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Books To Look For
Good Guys by Steven Brust, Tor Books, 2018, $25.99, hc.
To a reader with a lot of background in the current crop of Urban Fantasy, the set up for Good Guys is going to sound familiar. But you know what they say. Give ten good authors the same plot and you'll still end up with ten very different stories. It's the reason that genre fiction—mysteries, thrillers, romances, certain kinds of f/sf—are as popular as they are. Readers like the tropes, but the real reason they keep coming back is for the writers who do something different while still coloring inside the lines.
So the setup: It's a world very much like our own except magic works. Magicians tap into the world's ley lines to get the power they need to work their spells. They can also create artifacts that hold magic, which is released when certain words are spoken or a gesture is made.
In this world there are two organizations, the Foundation and the Roma Vindices Mystici, who were one organization until they split from each other sometime back around the middle of the last century. They're similar in many ways. Both strive to keep the rest of the world unaware of magic. But the Mystici tend to sell their services, while the Foundation is more active in suppressing the existence of magic and going after those who misuse it.
Good Guys is about Foundation investigators headed by a man named Donovan, with his team of two, who are tasked with stopping a magical assassin who's going around killing people connected to the Mystici. Their investigation feels very much like a traditional mystery as they methodically track down clues, both aided and at times blocked by the bureaucratic organization for which they work.
That work is very grounded in the mundane activities of filling out reports, claiming expenses, and banging their heads against the insufferable snail's pace of a bureaucracy to get anything done. They're also working for minimum wage. On the plus side, they have the forensic ability to work out the details of previously cast spells, they can create bulletproof shields out of thin air, and they can teleport anywhere they need to go (though it costs a fortune and they usually have to stay within a very strict budget).
As you might glean from the above, Steven Brust is already playing with genre conventions in Good Guys. When you add to this his quirky and engaging cast of characters—both our heroes and those they're up against—and a genuine puzzle of a mystery as Donovan and associates try to find the assassin and figure out why he's doing what he is, we have a winner on our hands.
All the familiar elements feel fresh. The reader is pulled through the story with equal amounts of delight and a delicious frisson of wondering just what's going to happen next, to who, and why. The magical elements play out like bright sparks against the bureaucracy of the Foundation and its sister organization, the Mystici.
The promo blurbs play with the idea of who are actually the good guys of the book's title, but that isn't the main thrust of the book. What it does have, however, is a moral center in Donovan and his team, and it's fascinating to watch them work their way though the many ambiguous gray areas that lie behind both the organization for which they work and the Mystici. And as we learn in the chapters from his point of view, even the assassin, for all his heinous crimes, remains an understandable if not entirely sympathetic character.
This is a strong and wonderful book for Brust's first entry into the Urban Fantasy genre, mostly because while he knows the conventions, he refuses to stick to them. Instead he carves his own path and isn't that what we're always looking for in a book? The individual voice, rather than the one that stays within the confines of the herd.
Replay by Ken Grimwood, William Morrow Paperbacks, 1998, $13.99, pb
A few days ago a reader of this column wrote to me about my review of Claire North's The First 15 Lives of Harry August, remarking how it reminded them of Ken Grimwood's classic Replay, published in 1986 and winning the World Fantasy Award in 1988. To sparingly recap North's book, it's about a man who when he dies returns to his youth and lives his life over and over again—not the same as it was because the different choices he makes each time makes his life turn out in ways it hadn't before.
I hadn't reread Replay in some twenty years and didn't remember it. Intrigued, I pulled the book down from its shelf, opened it to the first page and began to read. The next thing I knew I'd reached the end.
Thematically, it bears a lot of resemblance to the first half of North's book (the part where the character is figuring out what's going on and before it turns into a save-the-world thriller). This was my favorite part of The First 15 Lives of Harry August, following along as the character figures everything out and tries to make things work out better with each subsequent life. But where North's book turns into a thriller, Grimwood's continues as a character study that gets deeper and richer with each life he lives.
Now normally I wouldn't cover a book published so long ago, but I found it so absorbing I had to share it with you—after first making sure that it's still available. What I found particularly intriguing—beyond the premise and how Grimwood handles it—is that Replay remains so readable. Storytelling styles change over time, as do readers' tastes, but this could have been published today with the refreshing bonus of it being set in an unplugged world, one without the ubiquitous presence of cell phones, social media, and the like.
No matter how old a book, if you're reading it for the first time, it's a new release for you. This is something I discover over and over again.
A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison by Nat Segaloff, NESFA Press, 2017, $35, hc.
My introduction to Harlan Ellison was in the zines of the '60s-'80s, when he wore the mantle of the angry young artist and was a prolific contributor in the letter columns. It sometimes felt a bit like the Wild West as young up-and-coming wordslingers would take him on and Ellison would shoot them down with logic and more knowledge than the newcomer could begin to muster.
One of the exchanges that stays with me to this day is some writer ending his letter with "I'm entitled to my opinion." In the next issue Ellison wrote back something along the lines of "No, you're not. You're only entitled to an informed opinion," a truism by which I form my own opinions to this day. But I digress.
Ellison was a writer people either loved or hated, and many went after him just for the bragging rights of him having shot them down. I know. It all seems so minor in these days of the internet and trolls and the endless digital screaming that goes on minute by minute on line. But back then it fueled the gossip mills.
As I said, I knew Ellison from his letters and his essays. I loved his non-fiction, but for a long time I didn't get to his fiction—I've no idea why. For some reason I was convinced I would always prefer his non-fiction—that was until I actually read some of it. When I did, I found that at his best, Ellison is brilliant, his work casting a long shadow over the genre. At his worst he's still as good as most.
Nat Segaloff's A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison peels back the public face of the author revealing…well, a man the same as the rest of us, albeit one with a gift for putting words on paper. As you read through, you'll realize that he's always had a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but he's always written and acted with integrity. When he screwed up, he'd admit to it. When he was right, he made sure you knew that, too.
This is a fascinating book, even if you're not an Ellison fan, because there's so much here about the beginnings of the genre and the people who helped shape it. There's also a lot on what shapes a writer—in particular, this one.
Granted, there is a great deal of Ellison here—it is, after all, a biography—and, considering his polarizing effect on readers, it's not for everybody. But I've always had an affection for him both as a writer and a human being, and I'm delighted with Segaloff's ability to bring his complicated personality to life for a new generation as well as for an old-timer such as myself.
Perhaps the best compliment one can give a biographer is that he presents his subject in such a way that it makes you want to go out and read that subject's books. Segaloff does just that, and now that I'm finished A Lit Fuse, I plan to go back and reread Ellison, both the fiction and the non-fiction, viewing them all in a new light.
Burn Bright by Patricia Briggs, Ace, 2018, $27, hc.
It's a tricky thing writing a good series—and that's not taking into account all of the things we expect from a good book in the first place. Every book needs believable characters we can invest in. It requires prose that's either invisible or beautiful, depending on what we're looking for in the experience, but it can't be clunky or dull. And we also want a story that surprises us and makes sense, that grows from the characters' actions and motivations.
And if I may be allowed a brief aside here, by series I don't mean a collection of books that just rambles on from title to title. A good series delivers a complete story in each volume. It builds on previous books and allows a comfortable entry point to new readers with any book but doesn't bore the longtime fans with a lot of catch-up.
See what I mean about it being tricky?
But the most important element to a successful series is to give readers both a sense of the familiar and the new. There's a reason why readers want to return to a particular series. But they also don't need a rehash of a story they've already read.
Patricia Briggs is one of those writers who checks all the boxes mentioned above.
She has two connected werewolf series running at the moment—the Mercy Thompson books and the Alpha and Omega ones—with each series taking its turn as they're released. The last book, Silence Fallen, was a bit of an international thriller, as a kidnapped Mercy escaped her captors and had to make her way across Europe to get back to the States. Before that was Dead Heat, a quieter novel with Charles and Anna (the Alpha and Omega) on a horse-buying vacation that goes awry.
Burn Bright brings us back to Charles and Anna. It takes place at the tail end of Silence Fallen, with Charles assuming the roles of pack leader while his father Bran (known as the Marrock) is in Europe searching for Mercy. Unlike previous books in this particular series, Burn Bright is set in the wild mountains of Montana, and it's a very satisfying murder mystery.
Out in the wilds are werewolves too damaged to be part of a pack but still with enough control that they don't go on killing sprees and need to be put down. Charles gets a call from the mate of one of these wildlings, but he and Anna don't arrive in time to save her. They do deal with her killers, who appear to be professional soldiers. As they try to figure out the motive for this attack, they discover the attackers aren't alone. The killers have been spying on the wildlings for a while, and their boss is a traitor in the Marrock's pack. The reason for the sudden escalation of their plans is due to the Marrock's fortuitous absence.
I won't say anything more except to let you know that everything you love about these characters is present, but the situation is wonderfully twisty, with plenty of red herrings and a conclusion that comes as a surprise, though looking back, you can see that Briggs didn't cheat and pull a rabbit out of the hat. And if you aren't familiar with the characters, this is as good a place as any to come on board.
Considering how the book ends (satisfactorily, I should add) I have no doubt that threads introduced here will be picked up in the next Mercy Thompson book.
