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September 2005
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

The Limits of Enchantment, by Graham Joyce,
Atria Books, 2005, $23.

THERE ARE two things I really like when it comes to Graham Joyce's books: how varied his characters are and how thoroughly he gets under their skin.

This new novel, set in a small English village during the sixties, is the coming of age story of a young woman named Fern Cullen who has been raised by her foster mother Mammy Cullen, the local midwife and wisewoman. Fern is naive in the ways of the world beyond their cottage and the local woods, but wise in the alchemy of herbs, potions, and the mysteries of the land itself.

In her late teens, Fern is of an age when she should be calling her own helping spirit to her, but for her the act of doing so is complicated. For one thing, she's not quite sure she believes in the magic that Mammy accepts the way everyone else does breathing. For another (a great many others, as it turns out), the outside world has come intruding on their pastoral life:

One of the local men has taken a decided interest in Fern, hippies have moved into the estate house nearby, Mammy gets sick and is sent to the hospital, and the cottage is about to be taken away unless Fern can come up with a year's back rent. For Fern, heretofore always in the company of the old wisewoman, the unfamiliar loneliness, the worry over Mammy's illness, and the unexpected need for her to take charge of her own life all combine into a stew of confusion until Fern's not quite sure what to do next.

As I mentioned above, Joyce has a gift for characterization and he certainly inhabits this young country woman's skin. The story is told from her point of view and the cadence of the prose is welcoming and familiar. The book is mostly a mainstream story, but one with magic playing around the edges until the day Fern sets out to call her helping spirit to her. And then…well, you need to read the book to see how it all works out.

There's an element of nostalgia, evoked in Fern's fascination with the hippies and their music, with the beginnings of the women's rights movement, and with a sputnik satellite, circling above the world, a piece of magical science in her world of natural magics. But that nostalgia is for older readers who can remember when these things were new, changing the world. In the book itself, these elements are current events and affairs, perhaps threatening; their nostalgia is for the older times and ways that Mammy represents, and for the village's customs and traditions.

It all makes for fine reading: earthy and magical, full of wisdom and insights into why people do the things they do.

Highly recommended.

*     *     *

Arts Unknown: The Life & Art of Lee Brown Coye, by Luis Ortiz,
Nonstop Press, 2005, $39.95.

Fans of the old Weird Tales magazine, Arkham House books, and Whispers (both the magazine and the anthology series) will recognize the art in this book, if not necessarily the name of the artist. But Lee Brown Coye (1907-1981) was a well-respected artist and professor from New York state whose work encompassed a broader range than just his macabre illustrations. Though Coye certainly worked in color for book dustjackets, I remember him best for his pen-and-ink illustrations in the above-mentioned publications, many of which are reproduced here.

Coye's art is individual, to say the least—you're either going to like it or you won't—but it turns out that the man himself was as interesting as his work. He lived a hard but full life, ably chronicled here by Luis Ortiz, who explores it from the beginning, from his work in the advertising field to his involvement with Karl Edward Wagner's Carcosa Press and the dark fantasy field in the late seventies/early eighties.

While the text tells a fascinating story, it's the art Ortiz has collected for this edition that is the real treat. There are wonderful examples of his dark fantasy work herein, as one might expect, but also an extensive collection of his non-genre art, from book illustrations to cartoons and sculpture.

This one's recommended to aficionados of the old pulps, and strikingly odd artwork in general.

*     *     *

The God Particle, by Richard Cox,
Del Rey, 2005, $13.95.

The God Particle is just a plain delight, from beginning to end. Chock full of the science of physics, and featuring a research scientist as one of the main leads, it's a fast-paced thriller with great characters and a plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

The bonus? You learn a little bit more about particle theory than perhaps you already knew (at least I certainly did).

The interesting thing? You'll be so busy enjoying the book that you won't even realize how much you're learning.

The novel runs on two separate plotlines. In one of them, we meet Mike McNair, a physicist working on a research project in Texas to find the "God particle," a key to revealing crucial insights into everything we don't know about time and space and matter. He's under a deadline because the project is privately funded and the investors are expecting results, becoming impatient enough to send in their own scientist to—McNair soon realizes—take over the project. And if his replacement should be successful, she'll also steal all the credit from McNair and his team.

At the same time, McNair—as awkward a man as you'll meet—begins a relationship with a TV anchor who's won over by an e-mail exchange in which the two discuss religion and physics (and which make for very readable and informative arguments upon which we get to eavesdrop).

The book, however, opens with an entirely different cast and their relationships.

It's here we meet Steve Keeley, an American businessman in Zurich who, on the evening of the day that he's bought an engagement ring for his girlfriend back in the States, discovers that she's cheating on him. (And how he discovers this is a warning to us all about the dangers of a cell phone's speed dial.) Understandably unhappy with this new knowledge, Keeley goes for a drink, ends up in a strip bar where, late in the night, he finds himself drunk and in the middle of an altercation with a man much bigger and certainly stronger than he.

Keeley winds up going out a third-floor window only to wake up in a Zurich hospital—suffering not much more from his drop than some curious delusions that turn out to be the beginning of mild psychic abilities. One of these is the knowledge of a field that surrounds him, a field in which he can sense things that will happen before they do. Considering that this field is superimposed upon his view of the world as the rest of us see it, he soon feels as though he might be losing his mind. What he does lose, when he gets back to California, is his job and his ability to interact with the rest of the world.

After a chance viewing of a news broadcast on McNair and his research, Keeley realizes that the "Higgs field" McNair is studying bears a disconcerting resemblance to the field he senses around himself. So he goes to Texas, hoping that McNair can help him understand the impossible things he is experiencing.

So far so good. And the plot rumbles on merrily from there as all the separate characters begin to interact with each other to great good effect.

If the author stumbles a bit with the cause behind Keeley's affliction (the man responsible seems to chew the scenery more than act like a real character), he more than makes up for it with the wonderful depictions of the rest of the characters, to such an extent that we absorb their quiet moments as happily as we do the action scenes.

And throughout, the science remains at the fore—fascinating speculations on the cutting edge of physics. If you're as unfamiliar with Richard Cox's work as I was, I don't doubt you'll be as delighted as I am to find a new writer who makes hard sf such a delight to read.

*     *     *

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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