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Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell, St. Martin's Griffin, 2015, $19.99.
Fangirl: Exclusive Collector's Edition, by Rainbow Rowell, St. Martin's Griffin, 2015, $18.99.
Here we meet twins Cather and Wren whose mother was only expecting the one daughter that she planned to name Catherine. When she had twins, she couldn't be bothered to think of another name, so she split the chosen name in two. Her lack of interest and commitment didn't end there, since she abandoned the family when the girls were toddlers.
Cather and Wren are raised by their father, an advertising executive. Wren is the outgoing one, Cather the introvert and on the autism spectrum, though not to the degree that her father is. Both girls are obsessed with a popular YA fantasy book series by Gemma T. Leslie about an orphaned mage named Simon Snow who attends the Watford School of Magicks, has a despicable roommate named Baz, and is the Chosen One. If you think this sounds familiar, the various book titles such as Simon Snow and the Mage's Heir drive the point home. There are seven books in the series with an eighth and final volume much anticipated by Leslie's legions of fans.
But Cath and Wren don't only devour the books and movies. They also write fanfiction. It started with the both of them, but now it's mostly Cath trying to finish her own version of the series before the author does. Cath's version has its own legions of fans with a base of about ten thousand readers eagerly reading and commenting upon each new upload.
Throughout Fangirl, we get a mix of excerpts from both the canon (Leslie's books) and Cath's fanfic.
But all of this is a backdrop. When the book opens, the twins are eighteen and attending college. Cath is distressed to find out that Wren has opted not to share a dorm room with her but instead wants them to find their own way outside of each other's shadow. That's easy for outgoing Wren, but devastating for Cath. She's stuck with a cranky roommate named Reagan who makes it clear she doesn't like Cather. Adding to Cath's discomfort, Reagan's maybe boyfriend Levi is always hanging around their room. When not in class, Cath spends the first couple of weeks in her room, living off the stash of energy bars she brought because she can't face going to the cafeteria.
None of this is what she was expecting for her first year of college.
Now I said earlier that the Simon Snow excerpts are backdrops, and they are, but they also carry Cath's story forward, affecting her few interpersonal relationships and providing a release from the travails of her day-to-day life.
Partway through the novel, there's a telling exchange between Cath and her creative writing professor which for the first time explained the appeal of writing fanfic to me:
"But I don't want to write my own fiction," Cath says when her prof pressures her to stop writing fanfic. "I don't want to write my own worlds—I don't care about them. I care about Simon Snow. And I know he's not mine, but that doesn't matter to me. I'd rather pour myself into a world I love and understand than try to make something up out of nothing."
"You'd rather take—or borrow—someone else's creation?"
"I know Simon and Baz. I know what they think, what they feel. When I'm writing them, I get lost in them completely, and I'm happy."
And later, more tellingly:
"…when I'm writing Gemma T. Leslie's characters, sometimes, in some ways, I am better than her. I know how crazy that sounds—but I also know it's true. …I'm really good at manipulating that world. I can do more with her characters than I could ever do with my own. My characters are just…sketches compared to hers."
"But you can't do anything with fanfiction. It's stillborn."
"I can let people read it. Lots of people do read it."
"You can't make a living that way. You can't make a career."
"How many people make a career out of writing anyway?" Cath snapped. … "I'll write because I love it, the way other people knit or…or scrapbook."
And there we have the crux of the matter. I've always argued on the side of Cath's prof. Why spend all that time writing stories you can't do anything with when they're done? Wouldn't that time be better spent on your own creations? Except maybe the authors of fanfic are actually pure writers since they're telling the stories that they want with no consideration of profit or a career.
And who am I, or people like Cath's fictional prof, to tell them otherwise? Isn't there room for both?
Fangirl really is an addictive book—as addictive as the Simon Snow books are to the characters in it. Rainbow Rowell writes with a cheerful good will that still manages to touch on some dark subjects, illuminating them in a meaningful way because she's not lecturing. She's simply letting her characters carry the story and has them deal with the good and bad we all encounter in our lives, allowing us to make our own judgments.
I pretty much loved this book from the first page to the last and was reluctant to finish it because that meant leaving Cath and her friends behind. There's probably fanfic out there somewhere keeping the story going, because Rowell has created that kind of characters.
If you're curious as to the difference between this 2015 "Exclusive Collector's Edition" and the original one from 2013, this one has illustrated endpapers, an interview with the author, and an excerpt from Carry On, the eighth book in a series that doesn't exist.
I keep saying that, but I repeat it because it's intriguing. It's as if J. K. Rowling started her series with the final Harry Potter book and left it at that. In the Author's Note, Rowell writes:
"When I finished [Fangirl], I was able to let go of Cath and her boyfriend, Levi, and their world. I felt I was finished with their story.…
"But I couldn't let go of Simon.
"I'd written so much about him through these other voices, and I kept thinking about what I'd do with him if he were in my story instead of Cath's or Gemma's."
So she decided to write her own eighth book.
I have to admit I had a little trouble suspending my disbelief at the beginning of the novel. It was probably because I was very aware that Carry On was a continuation of something obviously fictional from the earlier book. I know, I know. Fangirl is fictional, too, but Carry On is based on fiction inside fiction, and I wasn't able to forget that at first.
Still, slowly but surely, I was pulled into the story and ended up forgetting everything but the characters and what was happening to them until I began to write this column.
There's much that will feel familiar. The wizard's school; the boy forced to live in the mundane world during summer breaks; the only place he's happy is at school; the nemesis (in Simon's case, his evil roommate Baz, but also the Insidious Humdrum who wears Simon's face and keeps trying to kill him); the fact that Simon is the Chosen One of prophecy and the most powerful magician ever; the other fact that he feels completely useless and has trouble with even the simplest of spells.
But while Rowell has started with a familiar template, she soon turns everything on its ear. A third of the way into the book the reader entirely forgets the influences. Instead they're drawn into a world as absorbing and magical as Harry Potter's (and to be honest, with better writing), and are engaged with these characters and this story.
Much as I've liked Rowell's work before this, I wasn't expecting to be so drawn into Carry On. Rowell excels with characters in our world, with stories that could belong to you or me (albeit with some interesting twists). But it turns out she is just as good in a fantasy setting, and her worldbuilding skills are excellent. Perhaps it helps that the Watford School of Magicks is set in our world and we just aren't aware of it or all the other magical creatures that are running around. That close connection to our world allows Rowell to make contemporary references that help ground the preternatural elements when they arise. There are great pop culture references, and I liked how some of the students can't wait for holidays and summer break so that they can get back to their cell phones and the Internet.
I love what a friend of mine said about it: Rowell "is taking all kinds of tropes and remixing them into something new and fresh that feels exciting, but also like an homage, and it's funny and poignant and political. It's respectful and affectionate, but not light and fluffy."
I couldn't have said it better myself.
Both books are highly recommended (as is her other out-of-genre work).
Malediction: An Old World Story, by Melissa F. Olson, Westmarch Publishing, 2015, $0.99. (EBook)
Boundary Lines, by Melissa F. Olson, 47North, 2015, $14.95.
"Malediction" could almost be the template for how to set a short story successfully in a series universe. In this case it's Melissa F. Olson's "Old World," and "Malediction" fits readily between the third of her Scarlett Bernard books and the second of her ongoing series that follows Allison "Lex" Luther. (And yes, some of the characters that hear her full name do comment on Superman's nemesis.)
What it doesn't do is leave the reader hanging with the story to be completed in one of the series books.
What it does do is stand on its own while leaving readers unfamiliar with her Old World stories intrigued enough to seek them out.
Because what some writers don't get is that if you're a good writer—delivering an engaging, complete story—readers will want to go on to explore your other work. You don't have to trick them into doing so. In fact the opposite can happen. I've quit a number of writers simply because I got tired of their short stories or novellas that required me to read a separate book to get the end of the story.
In "Malediction," Lex travels from Colorado to L.A. to find out what really happened to her murdered sister Sam, which brings her into contact with Scarlett and her erstwhile partner Jesse Cruz. It also brings her smack up against a hard truth about the Old World that leaves her shaken and frustrated.
Boundary Lines picks up some of that thread, as well as elements from the first book, Boundary Crossed. Lex is now working for Colorado's chief vampire Maven, running errands and solving problems for her during the daylight hours while trying to learn more about who she is and how she fits into the Old World. Unfortunately, there's no time for Lex to get into any sort of a normal routine.
As the book opens, there's something off in Boulder. All the Old World beings are more powerful—vampires, witches, and werewolves—and some from each group are rising up against Maven's rule, putting the fragile balance of peace in jeopardy. Throw in a strange elder beast that is starting to cause havoc in the area and Lex and her vampire partner Quinn have their hands full.
One of the things I really appreciate about Olson's books is that the characters can't be mistaken for those in other urban fantasy novels. This might sound like a strange thing to say, but my confusion with which characters go with which series happens to me on a far too regular basis.
Now maybe my memory has gotten worse over the years, but I find that the characters in many of this kind of book really are fairly interchangeable. So when I find an author whose characters are both memorable and individual, she gets my attention.
The leads in both the earlier series and this current one are unforgettable, but more importantly, so are the secondary characters. I love Maven, a wonderfully quirky vampire who can go from a charming, hippie-like waif to a dangerous predator in the blink of an eye. Or Lex's partner Quinn, who feels a bit like a throwback PI from some old noir series. Nellie Evans, the ghost of another boundary witch who haunts an old bordello. And Sashi the healer witch (we first met her in the novella Bloodsick), who has settled into her powers and now has a teenage daughter named Grace.
It's easy to keep track of all of them, because even though they fit into the tropes of current urban fantasy, Olson brings them fully to life and differentiates them—not only from each other, but also from the characters in the rest of the field.
Like Patricia Briggs, Olson is producing a body of work that never lets me down and has me looking forward to each new installment in a way that I normally don't with other fiction in this genre.
Dead Heat, by Patricia Briggs, Ace Books, 2015, $26.95.
Shifting Shadows, by Patricia Briggs, Ace Books, 2014, $26.95.
