Letter From The Editor - Issue 65 - October 2018

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Strong Medicine
Books That Cure What Ails You
    by John Joseph Adams
October 2006

Wings to the Kingdom by Cherie Priest
Tor, 2006, $14.95

The battlefield at Chickamauga, Georgia was the scene of the last major Confederate victory of the Civil War, and over the course of the war, tens of thousands died there. The battlefield was later turned into a national military park, to honor those that died, which was appropriate as many of them were buried there. As you might guess, a lot of those who died might have had some unfinished business in life, so there are plenty of ghosts to go around. But the ghosts aren't the reason you don't go to the battlefield at night; you don't go because of Old Green Eyes. Old Green Eyes is a strange sort of local bogeyman who protects the battlefield from being disturbed. But suddenly it seems as though there is unrest amongst the ghosts; they make their presence known, but offer only the cryptic clue of pointing at something off in the distance.

Eden Moore is that weird local girl, you know the one: the one that talks to dead people. People are always asking her to communicate with their lost loved ones, and getting angry at her for not being able to comply (the world of the dead is a big place, after all). Since that's the case, she's naturally the one people turn to when there's rumor of ghostly activity. Eden's resistant to getting involved at first, but eventually finds herself drawn into this mystery. But she's not the only one doing some investigating; after a ghostly incident at a battlefield picnic gets a lot of news coverage, some professional ghost hunters come to town, hoping to get some new footage and a story for their television show. Despite the interference caused by the so-called "professionals," Eden soon discovers that the ghosts are uneasy because Old Green Eyes, the battlefield's protector, has abandoned his post. But why did he do that, and why now, after all these years? And how does she get him to go back?

The novel is told mostly from the first-person viewpoint of Eden, but seven chapters in, Priest introduces the third-person narrative of Pete Buford, who some seven weeks prior engaged in some activities which shed light on the mysterious goings-on at the battlefield. At first, I was a bit put off by the switch to the third person narrative, but that feeling quickly fell by the wayside, as Priest does such a marvelous job with Buford's characterization, that I could not help but get sucked into his story. And although it's clear he's an antagonist, Priest depicts him in such a way as to allow the reader to relate to him in a very real way; he's just a down on his luck guy, trying to get his life back on track, who gets caught up in something that goes above and beyond what he'd ever planned.

Although billed as the second book of a trilogy (following the excellent Four and Twenty Blackbirds), Wings to the Kingdom stands completely on its own. You should read Four and Twenty Blackbirds first, but only because it's a great book; you don't need to have read it to enjoy Wings. One unusual thing about Wings, as the second book of a trilogy, is how different in tone it is to Blackbirds; whereas Blackbirds felt like a modern take on classic gothic horror, Wings feels much more like a contemporary horror novel. Or a better way to put it might be to say that Blackbirds was more of a literary horror novel, while Wings is more of a fun and Buffyesque one. Which is not to say it is in any way inferior; Priest somehow manages both modes with equal skill.

The Last Days by Scott Westerfeld
Razorbill, 2006, $16.99

Moz and Zahler are two somewhat clueless, teenaged aspiring musicians; they've been jamming together for several years now, but they've never progressed into an actual band. Their partnership is somewhat complicated by the fact that they both play guitar; that's not even half a band. But their fate takes a turn for the better when walking down the streets of Manhattan one day, Moz encounters a crazy woman who throws a mid-seventies Fender Stratocaster guitar—along with all her other belongings—out the window of her third-floor apartment. Moz had looked askance at the other passersby who had been looting the woman's discarded possessions, but he couldn't in good conscience let the beautiful instrument smash to pieces on the New York City pavement. As it falls, he ponders how many bones he'll break trying to catch it, but the guitar strap catches on the corner of a fire escape, giving another quick-thinking musician—Pearl—the opportunity to assist Moz in saving the Stratocaster.

With this fortuitous meeting, Moz and Zahler's days of playing guitar duets are over; Pearl—who plays keyboards (and lots of other things, but that's besides the point)— suggests they jam together, and the three begin making progress toward building a band together. Of course, they need to recruit a drummer and a vocalist, and find someone to play bass, and then there's the matter of coming up with a name...

But while The Last Days is very much a band book, there's plenty of mysterious goings-on as well. Though the band members are mostly oblivious to what's going on around them, the novel takes place during that same summer depicted in Westerfeld's Peeps, meaning there's a vampire apocalypse going on. But while vampires are usually relegated to the realm of fantasy, Westerfeld explains vampirism scientifically, which makes that well-worn trope feel fresh again. There are other paranormal activities going on here that are less easily explained away rationally, but hey, when the world's ending around you, not much is going to make a whole lot of sense.

The Last Days is told via five different first-person points of view: Moz, Zahler, Pearl, and the other two members of their band, the vocalist Minerva, and the drummer Alana Ray. Overall, the technique works quite well; by delving into the first-person for each of the band members, the reader gets a much more intimate connection with each of them. Occasionally, the narrative slips into a sort of neutral storytelling mode, and you can forget which character's viewpoint you were following, but for the most part, each of the characters' voices are all quite distinct. In any case, their personalities are all very well defined, and so they feel like real people—really strange people, but still, real people—rather than characters in a story. Westerfeld throws a lot of great musical details into the story, and it's clear he (and his characters) knows what he's talking about. It's especially interesting to see Pearl work her know-it-all music wizardry to pull this rag-tag bunch into a real band.

Like the aforementioned Wings to the Kingdom, this sequel stands on its own, independently of its predecessor. And like Four and Twenty Blackbirds, you don't have to read Peeps first, but you should because it's awesome. (Or fawesome, as Zahler might say.)

One other cool thing about the book: Westerfeld added a cool little Easter Egg in the text that in retrospect seems very obvious, but was completely missed by me when I was reading it. See if you can figure out what it is.

Majestrum by Matthew Hughes
Night Shade, 2006, $24.95

In the far, far future, in Earth's penultimate age (think one eon prior to Jack Vance's Dying Earth cycle), Henghis Hapthorn, Old Earth's foremost freelance discriminator, is a man of rationality who lately has been encountering more irrationality than he can handle. You see, magic will soon take over as the fundamental operating principal of the universe. This is something that's happened regularly since time immemorial, but that doesn't mean Hapthorn has to like it.

Another thing he doesn't like is the fact that his once reliable and very artificial integrator (assistant) has been transformed into a living, breathing wizard's familiar, and has taken to lazing about and eating vast quantities of expensive fruit, not to mention becoming a bit argumentative.

But what's worse is that Hapthorn now finds himself as but one of two residents inside his own mind. But he's not crazy (or at least he doesn't think so); an encounter with magic (or sympathetic association, which is the preferred term) split the intuitive portion of his mind into a separate entity. This intuitive other is the side of Hapthorn's personality that will rise to the forefront of his "inner household" once the Great Wheel brings magic fully into ascendancy. In the meantime, he and Hapthorn argue a lot, about what's important, about how to proceed on a case, and certainly on whether or not magic coming back is a good thing. The two Hapthorns come to an agreement which has the rational Hapthorn in control during the day, with the intuitive Hapthorn control for part of the night, at which time the other pores over the library of the budding thaumaturge Bristal Baxandall. And lately, the other has become somewhat obsessed with a certain book—which is complete gibberish to him—but his intuition tells him it's important.

All this somewhat complicates Hapthorn's career, which after all, relies on his analytical skills. But that doesn't stop him from taking on a new case; in fact, it's exactly what he needs. And one comes along just in time: the aristocrat Lord Afre hires Hapthorn to investigate the relationship his daughter, Chalivire, had recently formed with a man of "indeterminate circumstances." Hapthorn is then later hired for another case, from a mysterious visitor, who claims there is a plot to overthrow the Archonate (government) and replace it with a sinister regime. This all somehow ties together with Baxandall's mysterious book, and results in a quandary much more serious than an argumentative integrator and a split personality.

Hughes has said that his two greatest inspirations are Jack Vance and P.G. Wodehouse, but one needn't have that pointed out, as their influence is obvious in his work. His novels and stories display the same sort of science-fantasy Vance is famous for, and the same kind of droll and quirky nature that made Wodehouse a household name. This results in a delightful blend of styles and makes for a immensely entertaining reading experience. His prose is ornate but very readable, always clever, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. While it's his dialogue that's the best tool in his repertoire, his narrative abilities are finely honed as well, and there are few fantasists writing today who can spin a yarn as well as he. However, I think is style is such that he tends to polarize his readers: you either love him or just don't get him.

Hughes's plots are labyrinthine in their complexity, but when rendered into a synopsis don't often succeed in conveying the fun, wit, and adventure one finds in his stories. A synopsis can promise a strange and original future, but it's more difficult to convey what it is that makes Hughes's novels and stories great: that superlative interplay between the characters. In Majestrum, much of this back-and-forth is accomplished between Hapthorn and his other, or Hapthorn and his integrator; considering that that means talking to himself and talking to an animal, it's quite an achievement to make their conversations so compelling. And I don't care if that integrator is petulant and always hungry; I want one of those.

Hapthorn first appeared in a series of short stories in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (which were collected in Hughes's story collection, The Gist Hunter); Hughes could have easily mined that character for story after story, while keeping the status quo. But instead with each new story, he built atop what had come before, and allowed the world around Hapthorn to change, forcing him to change with it. Knowing that is not necessary to read and enjoy Majestrum, but it demonstrates why Hapthorn is such a complex and fascinating character. Hapthorn was modeled on Sherlock Holmes, which is only appropriate since Hapthorn is one of the most interesting, fully developed, and original literary detectives since Sherlock Holmes.

Though this is the first book of a promised trilogy, it ends on a very satisfying and conclusive note, while promising more to come. This is a novel that's got it all: thrilling adventure, captivating mystery, and a setting so vivid and original it just might give you sense of wonder overload.

For excerpts, including the first chapter of Majestrum, visit Hughes's Archonate website.

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