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Books To Look For
The Green Man's Heir by Juliet E. McKenna, Wizard Tower's Press, 2017, $19.99, tpb
This isn't Juliet E. McKenna's first novel; it's just the first of hers I've read. Getting a bit of background about her online, I've learned that it's a departure for her—she mostly writes secondary world fantasy—but any way you look at it, the book is a delight from start to finish. Actually, I have to admit I was half-sold on the novel before I even started it. All this reader needed to be intrigued was the title and that Green Man mask on the cover.
That said, I still started reading with fingers crossed that the use of British folklore wouldn't be cheesy, uninformed, or disrespectful. (If you're wondering why that would be worrisome it's because I have a number of friends to whom the Green Man is a sacred being. What's folklore to one person could well be religion to another. But I digress.)
Daniel Mackmain is the son of a dryad, but that's not as wonderful as it might sound. The magical world doesn't quite accept him because of his human blood, and he can't make a deep connection with humans because of the secret he carries inside him. What he'd really like to do is meet with other sons of dryads to compare notes on how they manage their lives.
The easiest plot summary is the teaser blurb for the book:
"A hundred years ago, a man with a secret could travel a few hundred miles and give himself a new name and life story. No one would be any the wiser, as long as he didn't give anyone a reason to start asking questions. These days, that's not so easy, with everyone on social media, and CCTV on every street corner. So Daniel Mackmain keeps his head down and keeps himself to himself.
"But now a girl has been murdered and the Derbyshire police are taking a closer look at a loner who travels from place to place, picking up work as he goes. Worse, Dan realises the murder involves the hidden world he was born into. When no one else can see the truth, who will see justice done?"
Well, obviously Mackmain steps up to do what he can, and that sets up some interesting problems.
Most contemporary fantasy is part of the Urban Fantasy subgenre in which the protagonist is usually a kickass heroine who just gets things done. And we expect exactly that from them when we're reading those sorts of books. They're battling vampires and werewolves and witches, letting the bodies fall where they may without much in the way of real repercussions.
It doesn't work like that in the real world. (I know—The Green Man's Heir isn't set in the real world either, but bear with me.) In the real world, a body means a police investigation, suspects and witnesses brought in for interviews, studies of security camera footage, the collecting of forensic data.
In Urban Fantasies we don't worry about our protagonist. In The Green Man's Heir Mackmain comes under a barrage of police interest, he's stalked by journalists, and is viewed with suspicion by co-workers, his landlords, and others. This might well all blow over except that the dead girl being investigated by the police is only the beginning. Because only Mackmain is aware of the supernatural aspect of the danger, he can't keep a low profile and hope he'll be forgotten by the next twenty-four-hour cycle of the news.
I loved this aspect of the book and found myself worrying as much about Mackmain's problems in the real world as I did the dangers he faces in the supernatural.
But it's the latter that really sold me on The Green Man's Heir. Unlike most current contemporary fantasy writers, McKenna brings to her story the main ingredient that first drew me to reading fantasy: a sense of wonder. Yes, there are terrifying aspects to the creatures of legend and myth that Mackmain faces, and rightly so since faerie has always been a dangerous realm, but there is also the joy and mystery that can only be described by the overused (and these days wrongly used) term of awesome. By which I mean, instilling awe, rather than getting a great latte or having your sports team win a game.
The glimpses of the Green Man and other elements I don't want to get into for fear of spoiling the story are suitably mysterious and otherworldly, bringing that shiver of wonder to the reader. And then, conversely, there are modern and down-to-earth touches, such as the way Mackmain's dryad mother deals with cell phones, that are just delightful.
McKenna seamlessly weaves a braid of folklore, the English countryside, myths, murder mysteries, and regular day-to-day life into her story. Her characters are likable, but more importantly, they're interesting. The pace of her storytelling ebbs and flows with the elements of story—now casual, now moody, now filled with terror or awe.
It's one of my favorite books so far this year.
Three Words by Izzy Robertson, Magic Oxygen, 2017, $10.99, tpb
I think every writer likes to take on the tropes of their genre and see what kind of new spin they can put on them. The high fantasy writer might pen a vampire tale. The sf writer will try her hand at time travel. In Izzy Robertson's case, she takes on the legend of the mermaid—not so much the traditional mermaid as the one from the Hans Christian Anderson story "The Little Mermaid."
