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July 2003
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

Current Issue • Departments • Bibliography

Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Conquistador, by S. M. Stirling,
Roc, 2003, $23.95.

REGULAR readers of this column have heard me complain in the past about how I feel that high fantasy novels have become nothing much more than war novels, with battalions of orcs and elves in the place of human army divisions, their presence making it a "magical" book.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. I just miss the fantasy field the way it was when I first discovered it in the seventies. There weren't as many books available, true, but they were all different. When you started a book, you had no idea where it would take you. What you did know was that it would be someplace you hadn't been before.

This was helped, perhaps, by the fact that there weren't as many contemporary authors writing fantasy, so to fill their lines, publishers went back and ransacked the vast library of books published earlier, before there were genre designations. It's probably not so hard to have a varied line when you have a century or so of work to draw on. But I digress.

The same was true of hard sf, which these days seems to be mostly nonexistent—that is, when it hasn't been hijacked by near-future thrillers or is really space opera in disguise. There's nothing wrong with either of those subgenres either, but what I miss is the thoughtful speculation that went into those hard sf books—the real science.

(Now before any of you write in, I know that I'm generalizing above. There are exceptions, of course. But they're tough to track down as they seem to get lost in the waves of new releases that are published each year.)

But there's one subgenre that seems capable of delivering both the sense of wonder I enjoyed in high fantasy and the hard facts speculation of sf, and that's the alternate history. Or at least it's certainly delivered in the book we're about to discuss.

Conquistador begins in the Bay Area of California in 1946 when World War II vet John Rolfe is trying to set up a short-wave radio and inadvertently opens up a portal to an alternate America where the Europeans never arrived.

After that introduction, the story jumps ahead almost sixty years and is told mostly from the viewpoint of a Department of Fish and Game warden named Tom Christiansen in FirstSide (our world) who is investigating the strange appearance of the impossible (such as a live condor that has no genetic relative on record, nor shows any sign of pollution in its body), and Adrienne Wolfe, the granddaughter of John Rolfe and a security agent on the other side of the portal who has come over to FirstSide to investigate the smuggling of those same impossibilities and, hopefully, put a stop to the threat they represent in revealing the existence of the world beyond the portal.

Naturally, the two meet, and, after some miscommunication and misunderstandings, end up working together to combat the problem. From an action point of view, Conquistador has plenty to offer from start to finish. Stirling also does a good job with his characters, presenting us with a varied cast.

But where does the sense of wonder and sf speculation come in?

Well, the sense of wonder is in the loving way the world on the other side of the portal is described. And the speculation is in how that world came to be—both in its virgin state when discovered by John Rolfe (there is some wonderful world history slipped in at various times to explain this), and its development subsequent to Rolfe's discovery. Stirling's descriptions offer a wealth of detail, but that detail never bogs down the story, which is a nice trick if you can pull it off the way he does.

If I have any complaints, they're philosophical. One is how the love that Rolfe and the other settlers have for the new land is based, in a large part, in how it's become their private game reserve. I suppose not being a hunter, and not seeing the sport in killing other creatures for fun, I find it difficult to sympathize with that kind of an outlook.

Another is the fascist makeup of many of the settlers: many of them are Boers from South Africa or German war criminals and the like, racists looking for a new homeland. It's explained why they were accepted (they were the people with nothing to lose in leaving our world, and no one would come looking for them), and it's noted and commented upon by some of the characters as well, but I still found it hard to sympathize with the more open-minded characters like Rolfe, simply because he chose to work with such people.

It would also have been nice to have had a larger presence of the peoples native to the continent, but unfortunately they get the same short shrift here as they did in our world, though mostly their loss of life in the world Rolfe discovered was through the inadvertent spread of disease. The two Native characters we do get to know a little aren't on stage enough—well, not enough for this reader.

But none of the above spoiled my complete fascination with the world created by Stirling, because it's our world, if only.

