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Books To Look For
The River Bank by Kij Johnson, Small Beer Press, 2017, $24, hc.
Kij Johnson's The River Bank is a sequel to the classic children's book The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, which was first published in 1908. There have been innumerable editions over the years, most of them illustrated, although surprisingly—since we're so used to it being illustrated—the original edition published by Methuen had only a frontispiece by Graham Robertson.
It's my favorite book. Or at least half of it is. Unlike a large number of readers, I never cared for the sections devoted to Mr. Toad. I still reread chapters like "The River Bank," "Dulce Domum," and "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" on a regular basis, but I never understood the appeal of Toad. He struck me as a pompous, self-absorbed, selfish idiot, and I wanted to spend time with him about as much as I'd want to spend time with the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Ah, but I do love the other half of the book with its gentle good nature, its evocations of loyalty, kindness, and sense of wonder, its descriptions of the Wild Wood and the River Bank.
I have numerous editions (including Annie Gauger's brilliant annotated version from 2009), and while I love Arthur Rackham (his illustrated edition was the last book he worked on and was published posthumously), my favorite one through the years is still the 1931 edition illustrated by E. H. Shepherd. His lively pen and ink work and gorgeous watercolors provide the perfect counterpoint to Grahame's rich prose.
Johnson isn't the first to write a sequel. Before her there was Dixon Scott's A Fresh Wind in the Willows, William Horwood's four books that began with The Willows in Winter, Jacqueline Kelly's Return to the Willows, and Jan Needle's Wild Wood. Probably the most interesting of these was the latter. Needle explored the events in the original book from the point of view of the working-class characters in the Wild Wood who had a dim view of the wealthy, easy lifestyle of Toad and his crew.
Where Needle focused on class, Johnson focuses as well on gender. As she says in her Author's Note: "I didn't notice the entrenched assumptions about privilege, class, and gender. Later, as an adult, these things bothered me; this book is an imperfect attempt to open up the world of the River Bank a little."
The thing about historical fiction (and since the setting of The Wind in the Willows is at the very beginning of the twentieth century, any attempt to use the material becomes historical fiction) is however much authors might try, they're always writing about their own time. Johnson's a smart writer and her Author's Note shows that she was cognizant of this as she wrote the book, planning in advance on bringing more contemporary ideals and gender balance to her version.
Her original characters are the most successful part of The River Bank, and the old-fashioned style of her writing here does much to echo the atmosphere of the original. It's a lovely homage to a story she loved as a child. I should also note that Kathleen Jennings's art is effective throughout, reminiscent of Shepherd's work without being an attempt to create exact copies.
But here's the problem. The Wind in the Willows doesn't need a sequel. Grahame didn't die until 1932, so if he'd ever had the thought that there were more stories to be told about these characters, he had the time, and he would have written them. The fact that he didn't is telling.
All these sequels are presented as canon when they're published but the truth is they're fan fiction. The authors love the original material so much that they can't help but continue the story and fix what they see as weaknesses.
This happened with Robert E. Howard's work in the seventies. In time there were more sequels than there had been original work. The same can be said for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, V. C. Andrews, Robert Ludlum, Stieg Larsson, Robert B. Parker, and so many others, whose characters and ideas continue to be published long after their deaths, sometimes under their own names, even though they had nothing to do with writing these subsequent books.
I have nothing against fan fiction. I think it's wonderful that people love a work so much that they want to inhabit it with their own characters, or to play with the established ones. And it's not only hobbyist writers who do this. I know published writers who still do things like write Star Trek fanfic. More power to all of them for telling the stories they want to tell.
But it's not canon. And I wish it would stop being published as such.
Before I move on to another book let me reiterate that Johnson has done a terrific job with this material, and I've adored much of her other work, such as the Japanese-themed The Fox Woman and any number of evocative short stories. I just have my issues with this title.
But who knows? After reading it, you might well love it and dismiss me as some cranky curmudgeon with old-fashioned ideas about sequels. And that's okay, because there's room for all of us in the library. I just know that given a choice I'll always want to reread the classic rather than the sequel written by somebody else.
Slayers & Vampires by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman, Tor Books, 2017, $27.99, hc.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: 20 Years of Slaying by Christopher Golden, Simon Pulse, 2017, $24.99, hc.
