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Books To Look For
Dossouye, by Charles R. Saunders,
HERE'S A book I've been waiting to see for thirty years—all the way back to when I read the first Dossouye story in 1978 (it appeared in Jessica Amanda Salmonson's Amazons! the following year).
Dossouye is the female counterpart to Charles Saunders's Imaro character—sort of the way Red Sonja is with Conan (and yes, I know; Red Sonja is more Rob Thomas's character than Robert E. Howard's, but you know what I mean). Dossouye's story is set in the same alternate Africa as the Imaro books, but she's not simply a female version of Saunders's more well-known creation. Both characters are disenfranchised from their birth community and forced to wander in exile—which allows for many and varied adventures—but Dossouye's story draws more heavily on traditional African mythology than the heroic fantasy wizards and monsters that Imaro often confronts.
Neither's better than the other—at least not for a heroic fantasy enthusiast; they're just different. Mind you, I think of Saunders's work as historical adventure fantasy because the stories are set in a meticulously researched real historical background, but there is magic. Didn't know that Africa had cities and a widespread civilization in the long ago? Neither did I until I read Saunders's work and then went back and followed the path of some of his research. It's utterly fascinating stuff, but more to the point, Saunders writes an adventure story that'll keep you on the edge of the seat from the first page.
Most of the material here appeared as short stories in anthologies such as that edited by Salmonson mentioned above, as well as ones edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and more recently, Sheree R. Thomas's terrific Dark Matter anthologies. But all the stories have been rewritten and the book reads more like an episodic novel than simply a collection of stories.
Most of those books have been out of print for some time and it would take some effort to track them down. For my part, I'm delighted to have the stories gathered together here and I don't doubt that once you start to follow the adventures of Dossouye and her war-bull Gbo, you'll be as taken with the character as I am.
Look for Dossouye in your local bookstore, but if they don't carry it, point your browser to www.charlessaunderswriter.com for ordering information.
Year's Best Fantasy 8, edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer,
I like The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, a different annual gathering together of fantasy stories than the one I'm reviewing here. Its editors make a real effort to look beyond the expected places (genre magazines and anthologies) to introduce us to treasures and authors we might not otherwise encounter. But I also appreciate the effort of editors such as Hartwell and Cramer who shine the light on stories published in the genre.
One's not better than the other. Rather, they complement each other. And their flavor is certainly different. The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror often offers up experimental writing styles and metafiction with stories that can require the reader to spend a little time working out what actually happened. The experimental nature of some of the prose and storytelling is often fascinating in its own right.
I love the sense of adventure one can get from such a story, and the way the material pushes at the boundaries of not only the accepted practices of storytelling, but also the readers' minds.
Hartwell's & Cramer's anthology has more traditional stories, or rather, stories told in a more traditional manner, focusing on linear narratives and characterization, and I love that, too.
Of course, I'm generalizing here. Neither anthology focuses entirely on what I've described above, but as generalizations go, I'm not too far off the map. And what's interesting is how mostly there is very little overlap between the two (although I haven't seen the contents of the Datlow/Link & Grant offering for this year). Most years, the discerning reader will find things to love in both without spending money on the same material.
If I have any bone to pick with Hartwell & Cramer's selection (and really, won't every reader ask, "Well, what about…?"), it's that they couldn't seem to find one Richard Parks story to include (and I know they read Realms of Fantasy, where Parks's stories usually appear).
However, making up for that oversight, they do have terrific material from the likes of Fred Chappell, Holly Black, Don Webb, Garth Nix, and a host of other notables.
The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch, by Neil Gaiman, Michael Zulli & Todd Klein,
Great story, great art, but here we have a case where the individual components are actually better than the work as a whole.
The problem begins with the story. It's one of Gaiman's more entertaining pieces, featuring himself as a character relating a curious adventure in London featuring a strange circus and the mystery alluded to in the title. It has appeared before as a short story and in an audio format where its conversational tone adds to our appreciation. As does Gaiman's own presence in the story, allowing readers the fun question of wondering where reality gives way to imagination. Surely, we think we know, but what if…?
The art distracts from all of that.
Now, I'm a big fan of Zulli's work. I love the loose, painterly quality of his art, but he's also one of those artists who shines with each individual panel, but not so much with the narrative flow from panel to panel, an essential quality for sequential art such as this. The art also distracts from the natural rhythm of the story when read as prose, or better still, listened to in audio format—probably because half the fun is the narrator's descriptions of things. Here, they're simply presented to us.
None of which is to say the book's a disaster. On the contrary, I found it quite charming. But I would hate to be a reader who wasn't already familiar with the story coming to it in this version, because they might find it a slight piece, where in another format it's entirely beguiling.
Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet, by Joanne Proulx,
The author photo of this first novel shows a woman with blonde hair who looks to be in her thirties. But the narrative voice in this novel—that of a teen boy who's somewhat of a loser but has flashes of precognizance—is so strong that a couple of times I looked at that author photo and wondered how the woman in that picture disappeared into the voice of Luke Hunter.
Luke's flashes of precognizance only manage to screw up his life more than it already is. And while we want to give him a good shake from time to time, Proulx manages to keep Luke likable and still a loser.
But he's not a slightly befuddled, charming Peanuts Charlie Brown. Luke is a doper, living in a small to mid-sized town, not doing great in school, no real friends, no girlfriend. A night out is hanging in the basement of one of the guys. It's there that one evening Luke has a sudden premonition of the death of one of his companions. In that focused intensity that can come with being stoned, he describes the coming death in minute detail, then points to Stan (someone Luke actually likes) and tells him it'll happen to him.
General laughter ensues, Luke gets called on his B.S., but the next day Stan is killed in an accident involving a van exactly the way Luke described it, right down to the license plate number.
Then it happens again. Luke sees his elderly neighbor die and does what he can to forestall the coming accident, but without success. The difference this time is that after the media circus following his first prediction, Luke is smart enough to keep any other premonitions to himself. But it's tough on him, because not only does he have to deal with this weird "gift," he also has all the other problems of a teen boy stuck in a dead-end town with no hope it'll get any better.
Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet is a contemporary coming of age story that feels authentic to its times. It has some rough language and doesn't shy away from depicting the kinds of things that a lot of teens do—in other words, they're not squeaky clean the way the kids are in the Stephenie Meyer Twilight books. They have sex, they toke up, but it's all just part of the story, rather than its focus.
The focus is on death and Luke's preoccupation with it, given his inexplicable premonitions. So yes, it's a serious, and at times, dark book, but it's far from a depressing read. And while there's no big Hollywood ending, what I like about Proulx's writing is that, throughout the book, the reader never quite knows where she's going with the various elements of her plot, yet once we get to where she takes us, it all makes perfect sense.
And boy, does she get the voice right.
An Evil Guest, by Gene Wolfe,
Gene Wolfe's latest novel is such a mix of styles and ideas that I hardly know where to begin talking about it. It's set in the future, with lots of science fictional elements, but the tone is definitely that of one of those old black-and-white films from the '40s or '50s. There's the opening of a Broadway show. Cold war-styled shenanigans. The classic cast lineup: show girl, mysterious doctor/detective, industrial billionaire, with a supporting cast of reporters, agents and actors, spies and FBI agents. A noir feel that reminded me as much of Dashiell Hammett's hardboiled mysteries as it did Bladerunner.
Oh, and then there's that sense of something Lovecraftian looming behind it all.
The plot seems linear, but episodic, except when you think about it, it really is linear. There are long fascinating conversations between the characters, sudden bursts of action, futuristic marvels that are mentioned in passing, and throughout it all, mystery, mystery, mystery.
Wolfe is a rather fascinating writer. While his projects vary wildly, his authorial voice remains true to whatever genre he's working in. That's hard enough to pull off as effortlessly as Wolfe does, but it gets even more complicated when half the "genres" in which he works exist only in his books.
In An Evil Guest, the narrative voice is a disarming blend of noir and wiseacre which I loved.
As I was reading, I couldn't help but cast the three leads in my mind: the industrialist was Orson Welles, Rosalind Russell played the part of the showgirl Cassie Casey, and of course there could only be Cary Grant in the role of the mysterious detective, Dr. Chase.
Needless to say, as with any Wolfe book, it's highly recommended.
Odd Hours, by Dean Koontz,
Koontz is back with another book about Odd Thomas, and I'm glad he is.
In this fourth outing, Odd is a long way from his home town of Pico Mundo, CA. He's a long way, as well, from the monastery where he tried to get away from the world in volume three. But when you can see ghosts and get vague premonitions of the future, it doesn't really matter where you go. Trouble will find you.
This time out, he, his ghost dog Boo, and the ghost of Frank Sinatra (Elvis having "left the building" in the previous novel) find themselves in a small California coastal town. Dreams of a coming "red tide" bring Odd to the town pier where he meets the enigmatic Annamaria—pregnant, young and alone, and in terrible danger. It's not clear what the men threatening her want, and that doesn't get resolved as their threat evolves into a terrorist plot, making this the first of the books in the series that leaves some big unanswered questions at the end. In fact, it's the first of the four volumes to feel like a middle book in a series.
But that would only be problematic if Odd Hours weren't as entertaining as it is. Yes, once the plot gets into gear, it's a fast-paced book like the rest in the series. But what really makes this series so readable is Odd's first person voice, a mix of the matter-of-fact with sometimes wry, sometimes hilarious observations of the world at large, as well as the specific situations in which Odd finds himself.
Of course there is the frustration of having to wait to find out what mysteries Annamarie hides.
The Hidden Variable, by The Hidden Variable,
A while ago I got an email from Chris Ewen of the electropop band Future Bible Heroes asking if I had any song lyrics for a project he was putting together. He planned to get lyrics from a number of fantasy writers, write music for them, then put them all together on an album (excuse me, should I have said CD?). Since I liked what I'd heard of his band, and it was the closest I figured I'd ever get to being part of a rock 'n' roll project, I said yes. I pulled a song from a novel I've been working on off and on for a few years and sent it to him.
I didn't hear anything until another email showed up a few months later with an MP3 attachment, asking me if I liked what he'd done with the song. I loved it. It's a bit of a subdued, dark rhythmic piece with some subtle glam rock flourishes playing behind this wonderful singer named Malena Teves.
Now I don't mention this here to tout my horn, as it were. Rather, I bring it to your attention because I think you'll get as much of a kick as I did at seeing what some of your favorite fantasy writers can do in a very different setting. Let me name-check the other participants in no particular order: Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub, China Miéville, Gahan Wilson, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Emma Bull, Poppy Z. Brite, Martha Soukup, Lemony Snicket, Shelley Jackson, Harvey Jacobs, and Gregory Maguire.
Besides Teves, who does all the lead vocals, and Ewen, who plays all the instruments, it also features Lorraine Garland (of Flash Girls fame) on violin. I like the whole album, but while I got a kick out of listening to Peter Straub waxing poetic about Rosemary Clooney on his cut, the best track on the album is Gregory Maguire's "Kindermärchen."
It's a seriously fun project and should be available by the time this column sees print. Point your browser to www.hiddenvariable.net for more info. Or just go to the band's MySpace page and listen to the songs. (The easiest way to reach the latter is simply to Google "Hidden Variable" and "MySpace.")
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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