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Books To Look For
I DID A LOT of traveling and events over the past couple of months and found myself leaning toward the lighter sort of reading that goes well on planes, in airports, and hotel rooms. I did read some meatier books, but they were mostly nonfiction, older titles, or have no connection to the mandate of this column.
(For the curious, they included books such as Luis Urrea's By the Lake of Sleeping Children, an early poetry collection by Joy Harjo called She Had Some Horses, Jim Kristofic's Navajos Wear Nikes, and Suspect by Robert Crais. Great titles all, but.…)
Now, when I say "lighter reading," I don't mean to denigrate the effort that the authors put into their work. If it's well done, it takes just as much heart and effort to write a light thriller as it does a book that's looking to do more than entertain its readers.
But reading what I did, I got to thinking about why this sort of book lends itself so well to the situation I was in. With the proliferation of e-readers, it's not as easy to see what your fellow travellers are reading, but I still saw enough physical books to know that I'm not alone in liking lighter fare when I'm traveling.
In some ways, this doesn't make much sense. For the avid reader, it seems those two- and three-hour (and more) chunks of travel time are perfectly suited to settle in with some weighty book, the kind that unfolds at a slower pace where one can take the time to admire the language, the style, and the theme. But that doesn't seem to be the case—and it certainly wasn't the case for me.
(I know I've touched on elements of this before, so feel free to skip down to where the actual reviews begin, but I'm not trying to beat a dead horse. I'm genuinely curious as to how the book business has come to where it is today.)
Now, I like popular fiction. Always have. I like finding a writer and/or character that keeps me coming back for more. And as I mentioned above, I'm not alone in this. It's been the case for decades. But series books were different, back in the day.
One of the biggest differences is that today, it's hard to jump in cold with an ongoing series. Once upon a time, a reader could enter a series at any point and work their way forward and/or backward because each book presented an individual story that stood on its own merits. Let's call it "the Sherlock Holmes Syndrome," since that's an early and very successful example.
The pulps were full of these kinds of stories featuring colorful characters like The Shadow, Tarzan, Conan, and Doc Savage. So were mystery paperbacks, westerns, and all sorts of books.
But now, instead of being able to follow the further adventures of whatever sort of character tickles your fancy, the writers are giving us complicated story arcs that play out over a number of books (if not the whole series), with casts that grow exponentially from book to book, all of which makes it daunting to the newcomer who isn't a part of "the club."
Another difference—and not for the better—is that the writers seem to feel that they have to up the ante in each book. They seem to forget that it's the characters and their situations that the readers like, not how the protagonist is the only one who can save the city, then the country, then the world, then the universe.
The only thing that really remains is the sameness—how when one thing is popular, everybody feels the need to jump on the bandwagon. We've seen it with the pulp heroes, private eyes, space opera, sword & sorcery/heroic fantasy, Tolkienesque fantasy, cyberpunk, vampires, zombies, dystopias—you name it.
Many of those subgenres are still around, as well as johnnies-come-lately like steampunk, which took a few decades to become as popular as it is now. But the proliferation of what's called "urban fantasy" (or sometimes "paranormal") titles takes it to a new level. Or maybe it just seems like that to me.
The sameness of these books can hold a certain comfort level. The reader knows what they're going to get and can readily turn to that particular shelf in the bookstore to find it. But the problem is.…
I know I risk sounding like the old guy who never tires of telling you, "In my day we had to walk five miles to get to…" wherever. But I do remember a time where books that were striking for their originality in idea or tone didn't seem to be quite the rarity that they are today.
I honestly get confused by all these novels with similar covers that feature similar characters in similar situations to one another. Books arrive for review and I often have trouble remembering if I've already read something in that series or not.
However, with all of that said, I still like popular fiction, and I'll look to find ones that work for me, even if they're inevitably part of a series or a trilogy. They're a diverting read when traveling, commuting, or simply spending the evening at home. I just wish that writers (or in some cases, the publishers who insist on this) could at least provide some sort of conclusion to their story in each book, even if they insist on leaving a few dangling plot threads to lead the reader to the next one.
But you know what? They don't need to do that. They could trust in their storytelling ability and the likeability of their characters. Trust that these are the things that will bring readers back, again and again—not a cliffhanger, or a barely resolved ending. It worked for decades. It would still work today.
I don't have the proper accreditation for this quote except to tell you that I got it on bflteens.tumblr.com:
"Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it's a letdown, they won't buy any more. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book."
The same can be said about the urban fantasy being written today—in fact, it's quite à propos, since many of them are basically mysteries or police procedurals with a dollop of the fantastic added to the mix. People want to find out what happens next, yes, but what they really want to find out is how the story ends.
We don't usually get tidy endings in our daily life, so we never get tired of how a story arc can actually resolve in fiction.
Sadly, readers don't find that in books today. Yes, they continue to buy the books, but that's because it's this style of a story they want, and existing in its ongoing and episodic state as it does, it's all they can get.
I really wish that writers would trust in their own abilities more.
And that publishers would let them.
Stormwalker, by Allyson James, Penguin, 2010, $7.99.
I'm going to have to give away a spoiler or two discussing the full Stormwalker series here, so if you haven't already read it and are thinking you might, perhaps you should skip on to the next review. But they're not major spoilers.
Okay. Still with me?
Janet Begay is half-Navajo on her father's side, and the heritage from that part of her background makes her a stormwalker. She can tap into the power of the storms that are often rumbling in the mountains near where she lives in Magellan, Arizona, but she isn't well-versed enough in her abilities to be able to control that immense power. The only one who can help her is her mysterious boyfriend Mick, who wields his own fiery power and can't be harmed by hers.
First spoiler: Mick is a dragon. It won't come as a surprise to anyone who's read in this genre for a while, but when the reader finds out, it's supposed to be a Big Reveal.
Janet thought she first met Mick by accident. The truth is that a dragon council assigned him to kill her because the other half of her power heritage comes from her mother, a goddess/demon from Beneath.
Beneath is where the demons live—they were locked away ages ago by Coyote and other gods. The vortices around Magellan are gateways to the demons' realm, but they need someone like Janet with the power of both the above world and Beneath to open the gates. The dragons didn't want this to happen (heck, nobody wanted this to happen), hence the kill order on Janet.
But Mick fell for her, even though he knows that Janet's mother had been trying to give birth to a girl just such as Janet, one who can carry inside her both the storm magic and the powers from Beneath, and so can open the gateways.
The best thing about the first book in this series is that all of that is just backstory, fed to us when needed. When Allyson James starts her book, it's with a bang. Stormwalker isn't a coming of age novel—it's not even a coming into power one. The characters all have lives that are already underway, unlike many books where everybody seems to have begun their existences only when the story starts.
Janet has been living in Magellan for a year. She's taken on a missing persons job (finding the daughter of the old chief of police) while getting a ramshackle hotel into running order. The backstory filters through (the threat of her mother, the enmity of the dragons, etc.) but the focus starts on the two tasks until Janet has no choice but to deal with the other matters that come up.
The books feature a great supporting cast beyond Janet and her immediate family. There's Coyote the god, portrayed the way he is in many Native American stories: as a mysterious trickster, yes, but also as a good-natured ladies' man who comes and goes by his own whims, helpful sometimes, dangerous others, and fond of a good joke.
There's Crow, who has a connection to Janet's grandmother, and in later books, we also meet Coyote's wife Bear. Helping Janet fix up the hotel, we have Fremont the plumber who thinks he's more of a shaman than he actually is, and Maya the electrician who has no powers unless it's her fiery temper. In the second book, Janet gets a witch named Cassandra as hotel manager, and a vampire living in her basement—all of which provide grist for story elements.
It's not an unwieldy cast, and except for the current sheriff Nash Jones, they're all likeable in their own way.
Nash provides a bit of a quandary for me. James writes him as though the reader's supposed to like him (and all the female characters think he's hot), but he's obstinate, narrow-minded, and even a bit of a bigot. There are instances early in the first book where he's arresting Janet on more than one occasion, even though he knows she's not to blame for the offense, and then telling her he's going to send her back to the reservation. Not cool.
