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Books To Look For
Constance Verity Saves the World, by A. Lee Martinez, Saga Press, 2018, $27.99, hc.
When I finished The Last Adventure of Constance Verity, I was a satisfied reader. I didn't need another book and wasn't expecting one, since Martinez usually writes standalone books, which is one of the many things I like about him. Also: just look at that title.
But I also like the character, and when this new book about her showed up in my P.O. box, I couldn't resist it.
In The Last Adventure of Constance Verity, the titular Constance Verity is our viewpoint character and it is indeed her last adventure. Not because she dies or is finally defeated, but because she's tired of having adventures and thinks she wants a normal life. She's been saving the world since she was seven, helped by a fairy godmother who showed up at her birth and gifted her with the inordinate amounts of skill and luck that allow her to always come out ahead in an adventure.
But at the end of the first book Constance finds a way to get rid of her fairy godmother's gift and now she's all set to live a normal life with her normal boyfriend Byron, an accountant. The problem is that trouble still comes her way—not as often as it once did, but she still has to deal with. Her skills have remained intact but she now has less luck on her side.
That's when Larry, the son of one of her archnemeses, Lord Peril, shows up to ask for her help in saving the world. His mother—the aforementioned Lord Peril—has died—again—and Larry has inherited her evil secret society. Larry isn't evil. In fact, he's a grave disappointment to his mother and he can't figure out why his mother has left him her evil empire. But since she has, he's decided he wants to dismantle it from the inside. With some reluctance, and warnings from her sidekick, Constance agrees to help him, and so the adventures begin anew.
I'm not going to get into all the plot points. If you liked the first book, you'll like this one just as much because while it is a sequel it's not simply more of the same. Constance's best friend Tia is back, now as an official sidekick, as is Tia's boyfriend, the supposedly retired ninja/thief Hiro. The new characters, Byron and Larry, are a treat.
As I mentioned in my review of The Last Adventure of Constance Verity in an earlier column, I'm not a huge fan of humorous books. Too often they're either riddled with puns (which get old) or the story only exists to set up jokes and pratfalls.
Well, there are jokes and pratfalls herein, as well as an affectionate mockery of the whole pulp hero genre, but it's the ongoing tone of the prose and the voice Martinez has given Constance that provides the humor as much as do the situations. And all of this humor is set in a plot that raises some serious issues about relationships that remain poignant and relevant even amidst all the jokes.
In other words, Martinez makes us care about his characters and is willing to explore the intricacies of their relationships to one another while still maintaining a humorous tone. That's not easy to pull off, although he certainly makes it seem so.
The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, by Seanan McGuire, DAW Books, 2018, $16, tpb.
As with Constance Verity Saves the World, I was completely satisfied when I finished Sparrow Hill Road, the book that first introduced us to Rose Marshall, known in urban folklore circles as the Phantom Prom Date, or the Girl in the Green Silk Gown. In fact, if you'd asked me if I wanted a second book, I would have responded with a polite "No, thanks," because I loved Sparrow Hill Road. It's not only my favorite of McGuire's books, but a favorite book period, and the last thing I'd want is to have a sequel water down my enthusiasm for it.
I know. A bad sequel or a dodgy film adaptation doesn't ruin the actual book because you can still return to it any old time you want. But you know what I mean.
What was so entrancing about Sparrow Hill Road was how McGuire blended folklore, mythology, and stuff she just made up, in a manner that gave it all the same gravitas. Rose was good-hearted and capable and the episodic nature of the book (which I later found out was put together from various short stories) presented a full picture of her life since the fateful night sixty years ago when she died, as well as descriptions of the various levels of the lands of the dead as seen from those many different points in Rose's life.
There were so many great moments in that book.
Rose's story begins with her death at sixteen, run off the road by a very dark James Dean-type movie star named Bobby Cross. Cross made a deal at a crossroads and while the world thinks he's dead—yet one more young actor tragically cut down in his prime—he actually gets to live forever. But he needs to take the souls of the living to sustain himself. Rose gets away from him on the night of her death and he becomes fixated on taking her down. Many of the stories in Sparrow Hill Road deal with encounters between the two.
In The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, Cross finally finds a way to hurt her: he orchestrates a series of events that returns Rose to the land of the living. Rose is horrified. All her friends are in the ghostlands. She has a purpose there as a psychopomp, ferrying the dead on to whatever lies beyond the temporary haven of the ghostlands. Brought back to life, she's just a teenage girl, sixty years out of her time, burdened with what she sees as disgusting human needs like eating and urinating, and vulnerable to another attack by Cross because as a living girl she can no longer escape from him by heading into the deeper layers of the ghostlands.
In the course of Rose trying to return to the life Cross stole from her, McGuire widens the scope of the mythology and folklore she uses from that based solely in North America to also incorporate those of the British Isles and the Mediterranean. I prefer the North American mythology that she's built up—mostly because it feels so fresh—but she's certainly put her own individual stamp on the old world material while remaining true to its sources, and it both makes sense and is required within the context of the story.
I'm not going to say that the new book is better than Sparrow Hill Road. It's different but easily as absorbing, and Rose is as fascinating a character as she was in the first book. If I sound a little nit-picky above it's only because—as I said—I really loved the first book. As is often the case, no matter how good subsequent installments in a series might be, we'll often have a particular soft spot for the book that got us started.
But with that said, this installment is very, very good—certainly more absorbing and innovative than way too many of the other books with which it shares shelf space in the book stores. And you know what? I'm pretty sure there will be a third installment, and if that's the case I'll definitely be saying, "Yes, please."
The Book of Dog, by Lark Benobi, Vegetablian Books, 2018, $12.95, tpb.
I'm at a bit of a loss approaching a review of Lark Benobi's The Book of Dog. I suppose it actually needs two reviews: one as a novel and one as the singular entity that it is.
It doesn't really work as a novel, or rather, it works only in the most basic and simplistic terms. There is a plot. There's a start, middle, and ending. But it's not a particularly satisfying novel. The characters are obvious constructs and they move through the story at the whim of the narrative, not following any motivation of their own. The plot is overladen with coincidence and just plain author manipulation—in other words, when Benobi needs something to happen, it simply does, regardless of plausibility in terms of character or a convincing flow of events.
Here's a quick thumbnail of the plot cribbed from the promo material accompanying the book:
"A mysterious yellow fog is making its way across America, sowing chaos in its path…the White House is under attack by giant bears, the President is missing, and the Vice President has turned into a Bichon Frise. Soon the Beast will rise and six unlikely women will make the perilous journey to the Pit of Nethalem where they will stop the Beast from fulfilling his evil purpose, or die trying."
The novel moves between the viewpoints of those aforementioned women, following their individual treks to Nethalem. Some of them are changed, becoming dogs, bears, birds. And yes, from that thumbnail outline of the plot, you and I have read variations on this—and much better ones—a hundred times before.
So with all of that said, why am I even bothering to bring the book to your attention?
Well, there's another way of looking at it, and that's as a social political allegory along the lines of something such as Animal Farm. Like Orwell's novel, The Book of Dog's tone is both earnest and farcical, an absurdist take on the issues of our day, and to crib again from the accompanying promo material, it's "ridiculously plausible."
Benobi tackles the current madness of the American political forum and women's rights with a particularly astute eye. There are sections of pure delightful whimsy and lyrical beauty that flow seamlessly into the mad darkness of her critical material.
Now I prefer my critiques of social politics to be either subtly integrated into fiction or presented in an essay or an op-ed piece. But just as an Aesop's fable has its own enduring charm, so too does The Book of Dog win the reader over with its lessons presented in a curious mix of whimsy and biting social satire. And once I was able to turn off the voice in my head saying "Oh, come on!" at implausible plot turns and the lack of character motivation, and accept the book for what it is, I was in turns amused and horrified, but always absorbed.
So take the above into account, as well as the fact that it all comes from the left side of the political spectrum, before you decide to give it a try. For my part I find it easy to recommend. I guarantee you won't have read anything quite like this before.
Calexit, Vol. 1, by Matteo Pizzolo and Amancay Nahuelpan, Black Mask, 2018, $14.99, tpb.
Calexit is an illustrated novel that gives us another take on the near future of the Republic, should present day events run their negative course. Here's some cover copy to provide the set up: "In Calexit, the citizens of California struggle to seize power back from an autocratic government. Jamil, a 25-year-old courier (aka smuggler), and Zora, a 27-year-old leader in the Mulholland Resistance, attempt to escape from Occupied Los Angeles, where martial law has been in place for the past year—ever since America's demagogue President signed an executive order to deport all immigrants, and California responded by declaring itself a Sanctuary State."
This is a much darker and more realistic story than the one presented in The Book of Dog, and much more plausible given the current political divide and how high emotions can run. Calexit isn't satirical, and it doesn't take shots at either Trump or Californian liberals. Instead it gives us a rather terrifying scenario of what a civil war would be like in the present day and leaves us to deal with that.
It's a world where militants openly clash with federal troops to defend immigrants, where drug use is rampant in a futile attempt to fight depression, and environmental decay has accelerated. It's a world where if you haven't picked a side yet, someone will force you to do so.
What makes it all work is the characterization—Pizzolo's spot-on dialogue and Nahuelpan's expressive art draw the reader in and keep them there. I loved how the two leads and much of the cast are brown. I loved all the shades of good to bad shown in characters on both sides of the struggle. And I loved how carefully the creators thought out every little detail, offering up speculative fiction in its purest form.
If you're the sort of person who dives into the extras after you've watched a movie, you'll appreciate the wealth of material that makes up the last third of the book. There are interviews with the creators, sketches and descriptions of the creative process, and even some fascinating interviews with political activists that Pizzolo admires.
Though, like The Book of Dog, Calexit comes from a leftist point of view, its violent solution to problems will probably upset as many liberals as it does conservatives. But it's hard to look away, and it certainly brings an intensity to the conversation around what happens next, both in the next volume of Calexit and the world in which we live.
Astounding, by Alec Nevala-Lee, Dey Street Books, 2018, $28.99, hc.
It's been a good year for those of us interested in the history of science fiction and fantasy, especially as to how it relates to the pulps.
Earlier we saw (and discussed in this column) Grant Wythoff's The Perversity of Things, his fascinating biography of Hugo Gernsback and how science fiction itself grew out of the electrical parts catalogues of his business, the Electro Importing Company. Then Nat Segaloff's A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison gave us his wonderful biography of the late, great Harlan Ellison.
Astounding takes up the story in between those two books, focusing on the careers of John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard, and how the magazines Campbell edited—particularly the one from which this book takes its title, Astounding—ushered in what is often considered to be the Golden Age of Science Fiction.
Along the way, we get to see the beginnings of sf fandom, how sf writers helped—or tried to help—the war effort during the Second World War, and the origins behind many of the seminal works of the field. The text is also peppered with any number of sf luminaries such as Donald A. Wollheim, Frederik Pohl, L. Sprague de Camp, A. E. van Vogt, C. L. Moore, and others. It also, happily, shows the importance of Dona Campbell and Leslyn Heinlein on how they influenced not only their husbands' careers, but the field itself.
Nevala-Lee has a wonderfully breezy writing style that brings the mid-twentieth century to life, piling on the detail and the gossip without ever bogging the reader down. The amount of research that had to go into this boggles the mind but it certainly paid off in terms of the final product.
If you have any interest whatsoever in how the boom in science fiction and fantasy first came to be (as we view it now in a time where everything from entertainment to appliances appear to contain elements of it), ignoring this book will be doing yourself a grave disservice.
Normally I peck away at non-fiction reading a bit here, a bit there, and it takes me ages to get through a book. This one I read straight through and then wanted to go back to my library and start digging out many of the now-classics of sf with my new insight into how they came to be.
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. EBooks may be sent as an attachment to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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