And speaking of Patricia Briggs, she most certainly has that gift for creating memorable characters. This is especially apparent in the short story collection Shifting Shadows, where the reader isn't spending a novel-length amount of time in their company. The book would be worth it just for the "Alpha and Omega" novella that grew into an ongoing series (and more on that in a moment), but there isn't one clunker among the rest.
They feature various characters from Briggs's two ongoing werewolf series (the above-mentioned Alpha and Omega books, and her long-running Mercy Thompson Books), allowing us a peek into their lives outside of Mercy Thompson's sphere of influence, or from a time before she met them. Longtime readers will delight in learning the origins of the Marrock and his son Samuel, discovering the connection between the old wolf Asil and the teenager Kara, following a private eye outing for Warren, a clash between the Chinese wolf Tom and faerie in the Old West, and more. There's even a new Mercy story and a couple of outtake scenes from the novels.
All of that might make this sound like too much of an insider book for a new reader, but any one of these stories would make a terrific introduction to Briggs's work. All of her strengths are on display: great characters, memorable stories, and fresh takes on elements that have become rather tedious in too many other urban fantasy books. These characters and stories have great heart, which is part of the reason that they stick with you and are so good to reread. I discovered most of these stories in their initial appearances, but was just as enthralled reading them together in Shifting Shadows.
Dead Heat is the latest installment of the Alpha and Omega series. The novella that introduces them in Shifting Shadows is among my favorite of Briggs's work, and I've been happily reading along with the characters through the next three novels and this latest one.
The Alpha is Charles Cornick, son of the Marrock and his chief enforcer. The Omega is his mate Anna Latham, who was rescued from a bad situation. Omegas, in Briggs's world, are the calming influence in a pack and very rare. They stand outside the hierarchy and answer to no one.
Usually a story involving the pair starts with the Marrock sending Charles to deal with some situation. This time they're on a holiday, traveling to a horse farm in Arizona where Charles plans to buy Anna a horse from old friends of his. Naturally, things go awry as soon as they arrive, because otherwise there wouldn't be a story. A cold war with the fae has started up here in Arizona, with the opening salvo being a particularly creepy fae who has been kidnapping children and replacing them with changelings.
Briggs's plots are always intriguing, and she keeps the reader guessing throughout as Charles and Anna try to figure out who the fae is and how they can stop him or her. But the real reason to read these books—or at least it is for me—is for the characters. Briggs doles out background information on the oldest of the werewolves (the Marrock, Samuel, Charles) in small, teasing amounts, so it was fun to delve a little into Charles's past.
At one time Charles and Joseph, the current patriarch of the horse farm, were best friends, but they drifted apart when Joseph began to age and Charles didn't, and he's now terminally ill. I know this isn't breaking any particularly new ground—many authors before Briggs have tackled the immortal vs. mortal plot line—and it's also a story element fraught with the potential to become rapidly maudlin. The fact that Briggs makes it feel not only fresh but delivers the storyline with what feels like real emotional poignancy has only raised her writing skills in my estimation.
The only thing that didn't work as well for me with this particular outing is all the horse information. One suspects that either Briggs or someone close to her recently planned to buy a horse and did a lot of research, much of which seems to appear in these pages. It's terrific for horse enthusiasts, of which I'm sure there are many, but it left me skimming pages at times—something I can't remember ever doing with one of her books before.
That said, everything else was as enchanting, fascinating and eminently readable as it is in any of her books, and I don't for a moment regret reading Dead Heat.
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Second Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois, St. Martin's Griffin, 2015, $22.99.
I needed Gardner Dozois's collection this year, as I really didn't keep up on my short sf reading, and I can always count on him to dig out the treasures I might otherwise miss. Stories like:
Ian McDonald's "The Fifth Dragon," which has everything I like about a good sf story. An imaginative setting (mining on the Moon), sympathetic characters, political and social commentary, and a story that moved me.
Susan Palwick's "Weather." Although she hasn't yet matched her 1992 novel Flying in Place for me, she has produced a steady stream of strong storytelling over the years, of which this one exploring the spaces between life and death is an excellent example.
Chaz Brenchley's "The Burial of Sir John Mawe." Boy, does Brenchley pack in a wealth of worldbuilding in such little space with his tale of the aftermath of a hero's death on an inhabitable Mars that is under British Colonial Rule. I've no doubt there'll be more stories in this setting, and I hope they're half as good.
Nancy Kress's "Yesterday's Kin," a near-future first contact novella that's as much about family dynamics as the problems the aliens bring to Earth. It's as good as you'd expect from a writer who has yet to write a bad story. I think it's the longest piece in the book, that perfect length that you can read in one sitting, but it's still as satisfying as a novel.
Rachel Swirsky's "Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)" updates the idea of a golem to a life-sized artificial being with AI as a Jewish father tries to get his dying daughter some kind of immortality. It's an astonishingly good story on all levels.
And so many more, from the likes of Robert Reed, Elizabeth Bear, Michael Swanwick, Cory Doctorow, and so many others.
Are they the best stories of the year? Who knows? Unlike Dozois, I haven't read them all. But this is a fat, satisfying collection that will see you through many happy hours of reading.
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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