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Books To Look For
Your Heart Belongs to Me, by Dean Koontz,
THERE ARE certain authors I've covered often enough in this space that I probably shouldn't review any more of their books simply because even irregular readers of this column know how I feel about their work by now. Better to concentrate on new voices—writers who are at least new to me, and this column. I know there'll be exceptions, such as when an author does something completely different from their usual style (like the Roger Zelazny hard-boiled mystery The Dead Man's Brother I keep meaning to get to), or when they've raised their own personal bar.
That seemed like a good plan until I realized most of the writers I wanted to discuss today have appeared here many times before. The trouble is I just couldn't resist talking about these particular books. I'll try to stick to my resolution in future columns.
Now a long time ago, Dean Koontz played with all my expectations of what I assumed I'd find in one of his books. My very small brain can't call up the title, but many novels ago he opened a story with the heroine going out for a late night jog along a Southern California beach…and then killed her at the end of the first chapter.
I've never trusted him to keep characters alive since, which is a smart move on the part of a writer, because part of their job is to keep us guessing and turning the page to find out what happens next, fearful of what might happen to the protagonist.
Now he's gotten me distrustful all over again with Your Heart Belongs to Me.
I'm loathe to explain exactly how, for fear of spoiling surprises that you should be allowed to discover on your own, though I will tell you that the surprise isn't another sudden death. No, what he's done here has greater subtlety than that, and now there's something else that I won't be able to trust from his books.
I'll also tell you that the cover copy gives the entire wrong impression about what sort of book this is. It purports to be a thriller—and yes, there is that element, but it has little to do with what the copy tells us. What will keep you turning the pages is how one of the lead characters keeps making bad, if justifiable, choices, and how, although he "wins" on one level, the cost is far too dear.
Your Heart Belongs to Me is a deep and penetrating character study. It's not necessarily one of Koontz's books that I'll reread, but oh my, twenty-or-so pages in he had me so riveted that I pretty much had to read the rest of the book all in one gulp. And it has stayed with me, weeks after I turned the final page.
The Good Neighbors Book One: Kin, by Holly Black & Ted Naifeh,
Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson, by Patricia Briggs, David Lawrence & Francis Tsai,
Now here's something I'd like to see more: Instead of authors having their work adapted in another medium by others, they do it themselves. Or better yet, instead of adapting books or stories that already exist (for which we've already provided our own movies in our heads, so we don't need someone to show us the "correct" version), they write something entirely new, specifically for the different medium, that's still connected to their usual body of work.
It might not be so big a stretch for Holly Black, considering how she's already worked in close collaboration with an artist before (The Spiderwick Chronicles). But The Good Neighbors is more akin to her dark YA books than the simpler story she told with Tony DiTerlizzi.
The book covers some of the same territory of those YA novels—dark faeries interacting with counterculture teens—but the new medium gives it a fresh spin. I'm not entirely enchanted with Ted Naifeh's art—some panels are good, others are simply workmanlike—but it moves the story forward just fine.
A word of warning: this is the first in a series, and since it's original to this format (as opposed to a serial comic which usually comes out on a monthly basis), there's no way to tell from the book when we'll see the next installment.
Now, unless I've missed it, Patricia Briggs hasn't worked with an artist before. Here she gets scripting help from David Lawrence, which, considering her skill with plotting and dialogue in her own books, was probably along the lines of comic book pacing and panel breakdowns. Neither is something with which a prose writer would necessarily be familiar.
Briggs has chosen to bring her popular coyote shapeshifting mechanic Mercy Thompson to the illustrated page. The good news for the readers of those books is that she's decided to tell the story of how Mercy first came to live in the Tri-Cities, so we get to see her initial meetings with familiar characters from the series (always fun for long-time readers).
As the first part of a four-issue miniseries, the comic jumps right into the action, and works for new readers as well. In fact, it might work a little better—or at least it'll be more surprising—since a new reader will have the fun of trying to figure out just who and what Mercy is, and won't have any history attached to her the way long-time readers will.
And the story's everything I could have wanted it to be, showing Thompson as an untried young woman, still looking for her place in the world, but already feisty, loyal, and true.
The comic's not a complete success, at least by graphic narrative terms. I don't hate Francis Tsai's art. He certainly has dramatic flair, but he also has problems with anatomy that make some panels better if you don't look too closely at the size of limbs or certain elements of perspective, and there isn't always the flow between panels, which can make even action scenes feel a bit static.
But that's a moot point because I'm far too caught up in the story to worry overly much about the presentation.
Your local comic shop should have, or would be able to order for you, back issues that you might have missed, or you can wait for the whole series to be collected in a trade paperback.
Cry Wolf, by Patricia Briggs,
Bone Crossed, by Patricia Briggs,
This might be the month of Briggs—at least it is in this month's column—or maybe it's simply the way synchronicity strikes. But it seems like every time I turned around I found something new from her. For one thing, if you're a member of the SF Book Club, you can pick up a copy of Preying for Mercy, an omnibus hardcover collecting the first three Mercy Thompson books. I believe it's the only North American hardcover edition of these books.
She also has a lovely short story in an anthology edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Parker, Wolfsbane and Mistletoe (Ace Books, 2008). Can you guess the anthology's theme from the title? The story's called "The Star of David," and like any good story—even with a Christmas setting—you can enjoy it no matter what season. And there are lots of other good stories in there, too, though with each one featuring a Christmas background and some sort of werewolf character, you might want to dip into it from time to time, rather than read it all in one gulp.
But the real meat is Cry Wolf, the start of a new series set in the same urban fantasy world as her Mercy Thompson books. This is always a great way to keep both the writer and readers interested without straying too far from something that already works well: focus on new, or at least different characters from the original series. As readers we get the buzz we enjoyed from the original, but the sense of sameness doesn't creep in.
Here the main character is Anna Latham, a young werewolf (it's only been three years since she was turned) who was brutalized by her pack until she was rescued by Charles Cornick, one of the sons of the Marrok (chief of all North American werewolf packs).
An aside here: Anna and Charles were previously introduced in a novella "Alpha and Omega" which appeared in 2007's On the Prowl anthology from Berkley. The events in the novel start the day after the novella ends and frankly I don't understand why the publisher didn't include "Alpha and Omega" here since it adds so much resonance to what happens in the novel. Sure, the backstory gets filled in along the way, but there's nothing like "experiencing" the events for oneself.
I suppose the publishers just assumed Briggs's readers would already have read the novella (worked for me, since I had), but if they want to expand Briggs's reader base, putting the two out together would make for a much better reading experience. But I digress.
As Cry Wolf opens, the Marrok and his son are moving Anna away from Chicago, where she lives, to their home in Colorado. Part of the story is Anna's adjusting to the fact that she's no longer treated as a monster; instead, she's a cherished and important part of the new pack. She also has complicated feelings about the instant mating-bond that formed between Charles and her—their wolves bonded, but she and Charles are basically strangers. And then there's the problem of a number of werewolf killings that threaten to undo all the work the Marrok's been doing in preparation to reveal the existence of the packs to the general populace.
But while I like it when a writer goes on to try something new, let's face it, if they keep doing it right, revisiting the established characters is always a treat. I'll be honest, though. Considering the state in which Briggs left Mercy Thompson at the end of Iron Kissed (surviving a brutal rape), I thought she'd give the poor coyote mechanic a longer break than she has. But here, already, we have Bone Crossed.
The new book plays off the events in the previous novel. Marsilia, the queen of the local vampire clan, is seeking blood debt for Mercy's having killed one of her people. But since Mercy is protected by the local werewolf clan, Marsilia can't go after her directly. Instead, she targets Mercy's friends.
That would be enough pressure, but Mercy also has to deal with the repercussions of her traumatic ordeal. Matters are complicated because she's also finally accepted Adam, the Alpha of the local werewolves, as a mate; not everyone in the pack is happy with a coyote in such a position. And then Mercy gets a call for help from an old college acquaintance whose son is being haunted by a ghost.
Mercy's not sure she can help, but it seems like a good time to get out of town for a few days to let other matters cool down. She knows that ghosts can't physically harm anyone, but this turns out to be far more than trouble with a simple ghost.
Briggs handles it all well, balancing the need for dramatic storytelling with a sensitivity to what Mercy's going through that doesn't slip into melodrama.
This is what I appreciate the most about Briggs's books, how they work on so many levels: great adventure stories in the classic sense where you're actually getting a story; fascinating character studies—her people aren't cardboard cut-outs, they're full-blown individuals with captivating histories and present-day struggles; and if you peer a little deeper, her books offer telling glimpses into the world where we live, the one without magical beings.
Briggs is considered to be a part of a new urban fantasy sub-genre that's gaining heat among readers at the moment. If that's the case, then so far as I'm concerned, and no disrespect to some other fine authors working in the same field, she's the pack's alpha.
La Muse, by Adi Tantimedh & Hugo Petrus,
Maybe this is just something that nerdy teenage boys would think about, but Superman always bugged me as a kid. There he was, this being with all this amazing power. So why didn't he use it to do some good on a global scale? Why didn't he stop all the world's wars? Famine? Drought? Cure the incurable diseases with his superior intellect that always figured out some way to beat the bad guys? Sure, various writers over the years have come up with explanations, but I never bought them.
Well, if that was ever you, you'll get a kick out of La Muse.
Susan La Muse is a flamboyant political activist who just happens to have powers that rival and even surpass Superman's. She uses them on a crusade to save the world from itself, driving her sister Libby crazy in the process. Where did she get these powers? You need to read the book to find out. In fact, it's hard to say much about it at all without giving away all the good bits you really should discover on your own.
Just let me say that this is the way it should be done with such an omnipotent character. And while everything doesn't go exactly her way, she doesn't let setbacks get in the way of her mission.
La Muse is fast-paced, socially and politically aware, funny, sexy—in short, a fun book that also leaves you room to think away from its pages.
Hugo Petrus's art suits the character. It's lively and expressive and good comic art, which means that while each panel isn't necessarily a gem, the storytelling flow is terrific.
I get the sense that this was originally serialized, but I'd never heard about it until this trade paperback collection came out. Which is just as well, because I didn't have to wait a month for each installment. And neither do you.
Cheek by Jowl, by Ursula K. Le Guin,
The centerpiece of this collection of, as it says on the cover, "talks & essays on how & why fantasy matters," is certainly the title essay, a long discourse on the history and relevance of animals in children's literature. It starts with the point of view that while at one time we lived in the same world as animals (a rural world), we now live in one where for some people the closest they come to an animal is seeing a dog on a leash, maybe a bird flying high above them, or a nature special on the Discovery channel.
Le Guin goes on to explain how we need this connection to ground us properly, and that children immediately "get it." Hence the popularity of animal-based stories for children and teens. We have to be taught that humans are more important than the other animals with which we share the world.
The essay isn't a call for a return to a more bucolic time—because, for one thing, it never really existed. But there was a time when we were more aware, more respectful of other beings. What she asks is that we also give some respect to these sorts of stories, and then goes on to present a terrific reading list, complete with reasons why the books she cites are important.
The only problem with the collection—with pretty much all of the essays that go on to cover various elements of fantasy and YA, including a fascinating peek into the origins of her Earthsea books—is that it's talking to the converted. Most of us already appreciate fantasy and YA. The people who should be reading this—like the critics at whom she takes some well-earned shots—will dismiss it unread as they do any book that's a fantasy, written for children, or worse, both.
But just because we're the converted doesn't mean we won't get something out of what she has to say here. I had many a-ha moments as I was reading the various essays—places where Le Guin articulated something I understood, or believed, but hadn't put into words.
You know what I like the most about Le Guin's non-fiction? (This isn't the first such book she's written.) She's smart and erudite and never talks down to the reader, but never makes her arguments too hard to follow, either. She's good with facts, but she allows emotional content, something you don't always get in the same package.
I highly recommend this book.
Alternate Reality Ain't What It Used to Be, by Ira Nayman,
Science fiction, like comedy, can take many forms. It makes a good hybrid—the kind where the whole is just as good, and sometimes better, than its parts. Such as, for instance, when you combine sf and detective fiction. Think Blade Runner.
Ira Nayman's Alternate Reality Ain't What It Used to Be combines news stories with speculation—some sf, some simply absurd—and while its humor is often subtle, it can also make you laugh out loud.
Like the man who's being sued for being himself.
Or how the popularity of gravity is waning in the polls.
Or the news flash that the Million Monkey Project has completed its first book, but it isn't by Shakespeare.
There are pages and pages of these. And while the ideas are funny enough on their own, often it just gets better the further into the article you read.
But, and this is an important point, it's not just for laughs. When you do this sort of thing, you're also commenting on how the world is in the here and now, in our reality—just like good sf does. So while the reader might start off laughing, sometimes, the more they think about it, the more…well, they think about it, because it hits a little too close to home.
At the risk of insulting Nayman—and I certainly don't mean to do so—this is a great little volume to leave lying in the bathroom. Or on the coffee table. Anywhere people might pick it up to leaf through. And if you do, you won't be able to stop at just one entry.
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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