sure there's no way Golden can bring the story home in a satisfying manner.

But bring it home he does, with style and heart, and a cast of characters that you can't help but like, even while you find yourself suspecting each one at some point or another during the narrative.

*     *     *

The Sandman: Endless Nights, by Neil Gaiman & diverse artistic hands,
DC/Vertigo, 2003, $24.95.

Has it really been seven years since Gaiman finished off his lengthy Sandman saga? Though I suppose, once you start counting up the projects in between—which include fascinating books such as Neverwhere, American Gods, and Coraline—you start to wonder where he found the time to write the seven stories collected here.

Because they aren't light, throwaway stories.

A quick recap for the uninitiated: years ago, Gaiman scripted an ongoing series for DC Comics about seven siblings he called the Endless (all the issues of which have been collected in trade paperback format and are currently in print). They're not gods, but they're most certainly not human either, though they do occasionally fall prey to human foibles. What they are is the physical representation of the names by which they're known: Dream, Death, Desire, Delirium, Despair, Destruction, and Destiny.

For this return to their world, Gaiman has written a story for each of the siblings, each illustrated by a different artist. The talent Gaiman has gathered to help him tell these stories is staggering: you need only flip through the pages to be seduced by their artistic vision. Some tell a story in the traditional panel-following-panel method, others explore different approaches to illustrated narrative. Their only similarity is that they are giants in terms of their talent.

But unlike some comic books where the art overshadows the story (much like contemporary film where too often the FX does the same), Gaiman reminds us once again of just how accomplished he is in this field. Each of the Endless get their fair share of time on stage—even if often the story ebbs and flows around their presence—but longtime fans will probably appreciate "The Heart of a Star" the most. This is where Gaiman has the audacity to strip away all the mysteries of his long-running series and give us the truth behind its mythology. Though curiously, in doing so, he has only increased the power of those same mysteries.

Anyone who has dismissed comic books over the past couple of decades would do well to have a look at this new collection to see just how fascinating a medium it has become. For the rest of us, sit back and enjoy this visit to the dark—though sometimes whimsical—twisting tales brought to us by Gaiman and his collaborators.

*     *     *

One of the most depressing things about a column such as this centers around all the books I don't get to review. The ones that get the shortest shrift are collections and anthologies, mostly because I don't read them from cover to cover, but dip into them, a story here, another there, and by the time I'm done, the book in question is gone from the new release shelves and needs to be special ordered.

But I know that readers of this magazine—because you must be picking it up for the wonderful stories, not columns such as this—are among that rarity of readers who actually appreciate short fiction and make the effort to seek it out. So here are a few books you might want to look out for the next time you're in a bookstore, or wandering about online:

*     *     *

One Lamp: Alternate History Stories from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by Gordon Van Gelder,
Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003, $15.95.

The title says it all, but let me add that what makes this so entertaining for a reader such as myself is that the focus isn't just on Civil War and World War stories. Sure, there are some, but there are also ones such as "Two Dooms" by Cyril M. Kornbluth that move on the periphery of WWII—it's about events involved in the A-bomb research and a killer of a story—or "The Two Dicks" by Paul McAuley, a fascinating excursion into the mind of sf's favorite paranoid genius. Except are you really paranoid when everyone is out to get you?

Already readers of this magazine, you know the quality of the material this collection presents, and it's wonderful having the stories all in one volume to revisit easily.

*     *     *

Trampoline: An Anthology, edited by Kelly Link,
Small Beer Press, 2003, $17.

The fact that this anthology gives us a new novella by the incomparable Greer Gilman ("A Crowd of Bone," an exploration of winter myth and narrative experimentation that's linked to her earlier story "Jack Daw's Pack") would be reason enough to pick it up, but it also includes new stories by Karen Joy Fowler, Alex Irvine, Jeffrey Ford, and a host of other perhaps not-so-well-known authors who prove to be just as talented.

There's no thematic thread here except that these are exceptional visions in which the authors aren't afraid to take chances with how they deliver the stories to us. Please note: that doesn't mean that you have to work hard to appreciate them; it just means that there's a lot of meat in these stories, and that sometimes the authors use unexpected narrative techniques.

*     *     *

The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Sixteenth Annual Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling,
St. Martin's Press, 2003, $35 hardcover, $19.95 trade paperback.

It's hard to believe that this series has been running for sixteen years now and remains just as strong as it did when it first debuted. I find this a dangerous anthology to read because it's forever introducing me to writers with whom I was previously unfamiliar, and that, in turn, sends me on far too many expensive treks to the bookstore.

Datlow and Windling specialize on tracking down and finding the kind of material we might otherwise miss: from within our field, from the small press, from the larger literary world beyond. And as in the anthology mentioned above, the thematic thread is simply good stories, of which they deliver plenty.

This is Windling's last year on the book (as she rides off into the sunset to work on her own fiction) so it'll be interesting to see what Datlow's new collaborators, Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, bring to the mix.

*     *     *

Year's Best Fantasy, edited by David Hartwell,
Eos, 2003, $7.99.

For those of you who prefer the source of your fantasy short fiction to come from closer to home (or if you're like me, you like both what's considered genre and that which might come from farther afield), Hartwell's ongoing series for Eos is the place to go. Although there are certainly stories with a contemporary setting to be found herein, this is the place to come if you like high fantasy, which has always been kind of a rarity when it comes to the short story length.

Anyone who says that short fantasy isn't viable isn't reading the magazines and anthologies that Hartwell is, or this annual collection of his. It's also got one of my favorite short-shorts in it, Ellen Klages's "Travel Agency," which I first read online. I've barely scratched the surface of the short fiction books that are stacked around my office, but here we already are at the end of the column. Perhaps I'll touch on a few more next time out. Until then, happy reading.

*     *     *

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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