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Books To Look For
BEFORE WE start, a quick note on my review for The Lost Girls by Laurie Fox in the August 2004 issue of this magazine.
I'd wondered why someone hadn't had a look at the story of Peter Pan from the perspective of the women, but of course someone had, as a reader (thank you, Alice) was kind enough to point out. Not only that, but I'd read the story before (memory, oh memory, where have you gone?). Called simply "Lost Girls," it was written by the inimitable Jane Yolen and originally appeared in Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast (Harcourt, 1997), although the version I read was a reprint in the February 1998 issue of Realms of Fantasy.
Utterly different from Fox's version, but no less intriguing.
And while we're dealing with old business, I was reading an essay by Darrell Schweitzer in the August 2004 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction in which he opined that Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife (reviewed in the May 2004 installment of this column) was "just Portrait of Jennie with the genders changed, and ten times as long."
Now I don't agree with his take on Niffenegger's book—for one thing, I found the narrative voices in it very distinct and suited to the characters' ages as they jumped around in time—but Schweitzer makes a good point in comparing it to Robert Nathan's classic fantasy. It simply didn't occur to me while reading The Time Traveler's Wife, and it's interesting to compare the two. But what did occur to me while reading Schweitzer's essay was that this is as good a time as any to remind those of you who enjoy graceful fantasies in contemporary settings (contemporary to when Nathan was writing them, at least), that you might want to give Robert Nathan's books a try.
After reading and reviewing Portrait of Jennie (in the June 1999 installment of this column), I tracked down a half dozen other titles by Nathan in the on-line used book stores and thoroughly enjoyed them all. Tonight, before writing this, I found myself another half dozen—all the ones I bought were under five dollars—so they're still available if you poke about a little.
If you need touchstones, think Peter S. Beagle, or Thorne Smith—the latter for the humorous elements you can also find in Nathan's work. And if you aren't familiar with the work of either of those two gentlemen, do try them as well. I envy your chance to read them for the first time.
As for Robert Nathan, I would hate to see him forgotten, so I urge you to try Portrait of Jennie if you haven't yet. It's still available as a trade paperback from Tachyon Publications. They're on the Net at: www.tachyonpublications.com.
Well, that took a little longer than I thought it would, but it's column inches well spent if it garners the late Nathan a few more readers. I'd hate to see him become totally forgotten. As Nathan writes in Jennie: "Yesterday is just as true as today; only we forget."
The same holds for yesterday's writers, only we shouldn't forget.
Enna Burning, by Shannon Hale,
Which isn't to say that today's authors don't have much to offer as well.
Case in point, Shannon Hale and her sequel to last year's The Goose Girl. The new book is as charming as was the first, and you don't need any previous experience with the world Hale has created in order to enjoy it. Naturally, if you have read The Goose Girl, you'll pick up on resonances and relationships between the characters before a new reader will, but Hale quickly brings everybody up to date without having to resort to large info dumps.
The Goose Girl was the story of an exile named Isa, how she came to learn the speech of the wind and make a life for herself in the northern land of Bayern, eventually marrying the Bayern prince Geric.
A good author gives us secondary characters as fully rounded as the leads. When it's done right, we care about both, and it's easy to spin one of the secondary characters off into their own story, which is exactly what Hale has done for her second novel, Enna Burning.
Enna, friend and confidante of Princess Isa, has left the court and returned to her home in the Forest. When the book opens, her brother Leifer has mysteriously acquired the ability to speak to fire. Where Isa can hear the wind and control it to some extent, Leifer can do the same with fire.
But fire is a hungry mistress and it demands to be fed. When Leifer realizes he can't really control the fire, he sacrifices himself during a battle with an army invading Bayern from southern Tira, winning the day for Bayern by burning the Tiran troops, but paying the ultimate price as the fire consumes him as well.
The war isn't over, however, and when Enna finds the vellum manuscript from which her brother acquired his ability to speak to fire, she decides to learn the fire-speaking ability herself. She won't, she vows, make the mistakes her brother did, but we all know there wouldn't be much of a story if she didn't mess up, and mess up she does.
Things go from bad to worse and the characters learn valuable lessons about friendship, loyalty, and the dangers of trying to control what can't really be controlled.
Hale has a deft touch with her prose and characterization. The story is fast-paced and satisfying, and I especially liked how she was able to depict the ability to speak with the elements as both a wondrous thing and a terrible, soul-destroying power.
These books are marketed as YA, but they're as much YA as the work of Patricia McKillip or Diana Wynne Jones when it's marketed in the same way. The bottom line is that they're simply good books.
Blackbird House, by Alice Hoffman,
There's a wonderful, intriguing format that lies in between the short story and the novel, and I don't mean a novelet or a novella. I'm speaking of a collection in which the stories, while retaining their stand-alone quality, share some sort of connection. Perhaps it's the setting; perhaps it's a repertory company of characters who move in and out of each other's stories.
Your background setting could be a planet, a city, or even an apartment complex such as Armistead Maupin used to such great effect in books like Tales of the City. Or you could pick a single house, out on Cape Cod, say, and follow the lives of the various people who lived in it, because who hasn't moved into a new house and wondered about the lives of its previous owners?
I'm guessing Alice Hoffman has.
Her Blackbird House on Cape Cod is a common clapboard building on a small piece of land near the sea, named for the blackbirds that can usually be found about it, although no one in the stories actually calls the house that. We get to see it being built and then take part in the joys and tragedies that touch the lives of its various inhabitants, all delivered in that simple, evocative language that makes Hoffman's books such a treat to read.
Mostly, these stories are character studies, and I'd suggest you read them a few at a time, rather than zip through the whole book in a single setting. Savor them as you would a fine wine or a dinner with close friends.
As is often the case with a Hoffman book, there is magic as well, more often implied than shown. In these pages there is a mysterious white blackbird that is either very long-lived, or begets a line of white-feathered descendants of which only one lives at a time. There are ghosts, too, and the possibility of a sea serpent crawling out of the tide and coming to land, leaving behind the smell of sulfur and a trail in the sand nearly four feet across.
But while such touches are always a welcome addition, it's Hoffman's deep understanding of what makes people—and therefore her characters—work that draws me to each new book, and to reread the ones that have come before.
Dead Man's Hands, by Tim Lebbon,
I've always had a fondness for Westerns. Perhaps it comes from having grown up when there were only a couple of TV stations available and the Western was at the height of its popularity on the small and large screens. Bonanza. Have Gun, Will Travel. How the West Was Won.
I read my share of Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour books (and I'm sure that's where I acquired my fondness for Western landscapes—badlands, deserts, and mesas), but it wasn't until Joe Lansdale's The Magic Wagon and Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, when it first started to run in the pages of this magazine, that I became familiar with the weird Western.
It's not a big sub-genre, so it's always of interest (at least to this reader) when something new is added to it.
Lebbon does a good job in Dead Man's Hands, telling the story of how an ordinary shopkeeper in the small desert town of Deadwood gets caught up in a meeting between what might be the angel Gabriel and what might be the devil, playing out an age-old struggle in the Old West. Oh, and for a bonus, we also learn the real details behind Wild Bill Hickock's death.
I read Dead Man's Hands from a galley, and as this is the first publication from a new small press, I can't vouch for what the final book will be like. The publisher promises cover and interior art by Canigala, a forward by Tom Piccirilli, an afterword by the author, and the books will be signed and numbered. Not a bad deal for $12.95, if the production values match up to the story they will be enhancing.
For more information, direct your browser to: www.necessaryevilpress.com.
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