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February 2000
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

FLESH GUITAR - Geoff Nicholson
Overlook Press, 1999; 236pp; $23.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-87951-920-7

If you like rock 'n' roll, and particularly guitars, this is the book for you. And if you like the idea of a story told in a fresh manner, then you'll want to try this as well.

It's the story of Jenny Slade, experimental guitarist extraordinaire. We meet her in a dive of a club where she unpacks her flesh guitar (a curious combination of instrument and human; its origin is explained later) and proceeds to play a set of music that awakes a stunned, positive response in an audience composed of drunks and the disinterested. She then gives the guitar away and disappears into the night.

Enter Bob Arnold, her biggest fan, and the remainder of the book is his filling in the history of Jenny Slade and guitar playing in general to the waifish barmaid, Kate, who starts out listening only because she's bored and there's nothing better waiting for her at home.

But this is neither a classic "story within a story" novel, nor simply a hodgepodge of vaguely related items, for all that it's told in a fairly scattershot manner, including extracts from interviews, reviews, articles, and shifting points of view. There are literary allusions sprinkled throughout, from a brief rock 'n' roll retelling of Moby Dick to Slade as the doomed mariner in "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," and wonderful bits where Slade interacts with some of the greats of the rock field (Kurt Cobain, Robert Johnson, Frank Zappa, and Jimi Hendrix) as well as some truly bizarre made-up greats. There are fascinating explorations into the impulses that create experimental music, exploring both sides of the coin: that created by poseurs who can only talk the talk, but somehow manage to garner acclaim, and those who can't do anything else but experiment.

The book is experimental as well, both the story itself and how it's told. But by the same token, it's highly readable and will never leave the reader floundering. Truth is, I found myself turning pages as though I were reading a thriller---though Flesh Guitar is far more complex and deeper than most books in that category.

*     *     *
Harcourt Brace, 1998; 215pp; $22.00
Hardcover; ISBN 0-15-100411-0

When the giant wave comes, Paul Sant survives through sheer luck. He's inside a sports shop and has access to oxygen tanks. Once the wave has settled, he's able to float out through a high window on a surf mat only to then discover that California is gone. All he can see was an immense spread of ocean.

After a time, his surf mat brings him to an island on which he finds a few buildings, but no people, and so begins his quest to discover what happened to the world and its inhabitants. He floats from island to island on various boats and rafts, meeting other survivors and having strange, visionary experiences with people and creatures not of this world. Or at least, not of the world he remembers.

While the basic sensibility of the character remains fairly contemporary, the feel of the book reminds me more of writers from earlier in the century, evoking the surreal fantasy of David Lindsay and the less horrific elements of Clark Ashton Smith, William Hope Hodgson, and even Lovecraft. There's also a sense of those end-of-the-world novels that were popular a few decades ago, except here the world ends with water and flooding, rather than a nuclear winter, and soul-searching is as important as survival.

It's easy to see why, as I write this in August, 1999, The History of the our World Beyond the Wave, is one of the finalists for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for 1999. It's a fascinating and inventive novel, with that old-fashioned sense of wonder rarely present in contemporary novels. The novel has only one drawback, and that's in evoking Everyman with his first person viewpoint of Paul Sant, Klein doesn't really allow Sant himself to come alive. One senses that all the characters are present in the story simply to make points for the author, rather than as representations of living, breathing people.

It's not enough to spoil the book, certainly, but what a greater delight it would have been had Klein been as inventive with his characterization as he is with everything else in the book.

*     *     *
DARK SISTER - Graham Joyce
Tor Books, July 1999; 304pp; $22.95
Hardcover; ISBN 0-312-86632-1

The opening premise is about as hoary as they get: a young couple find the diary of a witch, hidden in the closed-off chimney of their townhouse, and are subsequently troubled by strange occurrences and haunted by some ancient spirit . . .

Ah, but this is from the pen of Graham Joyce, who gave us an entirely new view of the tooth fairy in his last novel, and trust me, he's made this story fresh as well.

Maggie and Alex are the young couple, housewife and archeologist, and Dark Sister is as much about the dissolving of their marriage and how they deal, or don't, with putting it back together, as it is about the discoveries they make in themselves after having found the diary. That's what so absorbing about Joyce's writing. He delves headlong into the strangeness, but doesn't ignore the people.

Maggie is drawn to the entries in the diary--Wiccan herb-lore that reawakens some sleeping part of herself and helps her regain a sense of self-worth. Alex is a bit of a control freak, and has always been afraid of losing Maggie, but he ends up driving her away all the same with his pigheadedness and eventual abuse. When she winds up in the hospital, she refuses to come back home--but that also separates her from her two children.

Alex finds solace in affairs. Maggie finds help in friendships, first with a herbalist named Ash, then an old witch-woman named Liz. But there's a dark streak in Maggie and when Alex wins custody of the children through a court hearing, she lets the dark side take over.

I've probably told you too much already and haven't even gotten to how Joyce ties in the diary with the archeological site Alex is working on, nor the wonderful way he's able to depict Maggie's growing knowledge of witcheries, or his ability to create characters that are such a truthful blend of generous and misguided impulses.

Like The Tooth Fairy, this new novel is full of wonder as well as darkness; a beautifully written book that blurs the lines between modern life and older beliefs without being either too New Age or sensationalist. Readers looking for the quick, messy scare will be disappointed. But those willing to spend a little time getting to know these characters will be entranced and all the more devastated when events take a turn for the worse and the small darknesses add up into a larger menace.

With two superlative novels of his in a row, I'm beginning to think that Joyce is incapable of writing a bad book.

*     *     *
Del Rey Impact, July 1999; 240pp; $12.00
Trade paperback; ISBN 0-345-43191-X

Regular readers of this column might recall the oft-mentioned and high regard I hold for a number of the pioneers of fantasy, authors such as William Morris, James Branch Cabell, and Lord Dunsany. That regard remains unchanged, but I do have to admit that it's been a few years since I've actually taken the time to reread some of their classic novels, books like The Well At the World's End, Jurgen, or The King of Elfland's Daughter.

The launch of Del Rey's new Impact series with The King of Elfland's Daughter seemed the perfect opportunity to rectify that, at least with Dunsany, and I'm happy to report that, unlike some other books from my adolescence (spy novels, Burroughs), the novel's every bit as good as I remember and I'm enamored all over again. It's not simply the beauty of the language, the astute eye for character, the hint of humor, or even the spell of legendry and wonder, but Dunsany's unique combination of all of the above. Even read today, with all the fantasy novels I've read, his work remains fresh and exuberant.

Regardless of whether the subject is lofty or small, Dunsany makes a magic of it. From Prince Alveric's first venture into elfland in search of an elfin bride to Lurulu the troll making a hiding place in the pigeon loft, from the descriptions of the castle of the King of Elfland to the simple portrayal of spring's arrival, from the unicorn hunts through twilight forests to the endless plotting of the twelve men without magic, there's not a dull or false note struck.

This new edition sports an introduction by Neil Gaiman (whose own Stardust owes more than a tip of the hat to this book) and a cover featuring a reproduction of John Waterhouse's lovely "La Belle Dame Sans Merci."

*     *     *
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.

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