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Books To Look For
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, $16.
WHILE I was growing up, T. H. White's Mistress Masham's Repose and The Sword in the Stone were a couple of my favorite books. If you're only familiar with the Disney version of the latter, you really owe it to yourself to read the actual book. There are many wonderful things about it that the film doesn't come close to capturing, starting with White's superb prose.
And yes, I know it's really part of a larger work called The Once and Future King. But frankly, for all that I've tried over the years, I've just never warmed to the rest of White's Arthurian material, and happily I have an old hardcover of a stand-alone version of The Sword in the Stone, so I can pretend that the rest of it doesn't exist.
But I'm digressing. The reason I bring any of this up is that, in White's book, Merlin tells Wart (the young King Arthur) that Merlin lives backwards, growing younger while the rest of us grow older, and I can remember never quite figuring out how that would work.
I don't know if Gabrielle Zevin ever read White's book, or if the riddle of the odd direction of Merlin's life puzzled her as much as it did me, but she certainly approaches the question in Elsewhere.
The novel opens when fifteen-year-old Liz awakens on a ship bound for a place called Elsewhere. It turns out that she has died and Elsewhere is the afterworld, a land where the dead go and live backwards until they're infants once more and are sent back to Earth to be reborn as babies. The living backwards isn't much different from living forwards—you do the same sorts of things as you did when you were alive; it's even necessary to get a job to make a living—except that you get younger each day.
Liz considers this particularly unfair since it means she'll never turn sixteen, never get her license, never get to do all sorts of things. I could feel for her since the whole concept filled me with horror, as well. I know—you're not reliving your actual life backward—but you're still getting younger and less able to do things, day after day.
Eventually, you can't even read, or get around on your own, or remember much of anything, which I suppose is a metaphor for what happens to some of us when we get old, but the whole concept still seems like hell to me.
It also makes for a most absorbing and fascinating read, particularly because Zevin peoples her book with such an interesting cast of characters. How they cope with the afterlife, and which ones the reader identifies with, probably reveals more about us than one might otherwise discover.
The book is full of spot-on touches and speculations, and shows that Zevin really did her homework on how all of this might play out.
The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier,
Kevin Brockmeier also posits a city in the afterlife, a place where the dead carry on as though they're still alive, taking jobs, having relationships, and still dealing with the mysteries of the journey of life as it continues on beyond their deaths. But he throws a couple of particularly fascinating concepts into the mix.
The first is that the people in the city are only there so long as someone still alive remembers them.
The second is, what if a virus wipes out everyone on Earth? Most of the city's inhabitants go on to wherever it is the dead go next, but a good number—a surprisingly large number of them—remain. If everyone on Earth is dead, who's remembering them?
The various characters Brockmeier focuses on are a captivating group of individuals: an old-style journalist, a vagrant preacher, a blind man, a married couple falling in love again. And his prose is wonderful, ranging from straightforward to elegant and luminous.
I'd love to talk more about the book, but I don't want to spoil any surprises. Part of the joy of this novel is the slow revelation of various mysteries and puzzles. I recommend it very highly to you.
Already Dead, by Charlie Huston,
I seem to have inadvertently hit upon a theme with this column because, for some reason, every book I picked up this month dealt with one form or another of the afterlife. In Charlie Huston's new novel, we meet the kind of dead with which we're more familiar. It also proves the point that there's always a fresh take on what might appear to be the hoariest of subjects.
I don't know him, but if Huston had asked me before starting this book whether or not he should write a vampire novel, I would have told him definitely not. The world doesn't need another vampire novel.
But I'd have been wrong, because this is a very different sort of a vampire novel.
It helps that Huston writes in a first person voice so hardboiled it's like he's channeling Andrew Vachss. The character of Joe Pitt—the one Vampyre not affiliated with any of the various clans running around in New York City—is somewhat reminiscent of Vachss's series character Burke, or even F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack. Pitt lives off the grid, taking on odd jobs that others won't, and like Burke, he comes from a desperate background and has a need to help children.
But there are many differences.
For one thing, there are the Vampyres. For another, while Pitt has a number of acquaintances (not to mention enemies) to whom he turns for help as he searches the city for the missing daughter of a prominent businessman, he doesn't have real connections to others, or a family of choice to watch his back. He's very much alone, and that takes him into some desperate situations.
The ad copy and blurbs accompanying the book throw around words such as "ferocious" and "relentless" to describe Huston's style and the story, and they certainly live up to that. It's also a very fresh and invigorating read, even if Huston does fall into the literary affectation of using ellipses rather than quotation marks to indicate dialogue. I never did warm to that, but I suppose that's more my issue than his.
While this isn't a book for the faint-hearted, no one else should miss it.
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Gary Westfahl,
This is the wonderful sort of book that one keeps by the bedside, or one's reading chair, dipping into it to read an entry or two (and it's surprising how the hours can slip by as you follow the thread of one entry to another to another…). So it's unfortunate that it has to have such a hefty price tag—understandable, considering how it's aimed at the library market, which is fairly limited—because it's also the sort of book that belongs in the homes of serious readers and writers of the genre, rather than being something you have to make a trip to the library to peruse.
But investigate it you should, for it holds a wonderful wealth of information.
Subtitled, "Themes, Works, and Wonders," it features an alphabetical listing of subjects ranging from "absurdity" in Volume One, all the way through to "zoos" at the end of the second. Each entry gives an overview of the theme, a summary of its relationship to the field, a discussion (which would be very useful for teachers, though it's also food for thought for any reader) and then provides a bibliography of examples one can track down to see how the theme has been used in actual stories, novels, and films.
Volume Three takes a similar approach to classic books and films, and here the discussion sections would make an excellent jump-off point for book club dialogues—though, again, they would also provide fuel for one's own opinions, pro or con, in the privacy of your own reading space.
Editor Gary Westfahl and his contributors are to be commended for the exhaustive job they've done here. My only nit is that the book doesn't discuss as many contemporary works as I'd have liked. Recent films and TV series are represented, but a quick perusal of the index showed some of our more fascinating authors and their works to be missing. No Tim Powers or Michael Marshall Smith? No Neil Gaiman (although he does provide an introduction) or Jonathan Carroll?
But perhaps they're being saved for a future volume. As it stands, I shouldn't be looking a gift horse in the mouth, for this is truly an indispensable reference tool.
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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