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Books To Look For
The Weirding Willows by Dave Elliott, Barnaby Bagenda & Sami Basri, Atomeka/Titan Books, 2014, $19.99.
If this were music, we'd call it a mashup.
The book opens with a nineteen-year-old Alice, who—Elliott posits—is the daughter of Dr. Moreau. She's been to Wonderland, but her father doesn't believe her because it makes no scientific sense. At the same time they live in a place called Willow Weir which contains portals to all sorts of other worlds such as Wonderland, Oz, Pellucidar, and many more.
In short order we meet characters like the White Rabbit, Mowgli (who we're told is the illegitimate son of Dr. Doolittle), the animals from The Wind in the Willows as well as Peter Rabbit, the Frankenstein monster, Dr. Jekyll, the Wicked Witch of the West, Professor Lambert (from The Time Machine— unnamed in the original story, but Elliott names him) and others.
Scientifically-minded Moreau remains oblivious to them all. This story is set prior to his infamous island stint, but he's already trying to create new species by splicing bits of one animal to another. At the moment, he has a commission from Margareete Marsh (the Wicked Witch of the West) to create an army of flying monkeys.
A lot goes on in this first volume of the series, so much so that to try to describe it all would take up far too much column space. But it's a fun exploration of how these stories might all share a commonality.
Elliott does a pretty good job creating back stories and connections between the characters. Readers will have to decide how they like his handling of their own personal favorites. I was less than thrilled with his take on the characters from The Wind in the Willows, but then Grahame's book is like canon to me, and I also didn't much care for the estate-approved sequels that came out a few years ago. But other elements of Elliott's book fascinated me.
The art by Bagenda and Basri is a bit slicker than I like, but it carries the story forward with good panel-to-panel flow, and I had no trouble differentiating the characters (which can sometimes be problematic when you have a large cast in an illustrated book such as this). And I really liked the coloring by a variety of artists, too many to list here. It's bright, with the feel of English sunshine, when it needs to be, but suitably brooding in the darker bits, while the first glimpse we get of Wonderland is a perfect psychedelic weird.
All in all, The Weirding Willows is an entertaining opening gambit, and while I've mentioned a few picayune complaints above, it's a series that I'll certainly return to for its second volume when it becomes available.
Impulse, by Steven Gould, Tor Books, 2012, $7.99.
Exo, by Steven Gould, Tor Books, 2014, $25.99.
Teleportation and time travel are my two favorite themes in sf—and I wonder what that says about my scientific leanings, since both are really "magic" rather than solid hard science. But I digress. What I really like is when the author takes the time to speculate how it would all work logically—once one swallows the improbability of either theme—and what the real world ramifications would be. For these kinds of stories to appeal to me, I don't want a fantasy explanation. I want plausible reasoning within a scientific framework, no matter how outlandish the initial concept.
Steven Gould does this really well. I've liked most everything he's written, but I'm particularly partial to his Jumper series, starting with the novel of the same name in 1992 and its 2004 sequel, Reflex. "Jumping" is what the main character Davy calls his ability to teleport.
Impulse takes up from the end of Reflex, long enough after the events of that book for Davy and Millie to have a teenage daughter named Cent (short for Millicent; her mother already has the Millie nickname). Because of a secret organization that is after both her parents—and her father's paranoia about them discovering he has a daughter—Cent has grown up in complete isolation from the rest of the world.
She lives in a mostly inaccessible hunting lodge in the Canadian Rockies where she's homeschooled—which isn't much of a problem when either of her parents can jump her to anywhere in the world to do some shopping, have an exotic bite to eat, or just go surfing on some deserted Australian coast. They can do pretty much anything so long as they avoid the ubiquitous security cameras that pervade contemporary life. But Cent wants more. She wants the chance to live like a regular kid, go to high school, make friends.
Davy, too worried about her survival, won't allow it. But when Cent develops her own jumping ability after being caught in an avalanche, he realizes that if he doesn't give her the chance, she'll simply jump away and grab the opportunity on her own.
So the family assumes a false name and settles in a little town in New Mexico. Cent gets to experience high school. She makes friends, gets a boyfriend, but then she also makes enemies—hey, it's high school—and before she knows it, she's using her jumping ability to get out of messes that are no fault of hers. But that only leads to more messes, with escalating dangers not only for herself and her family, but also for her new friends.
Impulse is a terrific addition to the Jumper series. Gould's gift for dialogue, characterization, snappy plotting, and careful consideration of the things one could or couldn't do with an ability such as jumping are all present.
The book targets a Young Adult audience, but it's not a YA book. This has the feel of some of Heinlein's work where the main character just happens to be a teen. And there are also sections from both Davy's and Millie's adult points of view. Everything about it—from the pacing to the sometimes lengthy, but always interesting, scientific speculation—reads like an adult book. Albeit one that certain teens would also like.
I loved catching up with Davy and Millie, and meeting Cent.
The reason I read and am reviewing this book now is that it somehow got lost in my to-be-read pile when it came out, and it was only when I started its sequel, Exo, that I realized I had to be missing something and went back to find and read Impulse first.
Everything that made Impulse such a fun read is here in Exo. But unfortunately Exo has one major flaw: we never know why the characters are doing what they're doing.
Impulse was pretty straightforward. Cent wanted a normal life, and she worked toward getting and maintaining it. Things got in the way, but she persevered, and we were rooting for her all the way.
In Exo, things just happen, and we're not privy to the characters' motivations. The writing is as good as the other three books in the series—everything is. But for almost the whole first half of this fourth novel, readers are in the dark as to what's going on. Things happen, characters strive, but there's no goal. And no reason for us to root for the characters, because we don't know what to hope for them to accomplish.
Which is a shame, because it's a fascinating story as Cent uses her jumping abilities to explore space and Gould does his usual good job of making it all seem plausible. But I would have liked to be in on the secret. As it stands, good as the book and writing is, I never felt compelled to read late into the night to find out what happens next the way I did with Impulse and the other books in the series.
Was I sorry I read it? Not at all. But I'm not sure Exo will make new readers for Gould in the same way that his other books do.
(A side note here: I know there's a fifth Jumper book called Jumper: Griffin's Story. It's a sequel to the 2008 film and not related to the printed books. But it's a good 'un.)
Julia's House for Lost Creatures, by Ben Hatke, First Second, 2014, $17.99.
I'm usually attracted to kids' picture books because of the art, and the art here certainly drew me in. It's very painterly. Normally that means you can see the brushstrokes, but in this case—where the illustrations are in what appears to be watercolors and ink—I'm referring to the looseness of the linework and washes, something I find much more appealing than photo-realistic art. The painterly style makes for a vigorous illustration, even when the subject is static, and gives the viewer a real sense of the artist's character.
But lots of children's books have this style of art, and some even do it better. The reason I'm bringing Julia's House for Lost Creatures to your attention is that, along with the art, the story is lovely, and I think it's a perfect aid to sparking children's imaginations.
The opening line is: "Julia's house came to town and settled by the sea."
And right away we have to wonder how the house came to be ambulatory. (It reminds me of that old Steven Wright bit where he talks about coming home: "I put my key in the lock and the house started up. So I took it for a spin.")
Once she's settled into her new environs, Julia feels lonely, so she makes a sign that reads "Julia's House for Lost Creatures," and soon the house is filled with all manner of guests, from patchwork cats and homeless trolls to mermaids, dragons, and ghosts. All of whom are very messy. And a bit demanding.
How Julia deals with the problem of getting her guests in line is a refreshing change from our world where money and power make the rules.
If you have any toddlers in your house, this is a perfect book to read with them. Charming and imaginative, it's a delight from start to finish.
Life with a Fire-breathing Girlfriend, by Bryan Fields, MuseItUp Publishing, 2014, $3.99.
Life with a Fire-breathing Girlfriend opens with a classic nerd fantasy.
In the parking lot outside a meeting of his local sf club, David Fraser is approached by a gorgeous woman, and within moments she stakes a claim to being his girlfriend. She appears to have little knowledge of contemporary life, but she seems sweet and is sexy as hell, and David is immediately smitten. His friends have reservations, but they barely register with David.
Given the title of the book, I don't suppose it's a real spoiler to reveal that the woman, Rose Drake, is a dragon in human form who has—as it says in the book's blurb—"come to earth for three years to soak up the local energy and increase her chances of having happy, healthy baby hatchlings when she goes home."
The tone of the book is fun—sort of an updated I Dream of Jeannie or Bewitched vibe only with a dragon, and set in sf fandom—but that doesn't mean that the author shortchanges his readers in terms of characterization or story. David and his friends are a likeable bunch that Fields brings to fully realized life, and Rose's being a fish out of water makes for some entertaining moments.
There's no indication that any of this material has been previously published, but the three parts have the feel of three separate stories set within a novel-length arc. In the first part they do their best to bring a murderer to justice. In the second, they go up against a homeowners' association. In the third, they travel to an otherworld to try to save the world.
Now this isn't a criticism of Fields's book, because I enjoyed it a great deal, but the escalating threat levels does remind me of what I see as the major difference between series stories that were written before—oh, let's say the last couple of decades—and those being written today. At one time an author depended on the intricacies of the plot and, to some extent, strong character arcs. There was no reason to up the plot ante with each story.
The first two parts of Fields's book spotlight the ingenuity of the characters, as well as their emotional depths. But after the third part, where does he have to go? Once you save the world, what comes next? Save the galaxy? Then save the universe? And then…?
The thing is, a compelling story can be about smaller things. Give a reader great characters and they'll read about the minutiae of their lives as eagerly as their efforts to save the world.
The first two sections of this book prove my point. Each of them has a great range of humor, drama, and plot, and I'd happily have read more of a similar ilk. The longer third part didn't work as well for me.
I still cared about the characters, but I didn't find their foray into the magical otherworld nearly as entertaining as having David and Rose deal with the kinds of problems we all run into in our daily lives. The kind of problems where you'd just love to have a dragon in human form by your side. However, that might just be my personal bias to preferring stories where the fantastical intrudes into a real world setting. You could well enjoy the otherworld section as much as the earlier parts of the book.
Regardless, Life with a Fire-breathing Girlfriend is a fun debut, and I look forward to seeing what Fields does next.
The Night Has Teeth, by Kat Kruger, Fierce Ink Press, 2012, $16.99.
The Night Has Claws, by Kat Kruger, Fierce Ink Press, 2012, $16.99.
The Night Is Found, by Kat Kruger, Fierce Ink Press, 2012, $16.99.
Here's the big spoiler: this is a series about werewolves. I don't feel bad in revealing this information because, just as with Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl by Emily Pohl-Weary (reviewed in a previous column), the reader knows what's going on long before the viewpoint character does. In fact, the foreplay in The Night Has Teeth before the big reveal takes up almost the whole first two-thirds of the book. But in Kat Kruger's hands that's not necessarily a bad thing. While it's true that anyone reading in the genre, or partaking of such stories in other media, will know immediately what to expect, the journey to the "reveal" is fascinating.
And when you get to the end of the first book, there are still two more volumes to follow.
Connor Lewis has been an outcast for most of his life in New York City, never quite fitting in. Then he gets a miraculous scholarship to Paris where he hopes he can reinvent himself into someone interesting.
Things seem to start well. He's billeted with an attractive tattoo artist named Amara, and he quickly makes a couple of good friends at the French high school he's attending: a wild child girl named Madison and her clean-cut friend, a boy named Josh who seems content simply to follow Madison's lead.
Of course, not everything's perfect. Amara has a moody boyfriend named Arden and a big wolfish dog that doesn't much care for Connor. Madison and Josh appear to have had some painful history before meeting Connor, and they're definitely keeping secrets.
And then there's the whole werewolf business to complicate matters even more.
In Kruger's world, there are two kinds of werewolves: the born and the bitten. The born are what one might think of as shapechangers, shifting from human to wolf and back again. The bitten change into creatures that are more like the staples of B horror movies, grotesque half man/half wolf creatures.
And unfortunately for Connor, there's something in his blood that makes him the target of a four-hundred-year-old bitten scientist who wants to use his genetics to create both a cure and a method for wiping out werewolves forever.
Kruger plays with pack politics—as werewolf novels often do—but her divisions and alliances feel fresh with the added slant of mad scientists taking things in a whole other direction than what one has come to expect in the genre. The series is as much sf as fantasy, albeit set in the present, rather than the near future or an alternate world.
Since I came to the series late, I was able to read all three books straight through, one after another, and while the story certainly stops to take a breath at the end of volumes one and two, this is really one long book. What I particularly liked is that while Kruger does up the ante from book to book, she never loses focus of why we will become invested in a massive work: the interaction of the characters and their growth arcs.
I'm not going to go into too much detail plot-wise, since I don't want to steal away all the delights to be discovered herein. But I do want to say that it's a superb and satisfying series that creates something fresh out of its source material and doesn't let the reader down.
And here's another cool thing that I wish more publishers would do. The reader can email Fierce Ink Press and receive a free ebook and a signed bookplate for each of the titles. It's a refreshing attitude for a publisher to have toward their customers.
The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains, by Neil Gaiman & Eddie Campbell, William Morrow, 2014, $21.99.
This novella has an interesting history. Inspired by the Hebridean stories of Otta F. Swire, it was written to be performed in the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House. Gaiman read to the accompaniment of specially composed music by the FourPlay String Quartet while Eddie Campbell's art was projected on large screens. Considering the story, it would have been quite an experience to have been there in that dark theater with the rest of the sell-out crowd.
You can get a sense of that experience reading this published version that includes Campbell's eerie art, though you do miss out on the music and Gaiman's inimitable delivery of his own words. But if you've ever heard Gaiman do a reading, you'll know that the cadence of his written work easily calls up his actual voice in one's mind's ears. That's just as true here, and the mood it creates is especially suited to this short book.
Gaiman tends to write either really complicated stories with an underlying simplicity, or simple books with a surprisingly complicated depth. The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains fits into the latter category.
On the surface it's a story of revenge—though we don't know that for some time. What we think it's about is a man of small stature who hires a one-time reaver named Calum MacInnes to lead him to a mythical cave in the black mountains where a man may take as much gold as he can carry. It's set in Scotland, in the time of Prince Charlie, and from conversations they have along the way to the cave, MacInnes assumes that the narrator plans to use the gold to help Charlie raise his army to take back Scotland.
But that's not what the narrator wants. He's not at all what he seems. He doesn't want any gold. He doesn't care about the cave. He has a darker purpose to having MacInnes guide him to the cave.
There's a timeless quality to how the narrator lets the story unfold. One gets a real taste of the times and the landscape, but it's given to us subtly. We absorb the setting and background through osmosis as the tale is presented, and dark as the story proves to be, its presentation has the poetic flavor of old folklore, though unlike those old tales, there are no questions left in the readers' minds about the characters' motivations.
Campbell's art adds a whole other level to the strangeness. His paintings are compelling—coming across as almost naive art at times—and occasionally he even slips in a half page of narrative art as though he's illustrating a comic book. Still, this is neither graphic novel nor straightforward illustrated prose. It's something new again.
I read it in one sitting, but I was utterly absorbed and came to the end blinking and needing a moment to reorient myself to my surroundings, so deeply was I immersed in this world that author and artist have created.
Though The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains was previously published in the 2010 anthology Stories (edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio), this edition, with Campbell's expressive art, is really the preferred way to experience the story.
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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