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Books To Look For
I usually manage to find enough good novels to keep me occupied, but rarely so many great ones following each other in such short order.
Some Kind of Fairy Tale reminded me of an Andrew Lang novel, My Own Fairy Book, in which he began his book just after the "happily ever after" and proceeded to tell us what happened next. The two books couldn't be more different in tone and style, but Joyce tackles a question that, while I've considered it, I haven't seen executed before:
What happens when the person taken away by the fairies comes back and twenty years have passed in what was only a few months for them?
Well, for starters, the people you left behind don't believe you. You might appear unnaturally youthful, but they'll come up with reasons for it. And instead of being happy to have you back, they're all kind of pissed off that you'd run off without a word for twenty years and then show up out of nowhere with only a lie in hand.
At least that's what happens when Tara Martin disappears from a small town in central England and then just as mysteriously returns. Her parents and her brother Peter came to assume the worst: that she was dead. Murdered by some pervert and buried in the unknown reaches of the Outwoods, a nearby forest.
Her boyfriend Richie, the last person known to have been with her, is questioned by the police and ends up going to jail for a while on possession of drug charges. He's a brilliant musician but somehow never got his life on track because he was forever haunted by Tara's disappearance. His worst fear is that perhaps the police are right. Perhaps he did murder Tara and simply doesn't remember having done so.
But no one believes the story that Tara tells to account for the missing years.
The fascinating thing—as Tara's story unfolds in therapy sessions—is that her sojourn in what she thinks was a kind of fairyland could have had either a magical or a delusional origin. Even the man she claims has followed her from the otherworld to threaten her rekindled relationship with Richie could just as easily be a simple stalker from our world.
But Joyce doesn't leave us hanging. By the end of the book it's pretty obvious which way he leans.
Beyond the fascinating premise—which is pretty much always a given with each new Joyce book—I'm just in love with the way he tells a story. There's never an off note, from each element of deft characterization through to the lyrical prose that sings so beautifully without ever getting in the way of telling the story.
Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a pure joy, from start to finish.
The Thorn and the Blossom, by Theodora Goss, Quirk Books, 2012, $16.95.
Ostensibly, this is a romance, though not so much in the style of a Harlequin; it owes more to the original Cornish version of The Tale of the Green Knight, which permeates the text, than it does to contemporary bodice-rippers.
American student Evelyn Morgan is on holiday in Cornwall when she meets local boy Brendan Thorne. They hit it off and Brendan shows Evelyn around the little Cornish village of Clews and the surrounding countryside. Taking her to Gawan's Court, a nearby circle of standing stones, he tells her the story of the star-crossed lovers in the medieval poem The Book of the Green Knight.
It was here, legend has it, Queen Elowen and Arthur's knight Gawan defeated evil sorceress Morva and her giants. Using her magic, Elowen turned the giants to stone and Gawan cut off their heads, but the spell killed Elowen. Before she died she promised Gawan that they would be together again—not even death could end their new love.
But Morva was also in love with Gawan, and she cast her own curse that he and Elowen would not be together again for a thousand years.
Just before Evelyn leaves to return to Oxford where she's studying, she and Brendan share a romantic kiss in the woods near Clews. Evelyn has a vision that the man kissing her has turned into a Green Man made of leaves, and she runs off in a panic. It turns out that Evelyn has been suffering visions for many years and has been on and off medications to control them, but she doesn't tell Brendan that.
The two don't see each other again for more than a decade, but in the meantime they've both based their academic careers on the story of the Green Knight.
You can read Goss's novel as a straightforward narrative, but you also have the choice of accepting Evelyn's visions as real, which adds a whole satisfying mythical underpinning to the proceedings. It's lovely stuff, enhanced by a handful of illustrations by Scott McKowen that are rendered in the same style as one might find in a turn-of-the-twentieth century illustrated book.
The Thorn and the Blossom is broken into two parts, one each from Evelyn's and Brendan's perspectives. If you open the book one way you get Evelyn's story; turn it around and you get Brendan's (read Evelyn's first). This is perhaps the least effective part of the package. I don't mean the two stories—I loved getting the double perspective, and Goss has done a fine job of not being repetitive, even when detailing accounts of the same events.
It's rather, as blurbed on the cover, the "unique accordion-style binding" that I didn't care for. I found the book awkward to hold, and the whole time I was reading, I was aware that if I wasn't careful it might all come apart on me. I ended up reading it with the book on a table. I would have preferred it if the design had been like one of the old Ace doubles, but at least it comes in a handsome slipcase so you're less likely to have it spill out of your hands when you're taking it from the bookshelf.
But while you're reading it? Not so much.
Moon Over Soho, by Ben Aaronovitch, Del Rey, 2011, $7.99.
Whispers Underground, by Ben Aaronovitch, Del Rey, 2012, $7.99.
We first met Constable Peter Grant in Rivers of London (issued in the States under the rather forgettable title of Midnight Riot), where we learned the London Metropolitan Police has a department to deal with inexplicable crimes and situations (like sorting out a feud between the spirits of the many rivers that course through London, or getting rid of a nest of vampires). The unit is nicknamed the Folly and has a personnel complement of two: Grant and his boss, Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale.
Grant ended up there because the witness he questioned at a murder scene later turned out to have been a ghost. This ability to see what others can't made him a perfect candidate for the Folly.
After surviving the events in the first book, Grant is now studying magic under Nightingale when he gets involved in what has come to be known as "jazz murders," since young jazz musicians are mysteriously dying after gigs. Their deaths strike close to home for Grant, as his own father is a jazz musician.
In the third volume, a case takes Grant and Nightingale into the labyrinth of subway system tunnels that honeycomb the ancient foundations of London. (I suppose that sentence is a bit of a spoiler, but come on—it's a series; of course the protagonist will survive into the next book.)
There are any number of reasons why this series has become one of my favorites. I really appreciate the mix of police procedural with mythic/folkloric supernatural elements that actually have a sense of wonder about them. I like the humor, and I love the tone of the narrator's voice throughout. The supporting cast is fantastic; even walk-ons feel like real people.
These novels aren't quick reads in the way that many urban fantasies (or for that matter, many traditional mystery novels) are. Aaronovitch can take a little time describing a scene, or a character, but I never felt that the pace was too slow. Rather, the detail only served to immerse me more deeply into this mysterious London that he is bringing to life for us.
If you're a bit tired of the same-old that pervades a lot of books currently in the bookstores (where a highly touted fresh idea is simply a slight variation on what's been done before), I'd recommend you give this series a try. They're all stand-alones, but just for your own pleasure, start with Rivers of London.
I'll bet you can't stop after only one.
A Bad Day for Voodoo, by Jeff Strand, Sourcebooks Fire, 2012, $8.99.
A quick disclaimer here: I know there's nothing funny about losing a limb or some of the other things in this book that—if they happened in real life—would be horrific. It's just a book, and not meant to be mean-spirited, as you'll soon discover if you give it a read. But there is dark humor throughout, and if that kind of thing doesn't appeal to you, you might want to give it a pass.
This is also one of those books where the narrator sometimes talks directly to the reader. So if you don't like that, again, you've been forewarned.
For everybody else, this is a laugh-out-loud, funny book from start to finish. The humor lies not simply in the events—which I find okay in small doses—but in the narrator's irreverent tone and those times when he breaks the fourth wall.
After some tongue-in-cheek FAQ pages, we meet our narrator, Tyler, who's complaining to his friend Adam about the lousy mark his history teacher gave him because somebody else copied off his test. Adam has all sorts of suggestions at how to get back at Mr. Click, finally deciding they should use voodoo on him.
(The narrator tells us, "When your best friend is just a tiny bit psychotic, you should never actually believe him when he says, 'Trust me. This is gonna be awesome.'")
Against his better judgment, Tyler finds himself in history class the next day, sticking a pin into a voodoo doll of Mr. Click that Adam has given him, and the teacher's leg "shot off from his body in a spray of blood and bone as if it had been shot from a cannon."
Needless to say, the boys are freaked out. Tyler wants to bring the doll back to wherever Adam got it, Adam is afraid that Tyler's going to tell the police and get him into trouble, and the next thing you know there's a voodoo doll of Tyler floating around. The remainder of the book has the pair, along with Tyler's girlfriend Kelley, frantically running about the city trying to get the doll back to its maker while they try to survive encounters with carjackers, cannibals, junkyard dogs, crazed taxi drivers and the like.
It's pure dark fun that any boy, and many adults, will enjoy.
Graveminder, by Melissa Marr, William Morrow, 2012, $14.99.
Don't be fooled by the YA-ish cover on the paperback edition of Melissa Marr's first novel for adults, Graveminder. (It was published as an adult hardcover last year.) While I'm sure this book will appeal to older teens, it's definitely a novel about adult characters and has an adult sensibility throughout.
When Rebekkah Barrow was a young girl, she would accompany her grandmother Maylene as she made her rounds through the graveyard of the small southern town of Claysville. She watched how at every funeral Maylene would perform the same quaint ritual: take three small sips from a silver flask and murmur the words, "Sleep well, and stay where I put you."
As a grown woman Rebekkah couldn't get far enough away from Claysville. She was trying to leave behind the memories of her best friend Ella, who killed herself, and Byron, the boy they both loved, but while she could maintain a physical distance, the memories were always close at hand. Though she still cares for Byron, she can't be with him because doing so just reminds her of Ella.
But when she gets the call telling her that Maylene has died, she reluctantly returns for the funeral—only to get caught up in the real and dangerous secrets that underlie what she always thought of as a placid, sleepy little town.
