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May 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

Iron Kissed, by Patricia Briggs,
Ace Books, 2008, $7.99.

I WASN'T going to review another of Patricia Briggs's books so soon, but this latest entry in the Mercy Thompson series is outstanding enough to warrant a look.

One of the main reasons I want to bring Iron Kissed to your attention is to point out how Briggs continues to let her characters grow and change. I've mentioned it before in this column: how character growth in a series, while a stand-by in most mystery series, is in rather shorter supply in most series set in the fantasy/sf field. Too often you can pick up the first and tenth volume of an f/sf series and the character is interchangeable between the books.

I think it's enough of a leap of faith to ask readers to believe that extraordinary things happen to a series character on a far more regular basis than they do to most individuals in the everyday world in which we live, without also expecting readers to believe that such experiences wouldn't have a major impact upon the character's life.

Yes, these characters are often extraordinary in their own right (in the case of this series, Mercy, while she has a career as a car mechanic, is also a shapechanging coyote). But I think such characters should still learn and grow from their experiences. Otherwise, they become so distant from humanity that the author risks the chance that her readers will find nothing with which to connect to in her characters.

That said, just as we can repeat mistakes in our own lives, fictional characters don't have to be immune to such failings, either. That can be a story all on its own.

In Blood Bound—the last book in this series—Mercy gave a helping hand to her vampire friend Stefan, which resulted in her getting caught up in a struggle that put not only herself but her friends at risk. So you'd think she'd learn when her old boss and mentor, a fey named Zee, comes to her with a similar request. As before with Stefan, there won't be any danger; she's just there to observe. Right.

But Mercy doesn't think twice before agreeing. If she didn't have that unswerving loyalty to her friends, then she wouldn't be the same character with whom a growing legion of readers have fallen in love.

And speaking of love, her love life is a mess as well. She has two alpha males from the local werewolf community vying for her and she's been putting them both off because she can't make up her mind between them—never realizing the tension this is causing in the pack.

Needless to say, both plotlines create more havoc in Mercy's life, but that isn't what makes the book so good. No, for all Briggs's deft hand with her prose and ability to give us an entertaining story, this time she delves deep into her characters and the result is a powerful and moving story that explores loyalty, responsibility, and the repercussions that an act of abuse can leave upon the lives of those directly affected, as well as those around the victim. It's not candy-coated and there are no easy solutions.

Those wanting to escape reality and look for some light entertainment should pick another book. But those readers who want some real meat on the bones of their stories will be amply rewarded with Iron Kissed.

I've liked and admired pretty much everything I've read by Briggs to date, but this book is a leap into a whole new level of writing for her.

(And just in case you were about to ask: yes, you get more depth if you read the books from volume one, but Briggs always does a good job of filling in background without going overboard, so you can jump in on the series with any of the books.)

*     *     *

Runemarks, by Joanne Harris,
Knopf, 2008, $18.99.

I'm not one of those pessimists who assumes that just because someone is good at one thing, they won't be good at something else. And generally speaking, I especially don't buy into it when it comes to writers switching genres.

I'm also a big fan of Joanne Harris's books, with Chocolat being an all-time favorite novel, though I'm fond of them all, from The Coastliners to Five Quarters of the Orange and on.

But with all that said, I still approached this new Harris novel with a bit of trepidation. That's because Runemarks is a secondary world high fantasy and that kind of book is hard to do right even if you work in the genre. Anyone who thinks it's easy, that you just "make it all up," has never given it a try, because not only do you have to utilize all the skills learned in other forms of storytelling (plotting, characterization, decent prose), you also have to be able to create a believable setting and a self-contained magic system/mythology.

Adding to the challenge that Harris presented herself is that she based her novel on Norse myth. Let's face it: just like stories based on Celtic and Arthurian matter, this is a background that has been pretty much run into the ground and then beaten to death with big fat books presenting such watered-down versions of its origin that the kindest thing to do would be to give it a proper burial, walk away, and ask for a moratorium on using such material for, oh, let's say, a hundred years.

