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Books To Look For
Buddha's Thunderbolt, by Jacob Asher Michael,
ONE OF the best things about writing a column like this are the surprise books that can show up in your post office box. Books such as Buddha's Thunderbolt. Never heard of the author before. The cover isn't particularly appealing. But it's one of the most original and entertaining reads I've had in some time.
Its delightful conceit immediately piqued my interest: What if Merlin were actually a Buddhist monk prone to hallucinations, who was taken as a slave by the Huns and transported to Europe?
This is the Merlin we meet, living in fifth-century Wales, possibly being judged by a gathering of the world's various gods—unless their questions, brought to him by a shapeshifting Lady Gopi in various animal forms, are only a hallucination. In fact, that's one of the intriguing elements of the book. How much of what Merlin (who calls himself Merthen) experiences and remembers is actually real?
Readers familiar with Arthurian Matter will no doubt enjoy seeing all the familiar elements of the legend appear in entirely new forms, recognizable but meaning something completely different in their current context. We also get to travel through a fair amount of history, ranging from the Far East through Asia to Europe, and see it all in another light as well.
It's not a perfect book. It could have used a little more editing, just to tighten up the novel's occasional episodic feel, but that's a minor flaw and seems almost picayune considering how fresh and well written the book is on the whole.
You probably won't find Buddha's Thunderbolt at your local bookstore, but point your browser to www.lulu.com and you can get yourself a copy.
My Fair Godmother, by Janette Rallison,
Janette Rallison pulls off a very cool thing at the beginning of her latest novel. We meet and sympathize with Jane Delano, smart and pretty, but always overshadowed by her more glamorous (in high school terms) younger sister Savannah. The younger sister shines so bright that Jane is usually relegated to the sidelines. And then, to make matters worse, Savannah gets an older boyfriend who just happens to be a boy that Jane's been pining over, but was too shy to approach.
So far so good, and not a whole lot different from other YA novels set in high school.
But then Jane steals her sister's boyfriend (to be fair, they realize that they're meant for one another), and the point of view shifts. Now we're rooting for the unsympathetic younger sister. This is a tricky thing to pull off successfully but Rallison does it without any apparent effort.
With all of that said, this is a fantasy novel, not a 90210 retread, so enter Savannah's fairy godmother, Chrysanthemum Everstar. Well, actually, she's only a fair godmother because she hasn't been doing very well at fairy godmother school. She's like Savannah in many ways, more focused on boys and shopping and socializing than her studies. When she appears and offers Savannah her three wishes, she's too busy thinking of a sale at the mall to pay attention to what Savannah is saying.
The next thing Savannah knows, she has been sent back in time, taking the place of Cinderella. Not Cinderella at the ball, mind you, but the one stuck doing all the dirty work in her stepmother's home with a couple of nasty stepsisters there just to make things more unpleasant.
I won't tell you much more about the plot. Let me just say that Rallison skewers more than one fairy tale. But while this is a humorous book, Savannah's problems are real, as are the dangers she, and, eventually, her friends, must face. My Fair Godmother is a light-hearted romp that makes us laugh, but it also has some serious points to make and we genuinely come to care for all of the characters.
In the end it turns out that this is a wonderful coming-of-age story, with fairy tales on the side.
Another Science Fiction, by Megan Prelinger,
I'm no expert in sf art. But while I don't know all the artists by name, I have a general knowledge that runs from the pulps through the wonderful pop art of the sixties and early seventies to the highly realistic cover art we see today.
That said, Another Science Fiction came as a complete surprise to me. Flipping through it, I didn't recognize any of the art. I didn't have any context for it, though I was reminded of the illustrations in Popular Mechanics magazines from the sixties, or some of those British New Wave titles.
Intrigued, I sat down to read the text and quickly understood the book's subtitle: "Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962."
What Megan Prelinger has collected here is space-oriented advertising art from the relevant time period. World War II was over, but we had the Cold War. The Russians had just put the first satellite Sputnik I into space. NASA was formed out of the smaller National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. The Space Race was on, cueing in a new push into space-related scientific and engineering research.
This new industry had its own trade journals, complete with advertising pertinent to it. And that's what fills Another Science Fiction's pages. The art has its roots in sf hardware, but it's filtered through the lens of advertising firms. And it's utterly fascinating.
If you have any interest in sf art—particularly as it relates to spacecraft and gadgetry—this book is a must-have. The closest touchstone I can offer up are the covers of jazz albums from the same time period, or those British New Wave books I mentioned earlier. It's mechanical and beatnik all at the same time.
A visual feast, yes, but also an informative one when it comes to Prelinger's text. I can't remember the last time I've run across an art book as interesting and innovative as this.
Conan the Barbarian, by Robert E. Howard,
There are so many different editions of Robert E. Howard's books available to readers these days (particularly those in the Conan series) that you'd almost think the material has gone into public domain. I don't think it has, but it still begs the question about which edition to get.
The bottom line is the stories, of course. So long as they're the original, unabridged ones—in other words, stories that haven't been diluted by other authors making posthumous additions as was often done in the seventies and eighties—then you're good to go.
If you've never actually read this material, you might be wondering why you should read a bunch of stories that are around seventy-five years old and reprinted from the pulps. Let me put it in this context. You can read current high fantasy, but isn't it more interesting to have at least read Tolkien, considering how he basically invented it?
(An aside: I don't mean Tolkien invented fantasy writing; that's been around forever. I'm speaking more of the multi-volume quest fantasy, and even his responsibility for that was a bit of an accident. He wrote one really long book; his publishers split it up into three volumes, thus creating the fantasy trilogy.)
Having read The Lord of the Rings, you can then see how strong a shadow Tolkien has cast over the field.
Robert E. Howard is similar in that he created the genre known as sword and sorcery, or heroic fantasy. His world-building was as detailed as Tolkien's. The difference is that Howard's work is more down-to-earth. Tolkien's stories grew out of his interest in language, folktales, and mythology. Howard was also interested in folktales and mythology, but he spiced his stories up with swashbuckling adventure and Lovecraftian horror.
But more than anything, Howard was the consummate storyteller. What he might have lacked in authorial skills he more than made up for with the power of his storytelling. He wasn't a bad writer by any means; it's just that first and foremost, he seemed to be more interested in moving the plot forward.
There's a reason that the Conan stories are almost always in print in one version or another. Try any one in this collection and you'll know why. They're engaging, exciting, and they tap into that trope we all enjoy so much: the one man prevailing against the many.
So the real question when a book like this appears in the stores is whether a new edition is worth your money.
The answer to that depends on whether you're new to Howard and want to give him a try, or if you're a compulsive collector. The casual reader familiar with his work probably has everything he or she needs. But if you've never tried Howard before, this is an excellent and comprehensive collection. And if you're a collector.…
Well, I like the accompanying publicity flyer where the book's described as "both handsomely packaged and lightweight." For a fat book, it does weigh less than much shorter books, which makes it easier to hold for long periods of reading. It has a coated cover, which probably makes it a little more durable.
But the cover and interior black and white illustrations are by John Ridgway, and he's no Roy Krenkel. To be honest, the illustrations remind me of art from the fanzines of the eighties, so I'd lift an eyebrow at the "handsomely packaged" part of the description.
Still, here's what's important: the book has all the original Conan stories collected together in one volume. Also included is Howard's "The Hyborean Age" essay which, if you're new to Howard, I'd come back to after I'd read a few stories. It's interesting, but a bit dry coming into it cold. Lastly, there's a short but good introductory essay by series editor Rod Green.
Bottom line? It's a good solid collection that would make an excellent reading copy or an introduction to Howard's work.
Lost Worlds, by John Howe,
Every few years it seems we get a new atlas and/or travelogue of imaginary lands. This time out the guide for our exploration of these otherworlds is fantasy artist John Howe.
Because he's an artist, it's no surprise that the book is art-heavy. There are two-page spreads and spot art everywhere, in different media: watercolor, pencil, and even photographs (where the imaginary land shares a history with places of antiquity such as Pompeii or Babylon).