That's the one where the mermaid gives up her tail, her voice and the ocean for legs and love. Robertson plays a little with that, tweaking elements to fit her story. Her Serena is enchanted by the quick emotions of the humans she spies on from the sea and is especially taken with a young man named Steve. She trades her mermaid magic for a human soul and legs. She doesn't give up her voice but she can't speak of her origin unless someone has already found it out. And she has only one year in which to find a true love. If that lover abandons her, she loses her soul and goes back into the sea, becoming a part of the waters.
Things work out well when she gets on land. She meets with Steve, they fall in love, get married and move to London from the little seaside town where they met. Unfortunately, Steve betrays her and again she has only one year in which to find a new love or the curse comes into effect.
Devastated, Serena sees no chance of escaping the curse, so she returns to the seaside town where she plans to spend the time she has left to be among the people who first drew her from the water. She begins to make friends, including an elderly woman named Rose, who hires Serena to help her put together a book of herbal lore on which Rose has been working forever.
Another of her new friends is Rose's nephew Seth, the owner of a little record store on the High Street. Serena falls comfortably into the companionship of his circle of friends, finding that closeness of connection that she envied when first watching humans from the sea. She also begins to feel a little hope that she might escape the curse as she starts to have feelings for Seth and he for her.
Seth, however, has recently come out of a toxic relationship, and while he's drawn to Serena he keeps her at arm's length for fear of being hurt again.
I suppose the above makes this sound like a romance novel, and I have to admit that it does have some of the aspects one might ascribe to a romance. I should also warn you that the novel moves at its own languid pace, but that's what I liked about Three Words. I liked the characters and enjoyed spending time in their company. Serena, Rose, Seth's friends, even Seth most of the time. With Seth I kept wanting to give him a bang on the ear to make him smarten up, but just as in real life, you can't make people do what you want them to do. They're going to go their own way.
As an aside, I got a kick out of how this group of young people were all metalheads. Usually in a fantasy of this sort the favored music is Celtic, with harps and fiddles in plentiful supply. But this group prefers going down to the pub and headbanging to loud heavy metal. In fact, an interest in metal music is what first draws Serena and Seth together.
How do things turn out? Well, you know how the Hans Christian Anderson story ends. I'll leave it for you to find out how Robertson brings her story to a conclusion. Let me just say I found it satisfying.
Three Words isn't for everyone. There might not be enough fantasy for fantasy readers, or too much exploration of feelings. But I found it to be a sweet and gentle story and was sorry when it all came to an end.
I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing by A.D. Jameson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. $26., hc
I'm not sure I'm the right audience for this book. I mean, I haven't seen all the Star Wars movies, and I've only seen one episode of Star Trek, and none of those movies. (Don't hate me. I have my geeky obsessions. They're just not necessarily the same as yours—unless you, too, like long conversations about the minutiae of various kinds of music.)
On the other hand, maybe I'm the exact audience for I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing, because I'm always interested in how things work and how they came to be. It could be an article about the rebuilding of a classic Ford, from when the author first found the vehicle in some farmer's back forty through all the steps of acquiring the rare parts and the rebuild itself. Or maybe it's an essay on whether or not trees talk to each other, and how the forester who wrote it came to believe that they do.
Or it could be an exploration of contemporary sf/fantasy media culture seen through the prism of Star Wars, Star Trek, The Muppets, comic books, and the like, such as can be found in the book in hand.
I'm not unaware of all the elements Jameson discusses in I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing. I've simply never put them all together and considered the connections the way that Jameson does. Film critic April Moon says in a blurb that Jameson "traces the path of contemporary geek media from Lucas to, well, Lucas," and that amusing comment hones in on one of the most interesting things about all of this.
Star Wars burst upon the scene in 1977, and Jameson remarks that one of the elements of its success was its "realism." And it did feel utterly real, especially within the context of when it appeared. I can remember leaving the theater with friends, with everyone animatedly talking about the cantina scene and such when it occurred to me that no one was mentioning the spacecraft. Nothing like them had been seen before—or at least not done as well—but they seemed real, as though they'd always been around.
This is an element that Jameson returns to again and again on his journey from that first Lucas sf film to the current crop of Star Wars movies. The apparent veracity of the material, the ability for people to suspend their disbelief and utterly immerse themselves in these fantastical fictions to the degree that they can.
There are books, and the internet is rife with spec sheets for the spacecraft, the languages, maps of the worlds, the histories of these worlds, from Star Trek through Tolkien's Middle Earth, Harry Potter, George R. R. Martin's Westeros and every other immersive franchise.
Jameson writes with an easy, welcoming prose style, as though you and he are friends, sitting around chatting about Wookiees and Spock, Josh Whedon, Kermit the Frog, and the One Ring.
I could have used a little more personal anecdotal material. I don't know about you. but I don't care if the authors are famous. What I like is for them to tell us how they connect to what they're writing about and to write about the material with knowledgeable enthusiasm.
Jameson does both, though he leans more toward the latter.
So who is the audience for this book?
I'm going to say everybody.
The Fairies of Sadieville by Alex Bledsoe, Tor Books, 2018, $29.99, hc
Six books into this absolutely enchanting series of stand-alone novels, with their connective threads of setting and a few core characters, and we come to an end. Some might be sad that this is the last of Alex Bledsoe's Tufa books, but I'm not one of them. Stories, to be effective, have to come to a conclusion. And as I say to folks who complain that they want more of some favorite series, the older titles are always there to be rediscovered. For my part, I'm excited to see what Bledsoe does next.
The Tufa are a dusky-skinned race of black-haired and dark-eyed people who live in the Appalachian mountains. They've been confused with blacks and Native Americans but they're not part of either race. They're gifted musicians and keep to themselves in a part of the mountains called Cloud County. But sometimes they venture into the wider world, sometimes the wider world comes to them, and therein lie the stories that Bledsoe has been telling for six books and a handful of short stories.
I mentioned a "few core characters" above, and we certainly come to know some of them well through the course of the various books. To use the parlance of TV, the material of the series contains an overall arc, but each book and story stands on its own, focusing on its own cast of characters. Sometimes these include people we've met before, but usually the principal protagonists are new for each outing.
In The Fairies of Sadieville, graduate students Justin and Veronica find a long lost silent film that dates back to the beginning of the previous century. Amidst some corny scenes obviously filmed on constructed sets are shots of gorgeous scenery and finally the riveting transformation of a young woman into a being with enormous wings that lift her into the air.
Through diligent research, they learn that the live footage was filmed around the rural mining community of Sadieville—a place that has utterly vanished from history and maps. The pair travel to the closest town, Needsville, which lies deep in Cloud County. From there they mean to see what remnants they can find.
But sometimes places disappear for a reason, and bringing them back into memory can be a dangerous thing.
Bledsoe pulls out an interesting storytelling trick in this novel that's all the more fascinating for not coming off as a gimmick. Characters will speak about something in the past, then the narrative shifts to that earlier time where a subsequent discussion will shift the narrative even further back in time before we finally return to the present story. The shifts feel like organic parts of the whole story rather than backstory fitted in as extended flashbacks, and I loved the way it worked so well, allowing us deeper insight into the characters of those earlier times than we might have gotten otherwise.
Longtime readers of the series will finally learn the full story of the Tufa, but new readers won't be left confused, because even though the threads for the reveals have been woven into all the previous books, we're still all learning about it at the same time.
While Bledsoe has certainly used some old country faerie lore as a starting point, what he's actually done with these books is deliver a true North American fantasy. Considering that most of us are immigrants to the continent, the idea that mythical creatures from the old countries immigrated here as well isn't so far-fetched. And just as our own personal stories grow from this continent, these stories couldn't have been set anywhere else. The mythic weight of their impact grows out of the particular elements that make up the people, music, poverty, and folklore of the Appalachian Mountains. That the Tufa were once Irish fey makes no difference. They are now hillbilly fairies with their roots in the Appalachians. And the sense of wonder remains as strong in this setting as it once did in the British Isles.
I can't think of any other writer who has created a body of work that merges mythic matter, the rural experience, and the modern world as successfully as Bledsoe has with this bittersweet series. The Tufa books have set a new bar for what readers will expect from a North American fantasy experience.
As I said at the beginning, I'm looking forward to what Bledsoe takes on next. At the same time I'm also looking forward to the books that the Tufa series will influence—not copycat retellings, or "homages," but rather the inspiration of taking any setting and filling it with a sense of wonder that comes from the heart of the author. The stories that only they can write.
The Bend at the End of the Road by Barry N. Malzberg, Fantastic Books, 2018, $13.99, tpb
Back when I used to get the SFWA Bulletin, my favorite part of the magazine was the column that Barry N. Malzberg did with Mike Resnick. It was presented like a conversation, with each author taking a turn commenting on what the other had said. The topics were bookish, covering every aspect of the field, from marketing and writing to the state of the genre, but they'd also have forays into the culture of science fiction.
