Sunday, August 24, 2003

Review: "The Wolves in the Walls" by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

When the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over.

No one's really sure why it's all over, or even what it is. But they all say it, so it has to be true, right?

The wolves do indeed come out in "The Wolves in the Walls" ($16.99, HarperCollins) the latest children's book from master fantasist Neil Gaiman.

When Lucy begins to hear scratchings and rustlings in the walls of her home, she knows the wolves have come. The problem is that no on in her family believes her. When she brings it up, they all think she has an overactive imagination, and they all tell her the same thing - "When the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over."

The book gets even more weird when the wolves do decide to come out. They take over the house, running Lucy and her family out. Lucy's parents and her brothers begin to consider all of the places they can move to get well away from the wolves, but Lucy doesn't want to live anywhere but her house. When she decides to go back in and confront the wolves, everyone gets a surprise.

I've been a fan of Gaiman since reading his "Sandman" comics in high school (and no, it's not about the guy from Spider-Man that can turn himself into sand.) He's one of the most inventive writers out there. "Good Omens," his collaboration with Terry Pratchett further reinforced that opinion, and his novels "Neverwhere," "Stardust" and "American Gods" are some of the best out there.

"The Wolves in the Walls" has the same kind of twisted humor you'll find in his other books, but the story remains light enough for young readers.

Artist Dave McKean worked on the "Sandman" books and also illustrated Gaiman's other children's books, "The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish" and "Coraline." His illustrations are the perfect match for this story - creepy, but whimsical at the same time.

While it's a picture book, it might be a bit too intense for very young children. There's no violence or anything really questionable that parents should be concerned about, but some of the wolf drawings might bring a bad dream or two to the truly young. Think of it as a more intense version of "Where the Wild Things Are."

In the end, though, as creepy as the story is and as scary as the wolves may be, little Lucy finds a way to triumph by using her wits. Despite his affection for the darker stories, Gaiman manages to show children that their nightmares aren't as bad as they think, and all you have to do is stand up to them. And he does it in a way that can provide an interesting diversion even for his adult fans.

Sunday, August 03, 2003

Review: "Something from the Nightside" by Simon R. Green

The opening of Simon Green's "Something From the Nightside" ($6.50, Ace) may seem very familiar to you.

It begins in a low-rent private eye's office. You can almost visualize the black and white screen, smoke rising from an ashtray as the stereotypical private eye voice gives you the rundown on his life in monotone. Then, the shadow of a shapely female form falls of the frosted glass window. Joanna Barrett enters. She's a rich, prim and proper looker whose daughter has run away from home. She's exhausted all other avenues, and the private eye, John Taylor, is her last hope.

That's where the familiarity ends, though. You see, Joanna's daughter is lost in a place called the Nightside, an area of London that can only be reached by magical means. It's home to any number of strange and unspeakable creatures, and many of the hidden monsters of our own world go there to act on their most base desires. Despite that, Taylor feels quite at home there. He was born there.

The rest of the book resembles a very twisted Harry Potter. Taylor was orphaned as an infant and raised by a string of caretakers who didn't really want anything to do with him. In our world, he's a nobody - a cheap private eye in the low-rent district. In the Nightside, he's something of a legend, but even he's not really sure why.

Despite the striking similarities, this isn't a kiddie tale. It's dark, macabre and often violent, but at the same time has a very tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. It's both an homage to and a send-up of the classic hard-boiled detective tales.

The supernatural detective story has grown into one of the most popular subgenres in fantasy, and despite my initial resistance, it's also grown into one of my favorites. Writers like Laurell K. Hamilton, Jim Butcher and Wm. Mark Simmons have all endeared me to the genre.

Like the hard-boiled subgenre of mystery, the stories are very similar to each other, but unlike mystery, fantasy writers have a lot more to work with and a lot more leeway from readers to do things in a different way. That creates a situation where writers can put a wicked twist on the story.

Green does just that in "Something From the Nightside." His Nightside brings to mind the London underworld of Neil Gaiman's excellent "Neverwhere." But where the characters that populated Gaiman's world were a bit like twisted fairy tale figures, Green's are closer to silver screen action heroes and horror monsters. The approach is perhaps not as refined as Gaiman's, but just as much fun.

The mark of any good detective novel is whether or not readers buy into the private eye and want to read more stories about the character. That being the case, Green succeeds here. I'd love to visit the Nightside again.