Sunday, November 25, 2001

Review: "Coldheart Canyon" by Clive Barker

Clive Barker's latest novel is a departure for the modern-day master of the grotesque, and it takes no more than a glance at the book to realize it.

The cover of "Coldheart Canyon" (HarperCollins), which features the author dressed as a 1920s socialite, seems odd to someone who is familiar with Barker's previous works. I did a double take when I saw it, wondering if perhaps he'd written an autobiography. Not quite. While some parts of the book could possibly be autobiographical, it's still filled with the fantastic elements his fans have come to expect.

Barker has built a reputation as the writer who picked up where H.P. Lovecraft left off, bringing all of the slimy things that lurked in the shadows of Lovecraft's world into the light. It could be argued that in "Coldheart Canyon," Barker brings the slimy things of our own world out of the shadows.

Just outside of Los Angeles, hidden from the world, there is a canyon that hides a secret. In its heyday in the 1920s, Coldheart Canyon - so named for its owner, silent film actress Katya Lupi - was the site of the most perverse and decadent parties in Hollywood history. But those days are long forgotten by most.

Todd Pickett is an action star who, at the age of 34, has passed his prime in the eyes of most of Hollywood's elite. When a producer hints that he might green-light one of Todd's projects if he'll get a facelift, the actor undergoes the surgery - with disastrous results. An allergic reaction to one of the chemicals leaves Todd disfigured and in need of a hiding place while he heals. An associate of his agent recommends Coldheart Canyon. It seems ideal, but Todd soon finds those parties of the '20s are still roaring at the mansion.

Long-dead Hollywood stars haunt the valley committing various acts of depravity, while the still very much alive Katya Lupi roams the house, keeping the spirits out and claiming its secret as her own - until Todd arrives.

Enamored of Todd, Katya leads him to a room in the bottom of the house that opens on another world - a world where a Romanian duke and his party have been doomed to hunt forever by Lilith, the Queen of Hell. It's up to Todd and Tammy Lauper - an obsessed fan who is discovering that her prince isn't so charming - to close the door and set the cursed spirits of Coldheart Canyon free.

While the story is essentially a horror tale, the real focus is on Hollywood. Barker skewers the superficiality, vanity and avarice of the place with a book that could well ruffle some feathers in Tinseltown. Famous faces - both dead and alive - make appearances throughout the book, many in compromising positions.

While the book focuses on Todd, it's Tammy who is the real hero. At the beginning, she seems pretty pathetic in her hero worship of the actor. By the end, she's seen the fantasyland of Hollywood up close and the golden sheen has been tarnished. She's transformed into a practical, no-nonsense character who is much more likeable than the obsessed fan club president we encounter at the beginning of the book.

As a warning to the squeamish or easily offended, there are some very graphic scenes in the book, some of which are probably unnecessary to the plot. But it is a Clive Barker novel - and that's to be expected.

In all honesty, "Coldheart Canyon" is not likely to be ranked with Barker's best. It seems like more of a personal book - something he just wanted to write. Still, it succeeds as both a horror story and a satirical look at some of Hollywood's "dirty secrets."

Sunday, November 04, 2001

Review: "The Bone Doll's Twin" by Lynn Flewelling

So long as a daughter of Thelatimos' line defends and rules, Skala shall never be subjugated.

The words of the Oracle led to prosperous times for the kingdom of Skala when they were heeded, but that's all changed. Following the death of mad Agnalain, the last queen, her son Erius ascended to the throne - but he proves just as mad, putting all female children of the royal line to death to avoid the prophecy. In the meantime, Skala has suffered droughts, plagues and attacks, and many of the people are beginning to remember the words of the Oracle.

In "The Bone Doll's Twin" (Bantam Spectra), Lynn Flewelling returns to the world of her popular Nightrunner series, but she explores a different side of it - a darker side.

Prince Tobin was born female, but his true identity has been hidden - even from Tobin himself - by a dark spell cast the night he was born. Hidden away from the world and haunted by the spirit of his dead twin brother - murdered at the time of their birth - Tobin is the hope for the small group of co-conspirators that know the truth and hope to bring prosperity back to Skala.

But first Tobin has other issues to deal with. Not the least of which is a crisis of identity.

"The Bone Doll's Twin" shows a maturing in Flewelling's writing. While her previous Nightrunner books were rollicking adventure tales that focused on the exploits of the likeable rogues Seregil and Alec, this one is darker and more somber. While it has its share of adventure, it's more of a coming of age tale. And for obvious reasons, Tobin's coming of age is more complicated than most.

As she did in her previous books, Flewelling pulls issues from our own society into "The Bone Doll's Twin." Gender roles and identity feature prominently in the story line, just as they did in the first Nightrunner novels. They're subjects that Flewelling handles well, and often in thought-provoking ways.

If I can find a complaint with "The Bone Doll's Twin" - and, in truth, I can't - it would be that it's typical of first books in a series. There are a lot of loose ends left hanging, presumably to be resolved later. But those same loose ends also hold a great deal of promise for future volumes.

Flewelling's Nightrunner books are popular among fantasy fans for a very simple reason - they're good. "The Bone Doll's Twin" continues that trend, and I look for her to be a major force in the future of fantasy.