Malzberg's new collection of essays is a little like that, except we only get one side of the conversation (Resnick does show up to write a little introduction, which is followed by a longer one by Paul Di Filippo) and Malzberg's a lot unhappier about not only the state of the genre, but the world itself.
The essays originally appeared in Baen's Universe and Galaxy's Edge, roughly between 2006 and 2017, and posit an ever darker view of—well, pretty much everything. I don't agree with all of his observations, but then—rightly or wrongly—I've always been a rather optimistic individual myself so I wouldn't. Even in the face of a world increasingly devolving into self-centered us-against-them scenarios, I remain hopeful that we'll figure out a way to do better.
But while I don't agree necessarily with all of Malzberg's conclusions, I still found these essays to be eminently readable and useful in terms of solidifying my own opinions on the various matters under discussion. There's also a wealth of history of the field and the wider world at large that comes into play in these writings that I found both fascinating and at times alarming.
So—not for everyone. Or maybe for everyone, but as a wake-up call. Malzberg says in an afterword that this collection is his way of quitting the essay business and saying good-bye. I find that unfortunate, because his is a voice that needs to be heard.
Outbreak by Melissa F. Olson, Tor.com, 2018, $16.99, tpb
Don't judge a book by its cover, but damn, these Tor.com editions of Melissa F. Olson's Nightshades series are handsome books. The design, both inside and out, is eye-catching, and perfectly captures the mood of the text with the simple graphics.
There are many things to like about Olson's writing. She starts with the tropes of Urban Fantasy—in this case vampires, which she calls shades—but makes us feel like we're reading this sort of story for the first time, and that's no easy task. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how she pulls it off, both here and with her Old World books.
Why is her work so vibrant and full of life while the work of too many others mining the same sources reads flat and repetitive?
I'm going to go with storytelling ability and characterization.
Some people are just born storytellers, just as some authors have a gift for creating realistic relatable characters. Anybody who can do both as Olson does is simply a pleasure to read.
Bearing in mind what I said above, Outbreak completes the trilogy of novellas Olson has been writing about a Chicago field office of the FBI that's tasked with dealing with shades (vampires). It has one good shade working with the task force and a lot of really scary bad shades terrorizing the public at large and the task force in particular.
It's a terrific story, gripping and especially riveting because of the cast. Even the bit players are fully rounded, but the main cast is everything we could hope for in protagonists. Yes, you'll get more out of it if you've read the previous two books, but Olson makes it accessible for new readers as well, giving the new reader just enough of the backstory so they won't get lost.
And if you feel that the setup is same old, same old, let me assure you that it won't feel that way once you start reading. A new book by Olson always goes right to the top of my to-be-read list, and I've yet to be disappointed.
As an aside, let me say that one of the things that makes me particularly happy with these Tor.com books is that I think they'll bring new readers to her Old World series that, if only because of their length, are richer and even more immersive.
The Old World books are published by 47 North, which is a part of Amazon. That means that some bookstores won't order them because many people are under the erroneous impression that Amazon killed the independent bookstores.
That simply wasn't the case. The chain bookstores killed the independents—Borders and Barnes & Noble in the States—often deliberately opening their box stores in areas already well served by an independent store and then undercutting their prices until the indie store was forced to close.
If I was going to be mean-spirited, I'd say that many of the people decrying the loss of the independents might have been more effective with their protests if they'd supported the indies, rather than going for the bargains in the chains, but it is what it is, and now we're stuck with this landscape for bookstores.
What I find particularly interesting is that what Amazon is doing is killing the chain stores, and as they fall—either wholesale as Borders did, or store by store as is happening with B&N—independent bookstores are coming back.
The ones that are thriving are those that give readers an experience. Maybe they're also a brew pub or a café. Maybe they have author events and book clubs, or specialize in a certain kind of book. Maybe they're staffed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff whose presence keeps readers coming back. Maybe its some mix of all of the above. However they present themselves, I'm very happy to see this resurgence. Who doesn't like to browse around in a bookstore?
Because their inventories are smaller than a chain store, and many of them don't carry things like 47 North and a lot of indie-published books, you'll still have to order some titles online (although any good bookstore will do a special order for you).
I'm hoping that new readers who fall in love with Olson's Tor.com books will choose one method or the other to read the rest of her body of work.
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Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide