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Books To Look For
Justice Calling, by Annie Bellet, Doomed Muse Press, 2014, $8.99.
Murder of Crows, by Annie Bellet, Doomed Muse Press, 2014, $8.99.
Pack of Lies, by Annie Bellet, Doomed Muse Press, 2014, $9.99.
It's also hard to differentiate between the books in terms of character types and plots. Much like high fantasy a few decades ago, with every second book being a quest fantasy featuring a plucky orphan/chosen one with a ragtag band of disparate companions, today's urban fantasies have their own set cast of character types and plots. When you read the books' cover copy, you get the feeling of an endless series of remixes.
My problem is that I really like the idea of secret histories, of hidden people living right alongside us—the whole mix of the world we all know and the one we suspect could exist alongside it after growing up on a diet of fairy tales, folklore, mythology, and classic fantasy novels. That being the case, I'm constantly trying the books that show up for review that hint, or even loudly proclaim, that they can deliver this sense of wonder.
And I rarely get past the second or third chapter.
On the surface, Annie Bellet's books have that same promise of a little too much familiarity before one even starts.
In Justice Calling, Jade Crow runs a comic book and game store in Wylde, Idaho, which just happens to be home to any number of paranormal beings, but mostly shapeshifters. In this world, the deadliest beings, and most shunned, are sorcerers, because a sorcerer eats the hearts of his victims, which allows him to harvest their powers and abilities.
Jade's friends don't know she's a sorceress. She's been keeping her head down and lying low for twenty-five years so that her sorcerer ex-boyfriend Samir can't track her down and kill her for her powers. So far it's been working out just fine. She likes the quiet life she's built here and has no desire or intention of using her powers. She especially doesn't want to bring her ex's wrath down on her friends. She's already had to live through everybody she loves dying by Samir's hand once. It's not an experience she plans to repeat.
To keep that from happening, all she has to do is not use her magic.
Unfortunately (there's always an unfortunately or we wouldn't have a story), danger threatens her friends and a Justice named Alek shows up, blaming Jade for the problem and warning that because of her, there's worse to come. A Justice, in the shifter world, is judge, jury, and executioner. To prove him wrong and save her friends, she has no choice but to use her sorceress powers.
Since Justice Calling is the first in an ongoing series, I don't suppose I'm giving too much away by saying that she manages to pull it all off. In subsequent books, Alek and Jade's friends convince her that the best way to protect herself from Samir is by training hard so that she'll be ready to face him when the time comes. That training runs in the background as the series proceeds, with each book containing an otherwise stand-alone adventure.
The first two books are short—novellas really. The pace is quick and there's not a lot of room for extraneous detail, just what's necessary to carry the story and character arcs forward. The third book is a proper novel, but it continues with the lean prose and storytelling. I liked all three quite a lot and will certainly read the next one.
Still, the question I'm left with is, why do these books keep my attention where others don't? Considering the similarity between Bellet's books and what else is out there, I can only assume that what it comes down to is nothing more than a matter of taste…which isn't a particularly useful barometer for finding more books that one might like in the urban fantasy sub-genre. In the end we'll have to do what we always do: rely on the recommendations of friends and reviewers we trust, and take our chances with the ones we pick up on our own.
But for what it's worth, I'm having a lot of fun with this series by Annie Bellet.
The Hidden, by Neil Christopher & Mike Austin, Inhabit Media, 2014, $29.95.
The Hidden's subtitle is: "A Compendium of Arctic Giants, Dwarves, Gnomes, Trolls, Faeries and Other Strange Beings from Inuit Oral History." And that pretty much sums up what you get in this fabulous book, though it doesn't come close to conveying either Neil Christopher's storytelling talents or Mike Austin's gift at bringing them to life.
The excuse I often hear for the predominance of Celtic, Teutonic, Norse, and to some degree Asian folklore and myth in fantasy written by North Americans is that there isn't really a similar body of work to be found here. It's not true, of course. There is as much wealth in the traditions of our indigenous people as there are in the traditions of the cultures cited above.
The problem might be that there are so many tribes, each with their own languages, customs and belief systems, and that not as much of this material is handily collected in storybooks and folklore studies the way it is in those other traditions. Or, at least, finding these books requires a fair amount of effort. There aren't as many in print as one would like. Public libraries don't always have a great selection and what they do have usually focuses on numerous tribes in the same book, rather than exploring the traditions of a particular tribe in any real depth.
Western European traditions don't have that problem.
One can't turn on the TV or stream a film without being inundated with stories about witches and vampires and zombies, oh my. One doesn't even need a great deal of familiarity with such beings to know what they are, as they've long since entered our general lexicon.