It's a good thing people like Harris don't listen to me, since Runemarks turns out to be a fresh and invigorating novel, using its Norse background with respect and an obvious understanding of the original material.

The book takes place five hundred years after Ragnarók: the end of the world, according to the Voluspá, when the gods have all died. But it seems that the middle world—our world, or at least Harris's version of it—is still around, and so are the gods, albeit in diminished form. Those who are still mobile, at any rate.

How's that? Well, as in life, it's because stories never really end.

So while the world where the gods ruled has passed away, as was foretold in the prophesies, out of its ruin another world stumbles on—this one ruled by the Order who follow the Good Book which outlaws dreaming and imagination and especially those born with the mark of an old rune on their skin.

Our viewpoint into this world is through Maddy Smith, an outsider in a village of otherwise ordinary people. She was born with the defect of a "ruin-mark" on her palm, though her one friend, the itinerant traveler known as One-Eye, considers it a mark of destiny and has been teaching her about the uses of runes and other magic. It's a good thing, too, because while doing a favor for One-Eye by fetching something for him inside the goblin-ridden Red Horse Hill, she soon finds herself involved in a deadly struggle between the old gods and the new One God of the Order.

Harris's old gods are wonderfully realized. Woden, Loki, Hel, Thor…they're both as we imagined them, and less and more. They have nobility and flaws, they try to do the right thing and think only of themselves. They are, in other words, much like you and me, but still strangely, and wholly different.

Stylistically, Harris's prose is that perfect fantasy blend of anywhen—by which I mean, in ten, twenty, thirty years, it won't feel dated, in the same way that the work of many of the masters in the field doesn't date, though the books might have been written fifty years ago.

Add to that a charming viewpoint character, a reinvented old mythology that feels exactly right, complicated plot twists and character motivations, and you have a timeless book that will appeal to readers of all ages.

Highly recommended.

*     *     *

Heroes Volume One, by Aron Eli Coleite, Joe Pokaski & various artists,
DC Comics, 2007, $29.99.

When I was a kid (bear with me—this isn't going to be a diss of how things are now) we only had a couple of TV channels, both of which went off the air some time between midnight and two A.M. There weren't many cool shows, and when you got spin-offs like comics or novelizations, they were usually pretty lame and had no connection to the show's continuity.

Fast forward a whole bunch of years and now not only do we have what seems like a kazillion channels, but whole seasons of shows are available on DVD to buy or rent. (Since videotapes had yet to be invented, I couldn't even imagine this as a kid. If you really were hooked on a show, you had to make sure you were home when it aired, otherwise you'd probably never see it again.)

And best of all, spin-offs don't have to be lame anymore. Sometimes they're as good as the original show, adding to the mythology.

Such as in this recent collection of illustrated short strips that originally appeared on the Web. Collected together in this lovely hardcover volume, they form links between the first season's episodes, or provide more back story than there was room to air in the actual individual shows. The quality of the art ranges between okay to great, but the stories and writing are all wonderfully inventive, gripping, and often moving.

Quiet a feat, really, considering each piece is only around seven pages long.

I know that after the initial love affair many people had with this show, the shine has worn off when it comes to the second season. Personally, I've been enjoying it as much as the first, even if the last couple of episodes felt a bit rushed. But at least creator Tim Kring made sure we got somewhat of an ending before the writer's strike killed the possibility of new shows.

(And just to be clear, while I miss getting new episodes of favorite shows, I'm all for the "talent" getting its fair share of subsequent sales of DVDs and whatever the next medium to sell this material might be. Shame on the producers for being so greedy and forgetting that without the writers, they wouldn't have product in the first place. But I digress.)

If you're a Heroes fan jonesing for new material, give this book a try. You won't be disappointed. And while you're in the book or comic store picking it up, have a look around. There's lots more great entertainment available on the shelves to get you through a dry period of no new TV shows. It's all in this clever portable medium called books.…

*     *     *

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