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Books To Look For
Carbon, Andrew Vachss, Haverhill House Publishing, 2019, $29.95, hc
Starting Carbon feels like you're falling into a fever dream. Vachss drops you into a future world and just gets on with the story, letting you figure out what the world is, and how it got to be the way it is, on your own. It's a touch confusing but it's also invigorating and the more you read, the more things make sense.
It's refreshing to not have a pile of exposition and explanation dumped on you, to have a writer who respects the reader enough to know that they'll understand things as they go rather than having everything handed to them.
Carbon is a standalone novel, so you don't have to have any familiarity with the rest of Vachss's large body of work and can jump right in.
The titular character, Carbon, lives on the outside of every part of this otherworldly society. Pulled from incarceration, he's tasked by the government to find a killer, but the journey to do so takes him out of the relative civilization of the City and the Sector into the Pure Zone—a wild place where sorcery works, but tech doesn't. There he rescues a somewhat feral child, and his mission changes. He's still going to finish his job for the government, but his priority now is to protect the child and teach her the life lessons that he's acquired over the years.
My touchstone for Carbon is William Gibson's Neuromancer. Not so much because it and Carbon share a similar story or setting, or even for the writing style. It's more how Gibson in his time created such an immersive world, a world that was innovative and dangerous and fresh, revealing it to us through the lens of a story that needed to be told in a way that we hadn't seen before.
That's what Vachss has done here. The prose is spare—which in itself is an oddity for sf—but it lends an urgency and a real sense that we've entered a landscape and society we haven't experienced before. The style might be an acquired taste, but once you've allowed yourself to fall under its spell, it becomes highly addictive. Luckily he has a large body of work, which—while mostly outside the sf genre—is waiting for readers to explore if they love this as much as I do.
In interviews over the years, Vachss has said that he has only one story to tell and he'll keep telling it until it's no longer necessary. It can basically be pared down to: Speak truth, live truth, and always protect those who can't protect themselves. In this present climate, where thousands of children can be incarcerated in desert concentration camps with few voices raised in protest, that's a message that is more important than ever.
In Restless Dreams, Wren Handman, The Parliament House Press, $4.99, eBook
Before I actually review In Restless Dreams, let me just say from the outset that it's beautifully written with great characters and a fascinating take on the idea of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts of Faerie. That take isn't necessarily innovative, but it feels innovative, and that's more than enough for this reader.
Sylvia and her brother Eric live with their single mother in Topaz Lake, just above the Nevada/California border, a small town that Sylvia basically considers to be Hicksville. She dreams of being anywhere in the wide world beyond, which includes New York City where their father lives. But after their mother's suicide attempt, they're shipped off to live with their father, and it's not what Sylvia thinks it would be.
While Eric fits right into the new preppy high school they're attending, it's difficult for Sylvia to adjust. She finds it hard to make friends with the entitled rich kid students and starts getting into fights, wishing now that she was back in Topaz Lake.
To add to her sense of dislocation, one of the preppies gives her a brownie spiked with a hallucinogen, and it changes how she sees the world. Now she begins to see and even encounter various faerie creatures from whom she learns that she's the long awaited Phantasmer, a "human who can change the fabric of Fairy simply by believing in a new story."
The two courts want to control her gift to fight against their opposite court: the Seelie or Summer Court, which stands for Order, and the Unseelie or Winter Court, which aims for Chaos. Neither is willing to simply leave her alone, and neither seems a good choice to Sylvia, even with the limited experience she has at her command.
Sylvia, naturally enough, thinks she's either going crazy or still suffering the aftereffects of the drugged brownie she ate. But when she ends up in the otherworld of Fairy, she finally has to accept that not only is all of this real, but she's in way deeper than she can handle.
You might have sensed a "but" in the first paragraph of this review, and it might not even be an issue with most readers. The problem for me is that the first half of the book, even with its hints at faeries and magic, is basically that story of the less wealthy outsider thrust into a world of teenagers with more money than is good for them. For the most part they're mean-spirited and cruel, and honestly I'm not the demographic at which it's aimed, but I can see how it would appeal to anyone hooked on reality TV, with its "true" glimpses into the lives of the entitled wealthy.
Then it turns on its heel and becomes a pretty gritty contemporary fantasy that's utterly enthralling in how it takes on both a sense of wonder and terror. The two courts are amoral and self-centered, and one might take the earlier section of the book as a commentary on how they're not that much different from the "court" of the rich kids.
The point is I almost gave up on the book through the first half until I became fully engaged with the second. It's not even a matter of my preferring the otherworld setting more—I don't. I prefer a blend of the here and now with faerie. It's more that the moods invoked in each of the two sections really make the novel feel like parts of two completely different books that just happen to share some of the same characters.
I'll admit that by the time I was well into the second part, I pretty much forgot about the prep-school aspect of the first. But once I was done, I found myself in a quandary as to how I felt about the novel as a whole. I don't regret reading it, but I think I might be hesitant in recommending it to a friend—not because it isn't well written so much as that a large chunk of the story left me disinterested.
That said, I look forward to trying something else by this author.
Comics Will Break Your Heart, Faith Erin Hicks, Roaring Brook Press, 2019, $18.99, hc
Faith Erin Hicks's debut novel doesn't really fit into the purview of this column, but I loved it so much and it does have a tenuous genre connection, so I'm going to go ahead and include it anyway.
And besides—did I mention how much I loved it?
The title comes from a quote by Jack Kirby, the comic book artist and writer who was famously cut out of the proceeds of many of his creations because of the business practices in comic publishing at the time. He might have created such present day icons as Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man, the Avengers, and the Black Panther (and that's just for Marvel) but he got little credit or recompense beyond a per-page fee for his art.
I mention all of this because it's kind of the backstory to Comics Will Break Your Heart.
Miriam Kendrick's artist grandfather Micah co-created a smash hit comic series called the TomorrowMen with writer Joseph Warrick, but sold his rights to Warrick for practically nothing in the 1960s. In a classic struggle between legal and moral rights, legal won when the series became insanely popular, causing a deep acrimony between the families. In the present day, the Kendricks are barely able to eke out a living in their little Nova Scotian hometown of Sandford, while the Warricks live high on the hog in L.A.
When the story opens, Miriam's working in a comic book shop in Sandford. In walks an out-of-towner she's never seen before and they strike up a conversation. It's only after he leaves the shop that she realizes he's Weldon Warrick, the grandson of the hated (in her eyes) man who stole her own grandfather's legacy.
From there the story switches back and forth between the third-person points-of-view of Miriam and Weldon. Miriam starts out incensed that Weldon would have the nerve to come into the comic shop but is slowly won over by his gentle good nature—which seems a bit at odds with his bad boy image. But we learn in the Weldon sections that the trouble he's gotten into—from stealing cars to getting kicked out of schools, which leads to him being banished to his father's old hometown to live with his aunt and uncle—was just Weldon's way of trying to get the attention of his estranged parents. And it's right on the eve of the release of the sure-to-be-a-blockbuster film version of the TomorrowMen comic.
Miriam's a little jealous of how Weldon doesn't have to worry about money while she's scrimping and working odd jobs to hopefully put herself through college. Weldon's a little jealous of Miriam's closeknit family. But they get past both as, against her better nature, Miriam comes to like Weldon. (For his part, Weldon was smitten right from the start.)
Unfortunately, as will happen both in real life and stories such as these, everything starts to unravel after the pair gets into a major argument and…well, you really need to read the story for yourself.
And honestly, you'd be doing yourself a disservice to pass on this book. It's charming and funny and serious and chockfull of all sorts of things that any comic book geek will love, especially since those elements ring so true.
It's possible, of course, to research the background for any book, but if the writer is hand's-on familiar, the result can be so much deeper. That's certainly the case here. Faith Erin Hicks is a working comic book artist and writer, and that shows in every aspect of the comic book elements of the book, from how work is created through to the business side. I highly recommend her graphic novels to anyone looking for something a little different from what you'll find in the mainstream comic books.
Her own art is cartoony rather than realistic, full of motion, expression, and energy. You get hints of it in the cover art for Comics Will Break Your Heart, but I recommend you check out some of her own books, in particular Friends with Boys, The Adventures of Superhero Girl, and her recent collaboration with Rainbow Rowell, Pumpkinheads. In fact, if you already like Rainbow Rowell (particularly her Fangirl novel) that's a good touchstone for Hick's debut book and her graphic novels.
Both writers share a charming prose style, a gift for characterization and dialogue, and a deep understanding of the human heart.
Well of Magic, BR Kingsolver, BR Kingsolver, 2019, $14.99, tpb
If you've been following this column for any length of time, you might remember a few installments back when I wrote about having discovered the work of BR Kingsolver, how I liked the first book of hers I read so much that I went on and read quite a few more by her all in a row. (That might be the biggest benefit of coming late to an artist's work: There's so much you can catch up on.)
My opinion of her writing certainly hasn't changed since then.
In the first book in the Rosie O'Grady's Paranormal Bar and Grill series we meet Erin McLane as a grown woman, but she tells us in the prologue: "I was almost fourteen and had just started my menses when my parents sold me to the Illuminati," and she goes on to relate how she ends up being trained and then used as an Illuminati assassin until a task her Masters give her ends up backfiring on them. Almost all of the Illuminati perish in the subsequent destruction of their hidden city, allowing her the chance to escape and make a new life for herself.
Since that first book, and continuing through to this fourth title, she's been laying low in the small coastal city of Westport, working as a bartender at O'Grady's and, for the first time, trying to live a normal life. Or at least as normal a life as can be expected in a city filled with supernatural beings and the various politics and threats they bring to the table. But she manages to build up a circle of friends and a family of choice, and she's starting to at least feel halfway to normal. She's even planning to attend college when the new courses begin in the fall.
Throughout her various misadventures, she's been doing her best to hide from the few remaining Illuminati agents that still exist, but also from the Knights Magica, a religious order that was at odds with the Illuminati and has now decided to take over the world. They've gained the power to do so through finding a way to tap into the ley lines that circle the globe—rivers of magical energy that fuel every sort of magic—and are now taking an interest in Erin.
There's everything to love about a good urban fantasy in the pages of Well of Magic. Erin and her friends fight the good fight against the Knights Magica, but just when things are coming to a head…the book stops.
Look, I'm not a big fan of serialized stories, but if I know up front that's what's on offer, at least I have the choice of not buying it, or waiting until the whole story is available before I do buy it. What I don't like is what happened here—basically an arbitrary stop to the proceedings with an author's note that there will be more to follow in a year's time.
It's like buying a ticket to a basketball game and halfway through they kick everybody out and tell them to come back in a year to see how the game ends. Oh, and you'll have to buy another ticket.
I seem to get onto a rant about this once a year (I hope it's not more than that) but the problem just doesn't seem to go away, and I find it frustrating as a reader. Actually, I find it disrespectful.
Over time I've come to know which writers play this game. For instance, I don't buy Kelley Armstrong's fantasy books anymore. Her mysteries, sure. While they're often part of a series, each one has a satisfying conclusion. But her fantasies play this same game that Well of Magic does.
I get why authors and publisher do this. They think that readers will happily wait and buy the next book in a year, eager to find what comes next, but only if you leave them with a cliffhanger. Except I'm sure there are a large number such as myself who stop buying the author's books—or at least they'll wait until they're certain they're getting the whole story.
What this can do, of course, is lower sales, which will make the publisher decide the series isn't viable, and it gets cancelled before it has a chance to finish—something that's happened to this reader on more than one occasion. I just wish they'd trust in the worth of the books and the author's abilities. Readers are pretty loyal. If an author delivers the goods, they'll keep buying that author's books. They don't need little pea-and-shell games to be convinced that they should do so.
I suppose I'm particularly frustrated this time out because I've read a large number of Kingsolver's books over this past year and she never did this before. It came as a very unpleasant surprise when I realized I'd been duped again.
I'd recommend publishers make some note to readers that the book is incomplete, but that would spoil their whole little ploy of getting people to basically pay for a work in progress. Because really, who's going to willingly put out good money for just part of a story? Probably only the people who'll pay to see half a basketball game.
And let me add here that this doesn't mean I'm against a series. If I like the characters and the writing, I'm happy to support the writer. I also don't mind there being some larger arc with each installment finishing the immediate story but with some threads of the arc left to be fulfilled. But I don't like a book that stops because apparently it's reached some arbitrary word count and there's no consideration given to any artistic merit. Or to satisfying a reader.
All of which leaves me with the sad realization that I now have another name to add to the list of authors whose books I won't buy until they at least manage to finish a complete story.
I feel that I might have been a little crankier than usual in this issue's column, so let's end on a high note:
Stray Bats, Margo Lanagan and Kathleen Jennings, Small Beer Press, 2019, $10, chapbook
What a breath of fresh air this chapbook collection is. From start to finish I was enthralled with the wildly original takes Margo Lanagan has on storytelling.
Stray Bats is a mix of flash fiction, prose poems, vignettes, and free verse that ranges up and down the mountains of her imagination, taking the reader on unexpected journeys of inner and outer landscapes in a writing style that one can only describe as luminously earthy.
The subject material is dark and fey and quirky, sorrowful and tender and full of joy. Faerie tales and wicked witcheries bang up against common day occurrences that are viewed with a poet's eye and given to us from a poet's tongue.
The author has a deft hand at bringing characters and settings to life with only a line of two. The stories are spooled out in paragraphs rather than pages, but can still carry a punch for all their brevity. I tend to read collections in bits and pieces rather than all in one gulp, and Stray Bats is especially suited to this habit, leaving plenty of time to contemplate the story jewels and perfect turns of phrase before dipping back in for another helping. I'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite, but the one I keep thinking about is "A Small Affair" with its intriguing opening line, "I had a tiny husband, no bigger than my thumb." A whole life is encapsulated in its five paragraphs, like flipping through a family photo album.
I suppose it should come as no surprise that Lanagan's prose is so resonant and accomplished. The Australian author has produced a large number of story collections and YA novels and has a string of awards (which include four World Fantasy Awards). If you want to try some of her longer work, you could start with Black Juice, which won two of those WFC awards on its own, one for the collection itself and one for the story "Singing My Sister Down" included in its pages.
The stories in this particular collection got their inspiration from various Australian poets, and Lanagan provides a handy list at the back for readers to go to the sources and hopefully discover some new writers to track down.
The other thing I loved about this chapbook is the generous array of spot art by Kathleen Jennings. If I have the opportunity I always like to flip through an artist's sketchbook, because I'm intrigued by the rough studies usually to be found therein. Jenning's art here could have easily been pulled from her sketchbook: tiny, loosely rendered pencil sketches full of vigor and expressive linework, all of which perfectly complement Lanagan's miniature stories.
I've noticed that Tor.com will be publishing Kathleen Jennings's debut Flyaway in July of this year, but we'll have to look at that another time. For now, hie yourself to your favorite bookstore or online book dealer, grab a copy of Stray Bats, and prepare to be enchanted and moved.
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. EBooks may be sent as an attachment to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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