Most people, even those without an interest in this sort of a story, have heard of King Arthur. Of vampires and werewolves. Zombies, witches, and sorcerers. They don't need to have them explained.
Igalilik (a large ogress) or Tuniit (a hidden race)? Not so much.
Which makes The Hidden such a useful guide to the fascinating myths and folklore of the Inuit.
Probably the best touchstone I can give you for this book is the original Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee, published way back in 1978. Like Faeries, the over-sized The Hidden is chock-full of illustrations depicting all the different kinds of magical creatures that live in the frozen north, with informative entries about each of the beings represented in the art. Unlike Faeries, there are no color plates, which seems somewhat apropos for this land of ice and snow.
Author Neil Christopher has spent much of his life in the north, having first come to help set up a high school program in Resolute Bay where his students introduced him to these stories. Subsequent research came from twenty years of traveling through the Arctic and interviewing Inuit elders and storytellers.
The book is filled with these stories as well as Christopher's own observations taken from his research notes.
It's not clear from the material accompanying The Hidden how much Arctic experience Mike Austin has, but his art certainly feels authentic. The monsters come from his imagination, of course, but the day-to-day depictions of people, animals, and the landscape are true to life.
He works in pencil (much as Froud, and especially Lee, did in sections of Faeries) and I really love his style. His drawings are lively and sometimes seem to echo the soapstone and bone carvings indigenous to the area. There are even designs reminiscent of tattoo art, which isn't a real surprise since he's an acclaimed tattoo artist.
High production values complete an already attractive package and there's also a glossary in the front of the book that includes a handy guide to pronunciation.
I loved this book from start to finish.
Sci-Fi Chronicles, by Guy Haley, Firefly Books, 2014, $29.95.
Remember the old joke about this new technological marvel that's lovingly described in modern tech terms and then it turns out to be a book? Sci-Fi Chronicles is kind of the opposite of that in that it's a book that utilizes the links systems of a website—although there are no hyperlinks. The reader doesn't "click" on anything. Instead the editor and writers have grouped together entries that, if this were a website, would have been accessed through such links.
I suppose it might be a bit cumbersome to those weaned on websites, but sometimes it makes for a more enjoyable experience with a reference book such as this. You settle in your favorite reading chair and start flipping pages until you come across an entry that intrigues you, then allow it to take you away.
Opening the book at the entry for "The Thing," a short story by John W. Campbell published in 1940, gives us a complete rundown of the various adaptations that followed it, from Howard Hawkes 1951 film (entitled The Thing from Another World) through various comic books, films, video games, and even the response to Campbell's story, "The Things" by Peter Watts, which retells the story from the alien's point of view. Completing the entry are timelines, a cover gallery of various books and posters, and a two-page spread of stills from the various film adaptations.
Or perhaps you're interested in something a little more contemporary. Turning to the Joss Whedon entry gives us "links" to everything from his script-doctor work on films such as Waterworld, his career in TV and comics (Buffy, Astonishing X-Men), through to his current success with The Avengers. It also has the extras mentioned above.
What about something timeless such as the entry for Doctor Who, which manages to cram an awful lot of information into its mini-essay and timeline, and features four pages of stills from the series?
Or how about something a little less skewed to media and more to literature? The Riverworld entry features a timeline of Philip José Farmer's short stories and novels depicting the marvelous twenty million-mile-long river valley where the dead of all different times return to interact with one another.
With the wealth of material included, and the breadth that it covers, this doorstopper of a book is a tremendous value. The production values are terrific and the innovative layout makes it a pure pleasure to read.
Oh, and for those of you who prefer a more traditional navigation, there's also a comprehensive index at the back of the book that will direct you to wherever you might want to go.
The Future Falls, by Tanya Huff, DAW Books, 2014, $24.95.
I'm guessing that most of you reading this are like me and have at least one tall stack of to-read books. Mine are in various parts of the house, sometimes tucked away in places so that I forget I have certain titles. I find it even more complicated with ebooks because they hide out on my reader and that makes it easy to forget what I've got.
And I'm guessing that many of you also have a handful of writers who don't make it to your to-read stack. When a book by one of them comes in, it jumps right to the head of the queue. You might even put aside whatever you've got on the go at the time to read this new book first.
Tanya Huff's like that for me, especially her books about the Gale family. The Future Falls is the third of these and I'm happy to tell you that it's just as good as either of the other two (The Enchantment Emporium and The Wild Ways).
Big pluses for me are that each book stands on its own and the characters actually have arcs. They grow and change over the course of the stories.
But that's not enough to make a good read. What I like most about Huff's books are that for all their quirks and foibles (not to mention paranormal abilities) her characters feel like real people. When I'm in one of her stories, I really know these people. Some of them I'd like to hang out with—if they were real. The family dynamics and close friendships offer a sense of hope in a time when heroes are often anti-heroes, or at the least, are susceptible to questionable behavior.
Not that they're perfect. Especially not the matriarchal Aunties who tend to rule with a bit of an iron fist.
Huff also has a keen sense of story. She knows how to keep it fresh, as well as different from what her peers in the field are writing. The Future Falls doesn't have a traditional antagonist. Instead, researchers have discovered a new comet heading towards Earth that was hidden behind another comet they'd been tracking. They estimate that they have eighteen months before impact, which isn't nearly enough time to stop it.
Charlie Gale, an itinerant musician, gets wind of the approaching calamity and tries to get her family involved in stopping it (amid the ongoing joke about how it's too bad they can't enlist Bruce Willis and his crew to repeat their miracle from the film Armageddon). But the approaching comet is a force of nature that's too much even for Gale magic. The Aunties focus instead on what they can do to ensure that at least the family survives the impact.
But that's not good enough for Charlie. She's more interested in saving the whole of the world and everything and everybody on it.
How many paranormal or urban fantasies have you seen lately that tackle something like this? I love that there's as much science in this book as there is magic and that the characters are dealing with more than murder mysteries or evil demon creatures.
Now I'm not saying that science solves the problem, but it is there to put everything into perspective and some of the magic employed does have the feel of modern physics, especially when it comes to Charlie's plan to solve the problem.
The Future Falls is one of those books that makes you wish you had another unread book by the author that you could immediately jump into because you know whatever else you might happen to try after will feel just a little flat….
The Sculptor, by Scott McCloud, First Second, 2015, $29.99.
…that is, unless you're lucky enough to have a copy of Scott McCloud's The Sculptor on hand to read next.
Most people, if they know Scott McCloud's name at all, know him for his seminal non-fiction graphic novel Understanding Comics, which brilliantly deconstructed pretty much everything you might want to know about the comics field.
The Sculptor, however, is fiction, but no less brilliant for that.
David Smith is a sculptor no one's ever heard of because he's not that David Smith, the American Abstract Expressionist sculptor and painter, best known for creating large steel abstract geometric sculptures. He's the David Smith who screwed up his chance at an art career who, when we meet him at the beginning of this story, is celebrating his twenty-sixth birthday. He's just lost his job flipping burgers, and in two months he's getting evicted, so he's decided to get quietly drunk.
Then who should sit down at his table but his old Uncle Harry. David hasn't seen him in years and their ensuing conversation with occasional flashbacks allows for a seamless (and definitely not a dry "tell" instead of "show") of David's life up to this point. Their conversation goes on for quite a while before David suddenly realizes that the last time he saw his uncle, the man was…dead.
It turns out that his uncle isn't so much dead as Death because every so often Death lives out a human lifetime and this time it was as David's uncle. David is so set upon creating the sculptures he can see in his mind that Death strikes a bargain with him. David will be able to shape anything—using any medium, be it steel, concrete, marble, whatever—with his mind in return for a shortened lifetime of only 200 days.
Then his uncle/Death disappears.
That feels astonishing enough, but on his way to an appointment with a friend who has set up a meeting for him with a patron of the arts, David's world gets weirder still. Strangers on the street crowd around him with wide-eyed stares, finally getting down on their knees in a circle and bowing down to him. Then a beautiful winged woman drifts down from the sky and whispers, "Everything will be all right," before she kisses him. A flock of pigeons rises up, blinding David for a moment. When he recovers, they're all gone. The crowd. The woman. There are only the pigeons rising up into the sky.
I've explained so much because all of this takes place in something like the first eighth of the book and it sets up what is to come. David finds out that he really can manipulate any material, which also means he really has only 200 days to live. He also finds out that the strangers bowing to him and the woman were really part of an elaborate street theater and he falls in love with the woman whose name is Meg. But he only has 200 days to live. And for every person he tells this to, his time is shortened by three more days.
The Sculptor really is a stunning work for it characters, its story (which never goes where you think it will), and its evocative art. The latter might be more cartoony than fine art, but McCloud gets so much expression with only a few lines that it's really astonishing. His panel-to-panel flow and his choice of perspectives is superb, combining into something I can only describe as visual poetry.
Sometimes when I write in this column about graphic stories, I worry that I might be coming off as earnestly as folks did in the seventies, fervently trying to convince the literary establishment that, dammit, fantasy and science fiction are literature, too. But that's not my reason for bringing books such as this to your attention. I'm aiming to convey how truly spectacular the storylines and characters can be, regardless of their delivery system, and I don't want you to miss out on it.
The Sculptor is an excellent example. It might well be the best book I read this year. What does the medium matter? There's more heart, inventiveness, and pure storytelling here than I've read elsewhere in a long time. You know there used to be the jokey film review, "You'll laugh, you'll cry?" That's true here, in all seriousness. And your sense of wonder will fill you so full that it will overflow.
The Art of Space, by Ron Miller, Zenith Press, 2014, $35.
You have to love a collection of space art. Or at least I certainly do. And this one put together by Ron Miller (no mean artist himself) is one of the better ones I've run across.
There's such a wealth and variety represented. I particularly appreciated the many etchings from the late 1800s—either observations of the night sky, or moonscapes and planetary landscapes taken from the pure imagination of the artists. My favorite of them is a small piece from 1900 by Stanley Wood illustrating George Griffin's Honeymoon in Space. The couple is presented in spacesuits with helmets, connected together by a telephone wire through which they spoke to each other. Or, at least, so author and artist imagined. It's at once quaint and astonishing that they even thought of it at such a time.
But the vintage work is only a small part of the treasures to be found here.
The art ranges through every kind of two-dimensional medium, from the aforementioned etchings through pen and ink, ink washes, watercolors, acrylics and oils. Whether the art is realistically rendered spacecraft and views of space, or imagined monsters and fauna, we're given a fantastic tour through all the sorts of subjects you'd consider, given the title of the book, like:
Aldo Spadini's glorious orbiting space city. Lynette Cook's dramatic depiction of two planets colliding. The deep mystery in the landscapes of Saturn, depicted by a handful of artists working in both traditional mediums and digital ones.
As I mentioned, I liked the early art best, but the selections are taken from work created over the past two hundred years and there are plenty of contemporary paintings that are simply gorgeous. And there's also a good helping of useful and informative text. Every painting has a caption with the title, artist's name, and some anecdotal references, and there are also a number of short essays scattered throughout.
This coffee table-sized book arrived for review probably a month or so ago and I've been going through it every day since, enjoying the wide variety of the various artists' visions. It's lovely stuff, and considering the size and fine production values, a real bargain as well.
The Very Best of Kate Elliott, by Kate Elliott, Tachyon, 2014, $15.95.
I didn't get the chance to read more than the introduction to this collection of Kate Elliott's best short fiction before it was time for me to send in this column. Normally I wouldn't review a book I haven't yet read but I was so taken with the introduction that I wanted to bring it to your attention before another two months have gone by. Consider this a review of the introduction, which, in all honesty, deserves a wide readership.
Everybody picks different things on which to focus when writing something such as this. They might talk about specific stories, perhaps give some insight into the writing craft, or share some anecdotal background. Elliott concentrates on what got her writing, and hers is a far more interesting story than that of many. Sadly, it's probably a story lived by many as well.
Basically, it boils down to her loving fantasy and sf but getting frustrated at not finding herself in the stories. Things have changed to some degree—especially in the fantasy/sf field—but there was certainly a time when you couldn't find a female protagonist. They were always on the sidelines. The mother, daughter, girlfriend, wife. Occasionally, the femme fatale with whom the hero had to match wits (a contest that he inevitably won).
The gender bias isn't much different from a racial bias in that readers from different cultures also have trouble finding themselves in the books they read.
My friend Charles R. Saunders loved heroic fantasy back in the seventies. When he hit that wall, he started writing heroic fantasy stories with black protagonists, the most popular of which was certainly Imaro whose adventures took place in a fabulous Africa.
Elliott did the same. As I'm sure many others have as well.
Now, I'm never going to say that the lack of gender or cultural representation was ever a good thing. But I will say that I'm so happy that it pushed so many writers to put themselves—their genders and cultures—into the stories. I know that my own reading has been so much the richer because of it.
It's just too bad that we couldn't have had an even playing field in the beginning.
The above is just a dry relating of some genre history. What you really need to do is read Elliott's introductory essay, which is full of deeper insights that take in not only the world of the written word, but also the one in which we all live. I loved the way she explained her journey through family history, the landscapes in which those journeys took place, and how she finally came to understand the only way that her stories could be authentic.
Now I need to go read some of those stories. Luckily, I have a whole book of them on hand.
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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