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New and Noteworthy

Once again we dive into the mix of titles arriving at our office to pick out the week's most noteworthy titles, and take a look at notable SF and Fantasy books still in print that you may have missed in On The Shelves.

New Releases

Last year A. A. Attanasio -- who also publishes under the name Adam Lee -- plunged into the thickly crowded Arthurian Saga market with The Dragon and the Unicorn, reprinted last month in paperback (HarperPrism, August 97, 539 pages, $6.50). Even if you tend to shy away from Arthurian tales, as we often do, this one had a number of things to perk your interest. First was Attanasio's reputation for originality, won with books such as Wyvern and Radix. Second was the plot: it's not uncommon to go back a generation or two before Camelot to ramp up the tale of King Arthur, but the seeds of Attanasio's story are planted before the creation of the universe, and involve demons and unicorns, Romans and Druids, and the unending war between elf and dragon. Stepping away from the mainstream a bit, we had to admit. And third, but by no means least, was the seriously cool cover art by Danilo Ducak.

And now comes the second volume in the series: The Eagle and the Sword (HarperPrism, August 97, 340 pages, $14). Although it lacks the eons-spanning charm of the first, this book still promises plenty. The demon Lailoken, known as Merlin to mere mortal types, has carefully groomed Pendragon's son Arthor, "The Eagle of Thor," to lead the Celts against their conquerors. But his plans are set back when he discovers Arthor is not the leader he seeks, but a bloodthirsty youth who delights in war and killing. To get things back on track will require placing a new and very different weapon in Arthor's hand -- a sword that must be pulled from the very heart of Creation. Advertised as the first retelling to bring together "the hallowed yarn of legend and the shimmering strands of quantum science," Attanasio has found a new spin on a subject that offers very little traction these days. And once again the talented Ducak provides the cover.

In 1995 Gregory Benford released one of the most acclaimed original anthologies of the year, and in September of this year Tor books finally brings it back into print in a handsome trade edition. Far Futures (Tor, Sept. 97, 348 pages, $15.95) contains five novellas by some of the most respected hard SF writers in the field: Greg Bear, Donald Kingsbury, Poul Anderson, Charles Sheffield, and Joe Haldeman. Many of these stories found their way into "Best of" collections for 1995.

The theme of the anthology is striking: all the tales are set at least a thousand years in the future, and many deal with the ultimate disposition of mankind, billions of years from now. This is the kind of canvas where science fiction often works best, and it's a shame it's not dusted off and used more often. In his anthology summation of last year, Gardner Dozois noted that several of the stories, particularly Anderson's "Genesis," "deliver a few genuine jolts of pure-quill old-fashioned undiluted Sense of Wonder, something the genre does all too rarely these days," a stirring endorsement indeed. Haldeman's novella "For White Hill," a "fine story of love and sacrifice while the ultimate ice piles up, planet-deep" (Brian Aldiss) was singled out by several critics as one of the finest tales of 1995. Highly recommended.

We don't often recommend movie and television tie-in books -- in fact, they frequently give us a rash -- but when we do get bit, we fall pretty hard. So it is with The Illustrated Star Wars Universe (Bantam Spectra, September, 208 pages, $17.95) by Ralph McQuarrie with text by Kevin J. Anderson. McQuarrie has been the conceptual artist for the Star Wars franchise since the first movie, and Anderson is the author of some of the most popular Star Wars novels. Together they've produced an eye magnet of surprising potency. This is precisely the kind of book you pick up for a moment only to finally set down hours later.

Ostensibly, a kind of tour book of the Star Wars universe, with stops at such worlds as Tatooine, Dagobah, and the Imperial Center of Coruscant, this book offer a detailed look at some of the most fascinating locales encountered in the three movies. The chapters on the cloud city of Bespin and Yakin 4, the jungle moon nearly destroyed by the first Death Star, for example, fill in background detail not only on the planets themselves but the Empire and the Resistance as well, and the creatures and cultures caught between the two. Even the chapter on the destroyed world of Alderaan, seen on-screen for mere seconds, helps to flesh out the stuff of the Star Wars Universe with intriguing and internally consistent detail. And perhaps that's part of the appeal of this book -- not only does it satisfy the hunger of the Star Wars fan for additional info on her favorite film universe, but it's another ball in the air for the LucasFilm jugglers, another in a series of wonders for the audience to gasp at. Just how long can a fiction franchise retain internal consistency with this much product, this many hands stirring the plot? Apparently, for far longer than we would have given them credit for. We can only watch, and applaud.

Speaking of movie tie-ins, Pocket Books has released a brand new series of short novels set in a new Star Trek franchise: Star Trek: New Frontier (Pocket Books, 1997, 151 - 184 pages, $3.99) by Peter David. The brainchild of David and John J. Ordover, the New Frontier books follow the adventures of the U.S.S. Excaliber, a newly refit Ambassador-class starship commanded by Captain Mackensie Calhoun. On their first mission, the Excaliber is sent on a mercy mission to the sector of space controlled by the Thallonians, a cruel race who rule their empire with an iron hand. But now Thallonian rule is collapsing, their empire is in chaos, and it will take daring, deviltry and diplomacy to keep the entire sector from going up in flames. In flavor, these books seem most similar to the original series, with a young and impetuous Captain at the helm of a brand new vessel. Worth a closer look by any fans of the series, old and new.

In 1994 Robert Reed, the author of Down the Bright Way, published Beyond the Veil of Stars, an unusual but gripping science fiction novel that became a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Cornell Novak's father was a UFO hunter who never gave up in his quest for the aliens whom he claimed abducted Cornell's mother. But the night that the sky is ripped away and replaced with a mirror image of the Earth, life on the planet is changed forever and Cornell's father becomes a celebrity... and Cornell is recruited by a mysterious government agency. The agency reveals that Earth has indeed contacted many alien races through the Portal, a device that allows travel between the worlds but translates the traveler into the indigenous lifeform of the destination world. Together with a beautiful but enigmatic alien named Porsche, Cornell began to unravel both the nature of the Portal and dark secrets buried on Earth.

And now Tor has released the sequel, Beneath the Gated Sky (Tor, September 11, 1997, $23.95). Having survived their adventures on the gated worlds through the Portal, Cornell and Porsche return to Earth to face a conspiracy so labyrinthine and far-reaching that they find they can only trust themselves. If you enjoy literary SF that departs from the norm in the first chapter and never looks back, you could do much worse than this.

On the Shelves

Here we point out those books still in print which we've recently discovered or which we've just had recommended to us. As always, if you have your own suggestions (and we know you do!) be sure to let us know.

Children's books -- and in particular picture books -- are an unexplored gold mine of original fantasy that most adults don't discover until their progeny show up, demanding nighttime reading material. If you've got children, or make it a habit to read to your various nieces and nephews, then perhaps you've been lucky enough to stumble across Clay Boy (Greenwillow Books, 1997, $16) by Mirra Ginsburg and illustrated by Jos. A. Smith. If not, pay attention.

Adapted from a Russian folk tale, Clay Boy tells the simultaneously funny and frightening story of an elderly couple, lonely now that their children and grandchildren have moved on, who create a small clay boy to care for. The clay boy comes to life almost immediately, announcing "I am here! I am hungry!" And then this charming children's tale rapidly turns dark as the clay boy's appetite rages unchecked and he devours everything and everyone in his path, until a fateful encounter with a very brave billy goat. A chilling tale cheerfully illustrated with a bright and open style by the very talented Smith, Clay Boy may be a bit too much for some youngsters.

And lastly we have the second volume in a very light-hearted (and relatively loosely connected) fantasy series, The Cloak and Dagger. In the first volume, Anvil of the Sun, Jennifleur and Thibault, two would-be members of the powerful Assassins' Guild, managed to prove themselves worthy of full membership with a dangerous assignment in the desert of Ashkharon. And now the duo is back in Bridge of Valor (Roc, July 1997, 427 pages, $6.50) as full-fledged operatives of the Guild.

The lord of Valor's Rest, certain that a powerful and possibly mad wizard is behind the bizarre magical incidents plaguing his northern estate, has appealed to the Guild for help. The assignment falls to Jen and Thibault, who must penetrate the elite world of the castle's aristocracy to unravel the truth, a task that will demand as much from their wits as it does their weapons. Original and, at times, very funny, this new novel is a welcome addition to a new fantasy series.

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