What might be surprising, however, is how good the text is. Though Howe doesn't go into a lot of detail (this is more of a picture book, probably aimed at younger readers), the text is very readable and well-researched, and I'm sure that most readers will learn a thing or two, depending on their depth of background with this sort of material. I certainly did.
I also liked that the focus of a lot of Howe's art is on studies of what everyday people might be doing in these lost worlds, rather than simply painting large panoramas of cities and landscapes (though we get some of those as well). The spot art is of artifacts, both real and imagined, with the occasional photograph as I mentioned above.
All in all, Lost Worlds is an attractive production.
The Heart of Faerie Oracle, by Brian & Wendy Froud,
I don't buy into oracles as…well, oracular devices. I kind of like the idea held by some indigenous peoples that all time—past, present, future—is happening simultaneously, which would make the idea of oracles easier to accept. But it's not something that's real to me. I just don't see how the future can be predicted, not when you consider how the smallest deviation by anyone or anything (for instance, that old butterfly in Brazil beating its wings) can affect everything.
But I don't think oracles are useless, either.
They can be an excellent mirror or insight into one's mental or spiritual temperament at any given time, and as such, I suppose, can be used to predict how this or that has a good chance of happening, if one follows one path or another through life. It's still not science, but it makes more sense than the idea of preordained destiny.
As such, the effectiveness of the oracle depends on one's affinity to the underlying philosophy of the system. So where Runes might work for one person, another might find the Tarot or the I Ching to have more resonance.
Or maybe Faeries.
This is the second Faerie Oracle using Brian Froud's art; the previous edition has text written by Jessica Macbeth. I can't compare them, because I don't have the first on hand. To be honest, I can't even tell you how good a system The Heart of Faerie Oracle is. That's something you'll have to decide for yourself. But I can tell you what you get in the package.
The sixty-eight cards are beautiful, as you might expect, since all the art is by Brian Froud. I've seen some of the images before; some have even appeared as book covers (Terri Windling's The Wood Wife, the original edition of my own The Dreaming Place). But that doesn't detract from their evocative nature.
The accompanying hardcover book features text by Wendy Froud. It starts out with a lovely cover but once you get inside all that wonderful art from the cards has been reduced to monochromatic reproductions. Combined with the tinted pages, it makes the whole thing look rather murky.
But we have the cards, and the book is really meant to explain the cards, not stand on its own as art, and in that respect it does a fine job.
How well the cards work is—as I mentioned above—for you to discover.
But let me just add that, skeptic though I am, whenever I have been in Brian Froud's company I have truly believed that he sees into some other place that I, at least, have yet to experience. In other words, while I might have doubts about the validity of all of this—at least in how it impacts my life—I have no doubt whatsoever of the man's sincerity.
Silver Borne, by Patricia Briggs,
The problem with many series is that the first book is almost invariably better than whatever follows. That's because while the characters, setting, and/or premise is intriguing the first time out, things often get progressively more diluted with each subsequent book until the point comes where you can't remember why you even liked the series so much in the first place.
Five books in, the Mercy Thompson books show no sign of fatigue for this reader.
Part of the reason is that Briggs's characters change and grow from book to book. Events in their lives bear consequences. For instance, Mercy is still dealing with the brutal attack she endured two books ago. Her body has healed, but the psychological scars still affect her life.
Another reason is that Briggs knows how to spin out a tale so that you not only care about what happens, you need to know.
But mostly it's that Briggs is a fine writer, so all of the above goes without saying.
This time out, Mercy has the simple task of returning a book she borrowed from the owner of a used book store. Unfortunately, said book turns out to be a magical artifact, and her very knowledge of its existence causes all sorts of problems that put not only her, but also her friends, into danger. Weaving in and out of the main plot are her relationship issues with her lover Adam, a personal crisis of her roommate Samuel, and the pack politics that always play such a large part in these books.
Did I mention that Adam and Samuel are werewolves, or that Mercy is a shapeshifting coyote? At this point, I probably don't need to.
I don't know how long Briggs will be able to retain the high quality of this series—and also the related Alpha and Omega books—but I'm guessing we're going to enjoy them for as long as she feels she has something to say about these characters.
And I couldn't be happier.
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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