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Books To Look For
The Blood Knight, by Greg Keyes,
IF THERE'S any sort of story that you think you dislike, there's always a book out there that will prove you wrong.
Regular readers of this column will know that I'm not particularly enamored with secondary world fantasy novels—especially not when they're presented in trilogies or series. I won't go into the whys and wherefores, except to reiterate briefly that I've read too many of this kind of story and can usually tell where it's going within a few chapters. Also, I don't like a book that can't resolve to at least some sort of a satisfying end.
So I was definitely not the target audience for Keyes's work when I picked up the first of this series, The Briar King, a few years ago. But I gave it a try nevertheless, and was hooked from the very beginning.
The main thing I like about Keyes's writing is that, in this series, he doesn't make a parade of the same old problems that plague too many secondary fantasy novels. Those problems could probably comprise a book in and of themselves—and they do. That book is Diana Wynne Jones's brilliant Tough Guide to Fantasyland in which all the tropes and beginners' mistakes are laid out, naked and blinking in the light of day. (It will have been reprinted by Firebird/Viking by the time you read this, in a fun package mimicking the "Rough Guide" series.) Explore its pages and you'll be surprised at how often even established writers get lazy, or don't think things through, or don't realize that fantasy isn't a war novel tricked out with elves and magic.
But getting back to The Blood Knight, let me say that Keyes knows what works.
Sure, there's a big, sprawling struggle on the go in this series, but it's the individuals who are important here, not armies moved across the landscape as though the books are playing boards or video games. There's variety as well, in the customs and mores of the different countries, in their religions, and he can write women characters as well as male—and they don't come off as men with breasts.
Best of all, lying at the heart of this series is a magic as wild and potent as what first brought many old-timers such as myself to this field. Keyes creates a sense of wonder in every page, and plays fair with that magic—as well as the plots and characterizations. And while these books (The Blood Knight is the third of four) are certainly each a part of a larger story, each one leaves the reader satisfied.
I'm being somewhat vague here in terms of referencing particular characters and plot situations, but that's only because this is an ongoing series and I don't want to spoil it for readers who might be intrigued by this particular book, but who have yet to pick up the others. Because, let me tell you, serious stuff happens to our cast from the previous books.
What I will say is that I haven't been this enchanted with a secondary world fantasy in longer than I can remember. When we look back on this decade, sometime in the future, I don't doubt The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone will be considered one of the very best our field had to offer in the 2000s.
Book of Shadows, by Mark Chadbourn & Bo Hampton,
And while we're talking about series, Mark Chadbourn has found an interesting way to extend one of his. Book of Shadows is a two-issue miniseries that serves as a prequel to his much longer prose series The Age of Misrule (from Orion Books in the U.K.).
Annie Lovelock works in a book shop and is just letting the days go by as she tries unsuccessfully to cope with the death of her boyfriend. To help deal with her grief, she has begun to dabble in magic.
When the story opens, she performs a ritual, asking for some sort of sign that there's more to life than dead boyfriends and grief. What she gets is a visit from the Morrigan, and that visit sparks an opening between our world and fairy. And it's the signal that the age of reason has ended, allowing the beings of myths to walk the world once more.
Like Keyes, Chadbourn understands the mystery and power of magic—what a powerful force it can be when it plays to awe, rather than letting it simply be horrific, or a thinly veiled analogy for powerful weapons. Though, I should add, it can also encompass both and still be satisfying—so long as the wonder of its Mystery isn't forgotten.
Chadbourn also knows that it's the individual characters that make a big story work, and this is a big story, even though it's only the length of a couple of comic books. Lovelock offers a fascinating viewpoint into the proceedings: somewhat nihilistic, until push comes to shove, and she has to make the decision whether she wants to live.
I like Chadbourn's storytelling. And I like his dialogue, and how it does what it's supposed to do: bring the characters to life.
Bo Hampton's art is interesting here. I usually think of him as painting an illustrated story, but in this series the linework is definitely prominent, and the colors appear to be applied with a computer, rather than a brush. But it all works, creating what looks like a curious mash-up of woodblock, lithograph, and comic book art.
You don't need to have read the prose books to be able to appreciate this miniseries. In fact, while it stands wonderfully on its own, one can almost see it as an extended advertisement for the prose series. It has certainly worked that way for me, since as soon as I finish writing this, I'm logging on to an online British bookseller to order myself a copy of World's End, the first of the three volumes available so far.
