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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen, Tor, 2015, $25.99.

Kingfisher, by Patricia A. McKillip, Ace, 2016, $27.

The Fireman, by Joe Hill, William Morrow, 2016, $28.99.

 
BARSK IS A world in which only the Fants live. Its rainy season lasts for half the year, and when it isn't raining, it's cloudy for months. The Fants live on Islands, beneath multiple moons. And, as their name implies, they are not human. They have large trunks, large ears which indicate their mood, and no fur—the latter of which is unfortunately important.

Schoen opens the book with Rüsul, an older Fant who has heard the call, and knows it is his time—because Fants who do not die of illness or accidents know when it is their time to die. He says his good-byes, readies his raft and some food, and sets out to the island across the water, where the dead go. To Rüsul, once he sets out, he is no longer alive. He is not of the living. He must surrender the things that defined him—and he is not at all afraid to do so.

But his journey is interrupted, and he is wrenched off his raft, and taken from his voyage, by non-Fants, none of whom should be on Barsk.

Until that moment, the glimpse into Fant life is slow, but in a good way. It's not our life, but it is a slice of the life of the Fants, and it has a quiet heart to it that caught my attention and held it.

Jorl is introduced next. He is a Fant, as Rüsul is, but he's not of the dead; he has a life. He's a historian, and he can speak with the dead, which is helpful for his chosen field. Bark produces a drug which works only for people who have the correct receptors; it allows him to see nefshons, subatomic particles of memory. Memories are created constantly, and the strongest of those exist in the person who forms their nexus. When that person dies, however, those particles remain, and the Speakers can draw those particles—enough of them—together to create an almost living after-image of the person.

Some familiarity is required. If the dead person is not known to the Speaker, nothing will come of the summons; the Speaker must substitute research and second-hand knowledge to have any chance at all, and strangers are much harder.

Jorl demonstrates this by summoning his best friend, Arlo, a Fant who died in the recent past. Arlo then tells him that he has to stop doing this, but Jorl called on Arlo because Arlo was his best friend, and when he was worried about things, it was to Arlo he talked.

If the first chapter pulled me in and made me curious, it's the second chapter that made me commit one hundred percent to the book.

Jorl has been trying to raise the recently dead—people he actually knew—and the dead don't answer. He is afraid because the very first Speaker, the Matriarch, wrote prophecies that signaled the possible destruction of the Fant race, and Jorl is afraid that one of those prophecies has become reality. She spoke of The Silence, and there's a lot of silence. Jorl, who's spent his life as a historian and knows a thing or two about research, has discovered that the recently dead can't be raised at all. This would include Arlo's mother. He very much fears that this is The Silence those centuries-old opaque prophecies refer to, and he has a stake in this, because the "newest Aleph" is supposed to be able to do something to prevent the end of the race.

Jorl is the most recent Aleph.

As readers, we can pretty much guess what Jorl can't: The dead are being kidnapped by offworlders. Because the Fants aren't physically dead yet—in their own terms, they haven't completed the journey—they can't be gathered and summoned. What's less certain is why, and the unfolding of that why, in all its complications, is the rest of Barsk.

All of its complications include an albino boy—a non-person in his own society, an Otter Speaker who has no interest in Fants, a Senator who has a strong personal interest in koph, the Speaker drug, and the not quite dead.

There is a distinct lack of humans in this novel. There are dogs, cheetahs, yaks, sloths—all, like the Fants, speaking, thinking and culturally present—but not humans. Having said that, this is a very, very human book. It's about death, about memory and legacy, about fear and even kindness. Schoen has a sure hand with character, and his writing is vivid, thoughtful, grounded.

Highly recommended.

 

*   *   *

 

McKillip has been writing for almost as long as I've been reading fantasy. I started reading her with Forgotten Beasts of Eld, and never really stopped. She is an author of my youth who has never been visited by the suck fairies—or, putting it another way, rereading her as I get older reveals layers and textures in her writing I missed the first time through. There is no point at which I cringe at my own naive adoration of her early writing.

Kingfisher is her latest novel.

When I started it, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Pierce Oliver is working at the docks with crab traps when he sees the knights, who appear to have gotten slightly lost. That's no surprise, really—no one comes to Cape Mistbegotten on purpose. It's a small town in the middle of nowhere, and Pierce's life is a small life in the middle of nowhere. He is eighteen, restless, and stuck in a rut.

When he sees the knights, however, he sees the shadows of their house names, among them Wyvern. The scene is pure McKillip; it is a hint of ancient, numinous forces, distilled into the people who are almost their archetype. And then, it's gone. They're knights, they're men, and they're lost. They've driven.

There are cars in this world. There are phones. There's electricity, plumbing, and emptiness. There are mothers, fathers, and failed relationships; there are restaurants at the back end of nowhere.

But if there are all these things, we're still not in Kansas; we're in a world of McKillip's devising in which the modern lives side-by-side with the mythical.

Pierce Oliver wants to leave the cape. He wants to leave his mother. She loves him, of course; he loves her. But he is a young man, not a child, and his mother has not quite made the adjustment. This is a fairly common problem, but when your mother is an incredibly powerful sorceress, and can keep tabs on you by borrowing the eyes or the shapes of any living creature at all, it's more difficult.

His beautiful, bitter mother finally tells him a truth that she had never shared before: Pierce's father is alive. He has a brother. Both are in the Court of the Wyvern King—King Arden—alongside the Queen. The Queen who Pierce's father loved more than anyone else in the world. His father is a knight; they lived in their home for a year, until he told his wife he wished to return to court.

And he did, taking their son with them.

Their oldest son. His mother discovered, after she'd thrown him out, that she was pregnant with his younger son. And so she hid all knowledge of that child, because she had no intention of surrendering him to his father, to that court, to that world which she had rejected.

Pierce wants to meet that father. And that, of course, breaks his mother's heart. But she loves him, and if her love is a cage, that cage isn't literal.

Pierce heads toward Severluna, where King Arden and his knights live. On the way, he meets Carrie. Carrie, like Pierce, is young; unlike Pierce, she's known both her parents all her life. Like Pierce, her parents are no longer together; unlike Pierce, her yearning and frustration and sense of entrapment are turned inward, always inward. Carrie lives in the town closest to Pierce's old home, and she works—as Pierce did—in a restaurant. The restaurant, in the Kingfisher Inn, isn't owned by her mother, and her mother is not a sorceress of astonishing power. She's a woman who got good and tired of living with Merle, and took off to distant parts.

Carrie lives with Merle, her father. And she is surrounded, always, by Merle's friends, and by the makeshift family one builds when one works and lives in close quarters. Aunt Lilith, who lives upstairs; Hal, who doesn't live with Aunt Lilith, although they're married. She lives in the shadow of Stillwater, another cook in town, whose restaurant is famous. She has spent her entire life asking questions, and no one will answer them, and she is tired of being kept in the dark.

Daimon is the last of the three. Like Pierce, he has spent his life without one parent; unlike Pierce, that parent was his mother. He is the bastard son of King Arden—fetched, at the demand of the Queen, when his existence became known upon the death in childbirth of his mother, and brought to court, where he was raised with his half-brothers and sisters as if he were in truth a royal sibling. The Queen is not his mother, and the Queen was not particularly happy to find this evidence of her husband's infidelity—but she has been a mother to Daimon for all his life, and if there was ugliness about his existence, Daimon has never been blamed by her for it.

But he's always been aware of it. If his siblings treat him like family, the other nobles don't, quite. Daimon is often on the outside, there. He is, like Pierce and Carrie, young. Unlike Pierce and Carrie, he is falling in love, and that will lead him to ancient truths and hard choices, because truths when revealed at the right—or wrong—time cause age-old questions about identity: Who am I? To whom do I owe loyalty?

In some ways, all three have to ask and answer that question.

There is more—there's always more, in McKillip's work. She has always been adept at creating people who are profoundly human, but she has also been the master of magic, of creating magic that feels wild and larger than life and all-encompassing. In lesser hands, the magic becomes the focus; in McKillip's, it's wed, always, to the people whom it affects, and the results of this are almost alchemical; she takes the base materials and transmutes the whole into pure gold. She lets people be people in all their complications: their wrongs, their rights, their strengths and weaknesses.

Again, highly recommended.

 

*   *   *

 

I loved Joe Hill's previous book, N0S 4A2. I didn't think I would, because I don't really like vampire books all that much, but I fell hard for his characters. So when The Fireman crossed my desk, I grabbed it.

First: I love Hill's characters. Harper Grayson, a nurse at an elementary school, is the heart of the book. She is, and struggles to be, kind; her natural bent is to help when help is needed. She's sentimental—she still loves Mary Poppins—and she's iron-strong when she needs to be. She is married to a self-indulgent idiot.

No, sorry, let me take that back. She's married to Jakob. And in as much as she can be, she is happy with him; he seems to understand how to hold her, how to handle her when she's stressed; he's protective, and he's there for her. Sort of. This did not stop me from wanting to kick him, and that feeling did not diminish by the end of the book.

In part, this desire stems from the structure of the novel, and in part because Harper Grayson is real enough to me that I want to slip an arm around her shoulder and tell her that her husband is an idiot, and she deserves a better one.

On the last day of school, Harper sees a man spontaneously combust. She's seen it on the news, of course—because everyone has, if they watch the news at all. She's never seen it in person.

A disease, Draco incendia trychophyton, is spreading across the globe. It appears to have started in the North of Russia, but in the modern world, it can't be contained there. Called Dragonscale by people who want less of a mouthful, it covers the victims in swirling black tattoos, and it eventually causes them to combust.

There have been reports of isolated North American cases, and the media is blazing with news. But it doesn't stay contained to the news, and as it spreads, civilization—as it often does in this type of novel—breaks down.

Harper moves from being an elementary school nurse to being a volunteer nurse at a hospital that is now bursting at the seams as more and more people contract the disease. She works sixteen-hour days, and sees up close the effects of Dragonscale. She doesn't know as much as she could because the Centers for Disease Control have gone down in flames. But she knows the signs. She knows what the death looks like.

And she unsurprisingly finds it difficult to watch people die. She finds it difficult because it is one heartbreak after another if she gets too attached to her growing list of patients, but she can't be a machine because they're terrified. One of the few patients to whom she becomes attached is Renée, but Renée leaves the hospital in a hurry when Harper's not there because, in typical fashion, she thinks she's about to explode and she'd like to do it somewhere where she doesn't hurt or kill anyone else.

It's in the hospital that Harper first meets the Fireman. A UK ex-pat named John Rookwood, he tries to cut a very, very long line, holding an injured child who is obviously infected with Dragonscale—as are most of the hospital's visitors. The hospital isn't stupid; they have a full-time very beefy man to stop hysteria's more physical aspects. But Harper's attempt to defuse the situation actually works, because she recognizes the symptoms of appendicitis, and also that the child is both deaf and mute.

The book works best for me leading up to the moment in which Harper contracts the disease. Even after that, it works well. But while I don't mind post-apocalyptic novels, I dislike the communes many of them contain which become almost Lord of the Flies.

People often ask me what's more important when writing—character or plot. I don't generally have a good answer, because they always seem indivisible to me. But if asked about The Fireman, I could answer the question. Character. The book went in a direction that in general doesn't work for me, but I followed because I was attached to the characters.

Hill's Harper is someone I would want to spend time with. She's someone I'd want in my life. Is she perfect? No. Is she entirely politically correct? No. But she is essentially kind; she wants to help. Is she judgmental? Yeah, a bit. But it's not the core of her character, and she works hard to pull herself out of the knee-jerk reactions she has.

Her husband becomes a caricature by the end; he is almost a satire of a particular type. I don't think I'd laughed so hard at the lampooning of a certain literary sensibility, ever, and it's not exactly kind on Hill's part. But one of the things that Jakob discusses, in his fear and rage, is the selfishness of kindness. Because, existentially, all people are selfish creatures by nature, and Harper's version of selfish is that she has to be at the center of things. She has to be needed. She has to be helpful to fulfill herself.

I'm not particularly religious. I have no problems with this general statement. We do, and try to do, the things that make us happy. We are not happy creatures if we lack any self-respect. If helping others feeds into our own sense of self-respect or worth, fine. I don't think there's a need to deny that this is a selfish perspective.

But here's the thing: I, as a person who wants to be happy, would much rather be around people whose tendencies trend toward being helpful than those who trend toward rampant intellectual nihilism and the core-deep "if everyone is selfish, why do I have to do anything for anyone else, anyway?"

They don't. But in spite of their withering contempt for the intellectual light-weights who are not them, most people—selfish people, even—would vastly prefer friends like Harper Grayson over friends like Jakob. Because who wouldn't?

And that's the heart of the book, really, to me. There is kindness, and the desire for kindness. There is happiness and the desire for happiness. There's survival, and the ultimate desire for survival. Hill is not one-note. There are people in his book who are both—to me—contemptible and right. No one is all one thing or the other; everyone is struggling, because they're people.

However, in a more mundane sense, the book is about the collapse of society, the small pockets of resistance, the hysteria of fear and the roving bands of people who are killing those who have the disease. It's about Harper, who is pregnant, and who wants to hang on for long enough to have a baby she's afraid she'll have to give up. And it's about the grim need to survive in a world that is falling apart, and the need for hope when there's not a lot of it.

I want Joe Hill to keep writing books for as long as I live.

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