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Books To Look For
Fire Logic, by Laurie J. Marks,
Earth Logic, by Laurie J. Marks,
AFTER A hundred-plus installments, regular readers of this column probably know my complaints about high fantasy by heart, having heard them so often, but for anyone new to the argument, let me briefly reiterate:
Over the past few decades, writers of what's marketed as high fantasy appear to have taken for their books the inspiration of the big battles one finds in Tolkien, the background coloring of magical beings and talismans, but ignored the sense of wonder that drew so many readers to the field in the first place. These days high fantasy novels are not much more than war novels, with battalions of orcs and elves in the place of human army divisions, their presence making it a "magical" book.
In fact, while these books have the look of Tolkien about them, they're much closer in spirit to what used to be called heroic fantasy, or sword and sorcery.
Now whether this is due to a nostalgia for the golden days of my youth, and the artistic endeavors that created excitement for me then (the way, for many of us, the music of our teen years forever retains a warm glow), or a true lack of variety, I find myself constantly missing the way the fantasy field was when I first discovered it in the seventies.
There weren't as many books available, true, but they were all different. When you started a book, you had no idea where it would take you. What you did know was that it would go someplace you hadn't been before. And it would deliver that sense of wonder—the little buzz of the impossible made real that you don't find in a mainstream book.
(This was helped, perhaps, by the fact that there weren't as many contemporary authors writing fantasy at the time, so to fill their lines, publishers went back and ransacked the vast library of books published earlier, before there even were genre designations. It's not too hard to have a varied line when you have a century or so of already published books to draw on.)
But the real point I should have been making all along is that what annoys me isn't so much the books themselves, but how they're marketed as high fantasy when they're clearly not. I don't know who's to blame for this—the publishers, the writers themselves, their agents—but we get series after series foisted off on us that have all the grit of secular combat, but none of the heart of one of the great Romances, and certainly a lack of wonder. But they call it high fantasy nevertheless. In these books we'll find battles and campaigns and political maneuvering, but no marvels invoking awe and mystery. The marvels in most high fantasy these days are merely fancy weapons, or a special kind of warrior whose racial background (elf, troll, whatever) makes him or her a one-of-a-kind heroic figure.
So, really, my argument has been unfair, comparing apples to oranges, and the only reason it ever came up is because of genre designations. If they'd called it "military fantasy," I'd have had no cause to complain.
The other point I should make—which has probably been obvious to many of you all along—is that there have been any number of wonderful military fantasies published to date, and no doubt there will be many more.
Laurie J. Marks's books are a perfect example. Or at least the first volume Fire Logic certainly is, although interestingly enough, while she is working on an exemplary model of a war fantasy series (I know there are only two so far, but one assumes there will at least be volumes with "air" and "water" in their titles), by the second book, she's already subverting the conventions I've laid out for a war fantasy novel and slipping in…a sense of wonder.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Fire Logic introduces the land of Shaftal, a peaceable kingdom where at one time elemental witches, with their powers for healing, truth, joy, and intuition, were revered. Now the land is under the yoke of a conquering army of Sainnites, and the Shaftali have become guerrilla warriors, harrying the marauders.
A quartet of characters share the main stage: the Paladin Emil, a fire elemental who would rather study and collect old books than lead a company of guerrillas against the Sainnites; Zanja na'Tarwein, another fire elemental, an emissary of the mountain-dwelling Ashawal'ai, who learns that her remote tribe is in danger from the invaders, but can't convince them of it; Karis, a giant blacksmith and rare earth elemental who could defeat the Sainnites and lead her people into a peaceable future if she weren't addicted to a deadly drug; and Norina, the air elemental Truthkin who can see through any lie, but is blind to the dangers that lie in wait for her charge Karis.
Fire Logic is definitely a novel of war and intrigue—both of which can fuel drama in the most common novel (for there's not much that's more dramatic on an immediate level), but Marks's book is anything but common. And while the military aspects are certainly integral to the storyline and the entwining lives of her characters, Marks spends as much time delving into the wonderfully complex and messed-up inner lives of her characters, in prose that never gets in the way of the story but is still stylistically gorgeous.
And most intriguingly, about two thirds of the way into the book, the low-key magical facets of her characters' elemental magics rise away from simply being fancy "weapons" and evoke—for both the readers and the characters—that elusive sense of wonder cited above.
The book ends satisfyingly. Yes, there are unfinished threads, but it is a real novel with a beginning, middle, and end. You're not compelled to read the next one in cliffhanger terms, but I can't imagine anyone not wanting to do so.
Earth Logic picks up with the characters from the first book, but adds into the mix sections from the viewpoints of some of the Sainnite characters, in particular the half-Sannite philosopher and fire elemental Medric (first introduced in the earlier book and now allied with that novel's core group of characters), and Lieutenant-General Clement, a female officer of the Sainnite forces in Shaftal.
The military aspect is still present, but it's complicated by a deadly plague that doesn't distinguish between Sainnite and Shaftali. Marks doesn't take the easy way out by having them come together in brotherhood to combat this menace. Her solution is a longer, stranger, and far more complicated story than that, though the climax, when it does come, evokes that elusive sense of wonder again, rather than military might.
The whole feel of the book is emotionally larger and mythic, and the latter isn't due simply to the Native American-like fables that introduce each of the book's five parts. It infuses the whole of the novel, particularly those sections from the viewpoints of the Shaftali characters, which play wonderfully against the common sense, on-the-front-lines of the main Sainnite, Lieutenant-General Clement.
By this second book, the series has gained an overall title—Elemental Logic—which appears to promise more stories to come. And since the second volume plays as fair as the first (it's a complete novel, of and by itself), and is, if anything, even better written than the first, I'm certainly looking forward to what Marks comes up with next. We might have to wait another two years for the next one, but it will be worth the wait.
I've spent some time on these two books (with one of them being older than I'd normally consider covering in this column) for two simple reasons. The first is easy: they're two of the best books I've read in a very long time. The second is because it gave me a chance to address this whole idea of military fantasy from a different side than I have in the past. The lessons are twofold as well: one should never generalize, and no matter how much you think you don't read a certain kind of book, there are always going to be examples that transcend your expectations.
The trick is figuring out which ones they are, because many of the novels marketed as high fantasy really are just military books with a vague fantasy element that is often played up more on the cover than it will be anywhere inside the actual pages.
Dead Witch Walking, by Kim Harrison,
Now that I've just said we shouldn't generalize, Kim Harrison's debut novel is what I think of as a "mundaning of magic" book, by which I mean it sets up a world (often very like our own) where magic, or at least magical beings, are so common that they're interchangeable with the "real world." If you have a headache, you take a potion instead of a painkiller. Vampires, witches, and the like walk shoulder to shoulder with ordinary people, and everyone is often aware of the other.
For touchstones, think of Glen Cook's Garrett books, or novels by Tanya Huff, Charlaine Harris, or even Terry Pratchett, since there is often an undercurrent of humor, if not outright wisecracking and silly situations involved.
These sorts of books also owe a debt to the mystery genre, since many of them feature private eyes, or "ordinary" people solving mysteries, frequently murder. (I put "ordinary" in parentheses because the narrator/PI is often a witch, or a vampire, or something of that sort.)
In other words, the concept of a sense of wonder doesn't exist because the magic is too common and spread too broadly across the playing field.
It doesn't bother me, though.
Mostly it's because the book is marketed fairly. It's made obvious that these books aren't pretending to be anything other than what they are: fun, often exciting forays into some strange mishmash world of mystery and fantasy.
Harrison posits a world like our own, but one in which magical beings have been outed and now live in a somewhat uneasy association with more ordinary people. The mundane world is policed by the Federal Inderland Bureau (and what do you know, we end up with a play on a familiar acronym), the magical by Inderland Security (IS).
Rachel Morgan is a witch who works for the IS, but quits on the night that opens the book because she feels that someone in the office is undermining her ability to get clean arrests, never mind decent cases. Another IS operative, the vampire Ivy Tamwood, quits with her and they go into partnership as PIs along with a pixy named Jenks.
But the IS just doesn't like its operatives to quit. Ivy is able to buy out her contract with them, but Rachel can't, so she ends up on the IS's hit list. She realizes that the only way to stay alive is to bring the IS a bust so spectacular that they'll have to let her out of her contract. But that's hard to do with every kind of assassin—from fairies to demons—out to collect the bounty on her.
Dead Witch Walking isn't a Big Think book, but it's fast-paced and loads of fun—the perfect read when you want to just get away from things for a bit and vicariously live the life of someone a lot worse off than you, but who views the world and its problems through the prism of a quick-witted wiseacre.
Gothic Wine, by Darren Speegle,
All art is subjective, but the visual arts are so immediate—most often they wire directly into our brains through our eyes, without reason even getting a chance to consider the impressions we're receiving—that we tend to have strong, impulsive reactions to them. That said, to this reader, Gothic Wine has a truly cheesy cover that in no way conveys the elegance of the prose to be found on the pages inside. If I hadn't read the book in a coverless format, I'd have been hard pressed to actually open it.
I wasn't familiar with Darren Speegle before reading this first collection of his, so if I had let myself judge it by its cover, I would have missed a real treat.
I get the impression that Speegle was born outside of Europe and moved there, specifically to Germany, later in life—perhaps in his twenties or thirties. The reason I bring this up is that the stories here are all infused with that wonderful enthusiasm for new surroundings—the landscape and people, and their history—with a loving attention to detail that one wouldn't necessarily get from a native writer. Often, we take our home turf too much for granted and only see it with proper respect through a newcomer's eyes.
Or, as in the case of a non-European reader reading Gothic Wine, we get to view a new setting through particularly Romantic eyes.
The wine country in which Speegle sets many of his stories sounds wonderful—except for the dangerous and weird things awaiting the unsuspecting visitor in its shadows. All of which makes for very fine reading. But while this is an exquisite collection of literate and evocative stories—opening up a window into a fascinating, if eerie, Europe—I suspect that we should only visit these wineries, old churches, and grape fields in the pages of Speegle's collection. That way we stand a better chance of surviving to read his next one.
If your local bookstore doesn't carry this book, you can try ordering it directly from www.aardwolfpress.com.
Story Time, by Edward Bloor,
Although he has a couple of previous novels under his belt (Crusader and the award-winning Tangerine), Edward Bloor is a new writer for me. I discovered him the way I do most of my new writers: the book arrived in my P.O. box and I opened it to the first page and read a bit to see what it was like.
Yes, I do actually look at all the books that arrive. Unfortunately, I can't possibly read or review them all, but they all get that test of my trying the first page, only stopping when I get bored.
In the case of Story Time, that just didn't happen.
It starts with the irrepressible teenager Kate Peters and her Uncle George (who's actually two years younger than she), practicing a flying number from Peter Pan in their backyard on a device invented by George. George is a genius and he's just been accepted by the Whittaker Magnet School for kids like him. But through the strange shifting of school zones that the Whittaker Magnet School seems to be able to set into motion, Kate has to go as well.
It's a horrible place, dedicated to having and maintaining the highest test scores in the nation. To accomplish this, every class—and they're held in dreary, windowless rooms in the basement of the Whittaker building, the other eight floors of which are taken up by a library—consists solely of the students taking tests. They're not actually learning anything except how to do well on tests.
Kate hates it, of course, because she's been looking forward all summer to attending a regular public school and hoped to get the lead role in the school's upcoming Peter Pan production. So she starts to snoop, to see if she can find a way out, and ends up learning far more than she bargained for:
Mysterious deaths, haunted books…the Whittaker Building isn't any more safe than it is cheerful.
Bloor writes with a breezy, irreverent wit. Many of the characters—mostly the villainous ones—are broad caricatures, but they're still amusing, and he makes up for their single dimensions with Kate's personality and a number of other colorful characters, such as the librarian who only speaks in nursery rhymes, or Kate's grandparents who spend their every spare moment practicing clog dancing.
Like Dead Witch Walking, it's hardly a Big Think novel, but certainly enjoyable from start to finish.
It's a Bird… by Steven T. Seagle & Teddy Kristiansen,
What's probably most unusual about this book is that it's a Superman title being published by Vertigo, DC's edgier line that specializes in material that's pretty much the antithesis of traditional superhero comics. But then, Superman's only on the periphery of the main storyline, and he's a fictional character, as well. (I know; he's fictional in his own comics, but you know what I mean.)
Instead, the story focuses on a comic book writer who has been given the plum assignment of writing a Superman comic, but unlike his contemporaries, he has no interest in doing so. What follows is a meditation on what the realities of an alien such as the Superman character existing in the real world would be, intermingled with a tangle of memories and fears centering around the writer's struggle with Huntington's Disease, a debilitating genetic muscle disorder that has incapacitated a number of his relatives, and one that he fears he will one day contract himself.
Along the way we're treated to the writer's interactions with his editor, a fellow writer, his girlfriend, and various members of his family, including his father who has inexplicably gone missing.
It's a Bird… is apparently a semi-autobiographical story, and with it, Seagle delivers a moving portrait of the complicated processes an artist must go through to create his art and make sense of the confusion of everyday life.
Kristiansen's art is a treat, perfectly suiting the wry delivery of the story with panels that range from realistic to almost-caricature.
The two have worked together before (most notably in House of Secrets, also for Vertigo), but this is without a doubt their most ambitious and successful collaboration to date.
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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Copyright © 1998–2016 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide