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Books To Look For
Long Black Curl, by Alex Bledsoe, Tor Books, 2015, $24.95.
Tufa Tales: Appalachian Fae, by Tuatha Dea, Tuatha Dea, 2015, $20. CD.
Seriously. Skip to the next review if you haven't yet, but think you might, read the two previous books in Alex Bledsoe's Tufa series, The Hum and the Shiver and Wisp of a Thing. Because three books into a series, it's difficult to talk about a new book such as this without spoilers—especially when events here gain added resonance because of what we know about the characters from what has gone on before.
The opening is genius. I've seen any number of stories and novels that play with the myth of Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads at midnight. It's one of the best known pieces of folklore attached to rock'n'roll—and before you feel the need to correct me, yes, I know Johnson was a blues great, but the midnight deal with the devil has long been a staple of rock/pop/country musical mythology as well.
But how many stories have you read that start off with their own take of that fatal night in 1959 which was, as pundits lamented, "the day the music died"? Standing in for Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens are Guy Berry, P. J. "Large Sarge" Sargent, and Byron Harley. The latter is the one that concerns us, since he's the only one to survive the mountaintop crash. (Bledsoe also changes the setting of that fatal night.) After the crash Harley stumbles into what the Tufa call slow time where sixty years can go by in the passing of a single night. When he finally returns to the world from that one night by a campfire after the crash, his career is long over, his wife and daughter are dead, and he blames the Tufa for what's happened to him.
The Tufa are Alex Bledsoe's addition to the folklore of North America. It's said that they were already living in the Appalachian Mountains when the Native Americans first arrived. They're a secretive people with black hair, a dark cast to their skin, and a gift for music. Those with the purest lineage can actually ride the night winds.
The outside world might not know a great deal about them but inside the Tufa community it's a different thing. They were banished from their homeland ages ago and split into two camps after arriving in America. One group was guided by the First Daughters, the leader of which at the present time is a twelve-year-old girl named Mandalay Harris. The other group was led by the mean-spirited Rockhouse Hicks, who ruled them with an iron first until the end of the second book, Wisp of a Thing, when his power was stripped from him.
Chapter Two leaves Harley by the campfire and introduces us to Bo-Kate Wisby. Many years ago, she and her lover, Jefferson Powell, went on a murderous rampage, which had them banished from Cloud Country, the home of the Tufa. Not only were they magically unable to return, they were unable to connect with each other. Their musical gifts and ability to ride the winds were also stripped from them.
But somehow Bo-Kate has made her way back. On a cold winter day, she climbs up rough terrain to a cave at the top of a mountain where Rockhouse Hicks lives. Bo-Kate soon proves herself to be so amoral that it makes Rockhouse seem like a kid playing at being a delinquent. In fact, by the time Bo-Kate is finished with him, the reader will actually start to feel a little sorry for Rockhouse, which is an odd feeling because he's been such a despicable character in the previous books.
Bo-Kate has returned with a number of items on her agenda. She wants to rule both groups of Tufa. She wants to drag the Tufa into the present century, change the name of the town, and make it the new Nashville, with Tufa as studio musicians. But she also wants revenge on the Tufa for banishing her and Jefferson.
The merciless Bo-Kate proves too powerful for Mandalay to handle, even though the girl has the wisdom of generations of leaders inside her. So she sends for Jefferson, dropping his banishment. In return he has to deal with Bo-Kate.
Jefferson agrees, not only because he gets back what he lost—his music, the night winds, the ability to return home—but because, unlike Bo-Kate, he deeply regrets what they did when they were young. The problem is, he doesn't know if he can stop her. It seems all too plausible to him that he'll fall under her spell again.
But even if he can stand up to her, Bo-Kate has a powerful secret weapon: Byron Harley and the hate he has for the Tufa. And the magic that has built up in him from spending over sixty years in slow time.
All of this hits most of the high points of the plot, but what makes Bledsoe's Tufa books so outstanding are the other little stories and details, such as the subplot with Mandalay who, for all that she has the wisdom of all those wise women inside her, is completely flummoxed by her first crush. Or the weaselly Junior Damo's attempts to ingratiate himself into the position Rockhouse vacated, but doing so with wile rather than Bo-Kate's brute force.
