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Books To Look For
Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch, Gollancz Books, 2011, £12.99.
Ben Aaronovitch doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel with what's basically a British police procedural banged up against an urban fantasy, but he's still taken the familiar elements of both and created something that won't be mistaken for anybody else's work. And I loved it.
It begins when probationary constable Peter Grant is just one day away from transfer to the tedium of a job with the Case Progression Unit where he'll be doing endless paperwork so that the "real" police officers don't have to do it. But on that last day before the assignments come down from the brass, he finds himself standing guard over a crime scene—a particularly grotesque murder. A chance encounter has him interviewing a witness. Who turns out to be a ghost.
This brings him to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, a wizard as well as a police detective, and Grant finds a new career path: not only is he a Detective Constable but he's also expected to become an apprentice wizard.
Now, while he might be attached to a supernatural branch of the police force, he soon finds that his job is still about keeping the peace and upholding the law. But instead of tracking down burglars or bank robbers, he's clearing out a vampire nest from an abandoned house, or trying to stop a turf war between the river gods and goddess of the waterways that pass through London.
And then there's the original murder case that got him the job. It turns out that there's something in the heart of London's theater district that possesses ordinary people, forcing them to mad acts of violence. Naturally this falls under the auspices of Grant's new job. Ill-equipped though he might be for the task, he ends up being the only one left standing who can bring the monster to justice.
I liked pretty much everything about this book. Long-time readers of American urban fantasy (based as it is, in part, on fast-paced mystery novels and thrillers) might find that Rivers of London doesn't move as quickly as they'd prefer. But I found the details fascinating, from the day-to-day workings of the British police force, to Aaronovitch's inspired use of British folklore. That sense of wonder I often write about in this column is in full force here—which is surprising, to some degree, considering that Aaronovich also makes his preternatural characters very down-to-earth and human.
But of all the characters, human and other, my favorite was our narrator, Peter Grant. Self-effacing, possessing a wry sense of humor, he's a keen observer and a genuine Good Guy. I look forward to following him in future books, the second of which—Moon Over Soho—is already out. I just haven't found a copy yet.
I should mention that the U.S. edition of Rivers of London is called Midnight Riot, a title I don't much like. It would never have gotten me to pick up the book.
Flip, by Martyn Bedford, Wendy Lamb Books, 2011, $16.99.
One night teenager Alex Gray goes to bed. When he wakes up the next morning, he's in another bed, in another bedroom, in an unfamiliar house, in another part of the country. Six months have gone by. The family at the kitchen table are all strangers. And when he looks in the mirror, he sees another boy looking back at him. A boy named Flip.
Flip is everything Alex is not.
Alex is a slight boy, a nerd who plays clarinet and chess. He's never kissed a girl. Flip is a good looking cricket player with at least two hot girlfriends. He's "one of the lads," always ready with a smoke or a drink. Or at least he was before Alex inhabited his body.
The set-up is a very familiar scenario for sf/fantasy readers, but Bedford handles it in such a way that it feels like we're visiting it for the first time. I love the serious tone throughout the book as Alex comes to grips with his situation and tries to figure out a way back to his old life. What adds to the drama is that he's just a kid. He can't take off and start life over again. When he does try to leave, the police fetch him back.
And then, through an Internet search, he finds out the truth of his situation. He's not alone. This has happened to others, but the others died before their souls took over another body. It's different for Alex. His body is in a coma. There's a possibility he could go back, but if he does, will he be trapped in that comatose body? What if the body never wakes up again?
Though the protagonist is youthful, Bedford's book is anything but. It taps into all sorts of ethical concerns and questions about the human condition and what our lives mean, while telling a gripping story.
Journey into Faerie, by Sally Odgers & Aaron Pocock, PocockIllustration, 2011, $15.
When I was in my late teens I had a number of penpals—in the British Isles, the States, and even in and around my hometown. This was pre-Internet, so when you sent a letter off, you'd often wait weeks to get a response. But there's something about getting an illustrated envelope in the mail, stuffed fat with stories, cassettes, and/or art that can't quite be replicated with its arrival in one's email inbox.
My friends and I spent a lot of time making up mythologies and secondary worlds, creating histories and people. We worked in prose, music, poetry, and various forms of visual art, though usually ink and watercolor. We had no idea that there was a world of fandom out there with its conventions and mimeographed fanzines, or even that there were very many other people as enthused with the fantastical as we were.
I remember those times fondly—for the great creative jams (to borrow a musical expression), but also for the innocence of what we were doing.
Fast-forward to the present day and the book in hand, a slim volume of faerie illustration and lore created by a pair of Australians. The art by Aaron Pocock (actually an Englishman transposed to Australia) is simply gorgeous, particularly his pen and ink linework. His paintings (there aren't as many of them) appear to drift off into a kind of air-brushed look that I remember as the kind of art one would find on the side of van, but today we would think of as digital art. They both have a similar look—at least to me.
Ah, but his pen and ink drawings—this is the stuff of magic. Pocock obviously has a deep love for the children's book illustrators of the early twentieth century, but the drawings have enough personality and individuality to make them his own. The subjects are grand and stately and whimsical, as required. His sense of design is fine-tuned, and the art—the pen and inks—is a treat from start to finish, from the old manuscript look of the backgrounds to the sepia tone of his ink.
I would have loved to have been corresponding with him back in the days I alluded to at the beginning of this review.
The reason I mentioned those old penpals of mine and the worlds we created is because of Sally Odgers's prose, which accompanies Pocock's art. No disrespect intended, but that prose is quaintly naïve and without any sense of narrative. It's all telling, not showing.
Granted, Journeys into Faerie is set up as one of those sourcebooks for faerie, so there's not a lot of big narrative for Odgers to tackle. But there are many little stories told, or alluded to, in what she has written, and it all falls a little flat and feels too cutesy.
I probably would have loved it thirty-five years ago if I'd been corresponding with her then, because her imagination is fertile, her characters sweet and endearing, and she certainly writes better than my friends and I did. But it doesn't work for me now.
That said, I still recommend highly the book for Pocock's art.
Journeys into Faerie is self-published, but you can order it directly from the artist at www.pocockillustration.com, or from Amazon.com.
The Nine Lives of Chloe King, by Liz Braswell, Simon Pulse, 2011, $10.99.
At the beginning of the summer, when I was looking to see what the new summer TV season would be like, I ran across a couple of shows with very familiar themes, especially when compared with each other:
In The Nine Lives of Chloe King, a teenage girl discovers that she is part of an ancient race of cat people who are being hunted and killed by a secret society. She also has a major attraction to a cute boy who turns out to be the son of the society's leader.
In Teen Wolf, a teenage boy is bitten by a werewolf and discovers that there is an ancient society devoted to wiping out all werewolves. He develops a major attraction to a cute girl who turns out to be the daughter of the society's leader.
In both series the protagonists start off being shocked with what they are/have become, but quickly embrace their new states of being—even getting cocky about it.
Of course none of this is new for long-time readers in our genre. We've seen shapechangers/werewolves and ancient secret societies all the way back to the pulps in the early part of the last century. The trick—as always—is how fresh can the creators make an old idea?
I remember the Michael J. Fox movies upon which Teen Wolf is based (I'll bet most of you do, too), but I don't remember any secret societies in them. This might simply be my bad memory. Regardless, the show felt a little distant from its source material.
As for the Chloe King books, I'd never heard of them. There are three: The Fallen, The Stolen, and The Chosen, handily collected into an omnibus trade paperback. I decided to have a look at them because I was curious about how this show fared against its source material.
I didn't plan to read all three of them. I only wanted to get a taste of the books, but I was pleasantly surprised. Though the television show is light, pleasant fare, it's nothing you'd plan your evening around. The books, on the other hand, turn out to be a lot of fun.
The characters are edgier than are their counterparts on the show. Chloe is somewhat unlikable at the beginning of the book, but you quickly discover that this is simply the author giving us an honest character with both good and bad traits, the way we all are. I especially liked her relationship with her mother since it adds greater impact to events that come later in the story. Ditto her relationship with her best friends, Paul and Amy.
(I'm being circumspect so as not to spoil anything.)
I haven't been following the show with any regularity so I'm not sure how well the writers on it handled the tropes I mentioned at the beginning of this review. But having read the books, I can say that Liz Braswell did a good job of keeping them fresh—for all their familiarity. It never feels tired, whether Braswell is dealing with the mythology of the Mai (the cat people), the nasty Order of the Tenth Blade that's trying to kill the Mai, or simply how Braswell portrays the pressure that Chloe feels with being a member of this secret race, one that's involved in a long outstanding war while at the same time trying to keep their existence hidden from the world at large.
What I liked best, however, was Chloe's arc of character growth throughout the three novels. She goes from being a somewhat thoughtless teen to a young woman not afraid to do the hard thing, even when that means giving up one of her lives.
While I might not have watched the show with any regularity as its first season played out, I loved the books and was disappointed when I got to the end and there were no more.
Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson, Doubleday, 2011, $25.
