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Books To Look For
Storm Cursed, by Patricia Briggs, Ace, 2019, $27, hc
It's kind of funny. Once upon a time Patricia Briggs was a relatively new writer, first introducing us to her delightful coyote shapeshifter/auto mechanic Mercy Thompson back in 2006 in Moon Called. Thirteen years and many books later she's already a bit of a grande dame of the urban fantasy genre, and still producing quality stories in the field that she helped define.
And yes, I know. She wrote books before she introduced us to the Columbia Basin werewolf pack. They were secondary-world fantasies and undoubtedly very good, but I think even Briggs would agree that the Mercy Thompson series (and later the related Alpha & Omega series) is what she's best known for.
I see echoes of the tropes she developed in a great many of the urban fantasy novels that have come out subsequent to her arrival. And those echoes continue in the work of authors who might not have read her, but were influenced by the writers who were initially influenced by her.
That's the way it goes when someone comes up with a good thing. If you look back at the fantasy field you can see it happen over and over gain. There was Robert E. Howard's Conan, which basically created the sword & sorcery genre. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, which defined the quest novel. Anne Rice gave us vampires. Stephen King redefined and rejuvenated the horror genre. And on and on it goes.
Now I have good news and bad news about Briggs's latest Mercy Thompson novel, Storm Cursed. The bad news is that we're getting to the point in the series where picking up a book so far in (it's the eleventh) will leave a new reader if not confused, at least missing all the nuances that make a good series like this as great as it is. The good news is that if you're new to Briggs's take on urban fantasy, starting at Moon Called you'll have ten more books in the series, with another seven in the related Alpha & Omega series, ahead of you. And you won't have to wait a year or so between books the way I and her many other readers have had to do.
You'll notice I'm not saying much about Storm Cursed, but that's only because the backstory leading up to the situation that Mercy and the Columbia Basin pack find themselves in this time out makes for a long and winding journey, and to unpack it properly I'd have to devote this entire column to it.
What I can say is that it's a terrific addition to the series, deepening Briggs's supernatural world in which it all plays out, and I finished the book with great satisfaction and the desire to go back to the beginning of the series and start it all again.
Some books are a weak beer that doesn't quite quench your thirst. Briggs's books are like an old whiskey that leaves you a little unsteady on your feet with your head in the clouds and a smile in your heart.
The Saturday Night Ghost Club, by Craig Davidson, Penguin Books, 2019, $16, tpb
Craig Davidson's latest novel is a coming-of-age story with a little bit of a twist, because he writes from the viewpoint of the main character as an adult looking back on the summer he turned twelve in 1980s Niagara Falls.
The adult Jake Baker is a neurosurgeon. The twelve-year-old version lives in fear of bullies. On the last day of school he gets attacked by a pair of boys, Percy and Terry, who have been tormenting him all year. They throw a firecracker, which explodes in Jake's face, and light another one. Jake puts his hands up to protect himself but nothing happens.
When he peers through his fingers he sees that Percy is clutching his head, his hands bloody. A little farther off, a girl stands holding a skateboard on her shoulder with a rock in her other hand. Confronted by someone who isn't afraid of them, the pair takes off, and that's how Jake meets Dove Yellowbird and later her brother Billy, recently moved to Niagara Falls from Slave Lake.
Now, the title of the book comes courtesy of Jake's Uncle Calvin, whom Jake describes as "an expert in lore of unspecified worth, a believer in things that went bump in the night, a self-professed seer between the worlds of the living and the dead. He was a conspiracy theorist of the highest order, and, as a result, just about the best uncle" a boy like he could ask for.
Calvin has a little shop called the Occultorium and decides that this summer they will form the titular Saturday Night Ghost Club. Membership includes himself, Jake, Billy, Lexington Galbraith who owns the video store next door, and, when she feels like it, Dove. The mysteries they investigate might seem tame to generations who grew up on the SAW movies and the like, but to kids like Jake and his friends, they feel like they're walking on the very knife-edge of terror.
As the summer progresses, Calvin seems to unravel a little, until he ends up having a breakdown during their final investigation. It's at this point that Jake's parents step in to tell him a little of his uncle's history and he understands how all the mysteries they've been investigating were actually part of one terrible story that lies buried in the past.
The Saturday Night Ghost Club will inevitably be compared to King's Stand by Me (originally published as "The Body" in his 1982 collection Different Seasons) or maybe even the Stranger Things TV show. And if you like either, you'll probably enjoy Davidson's novel. But it is its own beast.
I loved how it captured the mood of the time, the delicious wonder and terror that can be invoked in kids, the friendship between Jake and Billy, the kindness of Calvin, and Dove's desperate need to push limits. I also liked the intrusions of the older Jake who's telling the story, how he compares elements of what's going on with his own present-day work as a doctor.
The Saturday Night Ghost Club is filled with joy and heartbreak and all the elements that work to form children into adults.
The Green Man's Foe, by Juliet E. McKenna, Wizard's Tower Press, 2019, $26.99, hc
Regular readers of this column might remember how much I enjoyed The Green Man's Heir, Juliet E. McKenna's first novel about Daniel Mackmain, the son of a dryad. Her new novel The Green Man's Foe isn't quite as good, but neither is it a letdown.
Let me explain.
A first novel in a series has the benefit of introducing readers to new characters set in a new world (in this case the East Midlands, where the beings of English myth are real). Everything feels fresh and different—or at least it does when presented by someone as skilled as McKenna is at her craft.
A second novel inevitably lacks some of that element of surprise. For example, I was delighted with how Mackmain's dryad mother utilized cell phones in the first book. It still seems delightful in the second book, but it lacks that feeling of the happy jolt I got the first time around. I realize that things such as this are really being picayune, but it does play into how a reader receives the enchantment being presented. The appearances of the Green Man and the discovery of dragons in the first book stops the reader with the sense of how wonderful is this? When similar elements appear in the second book, they're somewhat expected and the effect is lessened just a little.
This time, Mackmain is in another part of the country, hired to oversee the renovation of a stately house. The reason he actually takes the job is that the Green Man sends him a dream in which it's made clear that it's important for Mackmain to deal with a supernatural problem in the area. As a dryad's son, he's learned not to say no when the Green Man makes his will known.
Unfortunately, he arrives at the house in the Cotswolds with no real clue as to what the supernatural problem is.
There's a fair amount of the progress of the renovation in the story, but happily not so much as to overwhelm—especially when it's leavened with the fascinating new cast of characters. And while I might have downplayed the impact of the legends McKenna brings into this story, I have to admit that I was still quite chuffed when I figured out where certain characters fit into English folklore.
Because, as I mentioned above, The Green Man's Foe isn't a letdown. The writing is fabulous, the mystery of what's really going on plays out well, and Mackmain remains a likeable and interesting character. As is the rest of the cast—we even get to meet his parents in a brief segment.
If The Green Man's Foe is the first of the two that you read, you'll probably be as excited about it as I was with The Green Man's Heir.
The Man Who Wouldn't Die, A. B. Jewell, William Morrow, 2019, $16.99, tpb
Sometimes a character just feels like he's in the wrong book—or at least that's what I came away thinking after I finished The Man Who Wouldn't Die, an odd little novel featuring a hardboiled PI named Fitch who gets pulled into all the things that are going wrong in a Silicon Valley set in the near future.
The novel opens with a woman knocking on the door of Fitch's office with a fistful of cash and a crazy story. She tells him that her father was Captain Don, one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. No, scratch that. He is her father. Because even though Captain Don is dead under mysterious circumstances, she believes he's alive somewhere, somehow, because he's still tweeting to her from the beyond.
She wants Fitch to find the truth about her father. Did someone murder him? Were they successful? And if so, was he able to transfer himself into the secret project he's been working on recently: the Spirit Box which would allow a brain to stay alive, even after death, and be connected to the data stream?
Fitch refuses the case initially, but allows himself to be talked into having a look. And that's the point where he goes down the rabbit hole and nothing really makes sense to him anymore.
The Man Who Wouldn't Die is obviously satire, a farcical extrapolation of what the tech world might be like if it continues in its current course. It's certainly funny, but the humor becomes repetitive and parts of it are irritating in their implausibility. And then there's the author's insistence on using silly and utterly transparent variations on well-known trade names. Shirli (personal assistant on your phone). Twipper (which people use to tweep). SnipChat. Starbacks. You get the idea.
Jewell doesn't miss an opportunity to mock every aspect of the tech world in which Fitch finds himself. The characters are all caricatures—probably more so to insiders who are actually a part of the tech world—and seem to exist only to lead from one joke to another. There's even a socially conscious criminal cartel called the Tarantulas who will ask you to fill out a survey after they've beaten you up.
In the midst of all this is Fitch, a realistic, likable character whose presence is only a foil to the farce surrounding him. And I suppose we need him there to allow the other characters to pontificate on how the world really works. Or at least, their world.
Look, I know why the book exists, and it is funny, and it does point out a lot of the obvious failings of those who have been deluded into thinking that everything tech-related, and only tech-related, has meaning. You might well love the way it skewers the status quo of Silicon Valley (because I'm guessing this is only an exaggeration of what really goes on there).
But I found myself wishing that Fitch and his husband Terry were in another kind of story, a more traditional mystery.
The Slab, Jeffrey J. Mariotte, Wordfire Press, 2019, $19.99, tpb
I haven't read a horror novel for a while and I was a little surprised at how unpleasant pretty much all of the characters were in Jeffrey J. Mariotte's The Slab. It turns out there was a good reason for this, but for the first part of the book—until I realized that reason—I was trying to figure out why I was reading it.
What's it about? Well, the blurb goes: "Three veterans of different wars, their lives once saved by magic, find themselves brought together in one of the most strange, remote, and cruel parts of the California desert. As serial killers ply their deadly trade, a young woman, abducted and endangered, seeks her own brand of justice for those who threatened her, and an ancient evil sprouts from beneath desert sands.…"
Since a version of this book was originally published in 2003, I'm sure that I can get away with a little spoilage. Most of it has to do with the unlikability of so many of the characters. Or rather, it wasn't so much that they were unlikable as how, no matter what they were like when they were first introduced, they quickly became bizarrely unhinged in terms of anger and violence.
If I'd known the reason for it going in (or at least had some vague inkling), I wouldn't have kept stopping as often as I did, thinking, oh come on. How can pretty much everybody in this place fall into a murderous rage at the drop of a hat?
It's not that I can't deal with this sort of thing (though I do have to admit I don't search it out). In the past I've read Richard Laymon and James Herbert and lots of the so-called splatterpunk authors. Yes, they can have over-the-top predatory characters, but they didn't have novels in which pretty much all the characters were that way.
Anyway, with that off the table, there's much to commend the novel. Although it's not post-apocalyptic, the location kind of feels that way, setting us up for a major Good vs. Evil conflict, with the latter getting most of the screen time.
The titular Slab lays the groundwork for the overall tone. It's a ramshackle refuge of RVs and trailers on a big concrete slab out in the California desert near the Salton Sea, home to a motley collection of people who have either decided to live off the grid, or are too poor to live anywhere else.
Things start off with a human skull found in the ashes of the community fire pit and escalate quickly from there with a property developer showing up to evict everybody and something even stranger under the mountains exuding an influence on those susceptible to its "voice." Stirring in a gang of serial killers, who make a habit of kidnapping young women and then hunting them down in the desert, doesn't help.
The only hope lies in the three army vets mentioned above, each with a piece of magic inside them that becomes that much stronger when they're together. One is a young woman eco-activist, one is a middle-aged man who's the town sheriff, and the last and oldest is a retired vet who lives on the Slab with his wife.
Mariotte does an excellent job of juggling various plot lines and all the characters to build the maximum suspense. The prose is lean and tight, propelling all these subplots until they come together for a very satisfying finale.
Now here comes another spoiler and this one you should avoid if you're planning to read The Slab.
My only other quibble with the novel is that it turns out that the oldest of the vets was once a member of the gang of serial killers, and I found it very hard to picture him in any kind of a heroic light. I understand the world's not black and white, that everyone has both good and evil inside them, but I never bought that he was seeking redemption. Or maybe he was, but I wasn't able to root for him, because there are some despicable acts that humans are capable of that I can't forgive or forget.
Belladonna University Box Set, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Tansy Rayner Roberts, 2018, $5.99, eBook
Halloween Is Not a Verb, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Sheep Might Fly, 2018, $2.99, eBook
Apparently, upon the release of the Belladonna University Box Set, the author tweeted this description: "If student witches from Hogwarts went to magical university…and were Australian…and spent most of their time hanging around at the pub with their geeky rock band…basically that's the Fake Geek Girl stories."
For a touchstone, I'd offer up Rainbow Rowell's Fan Girl. Not because they both feature twins in college getting into various kinds of mischief with their cadre of friends. Nor because they each have such a great take on fandom and use made-up media for the protagonists to obsess over. It's more the tone of the stories and the characters' voices.
Partway into either book and you'll start to think of the characters as your friends because they're smart, funny, and engaging—just the sorts of folk that anyone would want to hang out with.
Because the blurb setting up the background is so succinct and on point, I'm going to quote it rather than try to paraphrase it (which would take me far too many column inches):
"Meet Fake Geek Girl, the band that plays nerdy songs at the university bar every Friday night, to a mixture of magical and non-magical students: Lead singer Holly writes songs based on her twin sister Hebe's love of geek culture, though she doesn't really understand it; drummer Sage is an explosive sorcerous genius obsessing over whether Holly's about to quit the band to go mainstream; shy Juniper only just worked up the nerve to sing her own song in public and keeps a Jane Austen-themed diary chronicling the lives and loves of her friends. When the mysterious, privileged Ferd joins their share house, everything starts to unravel.…"
The university offers two study streams: Real and Unreal. It's a nice touch that the Real studies involve magic while the Unreal ones are what we would find in a mundane university. But there are so many other fun and clever bits. One of my favorites is how whenever Hebe (whose magic is domestic) gets upset, various cozy household items start appearing around her: throw pillows, a tea setting, lovely lamps, comfortable chairs.…
The box set is a collection of connected novellas that rather seamlessly blend into one another. There are no world-threatening perils, no feisty urban fantasy girls running around fighting monsters. Instead the stories are character-driven. Which is not a bad thing, since it's so easy to fall under the spell of these characters, to revel in the drama of their relationships, their madcap fun, how they can drive each other mad but also take such good care of each other.
The only odd thing about the box set is that it contains a prequel story that is told backwards, starting in present time and then going back chapter by chapter to where the story actually begins. I'm not sure why the author wrote it in such a way. One can certainly start at the end and read forward but that's a little awkward in an ebook. But don't skip it because it allows for plenty of "on stage" depictions of things that are only alluded to in the novellas.
Halloween Is Not a Verb is basically part four of the three novellas that make up the bulk of the box set, continuing the (mis)adventures of the group as Hebe and Holly bring their friends home to meet their magical mothers for an Aussie Halloween celebration.
I have the feeling that readers are going to either love or hate these stories. I'm obviously in the love camp and can't recommend them enough. They're fun and serious and deliver a real sense of wonder amidst all the shenanigans.
And yes, they're only available as ebooks, but on the plus side that makes it very affordable to give them 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. EBooks may be sent as an attachment to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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