Sunday, March 31, 2002

Review: "Vincalis the Agitator" by Holly Lisle

There is always a price for magic, and in Holly Lisle's latest, "Vincalis the Agitator" (Warner Aspect), that price is high indeed.

The Dragons, an elite group of wizards that run the Empire of the Hars Ticlarim, have a problem. They've been converting the bodies of Warreners - people raised in captivity much like cattle - into magical energy to sustain their amazing cities that float in the air or hide beneath the waves. But that energy isn't enough anymore. They need more power, so they turn to a darker fuel source - the burning of souls.

Wraith was born in the Warrens, but for some reason was immune to the magic in the wayfare - drugged food that's pumped to the Warreners to keep them mindless and docile. When he's caught stealing bread in the Aboves, he stumbles into the home Solander Artis, a member of a highly placed Stolti family and son of a member of the Dragon council. Solander is intrigued by Wraith's immunity to magic and offers to free him and his friend Jess from the Warrens in exchange for the opportunity to study him.

Years later, Wraith, now known as Gellas Tomersin, continues his quest to free the Warreners. He produces a number of plays from a mysterious playwright named Vincalis that are intended to make people think about the luxuries they have and how they're powered.

At the same time, Solander is working on a new form of magic that doesn't require the sacrifice of others. But a shadowy group of leaders known as the Silent Inquest knows about their efforts and has decided that they are a threat to the power of the Dragons. Things are about to get ugly.

In "Vincalis," Lisle takes a trip back in time in the world of her popular "Secret Texts" trilogy. The book illuminates the history of the Dragons and the origins of the Falcons and their holy books, the Secret Texts. Aside from the history lesson about the world of Matrin, it's also a very good story and easily accessible to those who may not be familiar with her previous work.

The book was originally planned as a three-book, 600,000-word epic, but was trimmed down through what Lisle calls a "brutal" process. The result is a tightly-plotted, action-packed tale that will take readers on a roller coaster ride of emotions.

Lisle mingles classic fantasy adventure with the feel of a science fiction novel and even mixes in a touch of horror. The book also has some statements to make about political corruption and social segregation. Oh, and don't forget about the Illuminati-like Silent Inquest.

The characters are realistic, sharing the same conflicts that most people deal with, while also striving to change the world. Though their actions are occasionally frustrating, the characters command the sympathy of the reader.

Over the past 10 years, Lisle's work has gotten better with every book, and "Vincalis" continues the trend. I can't wait to see what she has in store for the future.

Interview: Holly Lisle

With 21 novels published in the last decade, you'd think fantasy author Holly Lisle might be ready for a break. But actually, she's working just as hard as ever.

Lisle's latest novel "Vincalis the Agitator" was released earlier this month by Warner Aspect, and another novel "The Memory of Fire" is set for a May release from Avon Eos. She's just finished up a second novel for Eos called "The Wreck of Heaven," and she's currently hard at work pitching her next work to Warner.

Such is the life of the full-time writer - not the glamorous life that many people might envision.

Lisle says there's a common misconception that the writer's life "involves any sort of elegance or grace or adulation by the beautiful people." In fact, she says, it's work - and if you think it's a quick way to become rich and famous, think again.

"My day involves sitting by myself in a dark, cramped workspace, thinking up a story and putting that story on the page, while dressed in sweatpants and baggy T-shirts. There is no filet mignon, no butler, no maid, no champagne, no smoking jacket," she says.

"I work long, hard hours, and when I go to the bookstore, no one recognizes my name from my check and asks me to autograph the books in stock. No one comes up to me in restaurants and tells me he's read my latest. It's a very quiet, private life."

That description may sound a little grim to some, but Lisle says she has no regrets about her choices. She admits that the life of a fantasy writer is unlike any other career you'll come across.

"Your job as a fantasy writer is to think up things that not only never happened, but that never could," Lisle says. "You put them on the page, and then hope that people will pay for the privilege of reading your mind to keep you fed and under a roof. I wake up mornings and am just amazed by the utter weirdness of that."

Lisle left a stable profession to take up the uncertainty of the writing life. She was a registered nurse, but said she cared too much about the patients. Add to that an unhappy marriage, and she was becoming a wreck. She began searching for a way out.

"If you let yourself care about your patients as people, nursing will eat you alive - and it was devouring me," she said. "I needed an escape hatch, and reading wasn't working anymore. I started writing and found something that spoke to me more deeply than anything I'd ever done in my life."

So Lisle took the leap of faith. When she got an offer for a three-book deal, she was so confident of her eventual success that she quit her day job, burned the uniforms in the backyard and didn't keep up her continuing education credits.

"I burned those bridges flat, removing all chance of retreat," she says.

That's not to say she didn't have some second thoughts along the way. Especially in what she calls "nightmare spots" where money was tight and ruin was just around the corner.

"It's a good thing I didn't know when I jumped how hard it would be. If I had seen the future, I don't know that I would have had the nerve to take the plunge," Lisle says. "When it got hard, I looked back on the steady paycheck of nursing, and all I can say is it's a good thing that I did burn my bridges. I might have given up otherwise."

There were second thoughts, but never regrets, Lisle says.

"It's been a roller-coaster ride so far, and the future beckons with the promise of more to come," she says. "It's still uncertain. It's going to be uncertain until the day I die. I think that if I live to be very old, I will look back on my life happily, knowing I gave it a good run."

But Lisle has reason to be excited about the current state of her chosen field. Three of the top films of last year were "Shrek," "Harry Potter" and "The Fellowship of the Ring" - all fantasies. And "Harry Potter" is introducing a whole new generation to the genre.

"Some of the kids and adults who love `Harry Potter' will come looking for `more like that,' and will discover the vast and varied field that is fantasy - and that's a very good thing," she says.

Lisle points out the variety of the genre, which includes the epic tales of J.R.R. Tolkien, the disturbing visions of H.P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker, the erotic dark fantasies of Laurell K. Hamilton and Anne Rice, the literary works of Ursula K. LeGuin and Samuel R. Delaney and everything in between.

"Any field that can house (those authors) under the same umbrella is going to have something for anyone who dares come looking," she says. "Fantasy is an exciting field with wide-open creative opportunities.

"From a writer's point of view, fantasy gives you more chance to completely fall flat on your face and fail than anything else, but more chance to succeed on your own terms, too."

Lisle is still looking for that breakthrough book that propels her to the top of the fantasy field. But even if that never happens, she'll still be happy if someone remembers her work in years to come.

"I want to write books that still have something to say a hundred years from now," she says. "I want to touch lives, make the world a better place, leave something behind that will continue to matter long after I'm dust."

And so what if Holly Lisle never becomes a household name?

"I may fail at everything I set out to accomplish, but I know what I want," she says. "I'm fighting to make it happen, and when I die, I know I will have given it my best run. Because of that, no matter how it all turns out, I will not have wasted my life."

Sunday, March 17, 2002

Review: "The Barefoot Fisherman" by Paul Amdahl

I still remember fondly the days of laying my fishing pole over the handlebars of my bike and pedalling down the road and into the woods for a few hours. I had my choice of a tiny pond or a drainage canal and either one held just about all the sunfish I could catch. Of course, none of them were big enough to keep, but it was still great fun.

When I opened Paul Amdahl's "The Barefoot Fisherman: A Fishing Book for Kids" (Clearwater Publishing), I was transported back to those days with the first lines, which introduce us to a young boy trudging out to a pond, full of hope that this time he'll bring home the prize catch. Much like the boy in the book, even though I knew there was no chance of that, I still left home hopeful on every trip.

In the early part of this book, Amdahl rekindles that spirit of youth before launching into a serious explanation of fishing tools and tactics.

"The Barefoot Fisherman" takes kids through a thorough explanation of everything they'll need to get started fishing - from rods and reels to bobbers and lures. Amdahl then discusses some different species of game fish and the best strategies for catching them.

The topics of the book brought back a lot of childhood memories. Even though it's been a long time, I still fondly remember my Zebco 202. And what fisherman doesn't remember raking around in the dirt in search of some plump, juicy nightcrawlers?

If you're an adult, don't expect anything earth-shattering, though. For those of us who have been fishing for 20 years or so, it's pretty basic information. But thinking back to when I was 9 or 10 years old, I realize I would have loved to have known all of this.

For example, Amdahl talks about walking lightly around the edges of a pond and being careful not to cast a shadow on the water, because fish might think it's a predator. I thought of all the times I not only tromped loudly around my fishing area, but even waded out into the pond to reach another location. And I've never given consideration to my shadow. Hmm ... maybe there were some big fish in that pond, but I was too clumsy to catch them.

There's a good bit of information on trout in the book that won't be very helpful to young fishermen in this area. But who knows? They may have a chance to use it one day.

The book could have been made a little more entertaining through the use of more anecdotes, but information is its primary purpose - and "The Barefoot Fisherman" serves that purpose well. It's a book that will enhance the tackle box of any beginning fisherman.

Sunday, March 10, 2002

Review: "Bones of the Earth" by Michael Swanwick

My introduction to Michael Swanwick came with his acclaimed novel "The Iron Dragon's Daughter," which took the conventions of fantasy and turned them on their heads. Now he's back with "Bones of the Earth" (EOS), a book that may do the same thing for the time travel story.

When Richard Leyster gets a job offer from a mysterious visitor, he scoffs at it. He isn't about to leave his prestigious position at the Smithsonian on the sketchy details the man named Griffin gives him. That is, until he opens the cooler the man leaves behind.

In the cooler, he finds the freshly-severed head of a stegosaurus. It's an invitation that he can't refuse.

When Griffin visits him again, Leyster becomes part of a team of paleontologists recruited from different time periods to study dinosaurs in their natural habitat.

When word of the ability to travel through time leaks to the general public, not everyone is happy. Radical religious groups see it as a threat to their beliefs and take steps to stop it - including sabotage from within. One arrogant and manipulative scientist uses the opportunity to further her own ambitions. But she finds an even darker secret waiting at the end of the line, in the form of the beings who gave us the technology.

With "Bones of the Earth," Swanwick offers a story that is part "Jurassic Park" and part Ray Bradbury's "Sound of Thunder." It mingles the wonder and fascination of a visit to the world of dinosaurs, but also explores the consequences of using the technology.

Swanwick tosses out many of the accepted "rules" of time travel that have become standard in science fiction. For example, not only can a person meet himself in the past or future, but as in Griffin's case, an older version of a person can be the younger version's boss.

All of this makes for a tangled web of a plot that twists, turns and sometimes folds back on itself. There's plenty of intrigue, mystery and backstabbing to go around.

Despite the fact that he's weaving a story with multiple time lines and multiple versions of the same characters, Swanwick keeps it easy to follow. The story is satisfyingly complex, but you won't get lost in the different threads.

I was also entertained by the some of the names applied to the newly-discovered dinosaurs. Swanwick works in tributes to other authors, as well as a few jokes. I was particularly fond of Cthulhuraptor.

Swanwick is one of a new breed of fantasy and science fiction writers who have a respect for the authors who came before them, but don't want to follow in their footsteps. With "Bones of the Earth," he continues to blaze his own trail - taking the elements that readers expect and twisting them into things that are a little different, but still engaging.

Sunday, March 03, 2002

Review: "Hopscotch" by Kevin J. Anderson

Don't like your body? Imagine being able to find someone who is willing to swap with you and trying out theirs for a while. Imagine a frail person being able to rent a more muscular body to do some work around the house, or an older couple renting a pair of younger bodies for a vacation in their golden years.

Those things and much more are possible in the future world of Kevin J. Anderson's "Hopscotch" (Bantam Spectra.)

For some reason, humans have evolved the ability to separate their consciousness and trade bodies - hopscotching. Some theorize that the ability developed through years of people uploading themselves to virtual reality areas of the 'Net, but in truth, no one's really sure how it came to be.

As one might guess, the ability to hopscotch has opened up a whole new world of moral, ethical and legal dilemmas - not the least of which is what happens to children who are conceived by one person, then delivered by another inhabiting the same body. Falling Leaves is a monastery that takes in children in that situation. Four friends - Garth, Eduard, Teresa and Daragon - have recently been released from Falling Leaves and are now trying to make their way in the world.

Garth, the artist, hopscotches from body to body looking for inspiration. Eduard makes good money by enduring unpleasant experiences - like dental procedures, illness and surgery - for others, while they wear his healthy body. Teresa, the philosopher, hops from job to job, searching for meaning in her life.

But the most interesting is Daragon, one of the rare few born without the ability to hopscotch. But he has another ability - to see the real person, no matter what body they're wearing. That makes him invaluable to the Bureau of Tracing and Locations, this world's equivalent of the FBI. When someone commits a crime and then tries to escape by hopscotching from body to body, it's the BTL's job to track them down.

So far, the four friends have navigated this strange new world, looking out for each other. But when Eduard's job as a personal trainer to the head of the BTL goes bad, they're in danger of being ripped apart.

With "Hopscotch," Anderson has delivered a fantastic tale that's at times heart-warming and often disturbing. He has incorporated the best aspects of humanity and the darkest side of human nature in one story, which will have the reader alternately cheering and despairing.

The story itself is a little slow to start, but the concept and the characters are so fascinating that the reader hardly notices. Once the plot does get going, it's a footrace to the finish, without a slow moment.

Aside from the imaginative ideas and sense of wonder in "Hopscotch," Anderson also has some serious statements to make about love, loyalty, friendship, duty and what really matters in life.

Anderson has offered up a bleak vision of the future where individuality has slipped through the cracks and morality has flown out the window. But he balances that with the bright light of hope and the reassuring warmth of friendship.