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April 2008
 
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Charles de Lint
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

The Darkest Evening of the Year, by Dean Koontz,
Bantam, 2007, $27.

THIS BOOK IS a love story from Dean Koontz to Trixie, the beautiful golden retriever who enriched the lives of Koontz and his wife Gerda for the past few years, and who, incidentally, was also a published author in her own right (Life Is Good! Lessons in Joyful Living and Christmas Is Good! Trixie Treats and Holiday Wisdom, both from Yorkville Press) and the author of an occasional newsletter dedicated to Koontz's work.

Trixie was a service dog for the wheelchair bound who had to retire when she was three because of an elbow problem in the late '90s, which is when she came into the Koontzes' lives. All the royalties from her books went, and still go, to Canine Companions for Independence. She had to be put to sleep in June of 2007 due to an aggressive cancer.

Now when I say The Darkest Evening of the Year is a love story to Trixie, I hope you don't get the impression that this is a sappy book. Yes, you'll learn a lot about golden retrievers and dog rescue. But this is also another lean rollercoaster-of-a-ride entry into Koontz's body of work that builds from the rescue theme.

(And isn't it unfortunate that there are so many animals in need that to augment the work of the SPCA, every city seems to have their own additional services—such as Friends of Abandoned Pets, where I write this in Ottawa—and there also need to be organizations, and individuals, specializing in certain breeds?)

The novel opens with Amy Redwing rescuing a golden retriever named Nickie from a particularly nasty situation. She forms an immediate bond with the dog, but the joy of this new addition to her household is soon challenged by the threat of persons unknown who are shadowing every move Amy and her boyfriend Brian make. The mystery quickly deepens, reaching far into the hidden histories that both of them carry.

Koontz has a gift for characterization. I always care for the people in his books, though there's a downside to that as well, because the villains are also well-realized and I'm not as happy in their company. But to ignore the dark means you don't get to appreciate the light, and while Koontz is the master of the thriller, he's one of the few writers working today who invariably creates something positive out of all the darkness.

For at the heart of this book lies a spiritual journey—not the self-centered spiritualism of contemporary self-help and the New Age, but one that connects to something bigger than ourselves, and in doing so, reaffirms our individual identity.

It's all heady stuff for a contemporary thriller, but Koontz has never been one to tred familiar paths. His humor doesn't undermine the drama, the drama isn't melodramatic, and his respect for his characters—and through them, his readers—can be found on every page.

The Darkest Evening of the Year will certainly be appreciated by Koontz's many loyal readers, but it will be particularly welcome to all of those who loved Watchers (1987), another of Koontz's books featuring a golden retriever in a pivotal role.

*     *     *

Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer,
Little, Brown, 2005, $17.99.

New Moon, by Stephanie Meyer,
Little, Brown, 2006, $17.99.

Eclipse, by Stephanie Meyer,
Little, Brown, 2007, $18.99.

Back when the last Harry Potter book was coming out, I remember reading somewhere that the next most anticipated YA book after Rowling's final tome was Stephanie Meyer's third novel, Eclipse.

Okay. I know our field is much bigger now than when I first started reading fantasy and science fiction (cue violins and old man's grumble). But while I can no longer read everything that's published, I'm usually at least aware of it—especially the titles that are selling in the plus millions. But Meyer's books were completely under my radar.

Three books later, and some Googling about the author, and I'm no longer so much in the dark.

First let me say that I'm totally outside the optimum demographic for these books. Meyer has gone on record as saying she doesn't write down to her teen audience (and she doesn't), but these books so faithfully relate the high drama of chaste, romantic high school love that their greatest appeal will be (and apparently is) to young women who are either in, or yearning to be in, a relationship similar to the one shared by our human protagonist Bella and her impossibly perfect vampire soul-mate Edward.

There are pages (and pages) of pining and the viewing of the positive and negative aspects of this relationship from every conceivable angle. I'd say probably a third of each book is taken up with it. But if that were all, I wouldn't be discussing them here. Because what's interesting is how accomplished and inventive a writer Meyer is in the other two-thirds.