Surrogates, by Robert Venditti & Brett Weldele,
Last year around this time I reviewed the first three issues of this comic book miniseries. Now all five issues have been reprinted in trade paperback form. I also mentioned at that time that this trade edition was probably going to become available once the series had run its course, so there's no real reason for me to mention it again except that, since I've now had the chance to read the whole series, it would be gravely remiss of me not to bring it to your attention once more.
Yes, it's a comic book, but the story is pure sf, and better sf than much of what's appearing in prose form these days. It's the kind of thing I imagine Philip K. Dick would have written, if he had written comic book scripts. As it is, Surrogates carries Dick's spirit forward into a new medium. It's an absolutely fascinating piece of work—heartfelt and thoughtful.
Support these guys because we need more sf this good, no matter the medium.
Mercy, Unbound, by Kim Antieau, Simon Pulse,
Kim Antieau has a light prose style, quite humorous at times, though it's far from slapstick. That might make it seem like an odd choice for her to tackle such a serious issue as anorexia, but it really does work.
First, let me assure you that she doesn't play the issue for laughs. The humor simply comes from the askew observations and dialogue of the characters.
This is the story of Mercy O'Connor who thinks she's becoming an angel, so she's stopped eating, because angels don't need to eat. She doesn't have delusions of grandeur. It's more that she sees the world as a terrible place in need of succor and comfort, and feels that for some reason she's been chosen to help out. She doesn't know how much she can do, but she plans to give it her best.
Naturally, her parents are upset about this—especially her mother, with a history in her family of Nazi concentration camps where many of her family starved to death. They can't see the wings Mercy feels itching in her shoulder blades, so they send her to an eating disorder clinic in New Mexico.
Mercy's scared and a little confused at the clinic. The girls here really are sick. And since no one can see her wings, and they aren't growing, she starts to have doubts. What if she's not an angel? What if she's just an ordinary girl who's killing herself?
Antieau finds wise, affirmative answers to all of this in her story, letting it unfold in a realistic manner that nevertheless carries a whisper of magical realism.
An earlier novel by Antieau—Coyote Cowgirl—is one of my all-time favorite novels, but this new book certainly comes close. I think what I like best about it is how comfortably—and ably—Antieau reflects life in its pages. The hopes and fears, humor and sorrows. Weighty issues approached with a light touch, lighter ones—in the hands of her characters—taking on a certain gravitas.
This is how it is, and I'm enchanted with Antieau's gift to show it to us in such a way that we see it all anew.
Waking, by Alyxandra Harvey-Fitzhenry,
I've mentioned before in this column how I choose the books to review for it: I simply try everything that comes in. If a book holds my interest, I'll read it until it doesn't anymore, or I've come to the end.
That makes for some nice surprises as I try books by authors unfamiliar to me.
Case in point, Alyxandra Harvey-Fitzhenry. I didn't know the name, and the cover of Waking—very simple, lots of white with a band of red on which lies a red rose dripping one drop of blood—could have been about anything. I thought it was going to be a vampire novel, but instead, Harvey-Fitzhenry is riffing on "Sleeping Beauty" in a contemporary setting.
Beauty is the name of the main character. She's been having a hard time of it lately with her mother having committed suicide by cutting her wrists and her father now not allowing any sharp object in the house. Beauty's not allowed to use knives, scissors, pins. Her meals are served to her by her father in bite-size portions.
School's not much better. It's hard enough having to get by with a given name such as hers, but now everyone is watching her with a morbid curiosity because of what her mother did.
Beauty's solution is to withdraw into herself. She paints in secret in a corner of the basement and goes through her school days with her head bent down and as low a profile as possible.
And then everything changes with Luna, the new girl in school.
Luna lives with her mother in a kind of Pre-Raphaelite commune in an old house in town. Through a chance encounter at school, Luna befriends Beauty and gently but firmly pulls her out of her shell, with possibly disastrous results.
I liked this book. The characters are engaging and Harvey-Fitzhenry has a deft hand with her prose, slipping effortlessly between the third person perspective of the real world to Beauty's first person narrative in a series of unsettling dreams she has where she's haunted by a mysterious woman in black.
There's no indication on the book that it's being marketed to a YA audience and that's just as well. This is a well-told, magical story that will appeal to anyone who doesn't need some horrible monster, or things blowing up, to enjoy a good book.
A Dirty Job, by Christopher Moore,
I realized, as I started to write this review, that I can say many of the same things about Moore's writing that I did in my recent review of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. The main appeal of authors such as this is their voice, and how enthusiastic you feel about their work is entirely dependent on your reaction to that voice.
While Gaiman's voice is that of a kindly Brit uncle (albeit with a bit of nasty imagination, and a quirky streak in his personality), Moore is more North American and matter-of-fact. But there's that same underlying smile in his voice—the smile that tells us that, like Gaiman, Moore likes his characters and us, and he's letting us in on the jokes he sees.
I like Gaiman's voice better, but Moore is the better plotter. Gaiman's plots amble, and while they eventually get to where they need to go, one has the sense that a lot of it's made up along the way. Moore's plots are sturdier. Here you get the sense that everything plays a part in the forward momentum.
I could be wrong, of course. Gaiman could plot out every detail, while Moore writes on the fly. I suppose the point I'm trying to make is that for all the quirky elements in his story, Moore is still the more straightforward storyteller.
In A Dirty Job, newly widowed Charlie Asher discovers that he's been unwittingly recruited to be…well, not exactly Death. More like an aspect of Death, the way department store Santas aren't really Santa Claus, but they do his work for him on a small scale.
Asher is the last person for a job such as this. Slightly neurotic and a bit of a bumbler in the first place, he's trying to raise his newborn daughter and keep his secondhand thrift shop going at the moment this all comes to him, while dealing with the awful grief of losing the love of his life. The last thing he needs is the job of collecting the souls of the deceased, and then passing them on to the next person who should have them.
He also doesn't need to be attacked by giant ravens that live in the sewers, or have a pair of pony-sized black dogs show up to protect his daughter. Or one employee envious of his new career (the Goth), while the other suspects him of being a serial killer (the ex-cop). And what happens if he doesn't fulfill his new duties?
This is a funny book. I mean, genuinely funny. And like the best of such books, the humor grows out of the characters and situations they find themselves in. But it also has a lot of heart—and that heart is what will bring us back to the book, once the chuckling has died down.
I can't end this review without quoting from Tim Sandlin's blurb on the back cover: "I would recommend A Dirty Job to anyone who is ever likely to die."
Castle Waiting, by Linda Medley,
Fantagraphics Books have outdone themselves with the production of this complete collection of all of Linda Medley's Castle Waiting stories. (Though, for accuracy's sake, it's all one story—a real novel, though it's told in graphic form and first appeared as a serial comic.) But perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. This is the same publishing company that has been lovingly bringing into print everything from the classic Peanuts and Krazy Kat strips to the very contemporary work by Los Bros. Hernandez (which appears under the collective title of Love & Rockets) in sturdy hardcovers with actual sewn bindings and thick paper stock to highlight the art.
Castle Waiting looks and feels like a fat fairy tale book you might find on the same shelf as your Andrew Lang colored fairy tale books and Arthur Rackham illustrated editions. And funny enough, both are obvious inspirations for Medley's work.
Like Harvey-Fitzhenry's Waking, Castle Waiting is a riff on "Sleeping Beauty," but it's set firmly in a never-never medieval world, and while it starts off with the elements of that classic fairy tale, what it's really about is the after. In Castle Waiting, the princess is woken from her hundred years slumber by the prince, but then they immediately ride off into their new life, leaving behind all the people who keep a castle running.
The years go by and the castle becomes a refuge for those with no other place to go. So—overseen by Sleeping Beauty's original ladies in waiting, Patience, Prudence, and Plenty—we meet the stork-man Mr. Rackham, the bearded nun Sister Peace, the horse-headed knight Sir Chess, a Simple Simon, and Jain, a pregnant woman on the run from her abusive husband. They live their lives, and like the travelers in The Canterbury Tales, tell their stories to one another.
Now the thing that makes or breaks a story with any hope of merit is the characters, and what best illuminates characters is their dialogue and actions. Medley's dialogue is wonderful, and the anachronisms she throws in add to the flavor, rather than jar. Her art is somewhere between the fine art of children's book illustrators around the turn of the twentieth century and the Sunday comics of the middle part of the century: lots of clean lines, expressive features, and lovely detailed backgrounds.
You will find all sorts of references to old fairy tales in these pages—many of them very subtle—but more importantly, you'll find one of the freshest and most heart-warming reinventions of those old stories, of the spirit of those stories here. This is a book that should appeal to everyone and I can't recommend it highly enough.
And if you don't believe me, Jane Yolen makes an excellent case in her introduction as to why you should be reading this book. Go to the book store, flip through the book and look at the art, read Yolen's intro, and I know you'll be as won over as I was when these stories were appearing few and far apart as a serial comic book.
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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