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Books To Look For
ONCE upon a time it was possible to read everything that was published in the sf/fantasy genre in the year in which it appeared, and I remember those days with some fondness. Mind you, I don't say that for purely nostalgic reasons. Nor do I particularly wish to return to them.
I'm delighted that so many people are reading these days, and that it's so easy for writers to get their work in front of those readers. It doesn't matter if it's original material or fanfic, if it comes from a major publisher, a small press, or an indie writer publishing his or her own work—I'm happy that it's all out there.
Sure, it's a little harder in this plethora of fiction to track down the subjective "good stuff" we might be looking for, but that's a small price to pay for the opportunities we have now where even the smallest niche writer can deliver their particular brand of enthusiasm to the world at large where you or I might stumble upon it.
What I do miss about those days is the commonality of reading experience. If you met another enthusiast who read as much as you did, you could be pretty sure that you would have read most of the same books. And you could be certain that your friends had. This meant that if you finished a particular book and had strong feelings about it one way or another, there would immediately be someone with whom you could discuss it.
It's kind of like TV was back around the same time—a show would run once and then you had to hope to catch it in a rerun if you missed its original viewing date or wanted to see it again. The same held true for older movies that played late at night: they were here and then gone. You had to make an effort to see all the episodes of a TV series, or stay up late to see that movie.
I like that we can now call up pretty much anything we want to see when we want to see it. You can even own your favorite TV series and movies on DVD or Blu-ray or whatever the next medium will be.
But back then, when something showed on your television screen, it felt a little different. More like an event. I'm reminded of this after watching a couple of documentaries about the fiftieth anniversary of the first U.S. appearance of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. You could see something like that and the next day at school everyone was talking about it because you'd all shared the same experience.
These days we have to create the shared event with reading groups and viewing parties. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, since in this day and age when everyone seems to be glued to their personal digital devices, it allows for some actual human socializing.
All of which might seem a little quaint or old-fashioned to you if you're in your twenties, but let me ask you this: How many times have you watched some show that wasn't on "the hot list," or read a book that wasn't a bestseller, and then found you had no one to talk to about it? Because your friends either don't know the author (there are so many, after all), or maybe they've heard about that TV show but they're waiting to binge watch the season, so please no spoilers.
Review blogs are useful, but it's not the same as hanging out with your friends and talking about the shared experience.
None of which has anything to do with our first book. It was just something that occurred to me as I was starting this column and I hoped you wouldn't mind the brief musing before we get to the actual business at hand.
Broken Homes, by Ben Aaronovitch, DAW, 2014, $7.99.
A long time ago, J.R.R. Tolkien talked about the suspension of disbelief in his essay "On Fairy Tales" (Tree and Leaf, 1964). He posited, and it's been borne out many times since, in his own work as well as that of others, that for a reader to accept the implausible parts of your story, everything else should be very grounded in the here and now, or in your secondary world's version of the here and now.
It's why The Lord of the Rings works so well. We remember it for the elves and dwarves, the magical rings, dragons and evil sorcerers, but we accept all of that because of the Hobbits and their Shire.
I could cite endless examples of when it works and when it doesn't, but let's focus on the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, of which this is the fourth entry. In the first book Rivers of London (Midnight Riot in the States), we're introduced to new constable Peter Grant, and the book very much has the feel of a down-to-earth British police procedural.
In the opening section Grant is charged with guarding a crime scene and ends up interviewing a witness. It isn't until he's reporting the interview that he discovers the man was a ghost. That leads to him being assigned to what's basically an X-Files department in the London Metropolitan Police, and soon he's dealing not only with ghosts, but every sort of supernatural being, including the gods and goddesses of the many rivers that flow through London.
He also becomes an apprentice wizard.
The reason it all works as well as it does is because, as Tolkien advised, Aaronovitch grounds his characters and setting before he takes them into situations that might otherwise strain credulity.
I've discussed these books in this column before and just as I haven't given great details before, I won't do so now. There are simply too many wonderful things for you to discover should you try them. Why would I spoil that for you?
But here's why I love this series in general terms:
It takes its police procedural seriously. There aren't vampire detectives or werewolf patrolmen. There are wizards, but the magical elements are handled matter-of-factly, as science, albeit one with which we're unfamiliar, and most of the force knows nothing about the special unit and its members.
That said, when Aaronovitch does bring in the fantasy element like those wonderful gods and goddesses of London's rivers, they come on stage with a real sense of wonder. These gods are both awesome and down to earth, the kind of deities I remember loving in Thomas Burnett Swann's books.
(I don't know if Aaronovitch has read either Tolkien or Swann, but it doesn't really matter. These are my touchstones, not necessarily his.)
These are standalone novels with an overall story arc that runs from book to book. This means you can start anywhere. But it also means that the characters change and grow, that the Peter Grant we meet in the first book and this latest one are quite different from one another, though not unrecognizable, and he certainly retains his dry British sense of humor.
I really appreciate the way Aaronovitch brings his characters to life through their actions, motivations, and dialogue. Love them or hate them, they come off as individual and true.
I'm also enamored with his use of language. The descriptions are rich and varied, but they never overpower the narrative flow.
I'm not a big fan of series books—there's a sense of sameness that creeps into most of them by book two, certainly by book three. The Rivers of London series remains fresh and innovative, four books in, and so long as that remains the case, I'll keep reading them.
You should, too.
The Living, by Matt de la Peña, Delacorte, 2013, $17.99.
Matt de la Peña is the author of some truly great YA books (I Will Save You, Ball Don't Lie, We Were Here). The stories are compelling, as is the prose, but it's with his characterization that he really shines, so I was looking forward to what he'd do with a near-future thriller.
It starts with Shy Espinoza, a Mexican-American kid from L.A. who's working on a cruise ship bound for Hawaii to make some money for his family back home. He likes his job and he likes his new friends, particularly Carmen, who comes from the same background he does. He dreams of getting together with her but he knows she has a boyfriend back home. Besides growing up in the same area, their other commonality is that they both have had relatives die from Romero disease, a new fatal illness that's spreading from Mexico up into California.
But back to the cruise ship. Things start to go awry when Shy unsuccessfully tries to stop the suicide of a rich businessman. He finds himself the center of unwanted attention, not only from authorities but also from a man who keeps following him around the ship as Shy tries to keep up with his duties.
Except before Shy can figure out a way to confront the man, the big quake hits California, destroying most of the West Coast and creating tsunamis which destroy the immense vessel. Shy finds himself in a small raft with Adie, a spoiled rich girl who treated him like crap back on the ship.
A lot of what makes de la Peña's new book such a riveting read is the way in which he seamlessly mixes and matches genres. The Living starts as a social-class drama, moves into a survival adventure before it escalates into a global disaster novel and finally a thriller involving a killer disease. There's not a dull moment, but de la Peña never lets his people devolve into stereotypes.
I particularly liked the Hispanic characters and the touch of Latin flavor they brought to the proceedings. I also liked that Shy and Carmen were in the service industry, because you know what? Not every character in a thriller has to be a member of the one percent, or an ex-Marine. Ordinary people get caught up in this kind of drama as well and these characters of de la Peña's really stayed with me when the book was done.
There's a sequel coming out this year (2014), and I can't wait to read it.
Reaper's Run, by David VanDyke with Ryan King, David VanDyke, 2013, $9.
But sometimes in the course of a disaster novel, we really want that competent, take-no-prisoners character who's capable of doing all the things we'd like to be able to do in a similar situation.
Reaper's Run bears a surface resemblance to The Living. It also starts on a cruise ship as a contagion thriller, but then goes on to present a much different narrative thrust and focus.
Unlike the killer Romero disease in de la Peña's novel, the Eden Plague seems like a good thing. It gives those who come under its influence superhuman healing properties and vastly improved senses. The downside of this is an insatiable craving for food that comes in the wake of those positive qualities. Still, it seems like a fair trade-off and a good thing to those who have caught the virus. Except in David VanDyke's world, the government and big business don't want ordinary people to have these abilities. They're determined to contain the spread of the disease and deal with the afflicted.
Sergeant Jill "Reaper" Repeth is on that aforementioned cruise ship when she realizes that something strange is happening to the legs she lost in combat. They're growing back, healing at an amazing rate. At the same time she catches wind of the government's plans for those aboard the cruise ship because she's not the only one affected with a miraculous recovery. Everybody on the vessel is experiencing their own version of it.
She escapes just before the U.S. Navy blows up the ship. By the time she makes it to American shores, the Union of the States is dissolving. Martial law has been declared, the sick are being rounded up and sent to camps, and Reaper begins her journey across the continent, finding help and betrayal along her way, while soldiers and militia are hunting her down.
Reaper's Run is a short standalone novel that's part of a longer series called The Plague Wars—kind of a sidebar, rather than an integral part of the ongoing larger story arc. I hadn't read any of the six or seven books in the series before starting it and it made absolutely no difference that I can tell. Everything needed for a great story is right there in its pages. A little poking around on the web told me that Reaper pops up in the series itself but this is definitely her origin story so don't feel afraid of jumping on board.
The novel's a fast-paced read that raises the questions we've come to expect from near future thrillers, but it has a freshness and a vigor—and dare I say it—a moral compass that isn't as common as with others of its ilk. When I get the time, I plan to try a book or two of the main series.
