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Books To Look For
Desdaemona, by Ben Macallan, Solaris, 2011, $7.99.
Our narrator Jordan is on the run—but from what? He's been seventeen years old for a very long time but he isn't an immortal—how's that possible? He helps out a young girl who's being haunted by a banshee and hunted by something worse, but how he does so raises even more questions. He's been helping out kids in trouble for a long time, all the while keeping as low a profile as he can. But why does he have to?
How can you not want—need—to read on to get the answers to these questions?
The second chapter opens in a new city, Jordan still on the run. He can't get complacent because, as he puts it, "If I do that, I'm dead. And not in a good way, not rest-in-peace and pushing up the daisies...these people I'm avoiding...would make me very dead and never let me lie down after."
He's sitting at a seaside café killing time over a newspaper that someone left behind when a young woman sits down across from him and tells him she knows who he is. She wants him to help her find her sister.
Jordan tries to refuse, but she's gorgeous and obviously competent and he's the victim of his own eternal seventeen-year-old hormones. ("Seventeen. Sometimes it just rises up and kicks you in the teeth.") Once he agrees to help her, it seems as though the whole supernatural world rises up against them, and it's not clear which of them is actually the target.
Ben Macallan is a pen name of Chaz Brenchley (I'm not giving away a big secret here—it says so right on the copyright page). When I realized that, I was no longer surprised Macallan's "debut novel" was so good. I've really enjoyed Brenchley's work over the years, though I have to admit I haven't read him for a while. That has nothing to do with the quality of his work and everything to do with the fact I just haven't seen his books in the bookstore and they don't get sent to me. It's that sad state of out of sight, out of mind.
But as much as I've enjoyed the books under the Brenchley by-line, this Ben Macallan book is my favorite title by him to date.
The opening chapters are so good that it would be hard to maintain that sense of mystery and originality throughout the rest of the novel, but Macallan does a pretty good job. The answers to the mysteries set up at the beginning play out well, the narrative never lags, and while much of the book is chase/fight/narrow escape, there are surprising moments aplenty and a sense of wonder throughout.
In fact, that's one of the best things about the book: Macallan's take on the supernatural and folklore. It all feels fresh and suitably awe-inspiring, for all the matter-of-fact tone of the narrator. I love Jordan's little commentaries like: "Thing is, the gap between us and them, between human and supernatural, it's not the unbridgeable river that most people want to think. That's a metaphor that breaks down both ways; it's certainly not unbridgeable, and it's not much like a river. More like a marsh, maybe, with solid ground on both sides and a lot of squidgy stuff between."
It's in that squidgy stuff that Macallan's inventive imagination shines.
I don't know how well the Brenchley novels sold, or why he chose to use a pen name for Desdaemona, but I hope the book's a commercial success so that we can see many more novels like this in the future.
George R.R. Martin's Doorways, by George R.R. Martin & Stefano Martino, IDW Publishing, 2011, $21.99.
I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: one of the more interesting changes in pop culture (at least for this reader) is how the comic book field has become the place where media originating in other sources can find a new home after it's had its initial run elsewhere.
There have always been crossovers from television and film, but now we have TV seasons continued after the show has been canceled (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jericho, Dollhouse, Firefly, etc.). And then there are projects that for one reason or another didn't get off the ground but get a new chance for an audience in the comic book medium.
Such as Doorways.
With the right actors, writers, and directors, it would have made a terrific TV series. Martin explains in his introduction why the pilot never got on the air—basically it boils down to bad timing.
It opens with a young girl named Cat appearing out of nowhere in the middle of a freeway, causing a big pileup. When she's brought into the E.R. where Dr. Thomas Mason works, his regular normal life gets turned upside-down. Soon Cat is being pursued by the government as well as powerful creatures from another world, and Mason finds himself helping her. Before he knows it, they're lost in a series of otherworlds, still chased by Cat's pursuers, who seem willing to destroy anyone and anything standing in the way.
The other worlds are alternate versions of ours. I have to admit to a fondness for this kind of story, so Martin already had me on his side when the book started. By the time it was done, I found myself wishing that the timing had been such that the series had made it on air.
It didn't, but at least we have this version, which quite frankly is probably just as entertaining as the TV show might have been.
Blood Work, by Kim Harrison, Pedro Maia & Gemma Magno, Del Rey, 2011, $23.
The other thing we're seeing more of in the comic book field is prose authors bringing their most popular books and characters to this graphic medium. Some are simply adaptations (like the current run of one of Patricia Briggs's Mercy Thompson books, or The Stand and The Gunslinger series by Stephen King), while others feature entirely original stories such as the book in hand by Kim Harrison, set in her Hollows series.
Now, I have no doubt that readers new to Harrison's work will enjoy this story on its own merits, but longtime readers of the Hollows books will get an especial kick out of it since it's set back when the vampire Ivy Tamwood and the witch Rachel Morgan first meet up. It's also told from Ivy's point-of-view, whereas the prose books are told from Rachel's.
In the Hollows books, the supernatural world has been outed and its denizens now live side-by-side with humans. Blood Work has Ivy and Rachel working on the Cincinnati police force. The case they're working is solid but of far more interest to this reader was the early relationship between the characters. Blood Work details their frustrations with one another that slowly move into respect.
From a visual point-of-view I enjoyed seeing the characters. Surprisingly, most of them fit the movie I had in my head while reading the prose books. The only one that didn't is Rachel, but that's because she's always presented on the book covers as this sleek, sexy fashion model. I like her better here with her unruly red curls and thrift-shop fashion sense. It feels truer to her personality than the book covers.
The only disappointment for me was that there was no Jenks—the outgoing, blustering faerie who guards Rachel's house and gardens—but that makes sense because he and Rachel wouldn't have met each other yet at this point in their lives.
If you're a fan of these authors' original books and haven't tried any of their comic books before, Harrison's Blood Work is as good a place as any to start. The writing is top-notch, the art excellent with a good narrative flow between the panels. And if you do like it, there are many others available, with undoubtedly many more to come.
The Heavenly Fox, by Richard Parks, PS Publishing, 2011, £11.99 (unsigned).
One of my favorite writers back in the seventies was the late Thomas Burnett Swann, so it's no surprise that I like Richard Parks's work as much as I do. They share a similar sensibility in how they approach the figures of myth and folklore: the otherworldly beings are down-to-earth—sometimes even lusty—but they never lose their magical sense of wonder.
I know I talk about a sense of wonder a lot, but to me the whole point of fantasy is to give us something other, something special that we can't get in a story where the magical elements are just stand-ins for something else. Sure it can be entertaining to have a vampire as a private eye, faeries that are punk rockers, or a werewolf as the CEO of some big company. Just as the vast sweep of armies on the move in an epic fantasy can be exhilarating. But I also love that moment of shivery frisson when some mythological creature steps from the heights of their legend to interact with humans. Not as humans, but as they are—more than human, their motives for what they do not necessarily easy to understand.
And sometimes both Swann and Parks tell us a story set wholly in the realm of myth, such as the novella in hand.
Here we meet the fox Springshadow, nine hundred and ninety-nine years old, and being a fox, utterly without conscience. On the eve of her thousandth birthday—when she will become an immortal from having lived so long on the life force of mortal men—she is made to choose between the life of her current mortal lover or immortality. Normally she has taken only as much life force as she needed, leaving her lovers alive, but this time the selfish choice will leave her lover dead.
Without hesitation she chooses immortality only to find that it's not all it's cracked up to be. It doesn't seem that much different from mortal life. But worse, her new state of being also comes with a new emotion that annoyingly feels like regret. She knows that it's only one small step from that to developing a conscience—an intolerable state for a fox.
So she has to travel through heaven and hell to find a solution.
I'm not sure how much of this book is based on actual Chinese fox mythology. I just know it's a delight from start to finish: fresh, with a charming cast of characters, and the kind of prose that is both immediate and timeless.
In other words, Parks has delivered another winner that I can shelve in the keepers section of my library—right alongside my Thomas Burnett Swann books like The Goat without Horns and Moondust.
Black Swan Rising, by Lee Carroll, Tor Books, 2011, $14.99.
Taking refuge from the fog and sudden rain, jeweler Garet James steps into an antique store she's never seen before, even though she knows the area like the back of her hand. After conversing with the owner, Garet ends up with a commission: to open a sealed silver box that bears the same symbol as that on a ring given to Garet by her mother before she died. That evening Garet gets out her welding tools and begins her work. She heats the solder sealing the box shut, slips a knife into the seam. A burst of light later, her life is changed forever.
The changes are subtle at first, but slowly, Garet begins to see another side of New York City, one inhabited by alchemists, fairies, elementals, and vampires. She gains powerful allies and friends, but even more powerful enemies, and realizes that everything she knew about the world is not so much wrong as incomplete—especially what she knows about herself and her mother's side of the family.
I don't want to give away too much of the plot because this is one of those books where the slow discoveries of what's going on, and who is who, is a large part of the charm. The prose is lovely, and Garet's first person point-of-view is personable, with a fine eye for detail whether discussing art, the music of her friends' indie band, or a meeting with an elemental in an abandoned subway station deep under New York's streets. (I tell you, abandoned subway stations get a good workout in fantasy books.)
Black Swan Rising's fresh take on what are already the tropes of urban fantasy will readily appeal to fans of the genre, but the book will also appeal to a broader readership. It reminded me a little of Deborah Harkness's A Discovery of Witches (which we discussed a couple of installments back). The detail isn't quite as dense, but it has that same depth of mythology, with the roots of its story digging deep into history.
There's also a similar joy in how the characters embrace both their magical abilities and the hidden world that comes into such sharp focus for them. Yes, there is danger, but there is wonder, as well. And they both stop at a satisfying place, with the promise of the characters embarking on a deeper journey in the next book.
But I mention their similarities only as a touchstone. For all their parallels of mood and intent, the books are very different from one another in the same way that apples and oranges are both fruit, but we'd never mistake one for the other.
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic, 2008, $17.99.
Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic, 2009, $17.99.
Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic, 2010, $17.99.
I'm a late arrival to this trilogy and I have no idea why. It appears to have made quite a splash—there's even a movie in the works—but for some reason I didn't hear about it until this year. Being a latecomer has its positive side, however, since I got to read all three books straight through without having to wait a year in between each volume.
The books are set in a nation called Panem, a post-apocalyptic dystopia in what was once part of the United States. Panem is divided into thirteen districts, ruled by a dictatorship in the central Capitol. The thirteenth district was destroyed in a rebellion, and as a reminder of that defeat, each district holds a lottery to choose one girl and one boy as tribute to the Capitol. There the teenagers are forced to participate in the televised reality show, "The Hunger Games," fighting to the death until only one survivor is left.
We've seen these elements before in everything from the Mad Max movies to the Japanese manga Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, but it's often been said, while you can give ten writers the same idea, if they're any good at their craft, you'll get ten entirely different stories.
It's easy to look at a finished work and find traces of what went before. For instance, I sense the spirit of Andre Norton's terrific young adult work in this trilogy, but who knows if Collins has read, or even heard of, Norton's work? I'm not sure it's relevant. Unless something's a blatant ripoff, it's best to take the work on its own merit and see how well it stands up.
I mention the above because there seem to be some arguments floating about as to how original these books are. Personally, I found the whole thing fresh and invigorating. I loved the characters. Katniss—especially in the first book—is everything we want our heroes to be: capable, generous, and able to make the hard decisions. The supporting cast all come to life, no matter how small a part they play in the story.
I also like how the story kept going in directions I wasn't expecting. In the first two books I simply had no idea how Collins would pull off what she eventually did, but more to the point, every surprising plot twist made perfect sense in retrospect. By the third book I began to guess how things would work out, and felt satisfied when they did.
I know I'm being spare in details, but I'm guessing that a lot of readers—especially on the adult side of our genre—might have missed this series just as I did. These books are too gripping and satisfying for me to throw around spoilers.
Let me just say that everything good you're heard about these books is true, and you'll be doing yourself a disservice if you don't give them a try.
Divergent, by Veronica Roth, HarperCollins, 2011, $17.99.
Chicago in a near future: obviously there's been some conflict, the city's in rough shape, but the survivors have found a way to live in peaceful coexistence by dividing into factions. We have Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent).
One day every year, all sixteen-year-olds have to take a test to see whether they should stay with their own faction or move to another. The tests are only a recommendation, but changing factions means having to undergo an initiation to prove one's worth to the new faction. Failing to do so puts one with the factionless, which appear to basically be homeless people trying to eke out a living in the ruins of the city.
Beatrice grew up in Abnegation. While her tests were inconclusive, she surprises her family and herself by choosing to move to Dauntless, where she changes her name to Tris.
Most of Divergent is basically Tris's initiation process—it isn't until the last hundred pages or so that the canvas grows larger. But that doesn't mean it's a dull book. There's action throughout this coming-of-age story, and while the pace rarely lets up, there's still time for characterization and some telling introspection.
I liked pretty much everything about it except for one thing.
I've been reading fantasy/sf for a long time, and I'm willing to suspend my disbelief most of the time, but I found the concept of the factions hard to accept. Whether now, or in the near future, I just can't believe that human beings—as individualistic as we are—would divide so neatly into factions as described here.
Yes, there are the factionless, and a few people like Tris who are Divergents—who fit into more than one faction—but most of the population appears to accept this state of affairs happily. For me, it doesn't make sense. I didn't worry about it all the time, but often as I was reading, thinking about it would pull me out of the story.
I suppose the best way to accept this is not realistically, as a possible future, but as a game. These are the rules; deal with them.
And mostly I did. I certainly enjoyed every other aspect of the book. But even now that it's done and I'm writing this, the implausibility of that underlying premise is what I think of first.
I'm not sure why, but dystopian fiction is really on the upsurge (we probably have Suzanne Collins to thank for that with the success of The Hunger Games). Its popularity is such that it's already getting hard to separate the good from the derivative. I know I've gone on a bit about my problems with the factions aspect, but Divergent is still a compelling thriller that I find easy to recommend as one of the better examples of this new sub-genre.
Cowboys & Aliens, created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, It Books, 2011, $15.99.
Under its It Books imprint, HarperCollins has reprinted this 2006 graphic novel just in time for the film release (which has probably come and gone by the time you read this). Cowboys & Aliens is basically an alien invasion set in the Old West of 1873, and should appeal to any fan of the old pulps and space operas. In other words, it's a fast-paced adventure story that never lets up on the fun.
And how could it go wrong? Just for starters it has wagon trains, Apaches, gunslingers, alien monsters, and cool future tech.
If the film is anywhere near as well done as this print version, it'll be worth a visit to your local cinema or DVD store.
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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