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August 1998
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

Current Issue • Departments • Bibliography

Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Burning Bright, by Jay S. Russell
St. Martin's Press, 1998; 288pp; $22.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-312-18545-6

Readers familiar with this column will have gathered by now that I enjoy books that mix genres. There's something I find particularly appealing about the tropes of one being applied to another--especially when it's done well. Mysteries seem to be the most popular crossover, and being a fan of both mysteries and f&sf, I can see why. What appeals to me with a good mystery is the voice of the narrator. Usually told in the first person, mysteries allow great character development, pointed asides on the various foibles and idiosyncrasies of society, and an immediacy in terms of how the story is told. That the narrator is often a wiseacre only adds to the enjoyment. What appeals to me with fantasy is the impossible brought onto stage, how the mythic can be made real within the context of the story; with science fiction, it's the speculation into technology and other sciences, and the chance to peer into, if not the true future, then at least a possible one.

Jay S. Russell has chosen to merge the mystery with elements of a horror novel, pulling it off in a manner reminiscent of William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel, by which I mean he's chosen a hard-boiled approach. His narrator is Marty Burns, a famous child actor who, with the revival of his TV career, finds himself in London, England, promoting his new show. He's barely into his media junket when he becomes involved in a racial conflict that soon has him travelling throughout Britain with a Hindi spiritualist and her bodyguard, an ex-IRA assassin. Also along for the ride is a crusty English mystic--and I should note that crusty, here, refers to the unwashed (hence "crusty"), New Age squatters who can be found in many parts of the UK.

Their task is to save the world from a secret, racist occult society known as Ultima Thule by ceremonially closing various mystical British sites to the nasties, though naturally the actual enactment of these ceremonies is neither simple nor safe.

What's good about Russell's latest is that he manages to be respectful of various systems of belief (Hindu, New Age, Voudoun, the Jewish Kaballah, etc.) while still poking gentle fun at them. His narrator has a great voice--hard-boiled, humourous, sardonic--and the cast of characters is both wildly-varied and well-presented. The only downside is that the pace of the story sometimes lags; not enough to spoil the book, but this reader, at least, wishes that a few of the scenes had been pared down somewhat to tighten the flow of the plot.

Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson
Warner Aspect, July 1998; 250pp; $12.99
Trade paperback; ISBN 0-446-67433-8

From the moment Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest, there's been a strong buzz in the field for the novel and the unique voice of its author, as well as for the Caribbean culture from which the story and characters are drawn. So I had high expectations before starting it.

Unfortunately, my first impressions weren't promising. I've read enough sf to find a near-future city core in decay to be a less than innovative setting. And then the characters weren't particularly engaging either. There's Tony, the drug addict, on the run from the local crime cartel; Rudy, the one-note (bad for the sake of being bad) leader of said gangsters, who is forcing Tony to help him in the harvest of human organs; Ti-jeanne, the petulant granddaughter of the local healer/Voudoun priestess, struggling to raise her son as a single parent. When the characters don't grab you, it's hard to muster much interest in their problems, or how they will solve them.

I also found Hopkinson's use of dialect in her dialogue somewhat of a distraction. Dialect's a tricky thing. Use a little and it adds colour to the story, enriching the author's palette. Too much and you risk losing your readers as they have to backtrack to figure out what something means. There's nothing worse than reminding your readers that they're reading a book and this happened a few times too often to me as I worked through the opening chapters, puzzling out phonetic spellings and sometimes convoluted sentences.

But a funny thing happened as I pressed on. Something clicked in my head and suddenly I no longer had to figure out the dialect, I simply understood it. The characters gained depth, especially the main viewpoint character, Ti-Jeanne. She went from someone who annoyed me, to a character I cared deeply about. Even Rudy's one-note villainy acquired an understandable, if not excusable, motive.

And the story. I became enthralled with the tidbits of Caribbean culture, the Voudoun ceremonies, the mix of old world and new world sensibilities. The plot took on an intensity that literally propelled me through the pages. I struggled over the first fifty or so, but read the next two hundred in one sitting. When I closed the book, the patois of its voices went on speaking in my head for days. Which might explain why, as I look back over those earlier chapters to write this, I can't understand why the dialect ever gave me any trouble in the first place.

Now other readers might not be thrown, as I was, by the opening chapters of the book. But if you are, do stick with it, for reading Brown Girl in the Ring proves to be a rich and rewarding experience. After my own shaky start with it, I soon came to understand what all the pre-publication excitement had been about; now that I'm done, I can only add my own voice to the chorus already proclaiming it to be one of the best debut novels to appear in years.

Kissing the Witch, by Emma Donoghue
Joanna Cutler Books/HarperCollins, 1997; 228pp; $14.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-06-027575-8

Because this column isn't tied to some hard and fast rule of covering only the most current titles, we have the opportunity to occasionally delve back into the months past to consider items we might have missed when they first came out. When you consider that it's long since become impossible to keep up with everything published in the f&sf field, it's no surprise, really, that we can often miss out on jewels published beyond the cozy genre corner where we normally reside. The book in hand is a perfect example.

I know nothing about the author beyond the brief bio on the inside back cover flap: she's Irish, has two novels under her belt, and is also a playwright and historian. What got me to pick up her latest book while browsing in a bookstore one day was, first, the title, Kissing the Witch, and the simple black and white design of the cover--both striking among the colourful array of its companions on a centre display island; secondly, the subtitle "Old Tales in New Skins," intriguing in itself; and thirdly the gorgeous language that opens the book:

"Till she came it was all cold.

"Ever since my mother died the feather bed felt hard as a stone floor. Every word out of my mouth limped away like a toad. Whatever I put on my back now turned to sackcloth and chafed my skin. I heard a knocking in my skull, and kept running to the door, but there was never anyone there. The days passed like dust brushed from my fingers...."

I got about that far and immediately had to buy the book, find someplace quiet, and savour Donaghue's enviable gift of language and story. Unfortunately, I was on a book tour when I found the book and could only steal snatches of time to read it in coffee shops and restaurants and airport lounges where, with each encounter, I was transported from my mundane surroundings into a place where the fairy tales of my youth--still familiar to me from subsequent rereadings through the years--were banged up against each other in new configurations that both delighted and amazed me.

It would seem impossible to retell such well-known tales in a manner that can make them fresh again, but Donaghue has done it thirteen times. More fascinating still, she's woven them together in such a way that the threads of what I've always known as disparate stories have become whole cloth.

These are stories concerning the women in fairy tales: Cinderella, Beauty, Snow White, Gretel, Donkeyskin. In Donaghue's hands, you'll recognize them, but they'll be unfamiliar at the same time. For she has found new ways to tell their stories, new motives for their sometimes confusing actions, new connections between the stories that are at once surprising and inevitable when revealed. And from first page to last, the prose is perfect: spare and gritty, but simultaneously, resonant and rich with the poetry that only a few writers can find in the weaving together of the simple words we all know so well but wouldn't think to place in the same evocative order.

Needless to say, I highly recommend it.

[An aside here. If you're as much in love with words as I am, I'd also like to recommend another book to you called poemcrazy by Susan G. Wooldridge (Clarkson Potter, 1996). It purports to be an instructional book on the writing of poetry, but is, in fact, a delightful compendium of anecdotes, poetry, and, yes, word exercises, that invoke all the mysteries of great language while remaining down to earth and rather sensible. Amusing, serious, magical, whimsical, this is another jewel of a book.]

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