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Books To Look For
Flashforward, by Robert J. Sawyer,
I WAS QUITE taken with the Flashforward TV series when it first appeared. It had an immediately gripping premise: For a couple of minutes, the whole world blacks out, each person collapsing where they are as they get a glimpse of their future. The fallout is immeasurable. Freeways look like the results of a demolition derby. Planes fall from the sky. It's a worldwide disaster.
The opening episode was not only smart, commercial TV, it was smart sf as well.
Unfortunately, about halfway through its twenty-two-episode run, something happened. Where in earlier episodes, everything felt as though it had a point, with events—both present and future—weaving into what promised to be a very satisfying journey, suddenly it appeared as though the writers had lost track of what they were doing and had just started throwing anything onto the screen, hoping something would stick.
I can't fault the actors. They continued to do a good job. The problem was with the words that were being put in their mouths, and how they were made to do things that felt out-of-character from their initial introductions. I can't fault the production, either. The show was still great eye-candy. But episode after episode got more convoluted and preposterous until my sense of disbelief went out the window.
Now I knew that the series was based on Robert Sawyer's 1999 novel—which I'd never gotten around to reading—so I thought I'd pick up the new edition of the book and see how the story was supposed to unfold before ABC got their hands on it.
Turns out the only similarity between the two is the concept of the worldwide blackout and people getting a glimpse of their futures—although instead of the few months that the TV series postulated, the book had people jump ahead for a glimpse forty-some years in the future.
Flashforward the book has a lot of talking heads figuring out why the event happened, then their attempts to replicate it. It's a book full of scientists and not much action except for one chase scene at the end. As it stands, it's a good, solid read.
Flashforward the TV series focused on the FBI investigation into the event and how to stop it from happening again. A couple of the scientists from the book show up in different guises, but otherwise it's all new characters. There's plenty of forward movement and action, though after a while it becomes meaningless.
I wish Sawyer had been given the first couple episodes of the TV series and written his book based on them. He could have showed ABC how it should have been done.
Fringe, by J. J. Abrams Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci,
Used to be that a successful TV series would spawn a few novelizations and comic adaptations that, while they could be entertaining in their own right, usually didn't do much to affect continuity.
These days there are still spin-offs like that, but we also have the actual series creators turning to comic books. Some are continuing a canceled series, as Josh Whedon has done with Angel and his "season eight" of Buffy. Others fill in backstory as with the Lost Web comic, or the book in hand.
With Fringe, series creator J. J. Abrams oversees a collection of short illustrated stories that fit before the show's continuity, or slip in between the cracks of episodes.
Half of the book is a long story that reveals the beginning of the relationship between Walter Bishop (the eccentric scientist on the TV show's investigative team) and his colleague William Bell (played on the show by Leonard Nimoy, in a bit of a casting coup). There are no excuses offered for their ambition, or the experiments that they undertake in service to it, but we also see that they weren't so much evil as blinded by their quest for knowledge. As I said, that doesn't excuse them, but it does allow for greater depth of characterization when watching the present day TV show.
There are also four short stories that wouldn't have been out-of-place on The Twilight Zone, but don't add a lot to the overall mythology of the show. They all have "surprise" endings—the kind that seemed terribly innovative when I was a kid watching The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, but seem obvious to me now.
The art is mostly competent but not particularly outstanding. In this case—which is a little odd, considering we're talking about a visual medium—it's the writing that provides the real draw. I should mention that readers hoping for insights into the surprising season three finale won't find any answers here. For that you'll have to wait until the show starts up again. But for a better understanding of how Bishop came to be the way he is, this collection the place to come.
Changes, by Jim Butcher,
The twelfth book in Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files series is everything a reader could hope for in an ongoing series: the characters still feel fresh, and the story's as good as ever. And if you haven't been following the series, I can assure you that Butcher fills you in on anything you might need to know as you go along. So don't be afraid just to jump in.
To give newcomers a touchstone, I couldn't do better than The Washington Times quotation that starts with: "What would you get if you crossed Spenser with Merlin?" (Spenser is the hardboiled PI from the late Robert B. Parker's long-running series.) The answer is Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard/private investigator, who has already had run-ins with everything from demons and vampires to werewolves and evil sorcerers.
Dresden's a fun character. The narrative is in first-person from his point of view and since he's got the wisecracking private eye attitude down pat, it's always an entertaining ride, even when the danger quota is cranked up high.
This time out Dresden gets a phone call from his ex-girlfriend Susan Rodriguez who tells him that vampires have kidnapped their daughter—a daughter Dresden never knew he had. Through various political maneuvering, Dresden finds himself standing alone against the vampire court. So he has to make new alliances.
When that was happening, I thought, we'll be seeing the fallout from those alliances in subsequent books. But given the surprising ending to Changes, I'm really not sure what Butcher can do next.
This is a very entertaining series—one of the very first to mix magic and mystery into what's now become a successful fantasy subgenre—and as I mentioned above, it's never too late to pick up the series. The nice thing is if you find you like this book, there are eleven earlier volumes awaiting your attention.
Green Witch, by Alice Hoffman,
When you really love a book, a sequel can be a worrisome thing. The question isn't so much if it's as good as the first book, but rather, will it dilute all the things that made the first book so good? Because once you read the sequel, there's no going back. If it didn't work for you, it will color how you view the original, and once that damage is done, you can never regain what you lost. So the more I like a book, the more wary I am of a sequel.
Green Witch is a good example.
The previous book, Green Angel, is up there among my all-time favorite books. There are a few of Hoffman's books there, but Green Angel is simply extraordinary. It's one of those books that get everything right. I've read it several times and it invariably leaves me feeling a little speechless and out of place with the world around me. On top of that, the physical book itself is perfection. The cover, the design, the typography…you get the idea.
Green Witch hits the mark in terms of its physical representation. In fact, the two books couldn't be better matched, visually. But I still held off reading it for quite a while after I'd picked it up because—well, see above.
I should have trusted Hoffman. The story is another jewel—the perfect companion to the earlier book.
In Green Angel, a teenage girl named Green loses everything in a huge disaster. The city where her parents and sister have gone to sell vegetables at the market is engulfed in flames, and Green is blinded while standing with the other survivors, watching the ashes fall. Her recovery is long and slow and requires her not so much to get over her grief, as to come to terms with who she is now. With the help of a ghostly dog, a kind neighbor woman, and a mute boy, Ash (as Green has renamed herself) attempts to find her place in the world.
Green Witch picks up a year or so later. If the first book was about survival, then this one is about rebirth—not simply for Green herself (she's reclaimed her original name), but also for her community which is growing increasingly fearful of what they call the Enchanted, meaning anyone who they perceive as different. Before things get out of hand, Green embarks on a journey with a typewriter strapped to her back and a sheaf of handmade paper to collect the stories of those of whom her community is the most suspicious.
The stories of the Enchanted turn out to be bittersweet, the Enchanted themselves mired in sadness and regret. Sharing the stories helps—as sharing stories always helps, in good times and bad—but a story only takes you so far. In time Green realizes that she has to step away from the stories she is being told and take action herself.
These two slim books, with their gorgeous prose and presentation, prove how important fables can still be, even in this hectic, fast-paced world in which we find ourselves. Perhaps more so, since they require us to slow down for a moment and appreciate what they have to tell us.
The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, by Stephenie Meyer,
Here's the book that proves Stephenie Meyer doesn't need 500+ pages to tell a good story.
In her novel Eclipse, a part of the plot involves the evil vampire Victoria's need for revenge against Bella and the Cullens for the death of her husband James. (Bella's beau, Edward Cullen, had to kill James to save Bella's life in an earlier volume of the Twilight series.) Because she can't attack the Cullens on her own, she raises an army of new vampires to do her dirty work for her.
If the above paragraph means nothing to you, don't worry. You don't need to have read any of the Twilight books to appreciate The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, since it takes place parallel to the series. It's not even necessary to know why Victoria is raising her army.
The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner deals with the fifteen-year-old title character, an unhappy teen who is turned by Victoria and then forced to endure her altered state in the company of twenty or so other newly turned vampires. In Meyer's world, new vampires are driven only by blood-lust and violence, but when Bree forms a friendship with Diego—an old vampire for this group, having been turned a whole year ago—she begins to learn the truth about the vampires and ironically begins to feel more human.
This is a terrific little story, briskly paced but still full of strong characterization. If you've read Eclipse, you know how it ends, but the details we know now make that episode in the longer novel poignant.
In some ways this short novel of Meyer's was like reading a historical for me. You know the big events going in. What makes you keep reading are the small touches, the characterization, and then the eventual realization of how it all fits into what you already know.
I liked Bree and Diego; probably more than a lot of the characters in the four volumes that make up the rest of the Twilight series. There was something about their doomed struggle that really resonated for me.
If you've been at all curious about Meyer's work, but weren't willing to invest the time it would take to read one of the big books, this is a great place to sample what she can do.
Hearts at Stake, by Alyxandra Harvey,
Yes, it's another vampire book. No, it doesn't feature some innovative new take on the subject. But guess what? It doesn't matter.
In Harvey's world, rather than always having to be turned, vampires can be born in certain ancient families, becoming vampires only upon their sixteenth birthday. It's a painful process and doesn't have a one hundred percent success rate, but Solange Drake's seven brothers all survived and now her own birthday is coming up. Unfortunately, since she's the first female vampire ever to have been born, there are additional problems to go with her upcoming change.
There's the matter of an old prophecy that a female vampire from the Drake family will unite all the various clans, which doesn't set well with the current vampire queen. Vampire suitors lining up to join with her lineage. Vampire hunters bent on the destruction of her and her family.…
All Solange wants to do is throw pots in her little studio on the family farm and live a normal life. She's even squeamish about blood. A much better fit for vampire queen would be her best friend Lucy, a fearless human whose family has been close to the Drakes for as long as anyone can remember. Lucy is feisty, doesn't take crap from anybody, and is fascinated by the Drake family history.
Their friendship is the best part of the book. The point of view switches back and forth between them in alternating chapters, and their voices are distinctive, so we always know who's telling the story. Those voices are also what give the novel its heart: they're smart, funny (especially Lucy's) and likable. And while both girls have romantic interests, that element is simply part of what's going on, not the whole reason to read the book.
Harvey writes a good fast-paced story, balancing effective action scenes with moments of humor. One moment we're worried because Solange has been kidnapped, the next we're laughing because Lucy has pickpocketed a young vampire hunter's wallet, and blackmails him over the phone after looking him up in the phone book.
As I said at the start, there's nothing terribly innovative about the vampires, but Harvey still manages to bring something to the page that makes it all feel fresh.
White Cat, by Holly Black,
Is there anything Holly Black touches that doesn't turn to gold? On the basis of her body of work to date, and with this new book in hand, I'd have to say, not so far. What I especially like about her as a writer is how she doesn't shy away from tough subjects, like drugs/addiction in earlier books, and the fact that Cassel Sharpe, the narrator of this book, killed his best friend Lila when he was fourteen. Not accidentally. Apparently it was with full intent. He just doesn't remember doing it.
Sharpe is an unreliable narrator, though, something that seems fitting in a book about a family of grifters and con artists. What makes things more interesting is that he doesn't realize he's an unreliable narrator. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
In the world of White Cat, what we think of as magic is referred to as curse work. By the touch of a hand (which is why everybody politely wears gloves) curse workers can change your luck, rearrange your memories, and even kill you. So perhaps it's not surprising that curse work is illegal, the only ones doing it being gangsters or con artists.
The gift (or curse, if you will) tends to run in families, but while the rest of his family are workers, Sharpe has no abilities. Because of that, because of the horrible secret he hides (his family covered up Lila's murder, but he can't forget it), he does his best to fit in at Wallingford Preparatory where he goes to school, revealing nothing of his background and portraying himself as normal as can be. (Though he still has enough of his family blood to run a betting pool in the school, wagering on everything from whether two teachers will make out to the likelihood of a mouse being caught.)
The book opens with a dream of him following a white cat out of his dorm and onto the roof. When he actually wakes on the roof, he knows he's been cursed, but he doesn't know by whom, or how.
To say anything more about the plot would spoil it for you. Let me just say that Black is inventive and plays some great sleight of hand with the plot—all of it fair, and possible for the reader to figure out, if they pay enough attention.
There are no fairies in this book, but it carries a sense of wonder and magic in its pages all the same.
Since it's the first in a new series, now's the time to get on board.
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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