Night Owls, by Lauren M. Roy, Ace Books, 2014, $7.99.
In Lauren M. Roy's Night Owls, there are these creatures called Creeps or Jackals who seem to be a combination of vampires and zombies. They can sort of pass as humans, are nocturnal, smell like zombies but move quickly, are strong like vampires, and pass on their infection by taking a chomp out of you.
Working in secret as they rid the world of these creatures are vampires and the Brotherhood. The latter are a secret society of warlock/witch/warriors. The vampires are kind of what you expect in today's urban fantasy: more like humans but with special abilities. Most of them take on the Creeps, not so much out of altruistic reasons, but rather to thin the competition.
The vampire Valerie McTeague isn't like that. She used to be one of the best hunters of Creeps. Now she and her Renfield—the human Chaz—just want to be left alone to run her all-night bookstore, a late night study haven for the students of nearby Edgewood College.
Enter Elly Garrett. She has the knowledge of a Brotherhood operative, but isn't affiliated with them, and is estranged from her "brother" with whom she was raised in Brotherhood training. Their mentor Father Value—who took them with him when he left the Brotherhood—has just been killed by Creeps, entrusting Elly with a mysterious book that the Creeps will stop at nothing to obtain.
Book, bookstore—you can see where this is going, right?
Like many urban fantasies, Night Owls is a quick-paced read with likeable characters. It plays with the new tropes of this subgenre but doesn't stray too far from them. Unresolved problems from the past collide with the new problems in the present, which is how it should be. Past baggage is what makes characters interesting as they strive to resolve present-day crises.
I liked the novel while I was reading it. It was only later, as I was thinking about this column, that I realized it shares another facet with much of today's urban fantasy: It didn't stay with me. Just writing this review, I had to go look up the names of the characters.
Now I don't mean to pick on Lauren M. Roy. Night Owls is a better book than most urban fantasies, and I'm guessing that she has more books, just as good and likely better, in her. But the problem with so much urban fantasy—at least for me—is that while I can recall characters and plots from other books I read twenty or more years ago, most of the characters, settings, and plots of this present spate of urban fantasy blur together.
I know these writers are having fun—and look, writing a book's not an easy task, and the authors should be commended for pulling it off. I also know that readers are having fun with the books as well, and I'm one of them. But I often find myself wishing that the authors' ambitions went a little farther than simply penning minor variations on the sorts of stories that are already swelling the shelves of bookstores (including virtual ones).
I wish that they would stake out some fresh territory, find their own voices, make a mark with stories and characters that are unforgettable. It's not an impossible task, but you do have to work harder. And have the ambition for it, I suppose.
As I said above, I don't mean to single out Ms. Roy. She's given us a more than serviceable entry into this crowded field, and I trust the book will find a satisfied readership.
I just can't help but wish that she and her peers will get a little more ambitious as they continue to tell their stories.
Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, edited by Laurie Lamson, Tarcher/Penguin, 2014, $15.95.
I keep reviewing books such as these for a couple of reasons.
The first is that I think they'll be of interest to readers of this column who might be pursuing a career in writing, or to those who just want to do it as a hobby, or even to those who have been doing it for a while, because if there's one thing I've learned over the years it's that you can never stop learning.
The second is that I think it will also appeal to readers of this column who love to read but are also a little interested in what goes on behind the curtain, so to speak.
I fall into both camps, myself, but mostly I'm just curious as to how others approach the mystery of creativity. An interview with a writer, artist or musician is the first thing I'll read in a magazine or newspaper, and I can't tell you how many hours I've spent on various blogs reading about sources of inspiration and the methodology of all sorts of different creative endeavors.
There are, of course, innumerable how-to books out there, many of which are pretty single-minded in their focus to teach you how to sell your work, how to write salable prose, that sort of thing, and I'm not as interested in them. My interest is in how the writers find their stories and the many ways in which they've figured out how to set them free. Because let's face it. The easiest way to sell your writing is to produce the very best that you can, based on your own enthusiasms, using your own voice, and showing us the world through your singular way of seeing it.
Now Write! goes a long way to showing just how one can do that.
There are a lot of contributors—well over sixty of them, each with a short chapter. I'm not familiar with the work of a great many of their names but from what they've written, they all seem to have something useful to offer.
There are also well-known writers represented, such as Harlan Ellison, Nancy Kress, Vonda N. McIntyre, and Joe R. Lansdale, and the editor has included some inspired choices to illuminate points—such as reprinting Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's introduction to her novel, Frankenstein.
For writers, there are three or four exercises at the end of each of the many chapters.
All told, Now Write! is an excellent and useful resource.
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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