It's not a great title—too much of a mouthful and too clever. And the idea behind it isn't nearly as original as the publisher seems to think it is, judging from how they're promoting the book. It's also somewhat telling that much of that promotion is touting the fact that Stephen Spielberg will be making a movie of it with a 2013 release, rather than concentrating on the novel itself.
But that's not the author's fault, so let's talk about the actual novel:
Asimov's Law of Robotics notwithstanding, we've seen many cases of technology turning on the hand that build it. One has only to consider Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or The Terminator series for starters. But that's okay. Who doesn't like a book about technology running amuck? And every generation needs its cautionary take on the theme.
Robopocalypse, with its cutting edge tech, fits the present-day bill perfectly.
Daniel H. Wilson has a doctorate in robotics, but that only shows in how he knows what he's talking about. He doesn't write like a scientist. He writes like a best-selling author, with slick, flowing prose and well-rounded characters that you immediately care about.
The plot starts with the awakening of Archos, the super-intelligent, self-aware computer that sets everything in motion. It then follows the attack on humanity by everything that has a computer chip in it, finishing up with the coming together of a human resistance.
I have to admit that I almost put the book aside after the first thirty or forty pages. It wasn't that the writing was bad, that there was no forward momentum, or that it was boring. It's just that the first section of the book consists of many, many seemingly unconnected vignettes. They were all interesting, but I couldn't invest myself in any of the characters because they were here, then gone, and we were on to someone new.
But as I've already said, the writing is good and the concept works. And happily, just before I put the book aside, the various vignettes began to resolve into storylines that eventually braided into a gripping overall narrative arc.
Robopocalypse doesn't reinvent the wheel the way that its publisher appears to think it does, but Wilson has crafted a fine novel that should keep both genre and (perhaps especially) mainstream readers enthralled.
Ghost Story, by Jim Butcher, Roc, 2011, $27.95.
Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't read the previous book, Changes: skip to the next review.
Okay, you were warned.
In the previous book—the twelfth in Jim Butcher's popular series featuring the Chicago-based private eye/wizard Harry Dresden—Dresden was shot and killed. That makes it kind of hard to continue the series as a writer, but for a reader...well, you still really want to know what happens next. Not necessarily with Dresden, but at least with the supporting cast. How will they deal with it? Will they find Dresden's killer? Or is this it, the series is over?
Obviously it's not. And given the title, you can probably guess how Butcher kept Dresden as a narrator.
It opens with Dresden remembering how he was shot and drowned, except he comes to standing on a railroad track with a train barreling down on him. He's pulled off the tracks by Sergeant Ron Carmichael of the Chicago Police Department—a man who used to be the partner of Dresden's friend Karrin Murphy. Carmichael died ten years ago saving Murphy from a werewolf.
Dresden learns that he's Between—in a place between life and whatever happens to us after we die. There he discovers there was an irregularity with his death, which is why he's stuck in Between. He's charged with going back to our world as a ghost to solve his own murder and protect his friends. If he fails, he'll be stuck as a ghost in our world forever, unable to interact with anyone until he slowly fades away. No Heaven, no Hell, no whatever other souls get when they die.
But Dresden isn't the sort of person who would let his friends be endangered when he was alive, so naturally he goes back to the world of the living where he finds that six months have passed since his death.
This is a very different book from others in the series. Although it's narrated by Dresden, and he does manage a few physical manifestations, more of the book is taken up with the supporting cast. This is either a good or a bad thing, depending on your individual preferences.
Personally I like the supporting cast a lot and found them more interesting than Dresden in this particular story, so by the time I was well into the book, I was more concerned for them than I was for him.
The Digital Matte Painting Book, by David B. Mattingly, Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2011, $49.99.
I wasn't going to review this book simply because it seemed a little too esoteric for a general reading audience. I know many prose readers are also aficionados of fantasy art, and might pick up a how-to book by a favorite artist if there were a lot of paintings, sketches, or other peripheral material they might not see otherwise.
But this book on digital art by Mattingly (a very fine painter in the physical media) is pretty much a hardcore, exhaustive instruction book with an accompanying CD that has everything you need to get going.
Will the regular reader of this column find it interesting? Probably not. But my goodness, it's well done. It's like having the artist at your elbow, explaining every arcane bit of method, in clear, readable prose with plenty of illustrations to guide one along in a project (not to mention that the CD has videos where you can watch the artist actually doing what he talks about in the text).
While regular readers might find their eyes rolling up in their heads just considering this book, any aspiring digital artists will find it a dream come true. The price is a little steep, but most art instruction books are, since all the art and the excellent paper stock drive the printing costs up.
Highly recommended to artists either beginning their journey into the world of digital art, or for those artists working in more traditional media who might be curious about how this is actually done.
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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