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Books To Look For
THE BEST thing about doing this column is that it introduces me to so many new writers—or at least writers with whom I'm unfamiliar.
Actually, if you'll allow me an aside, one of the best things about art in general is that whenever we discover a new author, musician, artist—no matter how established—in that moment of discovery they're always new to us. Sometimes it's better when they already have a body of work because then we get to play catch-up. I can't tell you how many times I've picked up a book or an album and then had the pleasure of going through a back catalog.
But to return to my initial point. I'm not saying you have to have a column to find fresh voices. There are any number of ways to make a discovery, from browsing in a bookshop to a review or a friend's recommendation. But having this column means that new writers send me their books—books I might well never have come across in the regular scheme of things—and I try each one.
In the past few years many of these titles by new writers have been independently published. They're indie books—a term I like much better than the pejorative ones that have dogged such releases for years, like vanity press. That one makes it sound as though the book simply wasn't good enough for a "real" publisher, a concept that I believe is perpetuated by publishers and the literati. Publishers want to be considered the only relevant purveyors of good taste. The literati like to congratulate themselves as being the only real members of their little club.
Now I'm not saying that indie books are automatically terrific. But as I've mentioned before in this column, sometimes a book just isn't a good fit with a traditional publisher. The narrative might be presented in an idiosyncratic style. The subject matter might be uncomfortable. And admittedly, there can be occasions when the author's ambitions are a little larger than their skills—though not so much as to make it unreadable, of course.
None of which means it's a bad book.
Here are my criteria for a good book: you start reading and you don't stop. It might be because you want to find out what happens next. Or you just love the characters. Or the language. Or more happily, all of the above. The point is, something about the book keeps you interested and reading.
A lot of books published by traditional publishers don't meet that simple criterion. As do—naturally—many titles published by the small press or independents.
The most important part of this equation is that the impact a book has on us is entirely subjective. Each person's list of great books is going to be different from the next. I can't count the number of times that a friend with similar tastes to mine hated something I recommended to them, and vice-versa.
Anyway. All of this has been a very long-winded way of saying that I love having new writers send me their books and I open each one—just as I do the ones from traditional publishers—with anticipation and the hope that it will be great. They often aren't. But when they are, I'm a happy reader.
Darkwalker, by Duncan Eagleson, Pink Narcissus Press, 2014, $17.
Although this is Eagleson's first novel, a quick Web search told me that he'd been successful in a number of other artistic endeavors before tackling fiction. It says on his Web site:
"Illustrator, graphic designer, painter and sculptor, Duncan Eagleson has created art and designs for book covers, movie posters, advertisements, corporate identity projects, videos, magazines, and even T-shirts, for clients such as Doubleday Books, Tor Books, New Line Cinema, Warner Communications & DC Comics, rock groups like The Who, Phil Collins, and Def Leppard. In comics, he contributed art to Neil Gaiman's Sandman, adapted and illustrated Anne Rice's The Witching Hour. He has created sculpted leather masks for Wes Craven's Cursed, the WWE wrestler Kane, the Smithsonian, the Big Apple Circus, and magician Jeff McBride."
That's a lot of professional work, in a number of fields, for someone with whom I was unfamiliar until Darkwalker showed up in my computer's inbox for review. And because it came as a digital file I really had no idea what to expect.
Here's what I found out as I read on: The novel's set three hundred years in our future in a world that's got a bit of a Mad Max feel to it. Our viewpoint characters are a trio of warrior shaman called Railwalkers led by a man named Wolf. Railwalkers are depicted as a combination of Wild West marshals, a peacekeeping mission, and an elite religious society.
The book opens with a bang as Wolf and his companions are ambushed out in the badland Zones on their way to help a village plagued by the same bandits that have attacked our heroes. The Railwalkers make short work of them and roll on into the village where they would be feted by the locals except they immediately get another, urgent assignment and they have to move on.
This time it's to a more urban environment and we leave the Mad Max element behind. But before they make it to the city, we readers find ourselves confronted with the first "interlude."
Back in the seventies writers used to start off chapters with extracts from fake books and articles because it was a quick and easy way to present the reader with an info dump on the history of their world and/or characters. I don't see it as much in more recent books, probably because readers expect the story to unfold without interruptions, and editors at the larger houses make sure this happens.
So my heart sort of sank when I realized what this first interlude was: you guessed it. An extract from a fake book that begins Eagleson's explanation of how the Railwalkers came to be. I almost skipped on to the next bit of story but I'd enjoyed what had come before it so much that I decided I should at least be fair and give it a try.
And darned if I didn't find it just as interesting as the actual narrative. So much so, in fact, that I found myself enjoying subsequent interludes as much as the main story.
What follows, once Wolf and his companions reach Bay City, is a loose retelling of Beowulf, and it has everything you could want in a book: a fresh, individual voice; characters with flaws to give them depth but with a just resolve to make you care about their struggles; a mystery that takes the whole book to work out; a world that is familiar but still original, stamped with the author's insights; and a story that takes us from start to finish on the edge of our seat.
Now, I like a story that actually goes somewhere, that has forward momentum and keeps me turning the pages, but I also want something more, and Eagleson delivers that as well. Probably my favorite thing about Darkwalker is that he gives his shaman warriors a spiritual grounding that never seems cloying. But it certainly explains their raison d'être. The manner in which it's expressed (extracts, flashbacks, etc.) might not necessarily be the way it would be told in a book from one of the traditional publishers, but it works here.
I've spent some extra time talking about this book but that's because it's a great example of how reading a writer who does things a little differently can really pay off for a reader. Eagleson, like many writers going the indie or small-press route, tells the story his own way, and it feels fresh to me.
All I'm saying is don't be scared off because you've never heard of the author before, if the publishing house is unfamiliar, or the author went the indie route. If you're the sort of person who ventures beyond what's played on the radio, then take that same spirit of adventure into your reading habits. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl, by Emily Pohl-Weary, Skyscape, 2013, $9.99.
I remember many years ago an agent told me not to write a fantasy or horror novel with a rock'n'roll backdrop because they don't sell, won't sell. Period. Not long after that conversation George R.R. Martin's The Armageddon Rag came out and we all know how good it was.
The thing is, it doesn't matter who the characters are or what the setting is. It doesn't matter if you've figured out some cutting edge variation of a well-known theme/plot or are working with the old tropes.
What matters is the execution. The writing. The characters. What you bring of yourself to the equation.
Which brings us to Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl, a coming-of-werewolf novel set against a backdrop of rock'n'roll.
Sam Lee plays bass in a kickass, all-girl rock group called The Cream Puffs. Sam is the talent behind the band but she prefers to keep in the background and let her bandmates take the limelight. Off-stage, she's even more resistant to the trappings of fame.
All that changes one night after a gig when she gets bitten by a "wild dog" in Central Park. Now she's always hungry, and restless in her own skin. A vegetarian since she was twelve, she ends up getting her picture snapped by a fan who catches her chowing down on fried chicken. She becomes more assertive.…
Anybody who's been reading in the genre for more than five minutes knows where I'm going with this, but rather than feeling frustrated with Pohl-Weary's slow tease, I was actually charmed with the way Sam finally comes to realize what's happened to her.
The setting helped, but it was mostly Sam's voice that kept me reading.
Rover Red Charlie, by Garth Ennis & Michael Dipascale, Avatar Press, 2013, $3.99 per issue.
If you like something fresh and different, then this new series by Garth Ennis & Michael Dipascale is exactly what you're looking for.
We have any number of books, comics, movies, and TV shows—heck, even video games—showing us what it will be like when the world ends. It might be from a natural disaster, a final war, or a zombie apocalypse. There's usually a plucky band of survivors, and we follow their attempts to endure the end of the world, and hopefully, eventually, even prosper.
But what would it be like for one of the other species with which we share the world? What happens to all the millions of pets when their owners go berserk (as they do in this Ennis/Dipascale scenario) and the pets are suddenly left to fend for themselves?
That's what Rover Red Charlie explores through the viewpoints of a Basset hound, a red setter, and a border collie (the title of the book is a simple list of the dogs' names).
Now, with a story such as this, the author can't help but anthropomorphize his characters. The animals need to be humanized to some degree so that we can relate to them. That said, Ennis does a fantastic job of keeping his characters dogs rather than small humans in furry coats, with personalities that echo their breeds. None of them do anything that a dog isn't capable of doing, and their conversations with each other, such as they are, ring true.
It's set in New York City and since every human is dead or has gone crazy, the dogs come upon some very graphic situations. (This isn't a kid's books with cute anthropomorphized critters.) But Rover Red Charlie doesn't just focus on the horror. It presents a full range of storytelling with even some humor.
As I write this, only two issues have seen print, the second just as strong as the first.
I have no idea where Ennis and Dipascale are going with Rover Red Charlie—always a plus in a story, insofar as I'm concerned—but you can bet I'll be picking up subsequent issues to find out.
Work Done For Hire, by Joe Haldeman, Ace Books, 2014, $25.95.
Nine years ago, Jack Daley was a sniper in the desert wars. Now he still has nightmares, finding what comfort he can with his girlfriend Kit and in his modestly successful writing career.
Things start to look up when he gets an offer to write a novelization of a screenplay for decent money, except he's no sooner started working on it than another offer arrives. He gets the mysterious delivery of a sniper rifle, silencer, ammunition, and the first installment of $100,000 dollars. All he has to do is kill an as yet unnamed "bad man." Jack refuses but soon finds out that if he doesn't, they'll go after Kit instead.
Joe Haldeman's one of my icons. I know him best as a writer of hard sf, and I'm invariably taken with his books. He's the kind of author who only puts into a novel what needs to be there, forgoing extraneous material that doesn't move either the story or the characterization forward.
And most of this book is exactly that, a seat-of-the-pants thriller with an ordinary man up against extraordinary odds. He's not a superhero, nor does he have the inflated prowess of a movie action hero, which makes his struggle to survive all that much more fascinating.
This would be such a great novel except, unfortunately, Haldeman also opts to give us chapters from the book that Jack is writing, which bothered me on a couple of counts. The first is that the novel within the novel never illuminates anything in the story. Now, Haldeman's a smart writer, so I'll freely admit that maybe I just didn't get it, but by halfway through the book I was really looking for how this material would relate to anything in the rest of the book.
I never found it, except for one throwaway line toward the end.
More troubling to me was the subject matter. Jack's novel is about an enormous alien serial killer—it looks like a man, only it's seven or eight feet tall, weighs a few hundred pounds, and is preternaturally strong. The prose in these sections is straightforward as it relates the creature's various hunts, the slaughter of its prey, how it cuts the bodies up and disposes of the remains it can't use (which aren't many, it turns out), how it cooks its meals.
It's not quite torture porn, but it's not far from it.
I'm never going to tell a writer what he should or shouldn't be writing. After all, I'm interested in the story they want to tell, not one I think they should be telling.
But I can't pretend that I wasn't disappointed. I expect something a lot better than this from a writer as good as Joe Haldeman.
Desert Tales, by Melissa Marr, HarperCollins, 2013, $8.99.
I've always liked Melissa Marr's dark take on faerie. Her first book, Wicked Lovely, gave me the same buzz as Holly Black's Tithe, but I only mention that as a touchstone. I think a reader who likes one series will like the other, though they certainly have different sensibilities. What they have in common is that the faerie in these books are dangerous and untrustworthy, and they maintain their sense of wonder for all that they're wandering around big cities and interacting with humans.
You don't need any familiarity with the Wicked Lovely series to enjoy the short novel that is Desert Tales. It's certainly connected, but the setting is new, as are most of the characters, and anything you need to know is explained in the text.
Rika was once a human girl, but then her humanity was taken from her and she became a Winter Girl, a pawn in the games between the Summer and Winter Courts of faerie. When that was taken from her as well, she fled the courts, running as far as she could, which ended up being the Mojave Desert.
There are faerie here as well, but they are unaligned with any court. Rika keeps her distance from them and anyone else because the last time she opened up to someone she ended up losing her humanity.
But Sionnach—her only friend here and the alpha faerie in the desert—knows she needs to learn to assert her position among the desert faerie. Especially when the Summer King comes calling with talk of folding the solitary folk of the desert into his court.
So Sionnach sets a plan into motion that he hopes will change everything for the better. But plans can go wrong very quickly, more so when their success is dependent on what lies within one's heart.
If you've been reading this column for a while you'll know that there's nothing I like better than a good fantasy set in the desert, and Desert Tales isn't about to change my mind. I loved the setting and the characters, and I loved the story.
If you've yet to try Melissa Marr, this is as good a place to start as any.
As a side note, this novel was originally published as a manga series which Marr adapted into prose form for those readers of hers who don't like comic books.
The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust & Skyler White, Tor Books, 2013, $24.99.
I wanted to like this book, I really did.
It has a great premise in the best "secret society living amongst us" sense.
They call themselves the Incrementalists and have been around for forty thousand years, subtly working to make the world a better place, just a little bit at a time. There are only two hundred of them and they spend most of their time arguing about how to make the world better. When one of them dies, the others find a suitable replacement and the old soul's memories and personality are laid upon that of the new.
The only thing that remains unchanged is a kind of shared consciousness that's like another world where each of the members has their own virtual home. They access it through a dream state and can even visit one another's little pocket worlds.
The book opens with the Incrementalist Phil getting ready to layer the personality of the recently deceased Celeste onto that of a young woman named Renee. The layering isn't as creepy as it sounds. Renee is given all the information she needs to make the choice herself as to whether or not she'll accept Celeste. She knows going in that Celeste's personality will most likely be stronger than her own. But she believes the work the Incrementalists are doing is important, so she agrees.
And then things start going squirrelly.
Still, so far so good.
But the problem is, as the book progresses, nothing really happens. There's just a lot of talking…and talking and talking. Pretty much from start to finish. Now, what they're talking about is interesting enough, and the authors are both excellent at writing witty, smart dialogue. But after a while, you want more plot, and there's simply not enough of it. Worse, what little there is remains vague so it's often hard to figure out what the characters are trying to do.
This seems to be a really good short story idea stretched to novel length. Which is a pity, because the actual prose is good—sharp, smart, and lean. As is the dialogue.
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 © 1998–2018 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide