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April 1999
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

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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

A Fold in the Tent of the Sky, Michael Hale, Morrow, 1998, 25.00.

Dragon, Steven Brust, Tor, November 1998, 22.95.

Hogfather, Terry Pratchett, HarperPrism, November 1998, 24.00.

A Fold in the Tent of the Sky takes place in the here and now, or as close to the here and now as fiction generally gets when it assumes that extra sensory powers are demonstrably real. Hale has clearly done his research, and I suppose it's a personal tick of mine that makes it easier in some ways to suspend my disbelief for magic, for instance, than it is for psychokenetic talent. I'm not sure why; I think the shadow of self-proclaimed psychics like Uri Gellar hang like guillotine over my sense of wonder.

For that reason, it took me some time to work my way into the novel, but Hale's quirky and entirely honest use of his fictional psychic talents in underlining and exposing very human traits won me over. This is not a fast read. Some books move so quickly sheer momentum yanks you off your feet and drags you along; some, more deliberate, require you to adjust to their pace, their view. Hale's is one of the latter.

Peter Abbott and Simon Hayward are the anchors of the unfolding story. Peter Abbott is a man who can touch things and see into the minds of the people who owned them, who last touched them. It makes relationships difficult; he's not by nature a voyeur, and privacy as a one way barrier doesn't seem to work for him. A not-quite failed actor, he's approached by Calliope—the company, not the muse—and offered a job. Doing what? What he's "good at". The psychic work. The talent he's done his best to hide all his life.

Simon Hayward is a very failed diver. Once Olympic material, an accident at a diving meet he was a this close to winning costs him the only career he ever wanted. He doesn't settle for second best; instead, as if the world were the watery element he had mastery of, he drifts from place to place, trying hard to avoid the same psychic noise that troubles Peter Abbott. He, too, is found by Calliope and offered the dream job. The second best job. Armed with the gold St. Christopher's medallion his mother gave him on the day he lost everything, he accepts the offer.

They meet in the Caribbean, part of a test group that also includes a woman named Pam who can travel up and down the psychic timeline (popping into a séance and possessing a non-believer, for instance), Ron, a man who can see enough of the future that he plays horses to get by, Larry, a Dowser of sorts, and Anita. Under the watchful eye of Eli Thornquist, they begin the experiments for which they are paid by some unnamed corporate sponsors in search of information.

The nature of the information: remote viewing. Seeing into the past, into the present at a distance, possibly into the future—or the possible futures.

Unfortunately, no one's mother is along to tell the experimenting psychics that you see with your eyes and not your hands. It's not long—not long at all, until someone discovers that it's actually possible to materialize in the past.

Simon Hayward is a fast learner. He waits only long enough to let someone else make the big mistake before he starts out on his own time travelling. The Universe doesn't like it, of course, and if you force a paradox on it, it will iron out the paradox in the neatest possible way—the path of least resistance. A good example of paradox? Existing in the same time-line, or worse, the same geographical location, as your younger self. But if you can avoid that . . . you can remake the world. Not in the way it should have been, but maybe enough so that you can finally get what you want.

Unfortunately, when you can play in the past, you can decide the future—and the past is a great place to ripple the fabric of reality in such a way that it shakes loose the people you'd rather not have standing beside you—or over your shoulder—in the present.

This isn't a murder mystery; it's a very unusual serial-killer book as a young man with a lot of anger a very little conscience tries to assert his grip on the future by destroying parts of the past.

Hale has a lot to say, in a subtle fashion, about who we are and where we come from, about the effect of the past on the present in a personal as well as a broad way. One of the most interesting parts of the book is the way that reality shifts just enough that as a reader one isn't certain which little details from the beginning of the book have completely disappeared, to be metamorphosed or swallowed by the changing nature of reality.

It's an interesting, thoughtful, quirky book.

* * *
You don't get much better than Steven Brust. I say this with a certain amount of envy, admiration and bafflement. Hold that thought.

I have spent the last three weeks in a no-sleep zone while ear infections, eye infections, sinus infections, stomach 'flu, and teething pain have, in one combination or another, felled my entire nuclear family. I have picked up—again, and I realize I apologize for this a lot—a number of very worthy books, read the first few pages, and realized that I couldn't actually remember three consecutive sentences.

Dragon crossed the threshold a couple of weeks ago. I confess that I haven't followed the latter adventures of Vlad Taltos as closely as I did the first few because I thought they slowed down somewhat; they were missing some of the consistent frenetic charm that characterized the early Vlad & Loiosh encounters for me. My first thought—and I imagine it's the first thought of a lot of Brust's Jhereg readers—was, "Oh look, a hardcover. I wonder if the book is worth the extra change."


Absolutely, positively, one hundred percent yes. About three sentences in to the book, I was captivated. Lack of sleep? Hah. I laughed at lack of sleep. Inability to pay attention? Hah. I woke up, I sat up, I laughed a lot, smiled wryly a bit more, and had a terrific time. Just what I wanted.

I could leave maters at that. It's all true, and I suspect that's the most germane element of the book for a majority of Brust's readers. But damn is Brust brilliant.

This book could be subtitled: How Vlad Joined The Army and Learned to Love it, or At Least Not to Despise It Utterly.

Brust starts in the middle of the story, and then begins to circle its heart as if it's protected by a thin line of spearmen. He can get through to the center if he's quick enough, and if he's clever enough, but if he's going to survive it, he has to get a better view of what's there. Approach and retreat, approach and retreat, Brust jumps back and forth in time the way a conversation between two friends who've got a lot to catch up on, and just a tad too little time to do it in, will. Two friends, I hasten to add, who know each other's flaws and failings perfectly, who are not above poking fun about them, but who maintain a strong affection regardless.

In terms of pacing, this is easily up to, and possibly better than, any other novel in the longstanding series. In terms of that aforementioned frenetic charm, the same. But Brust's wit, his clever ability to deliver the goods in a way that's both structurally complicated and so utterly natural you don't have to notice how complicated it is if you don't want to, is the cut and polish to a perfect gem.

* * *
And speaking of strong affection, it's that time of year again. Pratchett time.

It's also a month away from Christmas at this writing, which makes Hogfather, the latest Pratchett offering, particularly timely. There isn't, so to speak, a Christmas tradition in Discworld—I mean, in a city like Ankh-Morpork, where suicide is defined as saying the wrong thing in the wrong place and, for example, ticking off a bunch of stupid but highly violent trolls, it's highly unlikely that you'd find someone who'd want to climb up on a wooden lower case 't' and have himself killed for the betterment of those around him.

But people will be people, and traditions will arise. Thus it is with Hogswatch night, when the Hogfather climbs aboard a sled pulled by flying pigs—flying wild pigs—with presents for the children and, well, you get the picture. Now, Death is perhaps getting a tad sentimental. That's not his problem. What is: Someone has hired an assassin to do in the good old Hogfather, a feat which should technically be impossible, given the lack of his corporeal existence.

But this particular assassin gives assassins the willies. To be fair to him, he probably became an assassin because his name "Teatime" drove him crazy (his parents aren't mentioned; justifiable homicide if he got rid of them payback for the name, if you ask me), and as a crazy person he's actually quite creepy. Pratchett does many things in his books, but he rarely creates a character who you constantly expect to do something unpleasant just for the . . . not fun of it, not precisely, because he's not the type of person who understands what fun is, but just because killing people is so natural to him.

Is the Hogfather real? Well, no. Can he be killed? Well, yes. And in order to thwart the beings who would most benefit from the Hogfather's death, Death is sporting a beard, getting around by flying pig instead of the usual horse, and practicing the jolly sound of Ho Ho Ho. Although this is the most decidedly seasonal of Pratchett's books that I can recall (and keeping in mind what my memory is like), it's not a "special Christmas Discworld novel"; it's a Discworld novel that also happens to have a few things to say about the spirit of the holiday season, and why that frustrating over-commercialized spirit still means something.

There's something ironic about Death being the guardian of life as we know it, but Discworld is like that. Besides, while saving something less tangible than a life—which I think would, strictly speaking, be beyond Death's purview—he makes the Hogwatch rounds, getting into the seasonal spirit by visiting everyone's favorite Ankh-Morpork hot spots. The Watch shows up (and Nobby Nobs gets to visit the Hogfather and ask for his very own Hogswatch present—which is almost worth the price of admission). Death's niece, Susan, trying her hardest to live a normal life, does her best to avoid him, and the children she's governing—well, governessing—teach him a thing or two about monsters.

Pratchett's not a preacher, but he's got such a lovely way with words it's almost impossible not to listen to what he's saying along the way. As usual, this comes recommended.

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