A few spoilers are coming now—though none relating to the third and latest title.

Isabella Swan's parents are separated. She's lived in Arizona for most of her life, basically taking care of her mother Renee who, though Renee means well, is a bit of a flake and doesn't have much luck with relationships. But then Renee finally does meet what appears to be the right man. He needs to go to Florida for a while and Renee would go with him except for Bella. So Bella makes the supreme sacrifice of leaving the sun and warmth of Phoenix to finish her high school and live with her father in Forks, Washington, where it's cold and damp and she doesn't know anyone.

The weather's as bad as she expected it to be and she feels like she's on an alien planet. Everything's too green and there are no open spaces. Her father is taciturn and set in his ways (one of the reasons the free spirit that was Bella's mother left him). But while Bella doesn't expect to be happy, she's determined to make the best of the next couple of years.

And then, as though presented to be the perfect distraction for her, in the lunch room of her first day at her new school, she is confronted with the mystery of the Cullens: Edward, Emmett, and Alice, and Rosalie and Jasper Hale, who live with the Cullens. They are standoffish from the rest of the school, but, as Bella notes, "so different, so similar…all devastingly, inhumanly beautiful."

Of course they're vampires, but it takes Bella a little longer to pick up on that than it does the reader—though to be fair to her, we're reading a book where we'll allow such a thing to be possible; she's living in the book, as it were, and just as we would if we were presented with the situation in our own lives, she keeps trying to find plausible explanations for things that simply can't be explained.

She's most fascinated by Edward—the youngest of the five—and it turns out he feels the same, though to protect her from his own vampiric urges, as well as those of his family, there's a great deal of pushing away and keeping his distance before his own passion can't be denied.

Ah, but the passion is all chaste kisses and long romantic conversations. It's rather fascinating that these two teens (or at least Bella—Edward's a few hundred years old) seem like characters from a Victorian novel, even though everything else in the book is very contemporary. This comes, no doubt, from Meyer's own Mormon upbringing. Growing up as an avowed "good girl" herself, Meyer writes teens who don't smoke or drink or have sex—mirroring the lives of Meyer's friends and her own teenage years.

But that isn't necessarily unrealistic. A lot of contemporary YA fiction features outsiders, but I'd say that most kids don't live on the edge. They might like to read about the outsiders, they might even dream about their lives, but that doesn't mean they want to live them.

If you're still with me, you might be wondering why I'm talking about these books in a column for a genre magazine that's ostensibly aimed at adults.

Well, as I mentioned above, this sort of thing only occupies a portion of the book. Much more is taken up with some terrific tension-filled storylines (Meyer writes great action scenes) and the author's original take on vampires and werewolves. Here's an example:

The Cullens live in Forks because there's so little sunlight, which means they can move comfortably under the ever-present cloud cover. But it's not because the sun will hurt or kill them. It's that the sun shows them in their true aspect, turning their skin into an almost diamond-bright burn that hurts to look upon.

In the second book she introduces her werewolves, and they're just as intriguing, with their roots branching out into Native shamanistic legend and lore.

If it's true as it says in interviews that Meyer has never seen a horror movie, and doesn't read horror books, then one can see where this utterly fresh take on hoary old tropes originates: it comes from the curiosity and imagination of someone to whom all of this is wonderfully bright and new. I'm not surprised that the books are marketed as mainstream YA books; it's because they're written that way. They don't have the baggage that comes from genre familiarity.

And they're very well written. I'll admit to skipping over and/or speed reading the parts where Bella's pining (because really, once I know she is, I don't need to know about it for pages on end), but most of the time I was either fascinated by Meyer's take on supernatural elements, or caught up in the action and the story.

And I have to say that I really liked, and came to care for, Bella and many of the other characters. Bella's a bit passive during the first two books, but I really appreciated the way Meyer had her grow and mature, learning to act, rather than simply react.

So, do I recommend them to you? I'm not entirely sure. If you're a teenage girl, or can access the spirit of such inside yourself, you might find them as addictive as readers of all ages found the Harry Potter books.

If you're not, or you can't, you should probably give them a pass.

*     *     *

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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