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Books To Look For
Ace Books, October 2001; 288pp; $21.95
Hardcover; ISBN 441-00860-7
First up this month is an entertaining historical fantasy by newcomer Sarah Hoyt featuring William Shakespeare and Anne "Nan" Hathaway in their twenties.
Ill Met by Moonlight starts out when Will discovers that Nan and their daughter Susannah have been stolen away by the fairies--a local court already in turmoil.
One member of that court is Quicksilver, able to appear as a man or as a woman named the Lady Silver. He considers himself the rightful heir after the murder of his parents, Oberon and Titania, yet it's his brother Sylvanus who has taken the throne. Worse, to Quicksilver's way of thinking, he believes that Sylvanus had their parents murdered, using a human to do the deed. So it seems right to Quicksilver that he will do the same to rid the court of Sylvanus and goes looking for a human equal to the task.
Which is when he meets young Will, pining for his wife and child. Will has tracked them to the fairy court, but while he can see them inside the court, he isn't able to reach them. Quicksilver, in the guise of Lady Silver, forms an alliance with Will and needless to say, things only go downhill and get more complicated from that point on.
There's a little overwriting in the prose, as can sometimes be the case with a newer writer--although to be fair, the version I read wasn't the final one that will see print. Nevertheless this is an enjoyable story, full of great bits of historical and fairy lore, with a likeable cast and inventive use of traditional motifs and folklore. Perhaps the most fun, as the plot unfolds, is seeing where Will gets the ideas for the plays he will later come to write.
AMERICAN GODS - Neil Gaiman
I'm sure a large number of Gaiman's fans (who came to his prose by way of his excellent work on The Sandman and other comic book projects) are otherwise unfamiliar with the fantasy field. They'll think that the underlying conceit of American Gods---that immigrants, however unknowingly, brought over with them the beings from folklore and myth who are now living hidden amongst us in North America---to be terribly original. But it's not. We've seen it many times before, admirably handled by everyone from Roger Zelazny to, well, Matt Wagner, creator of the comic Mage.
Now before anyone protests, I know that Gaiman is aware of this as well. One of his characters even talks about something very like it in the book itself, though that character is referring to peoples' lives when he talks about " . . . the repetitive shape and form of the stories. The shape does not change: there was a human being who was born, lived, and then, by some means or another, died. There. You may fill in the details from your own experience. As unoriginal as any other tale, as unique as any other life."
Fantasy, though older, is often considered to be the mentally-disadvantaged younger sibling of science fiction which prides itself on being "the fiction of ideas." But let's face it, new ideas are far and few between in any sort of fiction these days. The thing that's important is what the author does with an idea, and in that sense Gaiman has done a superb job, proving in the process (if it should be required after such successful books as Neverwhere) that he doesn't need an illustrator to bring his fascinating characters and stories to life.
American Gods is a big, sprawling book that seems to take forever to get to its point, but what a wonderful journey it is to get there. We enter the hidden world of forgotten gods through the viewpoint of a character named Shadow whose life, after three years in prison, seems about to take an upturn. But that wouldn't make much of a story. So in short order, he's released a day or so early from prison because his wife has died, while cuckolding Shadow with his own best friend. The job he was supposed to have (as fitness trainer with said best friend) is now also gone.
Enter Wednesday, a rather enigmatic figure whose true nature we figure out before Shadow, and all too soon poor Shadow is drawn into a struggle between the forgotten gods (brought over to North America by their believers and then abandoned) and the new gods: the gods of technology, of cell phones and the internet and every other modern contrivance. And along the way he needs to find some meaning and balance to his own life, one that for all its emotional ups and downs, it seems he's been living more by rote up to this point.
There are few authors who can manage to balance the light and dark aspects of a storyline as effectively as Gaiman does. There are charming, utterly whimsical moments here, and others filled with doom and dread. The mythic characters are earthy and accessible without losing their godlike stature. The plot, while rambling, never strays into uninteresting territories and, more to the point, most of the seeming asides and subplots prove, once we reach the conclusion, to have been necessary to the principal storyline after all.
Another pleasure of reading Gaiman is that he has such a light touch with his prose. One gets the impression that it simply flowed effortlessly from his mind to the book we hold in hand, though that, of course, is one of the hardest tricks to pull off in the business of writing.
It's still early as I write this (the beginning of April), but it wouldn't surprise me if American Gods proves to be the Big Book of this year. It'll certainly be difficult to match in its paradoxical mix of broad scope and small intimacies.
THE QUOATABLE SANDMAN - Neil Gaiman
Now we have this little gift book, repackaging art from the series with, if I may quote the cover, "memorable lines from the acclaimed series."
Do we really need this? No.
Is it fun to read? Without question. And illuminating, as well.
What gave credibility to The Sandman comic was how so often its small truths and little jewels of consideration and conversation resonated with its readers. A perfect example is how often you'll see a quote from The Sandman in the .SIG file of someone's email.
Now granted, choosing one's own quotes is always more meaningful, but I like the way the art and words in this little book call back entire storylines for me. They range from the whimsical, such as a classic bit of Delirium's stream-of-consciousness:
"Have you ever spent days and days and days making up flavors of ice cream that no one's ever eaten before? Like chicken and telephone ice cream? . . . Green mouse ice cream was the worst. I didn't like it at all."
To Death's matter-of-fact statement made, perhaps, that more iconic since in the series she appears as a small, dark-haired, pale-skinned Goth:
"I'm not blessed, or merciful. I'm just me. I've got a job to do, and I do it."
To the matters thought-provoking, as in this conversation at the wake of Dream:
"Nobody died. How can you kill an idea? How can you kill the personification of an action?"
No, we don't need this book, but nevertheless, it's fun to have, and pretty as well, in its small size with all the wonderful art from the likes of McKean, Kent Williams, Rick Berry, Charles Vess, Michael Zulli, and too many others to mention them all.
And at the price of a paperback, it's a bargain to boot.
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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