And, as I mentioned earlier, there's a first-class action plot happening here, as well; one that will have you turning pages at a quicker and quicker rate, all the way up to the appendices at the end of the book.

* * *

Hannah's Garden, by Midori Snyder,
Viking, 2002, $16.99.

Once upon a time four writers were approached at a World Fantasy Convention and asked if they'd each write a book about fairies based on the drawings of Brian Froud. They agreed and happily spent an afternoon sitting around a table at the con going through all the drawings, picking the ones they'd like for their book. Surprisingly, there was no argument, each writer getting the drawings that he or she wanted. And then off each of them went to write their book.

In 1994, two of these volumes appeared under the banner "Brian Froud's Faerielands." But after the second one (Patricia A. McKillip's haunting Something Rich and Strange), there was a sudden silence on the Faerielands front and the final two books were never published. At least, not as part of the series.

In 1996, Tor Books released The Wood Wife, by Terri Windling, which should have been the third Faerielands book, and now, finally, Viking has published the final volume, Hannah's Garden by Midori Snyder. Both books are probably different from how they would have appeared under the Faerielands banner. Certainly, they're missing Froud's wonderful art. But the spirit of those drawings lives on in them, and although, for whatever reason, they weren't published as part of the Froud series, I'm happy that they are now available.

The Wood Wife remains one of my all-time favorite novels, and Snyder's new book edges right up there on a nearby shelf. Hannah's Garden is one of those books that makes you feel at home from the first page. As soon as you're introduced to them, you know and care about these characters: teenage violinist Cassie Brittman and her somewhat flighty mother Anne; Cassie's grandfather Daniel, a reclusive artist who is dying in hospital; the mysterious gray-haired fiddler who might be simply a man, or who might be a figure out of one of Daniel Brittman's paintings.

When Cassie and Anne, with Anne's most recent boyfriend in tow, head north from the university town of Rose Bay, they're expecting to deal with the heartbreak of having a loved one in the hospital. They don't expect to find his house overrun with vegetation and wild animals, as though it's been abandoned for years. Or that someone has been driving a truck through Grandmother Hannah's beloved garden as though it was a racetrack. Or that they'd get caught up between two warring factions of faerie, each demanding a sacrifice from the Brittman family.

The weight of it all falls on Cassie's young shoulders. She's already been more mother than daughter to Anne for all these years, and this becomes one more case of her having to take charge. Except this time, she has no idea what to do or whom to trust. If she doesn't make the right decision, not only her grandfather's life but her own and Anne's may be forfeit.

Snyder's prose is a sensual feast. She as readily brings to life an Irish music session or a hospital ward as she does the natural world around the family farm and Daniel Brittman's rich art. Her pacing is quick but never hurried. Her characters are so well drawn that we can feel the story inside their skin. And while she can write a dramatic scene with as much punch as anyone, she also has a gift for those that are quieter, or strange and mysterious.

This is a treasure of a book.

* * *

Something's at My Elbow, by Kathleen Burns,
Xlibris Corporation, 2000, $20.99.

Here's one for the tween in your household, a sweet story of a young girl whose beloved aunt, staying overnight for a visit, mysteriously disappears sometime between the evening meal and morning. Eliza-Bridget is heartbroken about the loss of her aunt until she meets Kiba, a little fairy-like creature who has the magic to reduce Eliza-Bridget to her own diminutive size.

The two have a grand time exploring the vineyard and fields around Eliza-Bridget's house, enough so that while Eliza-Bridget doesn't forget her aunt, her sadness is no longer as immediate as it once was. But then one day, Eliza-Bridget's autistic sister Mouse (so called because she always sits quiet as a) disappears as well and Eliza-Bridget has to make a decision that will change her life forever.

Something's at My Elbow is written with a guileless charm. It won't necessarily appeal to everyone (adult readers might not appreciate the fact that Kiba only speaks in rhymes), but it's a wonderful and fresh little story with a lot of heart, and deserves a wider readership than it's probably getting in its current edition.

* * *

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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