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Books To Look For
Assassin's Code, by Jonathan Maberry, St. Martin's Griffin, 2012, $27.99.
It begins reasonably enough. Joe Ledger heads up a team of clandestine operatives called Echo Team. When the book opens they've just rescued three young hikers from an Iranian jail. Then—through the sort of convoluted machinations we only get in spy novels—the Iranian government asks Ledger to help them track down some nuclear bombs that have been planted in various oil fields.
So far so good.
Except then the vampires show up. And one of Ledger's team members refers to their last big assignment that had them dealing with zombies. At that point I realize that I'm no longer reading my dad's Ian Fleming books, updated to the contemporary world stage.
I hope that doesn't sound dismissive. I don't mean it to do so. But I was certainly surprised to find out that vampires were trying to blow up the world with nukes instead of your regular terrorists. Still I read on, and it was certainly no chore.
The spycraft's as complicated as one could hope for (ranging all the way back to the Crusades); the action never lets up (seriously; these 400+ pages take place over a couple of days and the poor characters don't get much time ever to catch their breath); the Middle Eastern setting felt fresh to me; and even the vampires had a certain plausibility (within the parameters of the story, to be sure). If I had to give the book one of those Hollywood one-liner descriptions it would be: The Da Vinci Code on steroids with vampires, though it's much better written.
If any of the above sounds appealing to you, you're in for a real treat, with three previous books in the series to track down if you like this one.
Uglies: Shay's Story by Scott Westerfeld, Devin Grayson & Steven Cummings, Del Rey, 2012, $10.99.
I wasn't going to read this book—mostly because I'm not a fan of the anime style of art in which the story's told. There's something about that particular style that distances me from the characters. I usually find the panel-to-panel movement stiff, and the figures feel static.
But I thought I should at least give it the chance I do everything that comes in for review, and I've liked Scott Westerfeld's work in the past, particularly his Midnight Hour series.
This book is set in his Uglies world—a near future where the world is divided into Uglies and Pretties. Uglies become Pretties when they turn sixteen. Not magically. They get an operation that makes them beautiful—or at least according to the paradigm of the ruling society.
This particular book is a prequel to the Uglies series, telling the story of Shay, the best friend of that series's lead character, Tally Youngblood.
As you might suspect from the little I've told you, the book tells of Shay's rebellion against the idea that she's ugly and needs an operation just to make her as pretty as everyone else. It's a good coming-of-age story, with an excellent if somewhat predictable arc of character growth. But all in all, I was won over by the end. If you like this style of art, you'll probably enjoy it even more than I did.
The Last Selchie Child, by Jane Yolen, A Midsummer Night's Press, 2012, $14.95.
I'm still in love with these little booklets of poetry that A Midsummer Night's Press publishes on an irregular basis. It doesn't hurt that this volume's by Jane Yolen, but I'll get back to that in a moment. First I want to talk about what a perfect package this is for a collection of verse.
I rarely read a collection of poetry straight through and then put it aside. I might read it straight through the first time but then I like to carry it around with me, stuck in the side pocket of a pair of cargos, or at the bottom of a knapsack, to reread as I go through my week.
I picked this habit up as a teenager. My companions then were the little booklets from City Lights and other small presses, and I was constantly rereading my Gary Snyders, Lawrence Ferlinghettis and other Beat poets. Poetry can give a moment's respite from the bustle of the city, or a sense of deeper connection while walking down some deer trail in the deep woods.
So these booklets from A Midsummer Night's Press are perfect for me. Measuring four by six inches, they're slender and printed on good stock. And while the type's a little small, that's why I have glasses.
But of course this is all irrelevant if the contents don't stand up to the high quality of the book itself. Happily, Yolen's poetry is more than able to meet the task.
Many of the poems are ruminations on storytelling and fairy tales presented in narratives that are both lyrical and down-to-earth, which is no small feat.
I found it especially interesting in a time when fairy tales have become edgy and young in their contemporary retellings (Once Upon a Time and Grimm on TV, Fables in comics, and any number of urban fantasies and Young Adult books), that Yolen chooses to revisit the characters in middle age and older. A number of these are gathered in a section called "Getting Old the Mythic Way" with a series of bittersweet vignettes, and they might be my favorite part of the book.
In other sections she proves just as edgy as her younger peers, with spunky heroines standing up for themselves, and you just hope that young women reading these verses will take the lessons to heart. But overall the collection looks back on the old tales—the mood ranging from wistful to wise to downright angry as in "Once Upon"—then pulls them into contemporary relevance.
I'm a longtime fan of Yolen's, but I don't think you have to know anything about her work to appreciate what she is doing here with the foundations upon which fantasy is built, though a working knowledge of myth, folk stories, and fairy tales might help. What I know for certain is that this slim collection gives us one of America's national treasures working at the top of her form.
It's certainly one of the best books I've read—and already reread—this year.
The Taken, by Vicki Pettersson, Harper Voyager, 2012, $13.99.
Vicki Pettersson's the author of the bestselling Signs of the Zodiac series, which I've never read. I have no familiarity with any of her work, to be honest, but since her new book is a noir novel about a dead PI and a woman immersed in the Las Vegas rockabilly scene, and because I like hardboiled mysteries and rockabilly music, I couldn't help but be intrigued.
I ended up liking The Taken quite a lot, especially the interplay between the PI and the rockabilly reporter. All the real world elements and the Las Vegas setting really worked as well. But the supernatural elements left me…well, a little confused. I've tried a half dozen times to sum them up for you here but I can never get it to make sense, so let me just quote from the publicity material:
"He's a fallen angel. She's a rockabilly reporter. Together they must solve a deadly string of murders plaguing the mortal and immortal worlds. Griffin Shaw used to be a PI, but that was over fifty years ago when gumshoes hoofed the streets…and he was alive. Now he's a Centurion, an angel who assists other murdered souls through their journey to the afterlife. But while Shaw might be an angel…he's no saint. Haunted by the mysterious events surrounding his own death, he seizes a chance to wreak some vengeance when he witnesses a deadly attack on journalist Katherine 'Kit' Craig."
That seems pretty straightforward, but it doesn't really play out the same in the text.
The book begins with Shaw and the ghost of a murdered girl in a motel room. He's supposed to help ferry her on to whatever comes next but he doesn't do it quickly enough, and then he inadvertently saves the dead woman's best friend (the reporter Kit) and somehow this ticks off the Powers That Be. Now he's supposed to kill Kit himself, or at least stand aside when danger threatens her, but he won't do it and becomes her protector instead. This gets him cursed or demoted or something and he can no longer access his full powers (whatever they are).
To complicate matters, Shaw is also trying to figure out who killed him and his wife fifty years ago, though apparently he's not supposed to do so. The fact that he can't let this investigation go is why he's stuck in the position he is with the Powers That Be. I think.
As I said, it's not really clear, but since I was enjoying the rest of what was going in the book I decided to simply carry on. The way Shaw and Kit interact is pure Forties screwball comedy, even though the story itself is dark and dramatic. The investigations into who killed Kit's friend, as well as who killed Shaw and his wife, are also intriguing—even when the real world storylines are interrupted by the appearance of evil (?) or maybe vengeful (?) angels who attack or berate Shaw.
As I read on I found it easy to disregard the supernatural aspects and focus on those parts of the story that I was enjoying. I really liked Shaw's reactions to a Las Vegas that's fifty years older than the one he knew, the reactions of the people he runs into who knew him back when (they think he's his own grandson), and the way Kit treats the revelation that he's been dead for that same length of time.
The rockabilly elements are also a lot of fun and Pettersson handles them well without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. She's got a good ear for dialogue, her pacing has excellent forward momentum, and if I didn't get the finer nuances of the supernatural elements, in the end it didn't really matter.
This is the first book in a series, and hopefully the angel business will make more sense in subsequent volumes. Or maybe you're a smarter reader than I am and you'll figure it all out where I can't.
But I liked it enough that I'll try the next book.
Hounded, by Kevin Hearne, Del Rey, 2011, $7.99.
Hexed, by Kevin Hearne, Del Rey, 2011, $7.99.
Hammered, by Kevin Hearne, Del Rey, 2011, $7.99.
Tricked, by Kevin Hearne, Del Rey, 2012, $7.99.
So this was a smart move on the publicity department's part: send out the first three books in the series along with the new fourth installment. This way I have no excuse to skip the latest because all the earlier books are there for me to catch up with.
A good plan, except I can't begin to tell you how tired I am of Celtic-based fantasy novels. I loved them in the seventies and eighties. At that time I even went back and sought out earlier books as I learned about them, such as the Mary Stewart books. But too much of a good thing is still too much, and for the most part I now avoid this style of book whenever I can.
Still, as I've mentioned before, I have a fairness element built into this column: everything that shows up for review gets read until it bores me. Four books into Kevin Hearne's Iron Druid series, that still hadn't happened. I would have happily started in on a fifth volume if it had been available.
So what's the difference between these books and so many other Celtic-based fantasies? As it turns out, a number of things.
A big plus is that Hearne's twenty-one-hundred-year-old druid Atticus O'Sullivan has a great narrative voice (the story's told in first person from his point of view). He's likable, smart, and just a bit of a wiseacre.
The book opens with him being attacked by a gang of elves in his present hometown of Tempe, AZ, right outside the bookshop/tea room he owns. It turns out that people—specifically faeries and Celtic gods—have been trying to kill him for the whole of his long life. He settled in Tempe because traveling between the world of the elves and ours requires oak, ash, and thorn, and those trees don't grow close together in that part of Arizona. He thought he was also safe from scrying and other magical means of location, never thinking they might just look him up on the Internet.
But someone did and now here they are, trying to kill him. They also want the enchanted sword he stole from Aenghus óg, back before Atticus was the last druid still alive.
The fight doesn't go well for the elves, but before Atticus has time to regain his breath, the Morrigan shows up. She's the Celtic Chooser of the Slain and goddess of war, and things go downhill from there.
There are lots of fun things about this book and the series as a whole. Atticus has an Irish wolfhound named Oberon with whom he can communicate and the dog has some of the best lines in the books. Hearne is also smart enough to deal with more than Celtic mythology. For instance, Atticus has a day lawyer who's a werewolf and night lawyer who's a vampire. Various witches, gods, and beings from other cultures show up—including Jesus and his mother, Mary—and while Hearne sometimes sets our expectations on ear, he does play fair with all the characters.
And since I have a personal affinity for the American Southwest, I got a real kick out of all these shenanigans mostly playing out in the desert badlands, or the sprawling landscape of desert towns and cities.
Now I don't analyze books while I'm reading them, but away from the pages it occurred to me that a good touchstone for this series would be the work of the late Roger Zelazny.
Zelazny was an interesting writer who couldn't be fit into a single literary box. He moved between the high-concept artistry of books such as Lord of Light and Eye of Cat to the sheer inventive fun of the Amber series, with various stop-offs in between. But it's the Amber series that comes to mind with Hearne's Iron Druid books.
I don't mean to imply that Hearne is copying Zelazny's Amber books. Rather, they share a similar gestalt in how they make sense of all the world's various mythologies—within the concept of the books, of course—with characters of every persuasion taking the stage. In the Amber books, this came about in a series of shadow worlds, the stories that became legends and mythologies growing from the deeds of the Royals of Amber and the Courts of Chaos. In Hearne's books the figures of myth and legend are literally on stage.
But in both series the idea is to tell a convincing adventure story, with drama, good humor, and a high level of inventiveness. In other words, they share a similar mood and sensibility although both authors do so in their own individual manner. Or to put it more plainly still: I got the same buzz reading Hearne's books as I did when I first read the Amber series.
Since the series is told in the first-person and already four books in (with a fifth on the way) I'm not giving anything away by telling you that Atticus gets through the various trials and tribulations thrown against him. It's how he gets through—along with the fascinating supporting cast—that makes for a great story. But while he survives, he also grows as a character, and I think this is what makes the series so satisfying in the end. The status quo does not remain static. By the end of the fourth book we're in a very different place from where we started.
I could go on and on talking about specifics, but that just steals away the surprises for you. Let me end instead by saying that Hearne understands the two main necessities of good fantasy stories: for all the wisecracks and action, he never loses sight of delivering a sense of wonder to his readers, and he understands that magic use always comes with a price.
Wrong Side of Dead, by Kelly Meding, Bantam, 2012, $7.99.
Kelly Meding certainly knows how to up the ante for her characters in this latest outing of the Dreg City books. Having just survived being captured and tortured by the mad scientist Thackery in the last book, first-person point-of-view character Evy Stone gets a war instead of some well-deserved rest.
Stone was a part of the Triads, a paramilitary group that protected regular humanity by removing the threat of what they called Dregs—vampires, were-creatures, and other monsters. Decimated at the end of the last book, the Triads have now forged an uneasy alliance with the Therians (were-creatures) and vampires against a new threat of vampire Half-Breeds who have retained the ability to think (previously they were mindless creatures who existed only to feed).
Stone's old enemy Thackery appears to be behind it, and he's as impossible to track down as he ever was. To make matters worse, he's kidnapped a number of Therians and has recreated the once-extinct werewolf.
As in the previous three books, the propulsion of forward motion is pretty much non-stop. The big difference is Stone doesn't die this time out.
A solid entry in a strong series.
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois, St. Martin's Griffin, 2012, $21.
The companion series to The Year's Best Science Fiction—which was, of course, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror—was canceled a few years ago. I have to admit to being a little surprised at the time, considering the continued popularity of fantasy, horror, and that strange hybrid of the two that is being called Urban Fantasy.
But The Year's Best Science Fiction keeps chugging along, and I, for one, am happy to come along for my annual ride. Editor Dozois must have a lot of reading time, or he's got a good and trusted coterie of helpers to help him sift through a year's worth of stories, but regardless, I'm rarely disappointed by what is offered every year.
I can catch up on new stories by familiar writers like Elizabeth Bear, Michael Swanwick, and Pat Cadigan, or be introduced to new (to me) writers such as Maureen F. McHugh, whose "After the Apocalypse" was one of the highlights this time around.
And for those of you missing the sister series, Dozois sneaks in a few fantasy stories like "The Way It Works Out and All" by Peter S. Beagle.
The galleys of this series that I review never has the year's summation in it—I have to wait for the published edition like everybody else—but even without reading this year's entry I can still tell you that it has to be one of the better ways to catch up on the field as a whole. The collection is rounded off with a few pages of honorable mentions that always make my pocketbook a bit lighter.
One more year and Dozois will be celebrating his thirtieth anniversary. Here's hoping it continues for at least that number again.
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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