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May 2006
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

The Three Incestuous Sisters, by Audrey Niffenegger,
Abrams, 2005, $27.95.

THIS IS A gorgeous book. I don't want to say it's a picture book—although there are very few words and a lot of illustrations—because it's not the sort of production you normally get in a traditional picture book. It's not a graphic novel, either. Audrey Niffenegger—the author and illustrator—calls it a visual novel, and I think the best explanation as to why there are so few words can be found in her afterword where she explains her creative process:

"I created the story in pictures, sketching page spreads the way a director might work out a storyboard for a film. I wrote the text; as the images gained in complexity, the text dwindled until the weight of the story was carried by the images."

It makes perfect sense as you read the story of these three sisters, living in a distant house near a lighthouse, whose lives are forever changed by the death of the lighthouse keeper and the arrival of his handsome son to take his place.

It's not a story for children, though it does unfold with a simple, fairy tale clarity. And it's not that there is anything particularly offensive going on. It's just that the themes and emotional resonances are mature, and I'm not sure children would really get much out of it.

The art is reminiscent of Edward Gorey with its simple gray lines and delicate colors, and by saying that, I certainly don't mean that it was easy to produce. I have to admire Niffenegger's tenacity to stick with this project. She took thirteen years making the aquatints (prints made from zinc plates that have the linework etched onto them before the printing process), then used watercolors to paint each print. The book was originally published in a handmade edition of ten and was obviously a work of love.

Regular readers of this column might remember us discussing Niffenegger's previous book, The Time Traveler's Wife, a while back. The Three Incestuous Sisters couldn't be more different from that more traditional novel (traditional, at least, in terms of presentation—certainly not in ideas or structure). But the new book is easily as absorbing and as fascinating, with worlds of possibility and meaning to be gleaned from its sparse wordage and exquisite art.

I have to admit that I don't understand the title, and I went looking in my dictionary to make sure I knew what the word "incestuous" really meant. Turns out I was right. It has to do with "sexual relations between persons so closely related that they are forbidden by law or religion to marry." Since that never happens in the book, I have to put it away on my book shelf, still puzzled as to what Niffenegger meant by it.

But otherwise, as I said at the outset, this is a truly gorgeous book.

*     *     *

Plucker, by Brom,
Abrams, 2005, $24.95.

Now Plucker (the artist Brom's first excursion into prose) is a picture book—properly, it's an illustrated book—albeit not one for kids.

You might think differently at first from the plot description of abandoned toys becoming animated and taking on an evil creature that springs to life from an African spirit doll, but a quick flip through the pages will call up dark and gothic images with a decided gruesome bent.

Which isn't to say it's a bad book. It's just not for kids, or at least, it should certainly be vetted by a parent before it's passed along to a younger reader.

The story's novella-length, and while the prose is certainly serviceable, it doesn't have the same impact as the art. Brom has a gift for laying out painterly images, and the production values of the book play to the strength of his art as it delves into the struggles of the spring toy Jack to defend Thomas (the child who abandoned him) against the evil spirit that becomes his nemesis.

*     *     *

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, by Robert E. Howard,
Ballantine Books, 2005, $29.95.

The Conquering Sword of Conan, by Robert E. Howard,
Ballantine Books, 2005, $15.95.

Unlike, say, the Tarzan books, Robert E. Howard's Conan stories remain readable long past one's adolescent years. Both Howard and Burroughs were great storytellers—their narrative thrust pulls one through the books and it's hard to stop reading them once you've begun—but where Burroughs leaves at least this reader uncomfortable with his racist undertones, Howard's stories can still stir the blood.

They're not high art, but then they weren't created as high art. They were written at a per-word rate for the pulps—a medium akin, one might say, to what television became: a chance to let go of the worries of work and politics for a few hours and immerse one's self in a bit of armchair adventure. Now you have to work a little harder with a book, since it's not laid out for you on the TV screen, but the payoff is usually worth it.

These books are reprints of the Wandering Star Books editions originally published in England, featuring Howard's original text, with illustrations by Mark Schutz (The Coming of…) and Gregory Manchess (The Conquering Sword…). To be honest, it's getting a little hard to keep track of all the various editions that have been coming out, but if you haven't tried Howard yet, these are as good a place as any to start since, between the pair of them, they feature some of his best work.

Stories like "The Tower of the Elephant," "Queen of the Black Coast," and "Red Nails" are timeless, with more punch, imagination, and verve than much of the fantasy being written today. Howard cared about his characters, and it shows. And he had a storytelling gift that remains formidable today, long after his death.

I'm not saying that every Conan story is terrific. There are certainly clunkers, but the percentage of good far outweigh the lesser entries in the Cimmerian's canon, and they're well worth the investment of your time.

*     *     *

Forever Odd, by Dean Koontz,
Bantam, 2005, $27.

It's December as I write this and I guess I was a good boy this year because I found a copy of the new Koontz novel waiting for me at the local bookstore early in the month.

Forever Odd is a direct sequel to 2003's Odd Thomas, the book in which we were introduced to the title character, a young man who can see the dead. They can't talk to him, but they can nudge him in the direction they want, which is usually to help them tidy up some unfinished business from when they were alive. The ghost of Elvis is back as well, and this time Thomas comes to understand why the old rock 'n' roller is haunting the small town of Pico Mundo, CA.

But that's just icing on the cake. The main plot revolves around the kidnapping of a childhood friend of Thomas'—a situation that only his unique talents can hope to rectify. The prose remains as streamlined as it has been for the past few Koontz books, propelling the story along at a heartstopping rate.

I'm usually leery of sequels, but Koontz gets it all right. The book plays off the previous novel, but doesn't repeat it. The character growth continues, and if the ending isn't as immediately shocking as was the one for Odd Thomas, it's certainly disconcerting all the same. But also completely appropriate, once you think about it.

I have to admit that I'm constantly in awe of how someone like Koontz, with the large body of work he already has behind him, can still come out sounding as fresh and vigorous as he does with each new release. But I'm certainly happy that such is the case.

*     *     *

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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