There's so much I like about these books. Bledsoe knows just the right moments to let his prose soar and when to bring it down to the nitty gritty. His plots twist and turn so you never quite know what to expect, but when events unfold, you can look back and see the early hints that brought them to fruition. But mostly I appreciate these books because Bledsoe is such a strong voice for real North American-based mythic fiction. By this I mean stories that incorporate the Americas in which I and many of you live, infusing them with their own folklore and mythology, one that sits so well here, it feels like it's always been a part of us, and doesn't shirk the sense of wonder about which too much contemporary/urban fantasy books are clueless.
In Bledsoe's Tufa novels, that connection to an old and deep mystery is exquisite, while still remaining grounded in the real world—very much so, since at its heart, this series is about hillbilly faery musicians.
And speaking of musicians, a group called Tuatha Dea has taken inspiration from the first two Tufa novels and recorded an album of music based on them. I love this sort of thing, mostly because I think of all the arts as a conversation. The way we respond isn't always as direct as this album based on Bledsoe's books—and how the band then shows up at the end of Long Black Curl for an impromptu gig at The Pair-A-Dice, a roadhouse that's a safe place for the two groups of Tufa to meet and play music together.
But that conversation is often present in subtler forms. A folktale begets an opera which begets a book which goes on to inspire visual artists, perhaps a film director—well, you get the idea.
In the case of Tuatha Dea's album, I have to admit to a little disappointment, mostly because the album doesn't match the music I heard in my head. The band isn't really Celtic/old timey/bluegrass. Instead, they remind me of a combination of a jam band and the Neo Pagan groups that are popular in Germany and the Netherlands such as Omnia, Leaf, Faun, and their like.
They're very good at what they do. However, what I heard while reading the books was more like Altan's recent album The Widening Gyre, which is acoustic and rootsy, mixing traditional Celtic tunes with Appalachian ones and played by both Irish musicians and American guests like Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, and Darol Anger. So you get things like a dobro mixed with fiddles and a button accordion. Very Tufa to my ears.
Still, it's not the band's fault that I had something else in my head. And they certainly sound like a fun bunch of musicians. I'll bet their live shows are fabulous, which would make them fit right into The Pair-A-Dice after all.
That said, Long Black Curl is highly recommended. The album? I suggest you sample it first.
Bloodsick, by Melissa F. Olson, Westmarch Publishing, 2014, $1.99.
In last month's column, I mentioned that Melissa F. Olson had finished her Scarlett Bernard series and how I'd heard that she was planning to use the setting of what she calls the Old World as an ongoing series with the point-of-view characters varying from book to book. Which is my favorite kind of series.
I thought I was going to have to wait until May to read the first of these upcoming books (Boundary Crossed) except Olson slipped in this ebook novella at the end of December, giving us an advance peek at what she proposes to do.
If Bloodsick is what she has in mind, I'm going to like the continuation of this series a lot.
It's set fifteen years before the Scarlett Bernard books, moving the action from L.A. to Minnesota. It's basically the origin of the L.A. werewolf Alpha Will, but the story is told from the viewpoints of Sashi and Astrid. Sashi is a young witch with healing powers and a domineering mother, while Astrid is a recently turned werewolf who got traded from another pack to be the mate of Luke, the local pack's Alpha. Except Astrid doesn't want to be his mate, and in the ongoing power struggle between the two, Luke mentally and physically abuses her on an ongoing basis.
When the novella opens, Sashi has just started interning at the Mayo Clinic where her mother is a respected doctor, using her own healing powers to help her patients as best she can. Sashi has the same abilities, only hers are much stronger. Her mother is determined that Sashi will continue in her footsteps and keep the witch blood of their line pure by not marrying a normal human. Her mother tells her that she can't be with a human anyway because when a human finds out about the Old World, they're eliminated by the vampires who run everything.
But then Sashi meets Will and they immediately hit it off. Will was a patient of her mother's and is now in remission. And he's human.
Sashi and Astrid meet when Astrid is brought in to Sashi's mother for some off-the-books medical aid because, ostensibly, witches aren't free to live as they choose. They also work for the pack's Alpha, remaining on call to tend the wounds that are too severe for the werewolves' own abilities to heal.
Sashi's horrified at what Luke's been doing to Astrid and is determined to figure out a way to stop it—except then Will's cancer comes back, worse than ever, and she has a bigger problem to worry about.
There are a lot of dark elements in this book, but that's what appealed to me. I like it when supernatural novels tackle real world problems, shining light into the darkness. Because of how this story is set up, there aren't any real happy endings. But it's such a wonderful story, with shades of sweetness and humor to leaven the grimmer aspects, and the writing and characterization are terrific.
You can read this story without having read anything else by Olson, and I highly recommend it.
Kokopelli and the Virgin, by Pati Nagle, Evennight Books, 2014, $15.99.
This is a charming contemporary fantasy. To use the mystery genre as a touchstone, it has less the hardboiled edge of what's called urban fantasy these days and more of the feel of a cozy.
Rosa Marquez is a devout Catholic studying to become a curandera—a healer. When the book opens, she's hiking in the Petroglyph National Monument outside Albuquerque and has an encounter with Kokopelli, the hunchback flute player who figures in various parts of Southwestern lore. At the same time, Sean Carpenter is walking a dry riverbed of the Santa Fe River. He's studying Native flute-playing, but he has an encounter with the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Rosa goes to her teacher, Cruz, for advice. Sean, though an unbeliever, goes to talk to the priest at the Basilica, which was once known as St. Francis Cathedral. The cryptic message that each of them was given seems to be that they must save the Rio Grande from developers.
Sean remains uneasy until the dead roses in his garden begin to flourish and bloom. And bloom and bloom. Flowers cut never wilt. Still unsure why the Virgin came to him, Sean throws himself into the protest movement against a new planned community that will impact badly on the Rio Grande, especially the pueblo where his flute teacher, Angel, lives.
To be honest, the plot unfolds pretty much as one would expect, with the steadfastness of Sean, Rosa, and the other protesters set against the large land development company. But Pati Nagle is a skilled stylist, and her prose and the warmth with which she writes her characters are what kept me reading. I'm also a sucker for a Southwestern setting, and Nagle does a great job of bringing it to life. She keeps a sense of wonder alive throughout, and, while there's a sweetness to all of the proceedings, to this reader it felt heartfelt and not at all cloying, and in the end, only added to the book's overall appeal.
Spectrum 21, edited by John Fleskes, Flesk Publications, 2014, $35.
Considering how things come and go—and this might especially apply to year end/year's best collections—I was surprised, in a good way, to see that Spectrum is still with us and in its twenty-first year. But I only had to open the book up to understand why.
You might think that after twenty volumes, we'd be getting a little of the same-old, same-old feeling by now, but there's nothing tired or stale about the art collected here. From the front cover by Rebecca Léveillé-Guay (an intriguing portrait of a woman in the classical style with a sly tentacle creeping over her shoulder) to Gabriel Verdon's Frazetta-esque warrior on the back, Spectrum 21 is a glorious representation of some of the finest sf/fantasy/horror art of 2013, expressed in every medium one might imagine.
What keeps the quality so high is that every year the work of the artists included is curated by a panel of their peers.
This Year's Grand Master is Iain McCaig, whose broad career in various mediums, film, and instruction is presented in an essay by Terri Windling, which aptly explains why he deserves the honor. Editor John Fleskes provides an overview of the year in art. The rest of the front matter is taken up with profiles of this year's jury.
And then there is the art. Page after page of it on glossy stock with many pieces taking advantage of the book's large size in full-page reproductions. The quality of work is high, but so is the presentation.
Like a catalog from a gallery show, this is a collection you will return to again and again. I recommend you leave it out on your coffee table so that guests can partake of its small wonders.
As ever with this series, highly recommended.
Joss Whedon: The Biography, by Amy Pascale, Chicago Review Press, 2014, $29.95.
I don't read as many biographies as I could, or perhaps even should. I say should because it can be a fascinating process to follow through on a creative person's career, to guess at how the past influenced their better works. But no matter how revealing the matter might appear to be—even in an autobiography—we don't ever really get to know the subject. What we're told is colored by what the writer chooses to tell and what they don't, and in the case of a biography, only assumptions can be made, since the subject might be holding back, or misremembering, or the biographer could have an agenda of their own and slant the book to fit it.
That said, Amy Pascale presents a very balanced portrait of her subject. Joss Whedon comes through pretty much the way you'd expect from having experienced the voice in his work: smart, funny, somewhat irreverent but very dedicated to his craft. There's lots of meaty background for fans of his various projects, from Buffy and Angel through Serenity and his work on the Avengers franchise, and I'd also recommend the book to students of film and novice filmmakers.
But the best compliment I can give Pascale is that reading what she's written about Whedon's work, and Whedon's own insights that she quotes, makes me want to go back and watch the shows and films all over again.
Haterz, by James Goss, Solaris, 2015, $7.99.
Haterz isn't the sort of story I normally read. The protagonist isn't particularly likeable and the book's tone is the black humor that the Brits do so well but usually I can only appreciate in small doses. But one doesn't grow as a reader by staying in a safe little zone of favorites, and I was intrigued with the premise. And twisted as it is to say so, considering its subject matter, it's damn funny.
Just consider the tag line for a book about a man who goes around killing people on the Internet who annoy him: #Murder.
Dave, an underemployed actor who makes his living as a street fundraiser, is that man.
This is from the back cover copy:
"Is there someone online who really grates on you? That friend who's always bragging about their awesome life and endlessly sharing tired memes, and who just doesn't get jokes? Look at your Twitter feed; don't you get cross at the endless rage, the thoughtless bigotry, and the pleading for celebrity retweets?"
Dave certainly does. When he kills his best friend's annoying girlfriend, it wasn't really planned. But someone saw it happen and anonymously offers to help him make the Internet a nicer place, whatever it takes. Comment trolls, sexual predators, obnoxious pop stars, and self-important writers all become fair game.
I said earlier that Haterz has a tone of black humor, and it certainly does throughout, but humor alone does not make a gripping story. What makes the book so effective is James Goss's attention to the details of character. Whether it's the small elements of Dave's life set against his crusade, or the personalities of his potential victims, each character comes fully to life. Even more unthinkable, Goss actually makes Dave a somewhat sympathetic character. Yes, it's a bit like rubbernecking at an accident (one that Dave has caused), but readers will occasionally find themselves rooting for him.
And did I mention that the sharp wit and black humor is genuinely funny?
The Internet plays a huge part in the story, as one might expect. There are amusing moments such as when Dave is looking for a way to contact his mysterious benefactors online in such a way that no one will notice, so he decides to do so by opening a MySpace account.
There's also a seriousness underlying some of the critiques—because let's face it, with a character like Dave and his disdain for most Internet users, he's going to have a lot of criticism to vent. But it's one of the other characters later in the book who puts forth a rather interesting reason for the incivility that runs rampant online. He posits that it began with LOL.
"The shift has begun," he says. "Emotion expressed purely online and not in real life. And because it started with something as friendly as a laugh, it seemed like a good thing. But it started the online expression of emotions. Our laughs, our smiles, our winks and our tears—we steadily removed them from our faces and placed them into our words. We don't look at each other anymore—we're staring at our phones, and, anyway, if we did look each other in the face, there'd be nothing to see anymore."
Haterz turns out to be much more than a simple story about a man who kills the annoying people online. It considers not only someone like Dave (an extreme example of a person upset by what he finds online) but a full range of reactions to this thing that has become so much a part of our lives.
My only worry is that things change so quickly online that in a relatively short time, the book might date itself.
But until that happens—in other words, if you read it now—you'll get the full impact of what Haterz has to offer.
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 © 1998–2019 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide