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Books To Look For
Wisp of a Thing, by Alex Bledsoe, Tor Books, 2013, $25.99.
There are plenty of differences. Wellman's character wandered North Carolina mountain country, while Bledsoe's books are set in the Smoky Mountains. Silver John was born in the early days of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, when short stories were still a mainstay of our field; these days it's the novel. Silver John's background was the last century; the Tufa books are very much set in the here and now. Because of all of this, there are differences in tone, as one might well expect.
But the themes of music and the mountains—and the magic in both—forms a thread that ties the two series together, at least in my mind. I get the same pleasure reading Bledsoe as I did Wellman, that heady sense of wonder that doesn't grow out of far-off lands and made-up worlds, but has its earthy roots in the real world in which we all live.
And then there's the music.
Perhaps it's because I've had a love affair with music all through my life that it's not a stretch for me to attribute magical properties to melodies and songs, and to those who bring them to life. It's certainly what drew me to both series. Great stories, as well as sympathetic and believable characters, are what kept me reading them.
Wisp of a Thing is that perfect sequel (or part of a series) that stands entirely on its own. The setting of the mountains and the existence of the Tufa are the connection between the books, although we do meet characters from the first book, The Hum and the Shiver. Their appearance is fully realized for the new reader while being a little gift to those of us who have read the previous novel.
Another thing I really like about Bledsoe's Tufa books is the sense of these stories embracing a true North American mythology. Although they're made up, they feel as though they're been part of the folkloric lexicon forever.
Wisp of a Thing opens with musician Rob Quillen arriving in Tennessee. He just lost his fiancée in a plane crash, which has him wracked with guilt. He was a contestant on a musical reality show and the producers basically browbeat the pair into having her fly out for the big finale. The reason he's come to the Smoky Mountains is that a mysterious musician he met told him about the Tufa, and that they have a song that will mend his broken heart.
But the Tufa are a secretive people, and looking for someone who can help him leads to Quillen finding out more about himself and the way he thought the world worked than he would ever have thought possible.
Vampires, werewolves, and witches might rule the bookshelves, and increasingly, our TV sets, but for me, books like Wisp of a Thing or Doyce Testerman's Hidden Things (reviewed in a previous column) are the real deal when it comes to North American fantasy, or as I like to call it, mythic fiction. They're originals, rather than presenting variations on old themes. Both are valid approaches, and neither is better than the other. I read and enjoy both, but I remember the originals like this book while the current crop of what we call "urban fantasy" all blurs together in the end.
More on that a little farther down the column. But meanwhile.…
Possession, by Kat Richardson, Roc, 2013, $25.95.
I thought I'd read at least one of Kat Richardson's Greywalker novels before I started Possession, the eighth entry in the series, but it only took me a few pages to realize that wasn't the case. There was a lot of past history alluded to as the story progressed, but it's to Richardson's credit that I never felt lost. Whether the way she kept me up to date with past books would be too much already known information for long-time readers, I obviously can't tell.
Harper Blaine is a Seattle PI. She's also a Greywalker—a person who can walk between this world and that of the spirits. This skill comes in handy in her line of work, such as the case explored in Possession where comatose patients are suddenly sitting up and communicating—albeit in ways they never could before, and some that one would put down as patently impossible.
A woman with no gift for art paints scenes she's never seen, with a talent she never had.
A man writes in languages he doesn't know.
Another man has words appear on his skin, sentences that travel across his body.
Harper knows they're possessed, but she can't figure out by what. She also knows that something bad is coming to Seattle because of the sudden increase in ghosts, especially by the waterfront.
And if that's not enough, her boyfriend's father, who runs a clandestine government op investigating the paranormal in hope of using what he finds as weapons, appears to be nearing his endgame.
Surprisingly, with so much going on, Possession's pace is a little slow, and I found myself picking up other books and reading them at the same time. I continued with Possession because I liked the character and the writing was good, but most of the time there was no urgency to my finding out what happened next. Just a mild curiosity.
But if Richardson hasn't jumped to the top of my must-read pile with this book, I did appreciate that she's doing something different—even if vampires do eventually show up.
Fortunately, the Milk, by Neil Gaiman, HarperCollins Childrens, 2013, $14.99.
If Gaiman's recent The Ocean at the End of the Lane was the sublime, then this entertaining little tale is the ridiculous. While it's aimed at children, I'm sure many adults will get a chuckle from Fortunately, the Milk.
Which is okay by me. I like the idea of a silly little illustrated kid's book selling like gangbusters because in a world that sometimes takes itself too seriously—often for very good reasons—it's therapeutic to take an hour or so off and have a laugh at the antics of this father who goes out to get a bottle of milk for his children's breakfast and ends up having adventures worthy of what happened to the characters in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, spiced up with a few touches of The Goon Show and Monty Python's Flying Circus.
The Brits do this sort of humor so well, and Gaiman's proved in the past that he also has a flair for it. The illustrations by Skottie Young are amusing and at times frantic, but always fit the story. His penwork reminds me a bit of a more controlled Ralph Steadman or Bill Sienkiewicz, lively and just a little mad.
You won't come away with the deep sense of awe and wonder that might have washed over you at the end of The Ocean at the End of the Lane (or at least it certainly did for me), but you'll have exercised your smile muscles, and I've heard that's a very good thing for us indeed.
Love You Like Suicide, by Jo Treggiari, CometBus Issue 55 1/2, 2013, $3.
Something that's bugged me for a while with this current fixation the publishing field has with dystopias is how dystopias get glamorized. Sure, the world is pretty much in ruins, but, hey, isn't it cool? Wouldn't it be great to live after civilization has collapsed?
I honestly thought the whole dystopian trend was going to go away after a few years but it's only getting stronger. (The same thing happened with vampires a while back. I thought that would fade away, too, and you can see how right I was. There's a reason nobody comes to me looking for predictions on future trends in the field.)
But getting back to dystopias—I think this glamorization started with how street and punk culture has been depicted in genre fiction. The trouble is, with many of those books and stories, nothing convinces me that the author really understands what it would be like living on the street, or being a punk, or scrabbling to stay alive in a ruined world.
If they did, they wouldn't romanticize it the way they do.
All those authors would do well to read this novella from Jo Treggiari (the author of Ashes, Ashes—yes, another dystopian novel, but I haven't read it yet, so my jury's out on it). Love You Like Suicide isn't a piece of genre writing. Turns out it's not even fiction. But it is one of the most raw, honestly told, harrowing things I've read in a long time.
Set in San Francisco's punk scene in the 1980s, it tells the story of the author's nihilistic life as an addict, living in squats, making art, all the while living and breathing music.
It's not pretty. It's not happy. The author herself isn't sure why she's part of that scene. She just knows she doesn't fit anywhere else.
And that's why she, and those like her, are there. They don't fit anywhere. They're wired differently—and that's what so many of those other authors I mentioned above don't get. They have the trappings in their writing, sometimes they even get a bit of the tone, but they don't understand the raw pain that underlies being so disaffected.
Except it's not only pain. There's tenderness there as well. A desire to create…something. Of themselves, or maybe through some form of art. But the poverty, the drugs, the darkness, grinds them down until they walk around like junkie ghosts.
It's a real-world dystopia and it's not glamorous.
Love You Like Suicide is easily one of the best things I've read all year, and I hope to hell that Ashes, Ashes is even remotely as good.
Alien Hunter, by Whitley Streiber, Tor Books, 2013, $25.99.
I've retained a soft spot for Whitley Streiber over the years, though I can't recall the last time I read one of his books. But he's kept my goodwill by having written what I consider the best werewolf novel to date. I'm referring, of course, to Wolfen.
I wasn't sure what to expect with this book, but it certainly opens with an intriguing premise.
Police Detective Flynn Cramer awakes in the middle of the night to find that his wife has disappeared from the bed beside him. The house alarms weren't tripped and it looks to all intents and purposes as though she simply walked out, never to return.
Cramer knows she'd never do it. Her disappearance gets relegated to the cold case files, but he never gives up looking into it, even as his career path continues to rise. Over the years he finds numerous other cases similar to his own, and he becomes something of an expert in this particular form of disappearance, even though he has no answers. But the more he studies the cases, the more certain he is that they're connected.
Which is probably why he's approached by Special Agent Diana Glass, who runs the most secret police force on the planet.
The novel starts out intriguing, then moves into high gear and the momentum just doesn't stop. In retrospect, while I certainly wanted to find out what happened next as I was reading, the earlier part of the story with its tantalizing mysteries was my favorite part.
Grimoire of the Lamb, by Kevin Hearne, Del Rey, 2013, $3.33.
Unlike Hearne's 2012 ebook-only novella, Two Ravens and One Crow, which was basically a bridge between his novels Tricked and Trapped, Grimoire of the Lamb is a standalone story, featuring Atticus the druid and his Irish wolfhound, Oberon.
It's a bit different from the rest of the series in that the supporting cast isn't present and Hearne takes on Egyptian mythology as the main focus for the first time. (Previous books delved into mythologies ranging from Celtic and Native American to Norse and Far Eastern).
The story is fairly straightforward. An Egyptian man who's relearning the old magics of Egypt steals a book from Atticus. Atticus and Oberon follow him back to Egypt to retrieve it. Mayhem ensues.
If you've been following this series, this is a fun episode. I wouldn't, however, recommend it as an entry point. Not because it's bad, but because it won't give you a proper taste for the rest of the series. The support cast is half the entertainment, even as it shifts from book to book, and there's a bit more fun as Atticus reacts with the world we all live in and know.
Mind you, there is a hilarious chase scene featuring a cat goddess and her minions.…
Trail of Dead, by Melissa F. Olson, 47North, 2013, $14.95.
Although Trail of Dead utilizes the usual background trope of witches, werewolves, and vampires—as did Dead Spots, the first book in the series—it still felt fresh to me because of the introduction of the concept of a null—a character whose proximity renders magic…
well, null. Werewolves become human, vampires are alive again, and witches' spells don't work.
One of the two main viewpoint characters, Scarlett Bernard, is that null. In the first book she teamed up with LAPD Detective Jesse Cruz to solve a murder case on the orders of her own boss, the head vampire of LA. The two are thrown together again with a case that relates to Scarlett's past, in particular the woman Olivia, who trained her. Olivia, once a null, is now a vampire, and she has all sorts of nefarious plans in mind as she follows her goal to rule the supernatural community in LA.
I enjoyed Trail of Dead while reading it—and I still like how Olson works Scarlett's ability as a null into the plot—but I have to admit that a couple of months later as I write this I can't think of any memorable element except for that bit about the null.
This doesn't by any means make it a bad book. If that had been the case, I would have stopped reading it long before the end. It's just a result of there being too many of this sort of book around. Soon after you're done reading one, they all tend to gather in one's memory and blur into a mishmash of similarity.
Pretty much the same thing happened to me with Rosemary Clement-Moore's Spirit and Dust. The setup is different.
The way it seems to work in urban fantasy these days, if your character isn't a vampire, witch, or werewolf, or in a relationship with one of them, then she can talk to the dead. Daisy Goodnight falls into the latter category.
She's the cousin of Amy and Phin Goodnight from Texas Gothic, which I haven't read, and didn't need to read for this story since the connections don't appear to be deep between the two books.
Daisy's still a teenager, and the book opens with the FBI coming to take her out of school to help them with a murder/kidnapping case. It's something she's done before, but this time she can't get a handle on the dead spirit.
The kidnap victim, she discovers, is the daughter of a mobster who—while she's at the crime scene—has one of his men kidnap her in turn. Even though she assures the mobster that she's doing everything she can to help find his daughter, he still has a witch put a spell on her so that she can only search for his daughter. Then he sends her off with Carson, one of his men, to do just that.
From there the book turns into a kind of scavenger hunt/chase as a bickering Daisy and Carson try to stay ahead of the police and the kidnappers to acquire various artifacts needed to rescue the kidnapped daughter.
I don't mean to denigrate either of these authors or their books, because I know how much hard work goes into writing a novel. But the way books—by their subject matter—blur into one another really seems to be a trend these days. Or at least it hits me that way.
I liken it to a TV show that I happened upon while flipping stations. It passed the time and did its job of entertaining me, but I'm not necessarily compelled to tune in next week.
Dead Set, by Richard Kadrey, Harper Voyager, 2013, $22.99.
I always enjoy it when a writer who normally does a series breaks away from it for a standalone book.
I fall behind on series books—in Kadrey's case I have yet to read something like the last two or three of his Sandman Slim series—and the farther you fall behind, the more intimidating it gets to catch up. I don't know how it happens. All it takes is missing one volume and before you know it, there are just too many. You have to set aside some time to binge-read the series. The more you fall behind, the less likely that is to happen. Finally, you give up and just start the most recent one and hope you can figure out what's happened in the previous books, knowing that you're going to miss all sorts of nuances—and let's face it, probably some great stories, too.
But if you like the author's work—as I do Kadrey's—it's great to be able to have something like Dead Set, where there's no catching up to do at all. You just crack open the book and jump right into the story. It's also a great way to try a writer you've heard good things about, but you're not ready to invest in a series.
Dead Set is an excellent introduction to Kadrey's work. It hits all the notes that define his work. Fascinating characters populate a story that's dark and individual, leavened with moments of humor, heart, and pure strangeness. Best of all, he does the two things every author should aspire to pull off: (1) write a story that only they could have written, and (2) write a story in which you're never quite sure what's going to happen next.
Now the viewpoint character Zoe is a far cry from Sandman Slim. She's still in school, trying to deal with the recent death of her father and to stop cutting herself to ease the pain. Because of problems with the insurance company, she and her mother have had to leave a great home in the suburbs and all of Zoe's friends in exchange for a depressing apartment in the big city. Her mother's trying to find a job without a lot of success. Zoe's trying to deal with being in a new school.
The only respite comes when she sleeps. In her dreams she visits with the ghost of her long-dead brother Valentine. But then, in the waking world, she comes upon a used record shop with a special room in the back. In there are bins of vinyl that don't hold music but actual lost souls in their grooves—including that of her father. When they're played on a special turntable, one can experience the memories of the departed.
I have to say, as a lifelong vinyl junkie, I loved that idea.
The creepy owner of the shop offers Zoe the chance to connect with her father, but there's a cost that escalates each time she returns. A lock of hair, a tooth, a little blood…
I don't want to give too much away. Let me just say that Kadrey's underworld city where Zoe eventually ends up—a waystation between life and death, if you will—is a fascinating and dangerous place, described with rich and sometimes disturbing detail. But Kadrey's just as adept at painting the world in which we all live, capturing its shades of light and dark with equal veracity. And sometimes ferocity.
The first two-thirds or so of the book is the best with its paced unfolding of mystery and menace. The last third isn't so much predictable as a series of chases building up to the climax. Still good, but it would be hard to match the sense of wonder created in the setup.
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 © 1998–2016 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide