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Books To Look For
Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire, Tor.Com, 2016, $17.99.
Seanan McGuire has written a lot of brilliant books as well. One of her strengths is to take tried-and-true themes of the sf/fantasy field and lay a fresh "what if" upon them. She's tackled monster hunters (InCryptid series), superheroes (Velveteen series), zombies (Newsflash series, writing as Mira Grant), fairy tales (Indexing series), and urban legends (Sparrow Hill Road), to name a few.
While I've enjoyed everything of hers that I've read to date, Every Heart a Doorway might well be my favorite.
Like Joyce's novel, it deals with what happens after the happily ever after, concentrating more on the kinds of stories where, under the right conditions, a child disappears into another realm—falling down a rabbit hole, maybe stepping through the back of a wardrobe or through a mirror. When these children's stories are done—the child has completed their heroic task and saved the secret world—they're sent back home again, abandoned by the magical realms that once welcomed them.
Joyce had a single character, the teenaged Tara who disappears for twenty years before her return. McGuire has a whole private school of them, postulating that this kind of thing happens more often than we might expect and that upon the children's return, their parents wouldn't know what to do with them. So they're encouraged to bring them to "Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children."
The headmistress, Miss West, professes a mandate to do what she can to cure the children and help them assimilate back into their lost lives. But what she's really doing is giving these children a safe haven and the support of their peers, all of whom have undergone a similar passage and an unhappy return.
Our viewpoint character is Nancy, whom we meet when her parents dump her at the school because they don't know what to do with her. At this point Every Heart a Doorway has the feel of a whimsical, coming-of-age story—and oh, did I love Nancy's madcap roommate Sumi. But the lighthearted aspect grows progressively darker as we make our way to the end.
I loved everything about this book from start to finish: the rich cast, the light touch McGuire has with her prose, her absolute control over her storylines, and her obvious deep affection for her characters, which makes us care of them just as much as she does.
But what I like the best about McGuire's work is that while thematically her books often turn on a gimmick (in this case, what happens to kids abandoned by the fairy realms that once welcomed them), they aren't gimmicky. Rather they read like the truth. They start with a feeling that could be summed up in a Hollywood pitch for a movie, only to expand in such a way that it becomes impossible to sum up all the multiple layers in just a few words.
If you've ever wanted to give McGuire a try but were intimidated by the large number of titles she has available, the standalone Every Heart a Doorway is an excellent and satisfying place to start.
Crescent City Magick: Welcome to New Orleans, by Michael L. Peters, Michael L. Peters, 2013, $11.95.
I have a weakness for black & white illustrative work, especially that rather ornate comic book style pioneered by Barry Windsor Smith, Michael Kaluta, Charles Vess, P. Craig Russell, and Berni Wrightson in the early seventies. It doesn't necessarily have the panel-to-panel flow of, say, a Jack Kirby or Frank Miller, but it makes up for that in the sheer weight of detail in each panel.
I also have a weakness for urban/contemporary fantasy that goes its own way rather than slavishly following whatever the current trend might happen to be. It reminds me of what fantasy was like when I first started reading it in the sixties: each author had an individual vision, the connective thread being that their work had a sense of wonder.
And lastly I have a weakness for the independent voice that forges its own path through the bewildering forest of publishing. I realize that sometimes the writer or artist doesn't quite have every creative chop in their toolbox. But there's a vigor that underpins many of these projects, a sense that the writer has bared their heart completely and laid it on the page, that I find compelling.
So even though Crescent City Magick: Welcome to New Orleans was published a couple of years ago, I was very pleased when a review copy showed up unannounced in my P.O. Box because it checks all the above boxes. (And I verified before writing this review that it's still readily available should you want a copy.)
Clayton Woods is always on the move, trying to stay one step ahead of he's not quite sure what. He works odd jobs, sleeps in motels, and, through hard labor, tries to hide from the sense of some impending dread. The first few pages of this graphic novel feature a soliloquy running through his head while the illustrations show him leaving yet another city and heading this time for New Orleans where a newspaper ad promises work.
At one point, when he's working at his new construction job in New Orleans, he thinks: "Physical labor, when life feels out of control, makes me feel stronger. Pushing muscle and sinew to their limits and meeting that challenge—it's empowering. An abandonment to the physical. Life courses through veins to a drumbeat pulse and worries slip away, albeit temporarily. It's magic."
This is a point of view I like in a fantasy, the one that focuses on the simple magic of the everyday as well as the supernatural. Throughout Crescent City Magick: Welcome to New Orleans, Peters presents us an even mix of both, with the everyday elements being just as compelling as the magical.
Upon arrival in New Orleans, Woods soon becomes involved with a Gypsyish witch named Julia and her friends, and he gets the first inklings of what exactly he's been running from all these years.
There's action and excitement, but Peters really shines in the quiet moments where he builds character with only a few interchanges of conversation and his expressive art.
Is this the best new fantasy to come along since sliced bread? Not really. But it's enchanting and absorbing and shows that Peters has huge promise as both an artist and storyteller. Think of this as supporting a new voice in the early stages of his career. I'm sure there'll be a big payoff in the years to come, because this opening salvo hits the mark more often than it misses.
Real Visitors, Voices from Beyond, and Parallel Dimensions, by Brad Steiger and Sherry Hansen Steiger, Visible Ink, 2016, $19.95.
Unless one is a diehard scientist, most people are fascinated with the paranormal, and even a scientist might like to read about it as a guilty pleasure. I'm not saying that most people actually believe in a world that includes ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night. But we do enjoy the frisson—that little shiver of emotional response—when we allow ourselves to consider, or even pretend to consider, what if?
There's much to like from even a cursory browse of Real Visitors, Voices from Beyond, and Parallel Dimensions. The prose has a light touch and there's enough meat in the material to keep one's interest without getting bogged down in too much detail. There are other books that provide a much more in-depth analysis and many of them are handily listed in a further reading section at the end of the book.
What we have here does just what it's supposed to do. It delivers an overview of the weird and mysterious with lots of connections to the experiences of ordinary people (as opposed to the fringe element who will believe anything, or the serious students of this material who can become so wrapped up in arcane minutiae they can lose sight of what it is they're studying).
Informative as the book is overall, the personal connection—the anecdotal first-person material scattered throughout the text—is what I enjoyed the most. It's like sitting around with a bunch of friends and someone asks, "What's the weirdest thing you ever experienced?" The response you get isn't vampires, dragons, hordes of zombies. Instead it's just little weird unexplained phenomena, and that's the case in those segments of Real Visitors as well.
Glowing eyes looking out at you from the woods where there's no light to cause a reflection. The car hurtling toward you but there's never an impact. Things being moved around in your house. Hearing voices or footsteps in another room when there's no one there. Perhaps the touch of an invisible hand on your shoulder.
Overactive imagination? Probably. But these are experiences shared by a great many people. Just ask that weirdest thing question the next time you're together with a group of friends. You might be surprised by the answers.
There are also essays by guest writers scattered throughout the book, focusing on their particular fields of expertise. My favorite was Mikayl Yahya ibn Kefa's essay, "Jinn Theory" (and not because of that delightful pun). Kefa opens with a brief description of his interest in the connectedness of disparate paranormal phenomena and his conversion to Islam where he discovered to his surprise—and certainly to mine, as well—that followers of his new faith are expected to believe in Ghraib, which is Arabic for "Unseen World."
He goes on to explain how his "newfound faith not only accepted the existence of the supernatural and an invisible realm beyond our senses but essentially made belief in them an article of faith. Furthermore, I found that there is within Islam a subcultural element of belief and/or research into the Unseen World that has a history stretching back to the dawn of human existence."
In my years of reading fantasy I've come across many writers who postulate fictional connections between all of the supernatural elements of the world, making tidy sense of what seems to be pretty much unknowable. So it was especially intriguing to me to read an explanation that is an accepted part of the belief system of some twenty-two percent of the world's population.
That's a lot of people.
Kefa's essay is essential reading for anyone interested in the supernatural.
All in all, Real Visitors, Voices from Beyond, and Parallel Dimensions is one of the better books I've read on unexplained phenomena. I tend to approach this material with a healthy dose of skepticism, schooled as I was like many of my generation in the unyielding truth of the scientific method, but the authors have a most reasonable response to that in their closing paragraph:
Although some readers may find some of the accounts, theories, and ideas to be somewhat far-out and even unthinkable, we believe that we must think about "unthinkable" subjects; otherwise, we will stop thinking and learning altogether. So, consider as we do that the universe is vast, deep, and profound—and much more complex than any scientific explanation of it.
Not Just Rockets and Robots: Daily Science Fiction Year One, edited by Jonathan Laden and Michele-Lee Barasso, Daily Science Fiction, 2012, $24.95.
Rocket Dragons Ignite: Daily Science Fiction Year Two, edited by Jonathan Laden and Michele-Lee Barasso, Daily Science Fiction, 2013, $24.95.
If you like short stories, as I'm sure you do since you're reading this magazine, here's a place you can get a fix between issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Sign up at DailyScienceFiction.com and every weekday, they'll send you a brand new, never before published story in an email, and it won't cost you a cent.
Some are quite short. Some are experimental. Some I don't get at all.
But some are absolutely brilliant.
Nine out of ten times I've never heard of the author before, but when it comes to those winners, I go looking for more work by them.
If you prefer reading your very short fiction in print, the first two years of Daily Science Fiction have been collected in the anthologies, Not Just Rockets and Robots and Rocket Dragons Ignite.
These are hefty volumes, and I'll have to admit that I didn't read them all the way through for this review. But I've been subscribed since May, 2014, and so, to date, have read over 500 of the stories collected in these two volumes. My comments above stand, though perhaps I should add this: something they all have in common is that each of the authors has a strong level of writing and the stories are of a uniformly high standard. What astonishes me sometimes is just how many ideas there are out there, and all the different ways there are to tell a story.
DailyScienceFiction.com and these anthologies are proof positive that there are always good writers out there pushing the boundaries of story and narrative style.
You might wonder why I'm writing this review before finishing the books (something I normally don't do). The answer is simple. If I waited until I'd read them all, this review wouldn't appear for months, because when it comes to collections and anthologies, I read in fits and starts. I like to take the time to think about the stories, so I don't read too many in a day, and rarely two in a row.
It's the reason you see so few reviews of anthologies in this column. I just take too long to read them.
And this is also why I really enjoy having them emailed to me five days a week. It allows me time to digest the nuances of one before I start another.
But I must say that while so far I've relied on the email versions for delivery, and suggest you give it a try, I'm delighted to have the print versions sitting by my reading chair to dip into when I'm looking for a break from a longer work or the non-fiction I read.
And did I mention that the email version is free?
Black Bottle Man, by Craig Russell, Great Plains Teen Fiction, 2010, $14.95.
I don't check the copyright page when a book arrives for review—not until I'm writing the actual review—so I was surprised to find that this recent arrival in my P.O. Box was published back to 2010. But happily, a quick check told me that it's still available in both this trade paperback format and as an ebook.
I say happily because this is a wonderful book, regardless of its publication date.
I was, however, a little confused about its designation as a Young Adult novel. Not because I don't like YA books—you'll know that's far from the case if you're a regular reader of this column—but because it doesn't read like a YA book.
The principal protagonist is Rembrandt, and we follow his story through two time lines: one when he's a teenager in the prairies during the thirties, the other when he's an old man in 2007. The years in between are spent traveling, with Rembrandt never spending more than twelve days at a stretch in the same place because of a deal his family made with the devil.
What deal? Rembrandt's aunts wanted babies. They got them, but the price was their souls. Hoping to find a champion to beat the devil, Rembrandt, his father, and his uncle make a pact to find that champion, but by the time our story begins (with Rembrandt in his nineties), he's the only survivor, and the champion has yet to be found. And never being able to stay anywhere for longer than twelve days really puts a crimp in any effort one might make to have a normal life.
The story goes back and forth in time and also includes the account of a homeless woman named Gail who is trying to find penance for her part in an attack on the school where she taught. Her whole life changed after the gunman entered her classroom.
Author Craig Russell packs a lot into this short novel which has an adult sensibility throughout, since the portions about Rembrandt in the thirties are obviously told from his older point of view. I loved the writing and characters and Russell's fresh take on the deal with the devil trope (the devil's the title character). But I especially enjoyed his using old hobo signs as a form of magic.
I read the book in pretty much one gulp, then went back to savor some of my favorite parts. I still don't get the YA designation (are kids really going to get the same understanding as an adult out of the infertility that drives the aunts to their desperate act and the sensibilities of the old man telling the story?) but lord, this is a fine bit of writing.
Alien Hunter: The White House, by Whitley Strieber, Tor Books, 2016, $25.99.
Every time I turn around there seems to be a new TV show based on a book series. The latest I've run across is Hunters, which takes its inspiration from Whitley Strieber's Alien Hunter series. The books are pretty much high octane roller coaster rides, so I was surprised at the murky and static feel of the show. So little happens from episode to episode in the few I've watched and the whole thing appears to have been filmed through a dark filter. Worse, what does happen on screen left me scratching my head, which shouldn't happen to me, because I've read the books.
But never mind. There's also a new book in the series…except it has a few problems as well. Two, to be exact.
The mystery writer Lawrence Block once gave this bit of advice to new novelists: write your novel, then when you're done, throw the first chapter away, because the story inevitably starts after the preambling that so many new writers fall victim to as they try their hand at a novel.
In the case of Alien Hunter: The White House, Strieber should have dropped the first two chapters. The book doesn't really start until chapter three, and everything before that could have easily been fed into the story as the plot unfolds. In fact, it does get fed in again—probably because by the time readers get to the relevant sections Strieber knew they'd need the reminder.
In earlier books, the alien invasion was spearheaded by outlaws from an alien world who came to our world to wreak havoc. The secret agency for which our main character Flynn Carroll worked had teamed up with law enforcers from the other world to bring them down. But now there's been a coup on the alien world, and the outlaws are in charge and planning a large-scale attack on our world.
Naturally, Carroll and his much-reduced team are the only ones with any hope of stopping them.
Alien Hunter: The White House is certainly another exciting, fast-paced entry into the series, but I have to admit that my interest is beginning to wane. Strieber's writing remains on point, and I'm still rooting for Carroll, but there wasn't the same commitment to character development that added so much depth to the earlier entries.
I doubt I'll return to the TV show, but even with the shortcomings I found in Alien Hunter: The White House, I'll still give the next book a try.
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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