Everything about Briggs's books is so good that she's one of the few urban fantasists I immediately read as soon as a new novel arrives at my house.
Reset by Brian Andrews, Thomas & Mercer, 2018, $15.95, pb.
I wish the prose and characters in this book had a little more sparkle to them, but the story's intriguing enough that it kept me reading. It reminded me a bit of the old pulps where you'd find stories with a really good idea, but the characters were there only to move the plot forward, and the prose gave information but did little beyond that. You often got the idea that the author would much rather just speculate about those ideas without the need for pesky things like characterization.
Those stories could still be a lot of fun, even if they had the unfortunate result of giving the sf genre the reputation of being the "literature of ideas" with little else going for it, a reputation that still hangs on in some quarters after all these years and with all the brilliant books and authors that the field has given to the literary world since those early days.
The plot's pretty simple. Strange artifacts—floating glowing gaseous globes about the size of a football—have been discovered, and the government is trying to figure out what they are, quickly coming to the conclusion that they're of alien origin. Unfortunately any contact with them results in the loss of one's mind. The globes appear to take over people and—we eventually discover—are planning to reset the world because we've made such a mess of it. (I feel comfortable giving this away since anyone who's been reading in the field will pick up on that very early on in the book.)
Naturally, there are those who fight this subtle attack as best they can, but it appears to be a losing battle.
The style of the novel is that of a thriller with lots of shifting points of view and the ticking clock that counts down the time our protagonists have to set the world aright again. I'm (obviously) not going to tell you how it turns out. The novel has a strong environmental message which is important but delivered a little heavy-handedly.
Now you might be thinking from reading the above: Why is this a "book to look for"? The answer is simple. There's a little epilogue at the end of the novel—when, really, you think it's all over and done with—that turns everything on its head. Sort of the thing you might expect in an M. Night Shyamalan movie (back when they were still good). It makes you view everything that came before in a new light.
Is it worth reading some 360 pages of Reset to get that OMG moment in the last few pages? I can't answer for you, but I know I plan to reread it with what I now know.
Rain Dance by D.N. Erikson, Watchfire Press, 2018, $11.99, tpb.
There are books I read for their fascinating premise, for the beauty of the author's prose and storytelling abilities, for their ability to bring a character so completely to life you feel as though you actually know them. Then there are the books that are pure entertainment.
And I should note that the above considerations aren't mutually exclusive.
And I should also note that I see absolutely nothing wrong with pure entertainment. Considering the ways of the world, especially in recent times, getting a little entertainment might be all that keeps us from going insane.
But I digress.
Rain Dance is about as typical an Urban Fantasy as you're going to get. It has all the variations needed to make it feel different from the flood of similar books on the market, but beyond the surface variations, it treads no new ground.
Here's the setup: Eden Hunter died four years before the book opens but she was brought back on the whim of a goddess as a Reaper, someone who can collect the life essence of the newly dead. The goddess's stipulation is that she can't kill anyone—not even in self-defense. If she does, her powers will be taken back.
Eden lives now on a mysterious island that doesn't exist on any map, where she's indentured to a vampire who has her collecting souls for him, which have monetary value in this world. She exists on a day-to-day basis, trying to keep her head down. Unfortunately, a werewolf attacks her at the remote beach house where she lives, and she's forced to kill him and dispose of his body, hoping that somehow the goddess won't notice.
When she returns to her home, she finds another dead body—this one killed by a gunshot wound. He also happens to be her old boyfriend from her life before she died. The FBI then show up (something I find a little unclear, since this is supposed to be an unknown, uncharted island) and suspect Eden of killing her ex. They also seem to have a deeper interest in her that only becomes clear as the book unfolds.
So now Eden has to clear her name, convince her vampire employer that she's not part of a plot against him, get the FBI off her back, make sure the goddess doesn't discover that she's broken their contract, oh, and deal with the fact that another Reaper has shown up on the island, making it that much harder for her to reach her weekly quota of souls.
What makes the book entertaining is that it's fast-paced and fun. The characters aren't all likeable, but they're convincing in the context of the story. And the plot, while very linear (like, say, an Indiana Jones story), unfolds in a cascade of imaginative events that keeps one reading to see what could possibly happen next.
Rain Dance is touted as the first in a series called Sunshine & Scythes (I've no idea what that refers to), but I'm not sure the series has legs. When I was Googling the author to see who they were, there were preorders for a second book being offered which have subsequently disappeared. So this might be a one-off. But don't worry. While there are a few dangling bits of plot that could lead into a second book, all the major plot elements are resolved here.
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. eBooks may be sent as attachments to email@example.com.
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Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide