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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

The Wave, by Walter Mosley, Warner Aspect, 2006, $22.95.

States of Grace, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Tor, 2005, $25.95.

Disappearing Nightly, by Laura Resnick, Luna, 2005, $13.95.

IT'S WINTER as I type, and there's been rain, snow, freezing rain, and the usual winter absence of sunlight, as well as the seasonal household contagions. As is my wont, I rifled through the stacks of books that teeter precariously on my staircase, looking for something to read that would distract me from the seasonal blues. But this month, books that I thought would serve that purpose failed to engage me. So I set them aside (reading time being frequently scant and therefore precious), and just began to randomly read until I found something that did the job.

The books I found have this in common: they're books. In genre. That's about the only unifying theme for this month's column.

*     *     *

Walter Mosley's novel The Wave is a briskly paced sf novel that takes place around now; the language is spare, the details scant, and the story itself just moves. It begins with a series of strange crank calls, and while those calls are frequent, Errol Porter finds them oddly comforting, because they remind him, in some strange way, of the nighttime dementia of his departed grandmother. Which makes Errol a slightly unusual man in the middle of emotional doldrums, the detritus of an unexpected separation from his wife of many years—his high school sweetheart, his only real love.

The slightly strange takes a turn for the stranger when the crank caller finally identifies himself as Errol's father—a man dead and buried nine years. I have a fondness for ghost stories, for the things in the past that haunt in way that is dark and elegiac. This wasn't exactly that, but I wasn't quite certain what to expect.

What I got was a very Robert Sawyer-esque speculative novel. Errol goes to the graveyard to confront the caller—and finds him. But the man that he finds is younger than he is, and his natural skepticism fights with his natural sense of compassion, until he decides to bring the raving stranger, who knows far more about his life than he should, home.

Errol's sister and his mother don't share the same skepticism that he does, and neither does the woman in whom he is interested; baffled by their acceptance, and baffled by his own reaction, he's totally unprepared for the government agents who show up at a street fair to whisk him away. They're looking for the man who claims to be his father, but they're not willing to let Errol out of their sight, and Errol witnesses firsthand things both horrific and strange—because his father is not the first man to rise from the grave.

He's just the most recent in what may be a world-threatening infestation.

Mosley doesn't philosophize overtly, and his protagonist is not a morose, deep thinker, but the novel touches on the things that make people what they are: baffled, hurt, angry, and loving by turns. In particular, if you like Robert Sawyer's novels, you should read this one.

*     *     *

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's States of Grace features her much-loved vampire, St. Germain, this time in Venice during the height of Henry VIII's reign, where he is the wealthy publisher of a press devoted to books of merit. He is also a foreigner, and treads the political waters of the rich with care, grace, and the world-weary caution that thirty-five hundred years of existence generally press upon one. By his side is his servant of fifteen hundred years, and they converse in the Latin that is their comfort, a language forgotten to all but the church.

Where many modern vampire novels are thinly disguised romances, Yarbro's are not. Her St. Germain is affected by the long centuries of loss and the absence of life, and his existence is not so much fed by blood—although that's necessary—but by a strange communion with the living themselves. In this case, Pier-Ariana Salier, a young woman whose natural talent and passion for musical composition has caught his attention. He offers her his patronage, and the love that he can give, and there is a lovely passage in which he denies her the burden of gratitude—for he believes in her music, and believes that gratitude itself imposes an inequality between two people for which he has no desire.

Living in a city that is broken and webbed by running water is perhaps not the wisest of choices for a vampire, but it is here that he must be if he is to defend his press, and continue to publish those works he deems of import. He's a man on a mission with which any reader will sympathize.

But his varied interests are being shaken by religious difficulties between Protestants and Catholics, and his publishing venture's being questioned; he is being investigated by native Venetians, while at the same time commanded to appear before a tribunal in a distant country. In order to succor the men and women who serve him in that distant place, he leaves Pier-Ariana, and all of his affairs, in the hands of a financier, with strict instructions as to her care.

She doesn't wish to see him go, and with—as it turns out—good reason.

This is not a world in which women are equals. The historical period is portrayed realistically, and the characters' worries about their fate ring true; they are not helpless, but they have no real power and therefore few choices. St. Germain has seen so many civilizations rise and fall in his long exile that his view is different; he can both accept what is, and comment upon it, attempting to change things as he can without decrying the world at large.

Where Mosley's prose is sparse, Yarbro's is not; she describes the world in which St. Germain lives, the clothing he wears, the circumstances in which he travels, in perfect detail. Henry the Eighth is alive, well, and moving toward schism, and if St. Germain is not in England, the effects of the famous monarch's desire for divorce for the sake of dynasty can be felt across Europe. St. Germain is no stranger to danger or death; he is cautious because so much that he has held has vanished with time and the twists of fortune. He expects nothing to last—but struggles to preserve those things of value anyway, and that understated struggle, coupled with clear vision and a weary understanding of humanity, make him interesting.

I confess that I'm not the biggest fan of vampire novels in general, but there's so much that's pitch-perfect in Yarbro's elegant writing, I enjoyed this one greatly.

*     *     *

Last, and once again completely different, is Laura Resnick's latest. Unlike her previous novels—the two novels that formed In Legend Born, which were epic fantasies about war, treachery and the rise of heroes in a universe entirely of her own creation—this one is a contemporary fantasy set in New York City, featuring a heroine with the unlikely name of Esther Diamond. It's my guess that anyone burdened with that name would be practically driven into one of the creative arts, and to no one's surprise, Esther is an actress. A stage actress.

On this particular, trying evening, she is a green, half-naked fairy, although she is the understudy to Golly Gee (you may blame Ms. Resnick for the name), a not-quite-as-successful-as-she-would-like pop singer in a new musical that features magical tricks performed by a stage-shy magician whose ferocious wife is also the money behind the production.

When Golly Gee disappears into the proverbial thin air during a performance which leaves the show down one star, Esther is looking at the break of a lifetime—until she gets a mysterious letter warning her against performing in the play. She does what anyone sane would do—she goes to the police. Who are not so concerned with the disappearance during a performance of a Star who has a list of minor misdemeanors and a famous ego. Detective Lopez might just be slightly impressed with Esther, but perhaps not for her civic-mindedness in placing the report.

Not one to give up her big break easily, Esther is convinced that doing a disappearing act of her own might not be the wisest course of action when she discovers Golly Gee isn't the only magician's assistant who literally disappeared during the course of a stage-magician's gimmick—and the man who convinces her that there's more to the world than meets Esther's decidedly practical eye is one Max Zadok, a practitioner of arts that she would really, really have been happier knowing nothing about. But once she accepts the truth, or accepts that she's lost her mind, she mobilizes the troops, as they were—the other magicians who lost someone during a performance—and sets them off to find out whatever they can while she does some investigating of her own that may or may not be entirely legal. See Detective Lopez above.

There is more than a little zaniness in all of this, and to call Resnick's cast of characters colorful is to understate severely—but this is a light and sweet novel that never, ever takes itself too seriously. Full of wit and wry humor, this is a light confection of a book—the equivalent of a box of chocolates when you've got a sweet tooth.

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