Because it turns out that in Claysville the dead come back if they aren't properly sent off (as in the "quaint ritual" mentioned above).
So yes, Marr has moved from the faeries of the Wicked Lovely series to the walking dead, but she's not exactly jumping onto the zombie bandwagon. Zombie stories, in prose and in film, usually set us up with a group of characters—some likable, some not—and then kill them off one by one until we get to the end. Graveminder's walking dead are a whole different matter, and the novel isn't a scorecard of who dies next.
Yes, there are a few corpses shambling about Claysville, but the town has an even better secret: a tunnel runs from the basement of the town's funeral parlor to a land of the dead. And it's in the scenes set there that—if you'll pardon the pun—the book really comes alive.
It's an intriguing place, overseen by the delightfully enigmatic Mr. D and peopled with the dead from all walks of life and all different times. The only thing that keeps them from spilling out into Claysville is the bargain struck between Mr. D and the town's original Graveminder and her companion the Undertaker.
When Rebekkah returns for her grandmother's funeral, it's to find that she's fated to be the next Graveminder, and Byron is to take on the role of Undertaker, and this only makes her want to run away again, this time for good.
Marr does a great job with the mythology of her new world, her prose is as seamless as ever, and if the events described above weren't enough, she slips in a half-dozen or so other subplots that only enrich the main storyline that much more.
I enjoyed this a lot and hope Marr mixes in a few more adult books with the YA ones for which she's already so well known.
A Perfect Blood, by Kim Harrison, Harper Voyager, 2012, $26.99.
Last time out (Pale Demon, 2011), Rachel Morgan was trying to clear her name at the annual witches' convention in San Francisco, where she faced charges of using black magic. By the end of the book, she'd overcome both a sun-walking demon and the witches who were actively working to make sure she didn't reach SF in time. Although she managed to clear her name, to stay free she had to voluntarily put restraints on her burgeoning demonic powers in the form of a charmed Elven bracelet.
For those unfamiliar with Kim Harrison's Hollows series, Morgan is a witch (who we now know is also part demon) working as a private eye in an alternate-world version of Cincinnati. Inderlanders (witches, vampires, and the like) came out in the middle of the twentieth century and the two—humans and Inderlanders—have lived in an uneasy alliance ever since. Morgan's partners in the firm are a living vampire named Ivy Tamwood, and Jenks, a pixie, who may be diminutive but is a lot more dangerous than one might assume.
Now back to the book in hand.
Problems arise when members of HAPA (Humans Against Paranormals Association) start killing witches, using their blood in experiments to develop a weapon they can use against all of the Inderlander species. Morgan is asked to investigate and soon realizes that the "perfect blood" they're looking for is hers: part witch/part demon.
With the restraints Morgan has put on herself, she has only her human abilities when HAPA comes looking for her, and unfortunately, that's not going to be enough.
Overall, Harrison gives us a solid storyline with this tenth book in the Hollows series, although I did find it annoying that certain plot points were possible only from having Morgan do something stupid.
But to be honest, I wasn't so concerned with the main story. I was more interested in the strain of Morgan's relationships with her friends. The tight group living together in a refurbished church appear to be unraveling a little. I don't like it, but I have to admit that it kept me turning the pages to find out more.
The Calling, by Kelley Armstrong, HarperCollins, 2012, $17.99.
I know I've promised not to dwell any more on the proliferation of series books and trilogies and such, and honestly I'm not doing that here. But I do have to warn you that The Calling is not a complete book. It's merely the middle part of a longer work (Darkness Rising) that the publisher and/or author has decided to publish in three parts.
When I reviewed the first book last year I mentioned that I probably wouldn't read any further—not because I didn't like the book but because I knew the second one would leave me hanging just as much as the first one did. But when I walked by a bookstore window on the day of release I simply couldn't resist going in to pick up a copy which I took home and basically inhaled.
Now if you've decided to wait until all three books have come out, read no further. There will be spoilers.
At the end of The Gathering, shapechanging Maya and her friends have just started to learn a bit more about themselves and the isolated medical research town on Vancouver Island where they've grown up. It turns out that the children in the town were the research subjects. But before they can learn more, outside forces come after them, setting forest fires to flush them out—and burning down the town in the process.
The residents have been evacuated with Maya and her friends being the last to helicopter out. And the book ends.
Unfortunately, when The Calling opens just moments after the previous book ended, they realize that the people flying them to supposed safety are a part of the outside forces that burnt down the town. In the ensuing struggle inside the airborne craft, the helicopter crashes and the group are on their own with no food or water, and with more of these mysterious men pounding the bush, looking for them.
The Calling is basically a chase from start to finish. Armstrong is a terrific writer. I like her characters, I like her pacing, and I like the way she weaves information into the story. And yes, I'll be buying book three, because I have to know how it all ends.
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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Copyright © 1998–2015 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide