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Books To Look For
Don't Turn Around, by Michelle Gagnon, HarperCollins, 2012, $17.99.
Time travel stories in all their various permutations.
The novel concept, such as David Levithan's Every Day, reviewed in my last column (where the main character awakes in a different body every day), or the delightful twenty-five-hour day in Scott Westerfeld's Midnighters series (in which each day has an extra hour that only some people can experience).
Second chances, where the character has the opportunity of a do-over from some pivotal moment in their life. Alan Brennert's Time and Chance plays with that, although it's a variation in that the same character from two different timelines switch places.
And then there's the lethal amnesiac that everybody is trying to kill. Good examples of that would be the first book in Roger Zelazny's Amber series, or the first Bourne novel by Robert Ludlum.
Mentioning those books makes me want to reread them right now, but there's no time for that because we're here to talk about Michelle Gagnon's new book, Don't Turn Around. It sort of falls into the last category mentioned above.
Gagnon's character Noa Torson doesn't have amnesia. She knows she's a kid with hacker skills who lives off the grid after having escaped the foster care system. But she does wake up on a metal examination table in a huge warehouse with an IV in her arm, stitches on her stomach, and no idea of how she got there. All she knows is that somebody was operating on her, and as soon as she manages to escape, everybody really is out to get her.
The second principal character is a boy named Peter, a rich kid who likes to poke around in other people's computer files. Home alone one evening, he hacks his dad's laptop, only to have armed men break in a short time later, warn him not to try again, and leave with the laptop.
Peter is pissed and decides to find out who they are, enlisting a fellow hacker named Rain to help him. Rain, it turns out, is Noa, and she agrees because she needs money. She can't access anything from her old life for fear of being caught by the people who were operating on her.
A little investigating shows them that their problems are connected. They discover that the men chasing Noa and threatening Peter are involved in the disappearance of street kids, and that there's something special about Noa. Conspiracies and lies abound, and it soon comes to the point where surviving is more important than finding out what's going on.
This is a fast-paced and inventive novel—especially the opening and closing sections. I've read some complaints that Noa is basically a younger version of Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I suppose I can see the similarity, but that's like dismissing Sam Spade for being too much like Philip Marlowe. And Noa's not nearly as tough as Lisbeth, though she does have her own style of grit.
I liked it a lot.
I'm a little less certain about the freebie ebook short story "No Escape." It's as well written as Don't Turn Around but it doesn't really work in connection with the novel. It doesn't share characters—so that's not the problem. However, if you've read the novel first, you'll know exactly what's going on from the story's opening pages. And if you haven't read the novel, it will give things away that spoil the surprises in the book. I don't really see the point of it.
Dead Spots, by Melissa F. Olson, 47North, 2012, $14.95.
Now, speaking of my little list of things that are guaranteed to get me to try a book, Melissa Olson's debut offers a great example of the novel concept: In what's now become pretty much a traditional fantasy landscape of vampires, werewolves, and witches living hidden alongside of humans, Olson's principal viewpoint character Scarlett Bernard is a "null." Which means no magic works within ten feet of her.
Witches can't cast spells. Werewolves revert to their human shape. Vampires are alive, rather than undead.
Once they're out of a null's circle of influence, everything goes back to normal (or "paranormal," all things considered).
This is useful in her line of work since all three groups use her to clean up crime scenes when one of their own gets a little (or sometimes a lot) out of hand. By the time Scarlett is done, there's no trace that anything supernatural ever happened.
It's all well and good until Scarlett shows up late at a particularly gruesome murder scene: three vampires have been torn to pieces and the evidence points to the involvement of another null, since the vampires died as humans. The problem is nulls are particularly rare, with only five or six known to exist in the world. So what's a secret second one doing in L.A.?
But these are worries for the supernatural community. In the real world the LAPD has a very bloody and public crime to solve. First on the scene is Jesse Cruz, a young detective who catches a glimpse of Scarlett just before a wolf runs by and turns into a human because of Scarlett's proximity. Cruz's surprise at the transformation allows Scarlett to make her escape, but he tracks her down and demands answers she can't give without the permission of Dash, the head of L.A.'s vampires.
Dash allows them to work together with the caveat that Cruz keep his mouth shut. Cruz agrees, but it makes it hard for him to work the case from the LAPD's point of view since Cruz looks like he's slacking when he's actually investigating supernatural elements that he can't talk about. Things get more difficult when suspicion falls on Scarlett because she's the only null in L.A.
With a death sentence hanging over their heads and no support from their respective communities, it's up to the two of them to figure things out before time runs out.
The initial concept was great, but what's more important is that Olson follows through. Her gift for characterization and her edge-of-the-chair plotting is the real payoff. She doesn't hit a bad note from start to finish.
Wide Open, by Deborah Coates, Tor Books, 2012, $24.99.
When Afghanistan vet Sgt. Hallie Michaels gets compassionate leave for the funeral of her sister Dell, she doesn't expect to find Dell's ghost waiting for her when she arrives at the airport. Though perhaps she should have been more prepared, since she's already being haunted by a fellow soldier who died in combat—just as she did. Except she came back.
Neither of the ghosts speak to her. They simply wait expectantly for her do to something, filling her with a bone-chilling cold from their presence. Hallie thinks her own resurrection might have something to do with being able to see the ghosts, but she doesn't have time to work it out right now. With only ten days leave allowed, she needs to figure out how her sister died. The one thing she knows for sure is that Dell would never commit suicide as it says in the police report.
I'd get into more of the plot, but why spoil it for you? What I can tell you is that Coates plays fair and ties everything up. You can't ask for much more from an author than that they honor the trust you put in them.
I liked a lot of things about this book. It has a freshness of setting and mood that sets it apart from its peers on the bookshelves.
The ranches and big open spaces outside of Prairie City, South Dakota, are a welcome respite from the big cities in which most contemporary fantasies play out these days. The landscape with its bleak vistas and sudden storms is a character unto itself.
And speaking of storms, Hallie has a prickly personality with a lot of pent up anger. She's not sure where the anger comes from, but it makes her push at people when sometimes she should be accepting their help. It might be bred into her bones at this point—from the landscape, from her stiff relationship with her father, who's even less forthcoming with his emotions than she is, or even from the war in Afghanistan and what happened to her there.
Hallie is neither an entirely endearing character, nor always the kickass one might expect from her background. But I guarantee you will feel her, and feel for her, as you read her story.
Precinct 13, by Tate Hallaway, Berkley, 2012, $15.
Oddly enough, Tate Hallaway's Precinct 13 is also set in South Dakota, but rather than focusing on the big open spaces, it's set in the small city of Pierre. It opens with college grad Alex Conner starting her first day on the job as the Hughes County coroner. She thinks it's a pretty sweet job since how much murder and mayhem can there be in a sleepy little place like this?
But on the morning of her first day, the police bring her a cadaver. She's halfway through the autopsy when a snake leaps out of the body's chest cavity and turns into a tattoo on her arm. Then the body gets up and leaves. And then the dead old lady who's the only other occupant of the morgue starts talking to her.
This would be troubling enough to anybody, but it's especially so for Alex, because she's got a history of psychiatric problems that culminated in an eighteen-month stay in an asylum for attacking her stepmother (her boyfriend Valentine got sent to jail for participating in the attack). She's in Pierre because her therapist told her that the best thing she could do was get away from Chicago, cut all contact with her past, live somewhere boring, and stay on her meds.
She thought she'd done all of that.
She knows she's going to lose her job, but she still leaves the basement morgue and goes upstairs to the chief of police's office to report what's happened. She doesn't expect to be believed. She figures she's going back to the asylum. But she also doesn't expect her recital of events to be taken at face value. She is then told that this is a case for Precinct 13 and is given their address.
I don't want to spoil anything for you (trust me, the surprises pile up on each other, and they're too much fun for me to ruin). Let's just say that things get much stranger from that moment on, because it turns out that Pierre and the surrounding environs have a lot more supernatural activity than one would anticipate, considering it's in the middle of nowhere, and if one was to accept the supernatural as real.
Precinct 13 is a really fun, fast-paced contemporary fantasy that also works well as a police procedural. There are romantic elements, but no more than there would be in any young person's life; they're not the main focus by a long shot. Hallaway has put together a fascinating scenario, mixing the supernatural and natural worlds in a way that feels fresh, and her characterization is great, especially the voice of the viewpoint character of Alex.
I'm certainly looking forward to more books about both.
Eyes to See, by Joseph Nassise, Tor Books, 2012, $7.99.
Harvard professor Jeremiah Hunt loses everything when his young daughter Elizabeth is kidnapped and he starts an obsessive search for her. He loses his job, his wife, and pretty much his sanity. But he doesn't give up. Eventually he tries a strange cabalistic ritual that costs him his sight. In return, his blind eyes can now see ghosts and other denizens of the night.
But the book doesn't start there. It opens with Hunt performing an exorcism that sets the scene as to where he is now. How he got here in the five years since his daughter disappeared is filled in with flashbacks. In the present he takes on little jobs like this to bring in some money since losing his job at the university. He also does some consulting for the police. In return he gets access to their progress—or lack thereof—in his daughter's case. He utilizes the help of a pair of ghosts he calls Whisper and Scream to help with both.
When he finishes the exorcism, he gets a call from Homicide Detective Miles Stanton, who's on the scene of a grisly murder. Stanton has no idea exactly what it is that Hunt does—he just knows that Hunt's input helps him solve unusual cases—and he hopes that will happen this time as well.
But the murder victim is only the first of a growing number, and unbeknownst to the police, the serial killer appears to be leaving subtle clues personal only to Hunt. The victims are also members of the Gifted community—people like Hunt with various supernatural abilities.
Hunt finds his ghosts aren't enough in this situation so he turns to other allies for help: a Russian bar owner named Dmitri who is far more than he seems, and Dmitri's friend Denise Clearwater, a magic-worker. They offer him unconditional help, which Hunt knows is as much because they want to protect the Gifted community as it is to help him, but he doesn't care. At this point he'll take whatever he can get, because he's beginning to realize that the killer might have ties to the old cold case of his missing daughter.
This is a fine, hardboiled book from a writer who was new to me, although a quick online search told me that he's the author of a number of successful books. That made me less surprised at his easy ability to handle powerful story elements the way he does here.
And it turned out that he wasn't so new to me, either. As we got to know Denise Clearwater in Eyes to See, I kept feeling that I'd met this character before. I'm still not sure where, but another online search informed me that she's been in a number of books by Nassise, so I must have read one of them.
Eyes to See offers up a style of dark urban fantasy that will readily appeal to fans of John Connolly and Charlie Huston.
Grave Sight, by Charlaine Harris, William Harms & Denis Medri, InkLit, 2012, $25.95.
Charlaine Harris is probably best known for her Sookie Stackhouse books, which went on to spawn the True Blood TV series, now entering its sixth season. I like the character, as do a lot of other folks apparently, but in the long run I prefer Harper Connelly, the protagonist of Grave Sight and three other books.
Harper was struck by lightning as a teenager, which left her with the ability to "hear" the dead. It's not that they speak to her. It's more that she's aware of them, and when she's close enough, she can see their final moments. Because she can hear them, she can find their bodies, although if they were murdered, she doesn't see the killer, only how they died.
Using her ability, she travels the country with her stepbrother Toliver, helping police departments close cases by finding bodies and allowing people to get closure from their loved ones who have gone missing. The irony is that for all her ability, Harper can't find her own sister, who disappeared a few years before this book opens.
Grave Sight finds Harper and Toliver in the small Ozark town of Sarne. Originally hired to find a missing girl, the pair soon get embroiled in small town social politics. There's a lot of hostility to Harper and her ability—as there often is from the people who have hired her to help them, or from bystanders, thinking that what she does is either a con, or the devil's work.
The pair are hardly in town for a day when people start dying, Toliver gets jailed on trumped-up charges, and someone tries to kill Harper.
The Harper Connelly books are mysteries rather than urban fantasies, and Harris writes a good mystery, as her longtime readers already know from her other books. Harper's ability is the one preternatural element—compared to the kitchen sink approach of the Sookie Stackhouse books, which have every kind of creature in them (vampires and werewolves and fairies, oh my). And that's what I like about the Harper series. There's a singular focus and lots of great characterization that has to stand on its own without supernatural augmentation.
I've read the prose versions of the Harper Connelly books, and this graphic novel does a fine job of capturing the mood of Harris's writing. The art by Denis Medri is simple, but effective, with good use of panel flow and excellent character delineation. Unlike some comics, you're never confused here as to who's who, and that's trickier to pull off than you might think without the iconic costumes you get in a superhero story.
Now, I'm biased and would hope that, if you haven't been introduced to Harper Connelly yet, you'll go out and pick up one of the prose books. But with that said, this graphic novel also makes an excellent introduction to the characters. If you're already a fan, I'm pretty sure you'll get a kick out of seeing one artist's impression of the movie you have running in your head when you're reading the prose. I know I did.
Two Ravens and One Crow, by Kevin Hearne, Del Rey, 2012, $3.49.
In previous books of this series, Kevin Hearne's Iron Druid Atticus has made a habit of deflecting blame from himself to others. For example, when he went to Asgard and killed the Norns in an earlier novel, he made it look as though the dark elves were to blame. He's made enemies of Bacchus, Frigg, vampires...literally any number of gods and supernatural hardasses. There's also the little deceit of everyone thinking he's been dead for the past few hundred years.
Trapped is the book where it all comes back on him, and at a most inopportune time, since, after twelve years of study, his apprentice Granuaile is finally ready to be bound to the Earth and become the first new druid in a thousand years. It's hard to spend the days needed for meditating and tattooing the necessary connection to Gaia on his apprentice when people keep trying to kill them.
This is the point in the Iron Druid series where you really need to have read the earlier books. Not even the novella Two Ravens and One Crow, which is set between the end of the last book and the beginning of this one, really helps, since the novella isn't much more than the opening gambit of Trapped.
This fifth outing is also the most episodic of the series to date, and it ends with a cliffhanger. But don't let it put you off. If you haven't tried the series yet, you're in for a treat and should start at the beginning. If you've been following the Iron Druid's adventures so far, you won't be disappointed.
There's the usual fun mix of likable characters, action, mayhem, and humor. Plus Hearne knows his mythologies, and he's one of the rare urban fantasists to use the material with respect to the sources. In other words, there isn't a character called Morrigan because it's a cool name. That character really is the Morrigan from Irish mythology, and she acts pretty much the way you'd expect her to act.
I have to admit that I'm a little less enchanted when Hearne spends as much time in otherworldly realms as he does here. I like it better when Atticus, Granuaile and the wonderful wolfhound Oberon are mixing it up with supernatural beings in the real world where they also have to deal with the fallout that creates. There are sections like that here—such as the out-of-control knockdown in a Greek camping goods store—but not enough of them to my taste.
(And before you point it out, yes, I know Oberon is the king of Faerie in folklore and this is just the use of a cool name, but come on. Lots of people name their pets after mythological beings.)
To sum up, Trapped is a bit incomplete in and of itself, but still an entertaining addition to the overall story arc Hearne is building. The series delivers serious entertainment value for your hard-earned dollars. Just make sure you start with the first book, rather than this one. If you do, you won't be disappointed.
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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