He does have a slightly interesting backstory—recent war vet, his stiffness of manner explained as war trauma—and he becomes useful in various plot resolutions throughout the series because magic doesn't work on him, not even the most powerful kind. But I don't understand the affection that the other characters have for him.
My only other complaint is that there's a fair amount of graphically described—often rough—sex in the series, which just gets boring. Mind you, in the age of Fifty Shades of Grey being a runaway bestseller, I'm obviously in the minority in terms of not wanting to read about that sort of thing.
Those two nits aside, this is an entertaining series that does what I asked in my introduction to this column: each book has a satisfying conclusion, and James doesn't feel the need to up the ante with each subsequent book. I guess when the whole world is at risk in volume one, you have to find other stories to tell, because where do you go after that without being repetitive?
James isn't repetitive. She finds good, interesting stories to share with us, and the reason she pulls them off is that she makes sure those stories grow out of the characters—out of their reactions to the threats and how they help each other prevail.
A last note. If you read the whole series and find yourself a little confused in the third book Shadow Walker with its references to a major event you don't remember, your memory isn't going on you. A novella called "Double Hexed" (from the anthology Hexed) will fill you in.
Sleight of Hand: Bite Back Book 1, by Mark Henwick, Marque, 2012, $14.99.
One of the things I like best as a reader is discovering that new (to me, at any rate) author who gives me the buzz that my favorite writers do. It might be the way they bring a character to life on the page. It might be their deft plotting, or an original take on an old trope. It might be the effortless forward momentum that they bring to a story, or their use of language. It's an even happier occasion when they can bring it all to the table.
I usually know just a few pages in when an author will do that for me, that sense of happily settling into the story because I know I'm in good hands.
Word of mouth doesn't prepare you, because everybody's tastes are so different. The friend that loves all the same books you do might still be lukewarm about your latest find, and vice verse.
Covers don't do the trick either. The ugliest cover can hide a gem. The most attractive cover can trick you into buying a stinker.
It's usually the happy accident that brings these books to us.
That's certainly what happened to me with Mark Henwick's Sleight of Hand. God knows the cover isn't great: a dodgy Photoshopped image of the usual "kickass" female urban fantasy character. But get past the cover and there's gold.
Now, I'll admit that Henwick doesn't give us the freshest take on urban fantasy. In the way that so many of these books do, he has vampires (which he calls Athanate) and werewolves (Weres) and witches (Adepts), all of them trying to stay hidden from human society. They follow the usual tropes: the Athanate are super strong, fast and scary; the Weres are pack-oriented and run with animal instincts for the most part; the Adepts do their magic thing.
His protagonist, Amber Farrell, is ex-military, now a private investigator. She's tough and capable and not a whole lot different from other urban fantasy protagonists either. But there's something about the way Henwick tells a story, and the veracity he brings to his characters, that had me glued to the pages from the start of the first book all the way through to the end of the second.
It certainly starts off with a bang. Let me quote from the ad copy because it sums things up so well: "For Amber Farrell…life as a PI has its ups and downs: She's been hit by a truck. She's being sued by a client. Denver's newest drug lord just put out a contract on her. The sinister Athanate want her to come in for a friendly chat. And it's only Tuesday."
What we soon find out is that on a tour of duty in South America, Amber was bitten by an Athanate but she hasn't become one herself. At least not yet. She's faster and stronger than humans, with better recuperative abilities, but she's still human. The military pulls her out of her beloved unit—the only place she's felt a part of something important—and after months of testing, drops her into civilian life where she has to make a new start.
But they keep their fingers in her life. She's required to submit to regular testing, and she knows that when the inevitable happens—when she becomes an Athanate—they'll lock her up again. In the meantime, she can spy on the local Athanate and try to find some semblance of a meaningful life for herself.
After what happens in the brief description of the opening I quoted above, things just get more complicated for her, and subsequent events introduce a great supporting cast.
These books don't have conclusions—they take more of a breathing space at the end. Basically, they're just parts of a big story, but for some reason that didn't bother me as much as it usually does. Maybe it's because they're just so darn good.
What I do know is that they're part of the reason I love independent publishing. Neither book has the kind of pacing one would expect from a major publishing house, and would probably have been "adjusted" in the editorial process, but their pacing is exactly what's needed for the story they're telling. And let me quickly assure you that if you ignore the unfortunate covers, they are otherwise professional in appearance and design.
If you don't like these books, you probably shouldn't be reading urban fantasy, because they represent some of the best the field has to offer. I still can't quite put my finger on how Henwick has made the tropes feel so fresh. I'm just glad he has.
Vortex, by Julie Cross, St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books, 2012, $18.99.
The thing about a series is that the first book has to set it all up. It feels different and interesting because we've never met the characters before, we don't know the world, and anything can happen as we figure out the rules of the world and the situation in which the characters find themselves.
The second book doesn't have that going for it. We've already had the buzz of discovery. Now we just hope that somehow the writer will match it as she continues her story.
I really liked Tempest, the first book in this series. To reiterate briefly what I said about it in an earlier column:
It's 2009, where Jackson Meyer is an ordinary college student with a girlfriend. What sets him apart is that he can also travel into the past. But what's interesting is that nothing changes when he jumps back. While he can interact with people, when he returns to his present time, those people have no memory of him. Only he remembers.
That changes the day a pair of strangers burst in on him and his girlfriend Holly. During the ensuing struggle, Holly is fatally shot. Panicking, Jackson jumps back to 2007, except this time there's a huge difference. Now he's stuck there. He can still go back to earlier times, but he can't go to a time beyond 2007.
Given no other choice, he settles in, trying to learn everything he can about his abilities and figure out a way that he can stop Holly from being hurt in the future. The easiest way to do that is for him to make sure that they never meet, but he realizes that he loves her and is determined to find another way.
In the end, he sacrifices his relationship with her so that while she'll never remember him, she'll at least be safe.
It was a pretty terrific book from start to finish, written with the assurance of a pro rather than a new writer with her debut book, and I loved the bittersweet ending.
Which became meaningless with the second book. All the freshness and fun and heartfelt drama of Tempest disappeared, to be replaced with tired old time-travel police and academy training (Jackson's now going to become a time cop himself) that goes on for far too long and honestly made me feel like I'd missed a book in between because how did any of this happen?
And Holly is now an agent as well, but she's also Jackson's enemy.
Maybe Cross had this all planned before she even began to write the first book, but I never warmed to anything in Vortex. I can't help but feel that she took a great standalone novel and has turned it into a mediocre series.
What a disappointment. However, you should still read Tempest because it's a terrific book. Just pretend it's the only novel about these characters and don't be tempted to seek out more.
Frost Burned, by Patricia Briggs, Ace Books, 2013, $26.95.
And speaking of disappointments, I've never found one in a Briggs book. There are at least ten titles featuring Mercy Thompson and related characters out now, and each one feels just as fresh as when the character was first introduced in Moon Called.
Briggs does everything right when it comes to a series. She gives us great characters, each book has a satisfying ending, and she doesn't feel the need to give us a bigger explosion/chase scene in each subsequent book. Instead, she relies on good writing and the affection with which she infuses Mercy and cast—an affection that translates to a reciprocal feeling in her readers.
So Mercy doesn't have to save the world in every book. In Frost Burned, she just has to save her husband Adam and his pack, all of whom have been kidnapped by what appear to be federal agents. We care because we like Mercy and we like Adam. And while Briggs wasn't necessarily the first writer to play with a hidden world of werewolves, vampires, and fey living alongside us, she's consistently done one of the better jobs at bringing it all to life.
You'll meet characters with previous history here, but you don't need familiarity with the books in which they initially appeared to appreciate who they are and their relationship to Mercy. Briggs has a real gift of reintroducing old cast members and situations to a new readership without boring her longtime readers.
Anybody interested in writing urban fantasy should do themselves a favor and study her books to see how it's done. Although then, of course, they'll have to figure out their own individual take.
The real point I'm trying to make throughout this column is a message to writers: trust your characters, tell a real story with a satisfying conclusion, and have faith in your readers. If you do it right, they'll come back for more. Over and over again.
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