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June 2008
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Out of the Wild, by Sarah Beth Durst,
Razorbill, 2008, $15.99.

I REALLY enjoyed Sarah Beth Durst's first novel, Into the Wild. In it we were introduced to "the Wild," an entity/place in which the characters from fairy tales are doomed to repeat their stories forever. Or at least they were until Rapunzel defeated the Wild, but at the cost of losing her Prince.

When that first book opens, the Wild is no more than a tangle of vines trapped underneath the bed of Rapunzel's daughter Julie. Rapunzel herself is hiding out in a small Massachusetts town as a hairdresser, along with any number of other fairy tale characters such as Puss'n'Boots (Julie's brother, who's still a cat) and the evil witch who put Rapunzel in the tower (except she's good now, runs the local motel and guards a genuine wishing well).

But the Wild gets loose, swallowing the town and pulling all of its inhabitants into endless repetitions of fairy tales until Julie manages to defeat it and bring things back to normal.

Well, sort of normal.

What I like about Out of the Wild, the sequel, is that the ramifications of that earlier invasion by the Wild still hold true. People remember. The town is filled with military guards, researchers, and the inevitable news crews.

But nobody really knows exactly what happened except Rapunzel and the other fairy tale characters, and they're not telling. They just want the fuss to die down so they can get back to their old lives.

Or at least most of them do.

It turns out there's a faction of fairy tale characters who don't like hiding who they are from the world at large. They like using their magics and being part of the stories. So they come up with a plan that results in the Wild being freed again, except this time it spreads across North America. Part of that plan is bringing back Rapunzel's Prince who is completely out of time in the modern age, which makes for a lot of entertaining mishaps. There are also great scenes involving multiple giant bean stalks, mobs rioting at Disneyland, dragons in the Grand Canyon.

Durst's second novel is as inventive as the first book, upping the stakes, but not to preposterous heights. Instead, Out of the Wild is yet one more example of how, these days, books for younger readers often offer a fresher take on fantasy than do the books ostensibly written for adults.

And this is also one of those rare occasions when the sequel is as good as the first book, if not better. Though, in my estimation, they make two halves of one story, and a wonderfully entertaining story it is.

* * *

Black Magic Woman, by Justin Gustainis,
Solaris Books, 2008, $15.

There's a trick to writing a multiple-viewpoint thriller. It's both frustrating and compelling, but always necessary. When you switch viewpoints, you always leave the first character at a high dramatic point with the reader wanting to find out what happens next right now, except they can't. (Hence the frustration.) To keep them on your side, the new viewpoint section had better be gripping. And when you get to the end of the new scene, you have to do it all over again.

It's a bit like riding a number of rollercoasters, all at the same time. What you don't do is stop a section at the natural end of a scene because then there's no impetus for the reader to stay up that hour later than he or she planned because they have to read on.

Justin Gustainis doesn't quite have his pacing down yet—or at least not in Black Magic Woman. Since the first chapter's apparently based on a short story (and actually has nothing to do with the novel except to introduce one of the main characters), I can understand his difficulty at the start—especially following a prologue that takes a while to connect to the main plotline. But after that, it takes him about a third of the book, with many viewpoint switches, before he finally begins to get the hang of it.

By that point he might have lost some readers.

I know that while I was interested in following how the various narratives built, I wasn't compelled, and the book sat unread for stretches of time. (One of the tests of a great book is that when you're not reading it, you're thinking about it and can't wait to get back into its pages.)

But I persevered, and the pace did pick up.

In what I assume is the beginning of a series, we're introduced to supernatural investigator Quincey Morris (descendant of the American who went up against Dracula with Van Helsing) and his partner, Libby Chastain, a white witch. Morris is hired by a family to free them from a curse that goes back to the Salem Witch Trials. Once on board, the pair find that they've also become targets of whoever's behind the curse, with the attacks against them escalating in severity.

At the same time South African Detective Sergeant Van Dreenan has come to the States to help the FBI in a case involving a serial murderer—the black magic woman of the book's title, as it turns out. We also get chapters from her viewpoint, and from that of the person behind the Salem curse.

I'm not entirely sure why I kept on going, except that Gustainis does present some interesting characters and obviously knows his background material. The latter is different enough from the usual occult thriller to keep it fairly interesting. But it's not until he gets the hang of his pacing, that the novel moves into a higher gear and everything clicks. Bearing that in mind, I'm comfortable recommending the book to you.

And I get the sense that if there's a second book, it will be much better right from the beginning.

* * *

The H-Bomb Girl, by Stephen Baxter,
Faber & Faber, 2008, 9.99

I like the title of this book, as well as its retro-cover that reminds me of an episode of The Avengers, or some other sixties spy series. And it certainly doesn't hurt that it's a time travel story.

(Regular readers might recall my fondness for such. But oddly, noting the front cover blurb that cites Doctor Who as a touchstone, I realize that the Doctor Who series is something I never got into, neither the TV show nor any of the many franchise novels that came in its wake. But I digress.)

So the book looks good, but I've been burned before—usually from there being too much, and unnecessary, explanation of the story's time traveling mechanism. We don't get that here. What we do get is an absolutely spot-on and delightful visit to Liverpool in the early sixties when the Mersey Beat was just getting off the ground and the city is still recovering from its post-war trauma.

Our viewpoint character is fourteen-year-old Laura Mann in what isn't so much a YA novel as one that simply happens to have a youthful protagonist. She and her friends are just trying to find some fun on Liverpool's dismal gray streets and in its shabby little coffee shops and clubs. They run a little wild—by sixties standards. In today's world their small rebellions would hardly raise an eyebrow.

And if that's all there was, it would be enough. Baxter does a terrific job of recreating the times and the mindset of the characters. The streets and tenements of Liverpool, the schoolyard where Laura and her friends hang out, the dark basement clubs—they all come alive in his capable hands.

But as the story progresses, Laura begins to notice people who seem strangely familiar, almost older versions of herself. And then suddenly there are men following her, obviously out to get her. Military men. Others less easily defined. And they all seem to think that she holds the key to how the future will unfold.

When she expresses her fears to her friends, one of them mockingly asks her, "How can you talk about choosing futures? Who do you think you are, the Virgin Mary or Supergirl?"

She's neither, of course, but it turns out that she can choose the future, and as the choices lie in front of her, each one seems darker than the rest.

This being a book written by a British author (the Brits don't seem as concerned about sugarcoating the tales they tell in any medium), I think you'll still be surprised by where Baxter takes his characters, though how it all works out is entirely appropriate to the story.

This is easily one of the better books I've read in a long time.

* * *

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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