Tuesday, October 31, 2000

Review: "Graven Images" edited by Nancy Kilpatrick and Thomas S. Roche

Since the beginning of time, people have made statues, carvings and other images to represent whatever gods held sway in their civilization. Many of these have been swept away by the tides of time and change, but some are still with us.

In "Graven Images: Fifteen Tales of Magic and Myth" (Ace), editors Nancy Kilpatrick and Thomas S. Roche pull together stories that deal with representations of deities of past and present. Beginning with ancient Greece, Egypt and India the stories progress chronologically through modern times.

The book brings together some established fantasy and horror writers like Robert Silverberg, Tanith Lee, Jack Ketchum, Esther Friesner and Lawrence Watt-Evans, with some lesser-known names like Lois Tilton, Kathe Koja and Kathryn Ptacek. Some stories stick entirely with the theme, while others hang on by a tenuous thread, making for an interesting variety.

One of the best stories in the book has little, if anything at all, to do with deities. Lawrence Watt-Evans' "Heart of Stone" tells the story of a woman trapped in a wall of a wizard's home. When the wizard is killed by superstitious townspeople, she spends a great deal of time alone, before a con artist happens upon the ruins of the house and tries to use her for his own gain. He soon finds that the townspeople he's trying to fleece still harbor their ill will toward magic and its practitioners.

There are a number of other very intriguing tales in the collection. Lois Tilton's "The Goddess Danced" tells the tale of a young girl horribly scarred by an attack from a local bully and cast off by her family to the only people that will take her -- a family of beggars. After years of abuse from her husband's family, the girl develops a bond with the goddess Kali.

In "Shaped Stones" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, a family of orphans in the Great Depression is taken in by a wealthy magician who has designs for one of the orphans who possesses a magical gift. "Mud" becomes a mortal enemy in Brian McNaughton's World War I tale. And in Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's "Giotto's Window," a man begins to see monstrous visions of other people and his doctor is not sure he's insane.

The only low point of the book comes from veteran Gene Wolfe. His "The Eleventh City" has an intriguing idea based on a story from the fifth chapter of Mark, but it's written as a memo between a university researcher and his superior. Unfortunately it also reads like a memo, with no emotion and nothing to hook the reader.

The other 14 tales in the book more than make up for the one slow point near the middle. The book ends with a bang as three powerful tales are stacked up back-to-back. Jack Ketchum and Edward Lee's disturbing "Masks" plumbs the darker side of human nature, and what some are capable of when their faces are hidden. Kathe Koja's "At Eventide" looks at a woman given an incredible power and an opportunity to repay the attacker that gave her this "gift." Finally, Tanith Lee's "That Glisters Is" offers a dream-like view of "the other side."

In the introduction, the editors set some lofty goals for the book. They promise tales that will offer some insight into spirituality. Many of the tales in the book succeed in doing that. What the editors have truly succeeded at, though, is bringing together a collection of interesting and intriguing tales that take a look at the past, and in a few cases, perhaps even the future.

Friday, October 27, 2000

Review: "A Kiss of Shadows" by Laurell K. Hamilton

Almost every culture has tales of the folk of Faerie. In the legends, a meeting with the fey can change a person's life - sometimes for better and often for worse. Whether cruel or kind, the fey are usually depicted as reclusive and rarely encountered.

That's not the case in Laurell K. Hamilton's "A Kiss of Shadows" (Ballantine Books). Hamilton envisions a modern world where all you have to do to find the folk of Faerie is walk down the street, and the impact they can have on a human life is very limited.

After President Thomas Jefferson invited the fey to migrate to the United States from Europe, they chose a group of earthen mounds in Illinois for their court - and they have become a public fascination. So much so that often humans alter their appearances to resemble the fey.

Merry Gentry is a parte sidhe, part brownie and part human detective in Los Angeles. She also happens to be Princess Meredith NicEssus, a member of the Unseelie Court hiding from assassins sent by her aunt, Queen Andais. Merry has the double curse of being of mixed heritage and of having little magical power - a combination that makes her a target for her elven cousins.

After hiding successfully for three years, Merry goes undercover to catch a human who is using a forbidden faerie love potion to seduce and rape women. She uncovers an even darker secret - but when the suspect is killed by magic, Merry is arrested and her cover is blown. She soon finds herself on the run again.

While fleeing a group of dark fey known as the Host through the streets of L.A., Merry unleashes a terrible magical power for the first time, stunning her enemies and herself. Instead of ordering her death, the queen invites Merry to return to court and makes her an even more intriguing offer, one which earns her the hatred of the queen's son and once-sole heir Cel. But the price of the queen's "kindness" is high, and if Cel's minions have their way, it could cost Merry her life.

Part fantasy, part hard-boiled detective novel and part gothic horror, "A Kiss of Shadows" is a unique beast. Hamilton has created a fantasy world where magical beings have to handle familiar problems - traffic, delayed flights and paparazzi - while at the same time dealing with magical issues and court intrigue.

She has peopled our own world with fey races both beautiful and horrible, and then made that world real enough to hold the reader's attention. Hamilton does this mainly through a cast of interesting characters. Even her secondary players are intriguing, with distinct personalities and stories to tell.

While this is, in essence, a fairy tale, it's definitely an adult fairy tale. There are a number of graphic scenes during the course of the book, brought on by both the violence and sexual attitudes of fey society. Far from being gratuitous, though, these threads instead seem to weave the story into a more intricate tapestry.

The overall feel and mood of the novel reminds me of Anne Rice's first few vampire novels. But in many ways, Hamilton's vision surpasses Rice's, offering a richer world to be explored.

With "A Kiss of Shadows," Hamilton has managed to avoid most of the clich├ęs of the fantasy genre - and at the same time, she has laid a fertile groundwork for future tales of the sidhe court. This could be one series worth getting involved in.

Sunday, October 08, 2000

Review: "On Writing" by Stephen King

What aspiring writer could resist a book on the craft from one of the most successful authors in the world?

In Stephen King's "On Writing," (Scribner) readers may get something slightly different from what they bargained for. Instead of offering yet another instructional book on the craft, King has instead chosen to show how his life experiences have shaped his fiction.

The first half of the book is more of a memoir than a how-to-write book. In this, the most intriguing part of the book, we follow King from his childhood in a dysfunctional family, through school and his first novels, to his battle with drugs and alcohol in the early to mid-1980s. With scenes that are sometimes humorous, sometimes touching and often graphic, we get a feel for the person behind the most successful horror novels in the world.

While his story is probably not that different from many other people, if you are familiar with his work, you'll see the traces of it in his early life. When he replays some of the scenes of his childhood or young adulthood, you can see elements from a number of the stories he's written.

One of the most insightful of these stories is about the novel "Misery." Written at the height of his dependence on drugs and alcohol, it turns out the novel is a statement about his condition at the time. Annie Wilkes represents the drugs and alcohol which tortured and imprisoned King, just as Annie did the fictional writer Paul Sheldon in the novel.

Eventually, with the intervention of his wife Tabitha, King would get his act cleaned up - which brings him to the intended purpose of "On Writing."

The middle section of the book is where King gets down to the nitty gritty of the craft. He offers ideas on inspiration, work ethic and a few on editing and grammar. This section, while informative and helpful in a lot of ways, is also the dullest part of the book. With the exception of a few jabs at some of his contemporaries and the occasional humorous anecdote, it's a pretty standard how-to-write manual.

The final section of the book discusses the 1999 accident that almost killed him, his struggle with recovery and the problems he encountered when he first began to write again.

This section provides one of the most poignant moments in the book. King is laying broken at the side of the road. "My lap appears to be sideways, as if my whole lower body has been wrenched to the right," he writes.

Bryan Smith, the man that ran over King, comes down into the ditch and sits cheerily on a stump.

"Please tell me it's just dislocated," King says.

"Nah," Smith replies, still cheery. "It's broken in five, I'd say maybe six places."

"Some weeks later, it occurs to me that I have nearly been killed by a character right out of one of my own novels. It's almost funny," King writes.

Indeed Smith, or at least King's description of him, does resemble some of the characters the author writes about - as do so many other things King reveals in this book.

While "On Writing" is not likely to become a textbook for college creative writing courses, it does provide an entertaining glimpse into King's life and the things that shaped his writing. Which is, I think, what most of his fans will want out of it anyway.

Sunday, October 01, 2000

Review: "Faith of the Fallen" by Terry Goodkind

In the world of fantasy fiction, the never-ending "saga" has almost become the norm. If a writer's first book does well, it seems the series will continue until the end of time.

In most cases, these turn into downward-spiraling, longwinded and boring repeats of the same story. Or worse, disjointed collections of scenes that stretch back to the last books and ahead to future books, with no self-contained story in each volume.

I thought Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series was headed down the first route after reading the last outing, "Soul of the Fire" - a good, but far from exceptional novel. To an extent, the sixth book in the series, "Faith of the Fallen" (Tor) follows that trend, but it still manages to entertain.

The book opens with the New World still under threat from the Imperial Order, a seemingly unstoppable force that considers itself to be "bringing light" to the world. The leaders of the New World resistance, Mother Confessor Kahlan Amnell and Richard Rahl - the Seeker of Truth and the first war wizard to be born in generations - have gone into seclusion. Richard has taken his wife to his boyhood home in the Westlands, so she can recover from injuries received in an attack at the end of "Soul of the Fire."

They are happy there, but as usual that happiness is short-lived. Kahlan and Richard are soon split again when the Sister of the Dark Nicci binds Kahlan to her and promises Richard that his wife will die if he doesn't join her on a journey to the Old World.

While Richard is held captive by Nicci, Kahlan is again forced to betray Richard for what she considers the greater good. Meanwhile, Richard again is able to win over people that should be his enemies.

In all honesty, Goodkind doesn't cover much new ground with this book. He returns to familiar story lines from "Wizard's First Rule" and "Temple of the Winds," but he does it so incredibly well that the reader doesn't mind. Despite the very similar plot, I kept turning the pages as Goodkind exquisitely tortured his characters, making me believe that this time there was no way Richard and Kahlan would win.

Goodkind offers hints of hope throughout the book, only to snatch them away.

A great victory for Kahlan over the Imperial Order turns into a defeat when scouts spot another quarter of a million reinforcements joining the invading army. A look in Nicci's eyes says that perhaps she's finally getting what Richard's been trying to explain, but in the next passage that excitement is quelled when you realize she has missed the point again.

Nicci herself is an interesting character. Despite the fact that she's seemingly despicable and devoted to evil, the reader actually wants to like her. I hated her for most of the book; but at the same time, I wanted her to finally see the truth and join the "right" side.

Goodkind does tread some new ground in the theme of the book. Whether intentional or not, there are some strong statements about freedom and the value of hard work that offer a satisfying framework for a good story.

The book ends with the threat of the Imperial Order still hanging over the Midlands, and its current position on the best seller list assures we'll see a seventh book in the series.

In a genre that's dominated by writers who tend to stretch stories to much greater lengths than they need or deserve to be, I think Goodkind delivers one of the best punches. Even so, there's a limit to how much longer he can keep this story alive.

Like all such "sagas," Goodkind's series is approaching the point where everyone but the hardcore fans loses interest. Perhaps it's time to wrap up this story and move on to something else.

Realistically, that probably won't happen as long as he's hitting the best seller list with every volume - so I just hope he can infuse a few more books with the magic that kept me turning pages in this one.