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Books To Look For
The Fall of the Kings by Ellen Kushner & Delia Sherman
Simply put, The Fall of Kings embraces the age-old struggle between scholars and mystics, by which I mean the attempt to bridge the gulf that separates history from mystery.
The backstory is this: a long time ago, in this world the authors have created, the Southern and Northern Kingdoms joined into one kingdom. In the rocky North, there were kings ruled by wizards and the lives of these kings were tied to the well-being of the land. In the fertile South, there was one king who ruled with a council.
When the two lands joined in their Union, the northern kings became nobles under one king. That king was still ruled by a wizard, but in time the line of kings began to show signs of madness and eventually the Southern nobles rose up against the monarchy. The wizards were gathered together in a great hall and slain. Also killed was the last mad king and once again nobles ruled the land.
Fast forward to the present and the coming of those Northern kings is still considered history but their wizards and magic, the blood-tie between king and the land, has become legend. No one believes in magic, though curiously, its practice, and even debate about it, is illegal.
Enter Basil St. Cloud, Doctor of History in the great University of the South. As the book opens he is not much different from the other Doctors, though perhaps a touch more eager to seek after Truth. And he's certainly naive.
But fateful events are coming into play around St. Cloud, swallowing his comfortable life of historical studies and near-poverty. He takes a new lover, Lord Theron Campion, and he begins to dream of the old rituals from legend: how the wizards chose and tested the young kings to pick the one who would rule over the next year. Meanwhile, the North, always restless, is suffering famine and there are mutterings of revolt. Young Northern students take to wearing carved wooden oak leaves--a symbol from the old wizards--and reenacting garbled versions of the old rituals.
And as all of this swirls around St. Cloud, he begins to believe, not only in the old magic, but that he and his lover have been chosen to return magic by renewing the bonds between king and land. The real question that arises, as much for the reader as for the characters, is: could any of it be true? Who prevails--the scholars or the mystics?
Much of the book is set in the narrow streets and taverns of the University where St. Cloud lives and teaches, or in the houses of the nobility of which his lover Campion is an unhappy member, and the authors bring a playful truth to how they describe each. It's true that there are dark days in the offing, and endless scheming in the houses of the nobility as well as among the students and their Doctors; there are doomed romances and joyful liaisons; but the interactions between the characters echo the works of Dorothy Dunnett, whose historical romances aren't your usual inspiration for fantasy novels (unless you count the authors' own previous books, especially Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint and Delia Sherman's The Porcelain Dove). St. Cloud, Campion, and the rest of the cast walk through the pages of this novel with style and wit, larger than life--and full of life.
Considering the splendid talents of Kushner and Sherman when writing under their individual by-lines, it's really no surprise that The Fall of the Kings is the treat it is. Engaging characters, with their sharp dialogue and complex relationships, the awe and wonder of the ancient beliefs of the Northerners, and the wonderfully-realized setting combine here for one of my favorite books of the year.
Outfoxing Coyote by Carolyn Dunn
Paula Gunn Allen, the editor of this American Indian Poet series of which Outfoxing Coyote is the first volume, makes a very telling observation in her introduction to Dunn's poetry:
"Every instance," she writes, "of what the Western mind categorizes as 'legend,' 'myth,' 'ritual,' or 'little story' is actually a handbook of how to understand the varieties of being and knowing we encounter as we journey through various lands that lie beyond the ordinary."
To which I'd add, myths are also a handbook for the journey we make through the here and now, although the guidance they give us comes couched in symbolism and analogy because most of us don't have encounters with Coyote or Woden--at least not that we're aware of.
I think this aspect of fantasy, or what I'd rather call mythic fiction, is one of its strongest appeals when the setting is contemporary: it allows us to read stories that, beyond their entertainment value, also give us mythic guides to show us ways to understand and to move through the welter and confusion of this world in which we find ourselves.
Mythic poetry does the same thing, except here the experience is intensified. What we find in poetry aren't the bones of the story, pared down to its simplest measure, but rather the heart of the story, distilled to its purest essence. When it's done right, a few lines of poetry can pack more punch than all the pages of a fat novel.
In this first collection of her poetry, Carolyn Dunn hits the mark so often, and writes with such confidence of the shadowy world of the spirits, that you find yourself wondering if she's entirely of this world herself. Deer Woman and Coyote wander through the verses, always changing, always bringing change, but the transformations that Dunn chronicles are more often instances of human change and self-understanding. Experiencing them allows us to recognize the patterns that take shape in our own lives.
Dunn's language is a perfect blend of the matter-of-fact and the mystic. Her stories are political, sensual, personal, and if not universal, they're certainly not specific to only one gender's or one community's experience. Tears, joy, rage, mystery, and a desire--no, a need--to understand all stride through the pages of Outfoxing Coyote, but the largest presence is heart: the heart of a poet who shares the gift of her stories with resilient tenderness and unflinching strength.
Sojourn by Ron Marz & Greg Land
Considering the unlimited budget that comics books have, I'm really surprised that there isn't more fantasy and science fiction published in this medium. By "unlimited budget" I mean that it costs no more money to have an artist depict some fantastic creature or landscape than it does to depict ordinary people and contemporary cities. Before the recent advances in computer-enhanced special effects, really doing it right would cost a fortune in film, if it could be done at all. But comics have no such limitation.
And it seems a given that the medium that specializes in superheroes in tights would also present more genre work, but that isn't often the case. And high fantasy is particularly under-represented.
There have been, and currently are, high fantasy comics, of course. Jeff Smith's Bone comes quickly to mind, but the art, charming while it is, still reminds me of Pogo (which isn't a bad thing, and Smith does tell a wonderful story). And then there was the venerable Elfquest by Richard and Wendy Pini, although it's presentation was even more like a cartoon.
Until Sojourn, we've seen very little high fantasy with realistic art (if, considering the subject matter, you'll pardon the term realistic). And certainly not on a regular monthly schedule, with high storytelling values.
The storyline is largely successful as well, if a little familiar in places. There is an evil lord of darkness whose armies have taken over all the known kingdoms. Set against him is a very small, but growing band of rebels, on a quest to recover long-hidden magical artifacts they have been told will help them defeat him.
But although the basic shape of the story is familiar, Ron Marz throws enough twists into the mix to keep things interesting, and his dialogue--especially that among the human characters--is crisp and fresh.
Now while it's true that Greg Land's women are amply endowed, so are his men. Everything's a little larger than life, but this is a story told on an epic scale, so perhaps that can be forgiven. And certainly his castles, his landscapes, his dragons and magical characters are wonderfully and painstakingly realized. If you can shut out the world and lose yourself in the art, it's easy to believe you're actually in this other world.
To appreciate what Marz and Land are doing here you have to be a fan of books such as George R.R. Martin's absorbing A Song of Ice and Fire series, or the recent film adaptation of Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring--in other words, high fantasy with an epic scope and a somewhat militaristic slant. But if you are, you really should try an issue of Sojourn. It does what the prose books do, only in pictorial form.
Back issues of the comic can be picked up at your local comic book store (it's up to #11 as I write this in May) and I'm sure CrossGen will soon be publishing trade collections.
For samples of the art, check out their site at www.crossgen.com.
Fables by Bill Willingham, Lan Medina & Steve Leiloha
Of course, just because you have a "big budget" in comics, doesn't mean you have to use it. Many of the more effective comics are set in the world as we know it, one devoid of superheroes in tights and other unlikely extravaganzas. Strangers in Paradise comes most immediately to mind. Or any of the wonderful work by Los Bros. Hernandez.
And then there's that hybrid that in prose fiction gets tagged as urban or contemporary fantasy, where it's mostly the real world with just an extra shot of the mythic brew to give it a kick. Sandman is probably the best-known of these and Vertigo tends to produce the lion's share of similar titles. The caveat is that they're usually quite dark visions.
So up steps Bill Willingham (you might remember him from last year's column in the October/November issue as the most experienced of the Clockwork Storybook writers). Taking a page from San Cibola, the shared world that he and his fellow Clockwork authors created for their website, Willingham brings some of that similar mix of the mundane and magic to the streets of New York City. But what's particularly intriguing about this series is that the main actors he brings on stage are all the best-known characters from fairy tales and folklore.
It seems they're living in exile because some unknown adversary has taken over their own fabled homelands (a sly wink at the film Shrek perhaps?). But the stories Willingham apparently plans to tell aren't so concerned with what happened in those homelands, as what's happening now in NYC, in the hidden world of Fabletown.
The first issue, just out as I write this, provides the set up and introduces us to familiar faces in new guises: there's Snow White, the Deputy Mayor (" . . . when talking to her, never mention the dwarves") and her sister Rose Red ("the original wild child"); the Big Bad Wolf, head of Fabletown's security; Prince Charming, who turns out to be a real ladies' man; and a number of other familiar names (if not faces) with more to come.
The story arc begins with a possible murder mystery, but I get the sense that Willingham wants to have fun with this series, so that the tone is light-hearted and the focus is on characterization. The artists for this story arc are Lan Medina and Steve Leiloha, both or whom are well known in the comics field. I'm not sure if it was on their own initiative, or if they were directed to do this in Willingham's script, but throughout the art there are any number of nice touches, starting with the street sign on the opening page that tells us we're at the corner of Bullfinch and Kipling.
If Willingham can maintain the quality of his writing, and continue to attract the artistic talent he has here, Fables looks to be a winner. And don't fret if you can't find back issues at your local comic book store. Vertigo's known for collecting the ongoing series it publishes into handy trade paperbacks, which are much more suitable for the bookshelf and where stories such as this belong. But whether you wait for the trade paperback, or pick it up on a monthly basis, Fables is a must-read for any aficionado of fantasy in a contemporary setting.
You might also want to try Willingham's take on the world of Neil Gaiman's Endless with his four issue limited series The Thessaliad (also from Vertigo).
Northern Gothic by Nick Mamatas
I won't recommend this novella to every reader because of its graphic violence and a certain amount of equally graphic S&M sex, but it's a powerful book exploring intolerance and racism and seems particularly apropos given the present (I write this in May) circumstances in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and pretty much anywhere else in the world where violence is seen as a solution, rather than for what it is: part of the problem.
The point of view characters are a young gay black man named Ahmadi Jenkins, newly relocated from South Carolina to New York City in 1998 where he hopes to make it as an actor or dancer, and William Patten, a young Irishman who is desperately trying to avoid the draft and ends up getting involved in the Civil War Draft Riots that tore apart New York in 1863.
The 1860s were a time when the Irish were as reviled as blacks wrongly were and it's instructive to see how Patten and the other Irish vent their rage. They have been horribly treated themselves, so you'd think they'd understand how the blacks feel, yet the Irish still take out their anger on the blacks. We also see, in the sections dealing with Jenkins, how quickly one can lose all stability and end up homeless, living on the street.
The two lives, Patten's and Jenkins's, collide through some strange temporal chemistry, so that they get glimpse of each other's world, hear snatches of conversation, and eventually are physically thrown together.
Northern Gothic is a dark and brutal book. Its violence and hopelessness tear at the heart. And while I doubt I'll return to it, reading this novella was an instructive reminder of why we must always stand up against intolerance and defend every individual's right to personal freedom.
If your local book store can't get you a copy, try contacting the publisher at (888) 876-6622, or on the Web at www.softskull.com.
Once . . . by James Herbert
It's been a while since I've read James Herbert. I don't know exactly why, though I'm sure it has more to do with the flood of books being published than any disinterest on my part. I've certainly enjoyed his work in the past and I'm not alone. In his native England, Herbert sells as well as his contemporaries such as Stephen King and Dean Koontz, perhaps better at times.
The Herbert I remembered before starting this new novel wrote dark books, often very dark and grisly (try The Rats, his opening salvo to the publishing industry, to see what I mean) so I was very curious, and a little nervous, to see what he would do with a fairy tale theme. How dark would he make it? How detailed and graphic would he write those dark scenes? Quite dark and detailed, I found. But only where it's necessary for the story. With Once . . . he also proves to have a sweet side to his writing that I never would have expected.
The novel opens with Thom Kindred returning from the city to his rural childhood home to recover from a stroke. On his very first night in the cottage of Little Bracken, darkness and danger descends and this reader at least thought, here we go. City slicker meets rural horror.
Such isn't really the case, though. It's true that there are moments of great darkness, but much of this book could have been readily, and aptly, illustrated by Brian Froud. For while Kindred is confronted with dangerous creatures and an evil witch, he is also introduced to the whole world of fairy--dancing lights, undines, and every sort of twig and leaf creature you might imagine. In fact, track down a copy of Froud's and Alan Lee's Fairies and you'll have the perfect visual reference.
Herbert describes Kindred's fairy creature encounters with loving detail--the same loving detail he applies to the countryside in which the book is set so that both come wonderfully alive for us. But while there are elements of sweetness in Once . . ., Herbert doesn't lose his edge. The plot is filled with tension. There's probably more sex than I've run across in a book in some time--both gentle and nasty. And it's about as good a contemporary fairy tale as I've read in a long time.
As for the dark side of the book, forget Disney and go back to the original versions of fairy tales. You'll find Herbert is being far more honest with his sources than have many others who have tried their hand at using this material in a contemporary setting.
The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Reader edited by Jeffrey Meyers & Valerie Meyers
This new sampler makes a good argument that, like his friend H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne, we can claim Arthur Conan Doyle as a father of science fiction, much as he's already been claimed by the mystery genre as one of their own. Yes, I know that Edgar Allan Poe is widely considered the inventor of the mystery story, but Conan Doyle certainly went on to define it, and while there will be readers pressed to remember either of their names, I doubt there's anyone who would fail to recognize that of Conan Doyle's most famous character, Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes is represented in this sampler of Conan Doyle's writing, but you'll also find a wide variety of other styles: everything from science fiction and ghost stories to historical fiction, political writing and autobiographical material. What remains striking, no matter what the subject matter, is his eye for detail, his deft prose, his continued readability to this day--even when he's writing about spiritualism, or raising a passionate argument against Belgium's looting of the Congo in the late nineteenth century.
I don't doubt that readers unfamiliar with anything but the Sherlock Holmes stories will be seeking out Conan Doyle's other books after sampling some of the material collected in this handsome volume. Particularly appealing to this reader were the Errol Flynn-like escapades of Brigadier Etienne Gerard--an officer in Napoleon's army with a rather high opinion of himself--or the clever and entertaining adventures of Professor Challenger and his companions in The Lost World or the doomsday scenario as depicted in The Poison Belt.
A Story for Bear by Dennis Haseley & Jim LaMarche
Jim LaMarche was the artist for Donna Jo Napoli's Albert, the story of a man who had to stand still for a couple of months because a cardinal had built a nest in his hand. This time out, Haseley provides a story of a woman who reads stories to a bear and LaMarche turns in yet another outstanding job with the art.
The book is aimed at readers in the 5 to 8 age range, but anybody who loves books will appreciate this short, sweet tale. And LaMarche's work with colored pencils is a pure delight to behold.
Goad: The Many Moods of Phil Hale
And now, as a once well-known British comedy troupe was wont to say, for something completely different.
Goad, Phil Hale's first art book since Double Memory, his 1992 collaboration with Rick Berry, shows us that the artist has lost none of his brash enthusiasm for darkness and movement. In paintings, drawings, and photographs he captures an energy here that is both exhilarating and disturbing.
The production values, as you might expect from a Grant book, are outstanding, but in the end it's always the art that's most important. It could be printed on newsprint, so long as it moves you. You might love the work, you might hate it. You might find a pithy comment to make, as does Tray Batey in his introduction, describing Hale's oils in a London gallery show as "clumsy, hysterical; schoolgirlish in their sobbing approximation of charm . . . the room swung about them like a gardening accident."
But I guarantee, the art in this book won't leave you unmoved.
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