It's hard to believe that it's already been twenty years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered as a TV show. What a different landscape it was then. Few indeed were the female leads in an action role and the whole mix of horror, humor, action, drama, and teen soap opera felt like a breath of air in those more innocent times when TV was still considered second tier visual entertainment.
If you hadn't seen the movie on which the show was based, the concept of the blond cheerleader being an action hero rather than the victim seemed particularly innovative and empowering. The series also showcased the idea of a "family of choice" (something we'd long seen in high fantasy quest novels) and the idea that a whole season could have individual episodes but also a season-long arc with a different "big bad" for each year.
When you consider the wealth of scripted television available these days—no longer tied to airdates but available at the viewer's discretion through streaming services, digital downloads, DVDs and BluRay—it's a little amazing that there's still such an interest in Buffy. There are any number of reasons why this should be so, starting with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek opening line of Jessica Smith's foreword: "Into every generation new Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans are born."
But the real reason so many people connect with these characters is because of the honesty of the emotions portrayed on screen. Yes, there were monsters of the week and there was action, but it was the dialogue and the characterization—and dare I say it, the writing—that kept viewers returning to their TVs and brought, as Smith points out, a constant influx of new viewers. Social media and fan sites are filled with the stories of people who are drawn in, year after year.
Much of the show still holds up twenty years later—with the exception of season six, which was bad even when it aired. That season arc was a surprising misstep with a clumsy attempt to present magic use as a metaphor for drug abuse. The problem was a lack of any subtlety. Buffy's supernatural elements were always played as metaphors for the angst of growing up, but it was never heavy-handed the way it appeared in the misguided sixth season.
As someone who tuned in to watch the first show live (and who's one of the few people, it seems, to actually have enjoyed the movie before that) I've been fascinated to watch the series become the cultural phenomenon that it has. And it didn't just have a cultural impact. Forget all the articles you can find on the net. There are also hundreds of academic books and paper on the series.
Closer to the mandate of this column, I doubt we would have had the explosion of Urban Fantasy as it exists today without Buffy. And it's not simply Urban Fantasy. In the mystery and thriller genres strong female action protagonists are showing up as police detectives and FBI agents. TV shows are filled with them. In other words, the entertainment industry is finally beginning to reflect the capabilities of the other half of this world's population.
Buffy was also a pioneer with its gay characters, although unfortunately not so much for portraying people of color. But as other creators took up the mandate, we've since been presented with every variation of the action hero.
Lastly, although fandom has been around for decades, Buffy fans pretty much invented modern fandom, by which I mean how much engagement there was between fans, the show's writers, and the actors. It started off on the internet posting board The Bronze and developed to such a sense that they'd all get together—creators and fans from The Bronze—for a party at the end of every season.
Now maybe I'm giving the show too much credit. Maybe it's more like the concept of Steam Engine Time—you know, when it's time for a steam engine somebody will build it. But in this case it was a blond teenage cheerleader who led the way.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: 20 Years of Slaying gets into some of what I've mentioned above, but mostly it's a compendium of everything you'd want to know about the series.
To start with, there are episode guides, not for every episode, but certainly for every key one: breakdowns of what happened that week, how it fits into the overall mythology, quotes and pop-culture references are cited, background glimpses into script items that might not have made it into the final aired version.
There are interviews with various cast members and writer/directors (including series creator Joss Whedon), a rundown of the subsequent seasons that appeared in comic book form, and a "Where are they now?" section on the principal actors. The book's rounded off with the complete shooting script for season four's "Restless" along with commentaries that show all the ways this episode foreshadows the next three seasons.
Primary editor Christopher Golden has done a terrific job with this book. It goes deep enough to satisfy the most diehard fan, but I also think that a casual reader, unfamiliar with Buffy except in the broadest of terms, could well become absorbed enough in the presentation to go on to track down episodes to watch.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: 20 Years of Slaying has "authorized" displayed on its cover, which I presume is the stamp of approval from whoever holds the rights. Slayers & Vampires doesn't, which is made clear from its lengthy subtitle of "The Complete Uncensored Unauthorized Oral History of Buffy & Angel," but I didn't come across anything scurrilous in its pages.
Slayers & Vampires is pretty much exactly as advertised, detailing the history of both shows from start to finish through quotations from those involved in the creation of the shows and the day-to-day running of each series. We hear from stars Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz, creator Joss Whedon, and any number of other cast members, writers, and directors.
You'd think it would be a treasure trove for Buffy/Angel fans and you'd be right. But I also think it will appeal to film students, giving the real dirt behind the creation and running of a TV show with as much attention to detail and honesty as, oh say, William Goldman's classic Adventures in the Screen Trade. Although in this case the observations are from many voices rather than the one.
And that might be its only weakness for this reader. Because each entry is only a paragraph long, sometimes a little more, the sense of a cohesive narrative is disjointed. The authors do insert short segments to carry the story forward but there are times that story still gets—I want to say lost, but it's more a little muddled—in the barrage of quoted segments, insightful and interesting though many of them are.
But that's the price one has to pay by using so many voices to tell a story, since everybody remembers events in their own way. However, in the end the choice to do it this way proves to be more of a success than a failure.
Harmony Black by Craig Schaefer, 47North, 2016, $14.95, tpb.
Red Knight Falling by Craig Schaefer, 47North, 2016, $14.95, tpb.
Glass Predator by Craig Schaefer, 47North, 2017, $14.95, tpb.
Cold Spectrum by Craig Schaefer, 47North, 2017, $14.95, tpb.
I ended up not liking this series as much as I'd hoped I would, but that's not so much on the author as on my having expectations going in of where the overall story should go—or rather what kind of a story I wanted it to be. I'm sure the books are exactly the way they're supposed to be and I'm the odd man out because some things just didn't work for me.
But let me explain, because there's so much to like.
The first book introduces us to the titular character, who apparently had a role to play in another of Craig Schaefer's series featuring a thief named Daniel Faust as its central character. I haven't read any of those books but apparently in them Harmony Black is an FBI agent who works solo.
Here the novel opens with her becoming a part of Vigilant Lock, a clandestine off-the-books government team that uses being FBI agents as a cover to battle supernatural elements and keep the general public from knowing that they exist. But it was the personalities of the various members of Harmony Black's new team and how they interacted with one another that kept me reading all four books, because I really liked their dynamics.
Now this kind of a setup might seem like old hat but really at this point in what's called Urban Fantasy, it's as much a part of the norm as mystery novels featuring a private eye, coroner, police detective, or a federal agent. There are only so many careers for this kind of story, so it's not really worth questioning. What's more important is how individual the actual characters are. Sherlock Holmes wouldn't still be in print if readers didn't like him as much as the puzzles he solves.
Harmony Black is a practicing witch as well as an agent and somewhat OCD, starting but not limited to her penchant for always wearing black suits, white shirts and a tie—the latter seeming to be the only part of her life where she allows herself color and individuality. Otherwise she's strictly by the book, which makes her quite a contrast to her new partner, Agent Jessie Temple, who is impulsive and more than ready to break the rules if it means results. Jessie also has wolf blood, which is great for situations that require extra speed and strength, but not so much for the rest of the time when she has to keep her wolf securely under control.
Completing the team are a pair of consultants: Dr. April Cassidy, who was one of Vigilant Lock's best agents until an accident put her in a wheelchair, and Kevin Finn, a teenage hacker who was pulled out of Witness Protection to provide technical backup.
Their first assignment is to track down a creature that is stealing children from their bedrooms. There is no sign of forcible entry in any of the houses where the crime occurs. It seems to simply appear and disappear, taking the child with it. Local law enforcement is stymied but Black knows exactly what it is—the Bogeyman—which makes the case personal for her, since her sister was stolen in exactly the same way when they were both children.
The camaraderie between the team members might happen quickly but it runs true as they rapidly become dependent on each other in order to survive. The writing is tight, the dialogue crisp, and while I'm not going to go into more detail about how the plot unfolds, it's probably not too big a spoiler to say that the team survives, because there are three more books published and probably more to come. What I can say is that it comes to a satisfying conclusion.
But as the books proceed (and there will be a few vague spoilers if you read on in this review).…
Let me put it this way. When I read a fantasy, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief and go with the flow. But when the elements become implausible, it's harder for me to stay engaged.
One thing about a series is that the authors will often up the ante in each subsequent title. But once you basically save the entire world (as the team does in Red Knight Falling, the second book) where is there to go?
The writing, characterization, and dialogue stay on point throughout. I just wish the plots had been a little smaller. The way these books unfold reminds me a little of blockbuster movies—especially the superhero ones. These movies have a first half that's usually quite interesting, introducing characters, spending some time on their development, setting up the plot. But once the big fight scenes begin, with their special effects and larger than life spectacle, my interest wanes to the point where I don't even feel like finishing the film.
Take last year's Wonder Woman. It's a really terrific film, hitting all the right notes until we get to the big climactic fight scene. At that point it just felt stupid, and I find it particularly frustrating when elements that are so fascinating devolve into characters just smashing each other.
That's kind of what happens with these Harmony Black books. There's so much to love until we get to the big climaxes where I can no longer suspend my disbelief. I end up skimming pages until the story gets back to something on a more human scale.
As I said, I'm probably in a minority. One only has to look at the success of blockbuster movies to see how true that is. And I wouldn't care, except for the fact that Craig Schaefer does such a terrific job with the rest of the books.
Maybe the Daniel Faust books stay more grounded and I should give them a try.
The Faerie Handbook, edited by Carolyn Turgeon, Harper Design, 2017, $35, hc.
Once upon a time, faerie were fearsome creatures, so much so that they were only referred to by euphemisms such as the Good Neighbors or the Good Folk for fear of reprisal for using their true names. By Victorian times they found themselves relegated to children's nurseries and collections like Andrew Lang's colored fairy tale books. Eventually they were diminished to the point where they were considered to be tiny creatures like the flower fairies so charmingly illustrated by Cicely Mary Barker, or perhaps more famously still as Tinkerbell in the Disney version of Peter Pan.
But now it's a new century and faerie are coming back into their own. The roots of their resurgence might have been the classic Faeries book by Brian Froud and Alan Lee, but regardless of where it began, it's certainly upon us now.
Because some time between then and about a decade ago, lovers of faerie art and lore collided with Renaissance Faires, and faerie festivals were born. They're not as pervasive as science-fiction conventions, but you can find them in the UK, Europe, and throughout North America. Sometimes they're indoor events (like a con), sometimes outdoor (like a Ren Faire). There are costumes at them, but they're less cosplay (dressing as some character from TV, manga, film, etc.) and more of a way for the participant to present to the world, for at least one weekend, their inner perception of themselves.
There are marketplaces filled with clothing, jewelry, and art. There are balls for dancing and dressing to the nines. There are bands, usually with their roots in traditional music from the British Isles and Europe. There are workshops.
From that heady brew rose Faerie Magazine, a slick magazine featuring—you guessed it—faerie art, lore, and fashion, with lots of glossy illustrations, informative articles and interviews with writers and artists. (If this intrigues you, they have a website at www.faeriemag.com where you can subscribe or sign up for a mailing list delivering faerie-related info to your inbox on a regular basis.)
And now the editors of the magazine have produced a gorgeous hardcover book that might be described as Martha Stewart goes to Faerieland.
I say that tongue-in-cheek but there's a modicum of truth to the statement.
First of all, this is a handsome book physically, from the embossed cloth cover with an inlaid photograph through attached ribbon bookmark and the faux gilded pages, top, side, and bottom. (I say "faux" because while the gilding is metallic, I doubt it's gold.) The interior pages are a thick stock that holds the color of the art and photographs beautifully. The design from start to finish is eye-catching and highly readable. You might think it was Folio Book at first glance.
The subtitle is "An Enchanting Compendium of Literature, Lore, Art, Recipes, and Projects," hence my Martha Stewart reference, because for all the surprising depth of the folklore and art, it's also a lifestyle book. But if making faerie cakes and faerie arbors aren't your thing, you can busy yourself tracking down books and websites from the extensive bibliography at the back. And everybody will enjoy the beautiful photographs and art.
I'll be honestly surprised if The Faerie Handbook doesn't end up having the same impact and influence as Froud and Lee's Faeries did all those years ago.
Recommended for anyone who's looking to bring a little faerie magic into their life.
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