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Books To Look For
End of Watch, by Stephen King, Scribner, 2016, $30.
Of course King does it his own way. His books are longer than most traditional mysteries and he's quick to slip a supernatural element into the mix. The books are also a very effective amalgam of police procedural, PI mystery, and thriller, which all come together to give us something just a little new.
But the strongest component—which is also what makes even his few unsuccessful books still sing in places—is his characterization. I'm far from the first person to note that in a King story or novel you get a sense of character within only a few paragraphs. And he's generous with this ability since the bit players feel three-dimensional as well. I think even his detractors have to admit—if they're being honest—that he has a gift for this that is almost…well, supernatural.
Needless to say, I loved the protagonists in this series from the get-go and was happy to follow them as they grew and changed through the events related in the three books.
Now, spoiler alert.
If you remember, at the end of Mr. Mercedes, retired police detective Bill Hodges and his friends Jerome Robinson and the slightly autistic Holly Gibney foiled a bombing attempt by Brady Hartsfield (known as Mr. Mercedes for an earlier mass killing utilizing a car of the same name as a weapon). At the critical juncture, Hodges had a heart attack, leaving Jerome and Holly to successfully stop Hartsfield from blowing up a stadium full of tween girls.
It was Holly who actually took Hartsfield out using a sock filled with ball bearings that damaged his brain enough that he couldn't stand trial after he was apprehended. Instead he was placed in the Lake Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic where he languished throughout book two, Finders Keepers.
In this second book, Hodges and Holly have started a private detective agency, and, with the help of Jerome, successfully close another big case.
Meanwhile, back in the brain injury clinic, something strange is happening with Hartsfield. To all intents and purposes he appears to be the same brain-dead patient he's been since he was first brought in. But as we soon find out in End of Watch, inside the broken shell of his body, his mind is, in fact, very active. He simply hides it from everyone.
Whether it's because of the brain injury, the radical (and illegal) treatments of Dr. Babineau, the strength of his own will, or some combination of the three, Hartsfield discovers that he has gained some extra abilities. Mild telekinesis, for one. More importantly, he can hop into somebody else's brain and take control of their body using an outdated Gameboy-like device called a Zappit Commander. With his new abilities Hartsfield plans his revenge against not only Hodges, but also all the kids that he wasn't able to kill at the concert.
How this is possible is a mix of technological smoke and mirrors and Hartsfield's mental abilities, neither of which King gets into with any great detail. And he doesn't need to. If we accept that it works, we can carry on with the story and worry about the fate of the characters because, within the context of the book, it's plausible.
The bottom line is that Hartsfield considers himself to be the Suicide King (it's how he killed a number of people in the first book, where it's also established that he's got serious hacker skills). By using the Zappit, a web site he's set up, and the power of his own mind, he plans to convince a lot of people to kill themselves.
Complicating matters from our protagonists' point of view, Jerome is away in Arizona, and Hodges has just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and is in constant pain. Once he and Holly twig to what's going on, they have to get together and deal with the problem themselves, since the true cause of a recent rash of suicides is too outlandish for the police to accept.
Their own investigations bring them to the irrefutable fact that Hartsfield is behind it all—impossible as that seems.
And they're the only ones who can stop him.
Now here's the thing. Remember that gift of King's I mentioned earlier? The downside of it is that King usually writes multiple viewpoint novels, and we tend to spend a fair amount of time in the heads of the antagonists as well as the protagonists.
In this case it's a lot of time in the head of Brady Hartsfield, a distasteful place to be. Not only for the big evil deeds he plans and pulls off, but also for the everyday small horrors he bestows on everyone around him.
Now, before I go any further, a caveat. The comments to follow aren't meant to reflect badly on King's writing. I understand the necessity of multiple viewpoints in a book such as this. For one thing, they allow the reader glimpses of what's going on that aren't available to the heroes, which is an excellent way to heighten tension because then we know more than the characters do about the awful things that might be coming. And one of the most important things about good writing is that all the characters need to be fully rounded. Nobody's a villain in their own mind, and there's no better way to understand the antagonist than to be privy to their motivations and how they acquired them.
So King's doing what he's supposed to. My feeling about this is on me—and I only bring it up because I'm curious if others have a similar reaction.
I can remember borrowing Tarzan books from my dad's library, and I always hated the sections spent away from the hero to follow what the villains were up to. Back then it was because the hero was more interesting to me. Today I resent that time spent with the antagonist because, just as I don't like hanging out with unpleasant people in real life, why would I want to read about them?
The ironic part of all of this is that I also read some fairly dark fiction like the Sandman Slim books by Richard Kadrey. But there's a difference.
As a kid, I liked the horror movies with monsters in them. Werewolves, Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the giant ants in Them. What I didn't like was psychological horror, because supernatural creatures—like the over-the-top and sometimes bloody action in a Kadrey book—are obviously fictional, but sociopaths are real and could be living next door.
They were genuinely scary and a reminder of how mean and twisted the world we live in can be.
Strip away the preternatural aspects of Brady Hartsfield and you have a bitter, mean-spirited man, of which there are far too many in the real world.
I'm probably the one person in North America who didn't watch, and has no intention of watching, Breaking Bad. I don't have the inclination or time for that kind of story. And I kind of resent the time spent in Hartsfield's company. Whenever I got to one of his sections while reading End of Watch and it was time to do something else, it might be days before I picked the book up again.
I realize this is no different from Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, both of which have lots of sections from the antagonists' points of view, and both of which I reviewed favorably in an earlier column. The books are good, as is End of Watch, but this time I was just a little more aware of my feelings toward this kind of material. and I was wondering if other readers feel the same.
Gahan Wilson's Out There, by Gahan Wilson, Fantagraphics, 2016, $29.99.
Here's a treat that will be especially appreciated by long-time readers of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, since it collects in one place all the work that Gahan Wilson did for the magazine between the years 1964-1981. As you might expect, there are lots of the single-panel cartoons for which Wilson is so famous, as well as reproductions of covers. But there are also short stories (nine of them!) and over thirty pages of reprinted reviews.
You might be surprised that he writes short stories—I certainly was. I knew about the cartoons and covers, of course, and also the reviews, because I was reading his critiques in Realms of Fantasy and Twilight Zone back in the day. But the stories? Not so much.
Of the handful presented here, most are short-shorts running about a page in length, a format that seems to have had a resurgence in the past few years. Wilson's offerings are surprisingly meaty given their length, and bear rereading for their gentle humor and their simple and, at times, luminous prose. A real standout for me was "The Thing from Outer Space and the Prairie Dogs," but I can't really tell you why since with its brevity, any discussion would give everything away.
Wilson ups his game in "The Power of the Mandarin," one of the longer stories. The elements that make the short-shorts so good are definitely present, but with more room to stretch out the weirdness and the surprising narrative, allowing a deeper impact on the reader.
In some ways the selection of reviews gets to the real meat of the matter, revealing as much about Wilson as it does about the books he reviews and the authors who wrote them. I have the fear that latecomers to the field won't know who he's talking about when he reviews, say, Arthur Machen, Clark Ashton Smith, or Frank Belknap Long. But then the hope arises that if they are unfamiliar with the classic works under discussion, Wilson's informed and erudite reviews will have them wandering about the internet or in secondhand bookstores, looking for copies of their work.
There's a great deal to admire in Wilson's prose, both the fiction and the non-fiction, but if neither prove to be of interest, I'm sure the cartoons that make up the bulk of the book will win over any reader.
The Last Adventure of Constance Verity, by A. Lee Martinez, Saga Press, 2016, $24.99.
Reading this novel is probably the most fun I've had with a book so far this year. I think anybody will enjoy it because it's fast-paced, inventive, and completely irreverent, but it will especially appeal to those of you familiar with the great pulp adventure heroes like Doc Savage. That's because Martinez—with great affection for the genre, I should add—pokes gentle fun and takes such hilarious liberties with the genre's tropes that you'll be smiling throughout.
As might be assumed from the title, The Last Adventure of Constance Verity, Constance Verity is our viewpoint character and this is indeed her last adventure. Not because she dies or is finally defeated, but because she's tired of having adventures and thinks she wants a normal life.
Constance wasn't born special. But three hours after her birth, a fairy godmother shows up in her mother's hospital room and bestows a magical blessing upon her:
"Though all other mortals tread in either the ordinary or the fantastic, you shall journey through both. On the dawn of your seventh birthday, yours shall become a life of adventure and wonder, and so it shall be until the day of your glorious death."
Because of that, Constance has been saving the world and having adventures since she was seven years old. Descriptions of those adventures are sprinkled copiously through the text—mostly in asides such as when she lands in a regional airport in Kansas and can't wait to get out of the state because:
It was in Kansas that every little town had a terrible secret. It was in Kansas where the Sunken City of the Chaos Gods lurked, buried beneath Wichita. It was in Kansas that Hitler's Brain had nearly begun another World War Three. (She'd averted so many world wars, she'd lost count.) Kansas, where Connie had almost been eaten by cannibal cyborgs. Kansas, where her informal experience revealed that one in every ten people was part of a cult intent on destroying the universe because…well who the hell know why?
She's had so many adventures that Doc Savage's bibliography of 181 titles would barely begin to be enough room to relate all of hers.
But now she's done.
She realizes that the only way to get rid of the blessing/curse bestowed on her just after birth is to track down and kill her fairy godmother, because, she's been told, that's the only way a spell such as this can be broken. So she sets off with her best friend Tia, and with a little help from an untrustworthy ninja-slash-thief named Hiro to set matters right.
Hiro is quick to point out on numerous occasions that he's not a ninja-slash-assassin, and his ability to appear and disappear, seemingly at will, becomes a running joke.
Naturally, nothing is as it seems, and things only go from bad to worse, which is hard on the characters but provides endless entertainment for us readers.
To be honest I don't normally like "funny" books. For every Terry Pratchett or Christopher Moore there are a dozen writers who just don't get how to do it. The trick is we have to care about the characters beyond laughing with and at their antics. There has to be some meat to the story, not simply a series of fluffy jokes or a string of puns.
But A. Lee Martinez certainly gets it. Yes, his prose is light and breezy. You'll be smiling and even laughing out loud throughout the story and all of its implausible twists and turns. But at the same time you'll learn to care about the characters and be rooting for them to get safely through to the end of the book.
And that's how you write a humorous fantasy.
Mighty Jack, by Ben Hatke, First Second, 2016, $14.99.
One of my favorite picture books is an earlier title by Ben Hatke called Julia's House for Lost Creatures, which I reviewed in this column a while ago. It was imaginative and charming, enchantingly told and illustrated, and it still makes me smile just thinking about it.
Mighty Jack is very different. It's a middle-grade graphic novel loosely based on the fairy tale Jack the Giant-Killer, with lots of action and humor but enough serious elements to make it memorable rather than one more popcorn read.
As in the fairy tale, Jack lives a hand-to-mouth existence with a single mother, except he also has an autistic sister named Maddy. The book opens at the beginning of summer. School's out, so, with Jack able to babysit, his mother takes a second job in hopes of making ends meet. On the day before she starts that second job, she and the kids go to a flea market where she's planning to buy some used tools. She gives Jack five dollars to buy a snack for himself and Maddy and gives him the car keys in case Maddy needs to rest.
On their own in the flea market, Jack loses track of Maddy, only to find her at a booth with a man right out of a Bradbury story. He offers the kids a box of plant seeds, and for the first time Maddy talks, asking Jack to buy the seeds. Jack pulls out his money but all he has is seventy-five cents mixed in with his mother's car keys. The stall merchant plucks the car keys out of Jack's hand, leaves the box and is gone before Jack quite realizes what has happened.
Naturally, Jack's in big trouble for losing the car, and Maddy won't speak again to back up his story as to why he did it, so things are tense.
The next day after their mother goes off to work, Maddy is missing again. Jack finally finds her in the lot behind their house, trying to make a garden. It's hard for Jack to say no to his silent sister, so he pitches in. They make the rows and plant most of the seeds.
The next day, just like with the beanstalk in the fairy tale, they find a lush garden with many strange plants in it.
And then the magic appears—sheer, mad, lovely, and dangerous magic—and their troubles really begin.
If you have younger readers in your house this would be a wonderful addition to their library. It's contemporary, but timeless. The dialogue is wonderful. The plants and creatures in the garden are varied and enchanting, with a hint of mystery about them, and more than a whiff of danger.
The characters feel alive—the mother, Jack, his sister, and the few neighbors we meet, in particular a home-schooled tomboy named Lilly that Jack first notices practicing with a sword on a dummy in her front yard.
And then there's the art. It's cartoony, lively and perfect, leaning more to Calvin & Hobbes than Disney. The narrative flow from panel to panel is a delight, pulling your gaze through. The colors range from bright to moody, depending on the tone needed at the point in the story. And I absolutely loved the expressiveness of the characters' faces and body language.
I think any middle-grade reader in your family would love Mighty Jack, but take the time to have a look for yourself. I doubt you'll be disappointed. In fact, I'm pretty sure you'll be anticipating the next installment just as much as your kids are.
Nightwise, by R. S. Belcher, Tor Books, 2015, $25.99.
The Brotherhood of the Wheel, by R. S. Belcher, Tor Books, 2016, $27.99.
Let's get this out of the way straight off the top: R. S. Belcher's Nightwise is a dark, intense, and gritty book, and not for the faint-hearted. Reading it is kind of like rubbernecking at an accident, but then the dead victims rise up and tear off your face.
The cover copy has a perfect description of our main, first person point-of-view character:
Laytham Ballard is a legend. It's said he raised the dead at the age of ten, stole the Philosopher's Stone in Vegas back in 1999, and survived the bloodsucking kiss of the Mosquito Queen. Wise in the hidden ways of the night, he's also a cynical bastard who stopped thinking of himself as the good guy a long time ago.
Ah, but bad as he might be, he's up against worse.
A promise to a dying friend puts him on the track of a Serbian war criminal who turns out to be far more dangerous and elusive than Ballard expects, and the trail leads Ballard from hillbilly country and lost highways to Wall Street and Washington, D.C., where he discovers conspiracies put into place by men who make the Devil seem like a good guy.
The plot has the feel of a collaboration between Tim Powers and early William Gibson, but the texture, the often BDSM sex and the flares of violence, the drug use and the profanity of Ballard's voice, are all the author's own. The tone is real high camp hardboiled. It's hard to take it seriously, but Belcher does an excellent job of tying the implausible into real-world events so that you almost believe historical elements could have hidden layers of meaning. And he's so inventive. Take this exchange:
"Yeah, dude has trained himself to reach a heightened state of creative visualization while on LSD. He's a seventh-brain adept, a neurogentic alchemist. He works his magic with a computer while he's tripping his balls off," Grinner said.
"I know what an Acidmancer is," I said. "I just didn't think they existed anymore. They were Timothy Leary's Knights of the Round Table. There were eight of them, hand-picked, one for each of the Eight Circuits of Consciousness Leary discovered. I just thought they all died in San Francisco, fighting Charles Manson's nightmare Tulpas in the Helter Skelter War in 1969."
Fascinating and over the top.
The Brotherhood of the Wheel is dark as well, but has a different feel. The Brotherhood are remnants of the Templars, patrolling the highways of America and keeping ordinary people safe from serial killers and supernatural nightmares. They're made up of truckers, bikers, taxi drivers, police, all of them fighting what feels like a losing battle.
Our main viewpoint character is one of those Knights, Jimmy Aussapile, a long-distance trucker. One night while he's on a run down South he picks up the ghost of a hitchhiker who sets him on the mystery of finding out the truth behind the disappearance of children from all across the country. His search brings him into contact with Lovina Hewitt, a skeptical Louisiana State Police investigator working the same case off the books.
The two of them, along with a handful of companions, eventually wind up in a town that doesn't exist on any map and can only be entered by invitation or magic. There they discover an ancient fertility god and the Wild Hunt and their plan to bring the world to its knees through the modern technology of broadcasting a tape with a subliminal message on it that, once aired on a TV "reality" show investigating the paranormal, will open viewers to their murderous influence.
The Brotherhood of the Wheel has more in common with Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files than it does Nightwise, although Jimmy Aussapile does have a cameo in the latter, ferrying Ballard in his eighteen-wheeler at one point in the story.
I liked The Brotherhood of the Wheel more, probably because of its focus on the mythology of the road, but I wasn't as enamored with its Big Bad. Along those lines, Nightwise was the more inventive by far. But for readers who don't like their fantasy peeled up from the floors of strip clubs, or the mats of a cage fighting arena, The Brotherhood of the Wheel is the one I'd recommend you try.
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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Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide