Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Princess Alethea's Magical Elixir
  Book Reviews by Alethea Kontis
April 2011

Title: Fuzzy Nation
Author: John Scalzi
EAN: 9780765328540

Admit it: it's a strange title. I figured it was about animals (a lot of animals), or a bunch of fetishists, or a country of very hirsute folk. Regardless of the title, I am a pretty big fan of the author (both on and off the page), so I jumped at the chance to get my hands on a review copy. When the book arrived, the illustration on the front had a man in a futuristic flight suit sitting with a funny little guy that looked like a cross between an Ewok and a Mogwai (the Gremlins, not the band). I did not look anything up on the internet, nor did I flip the book over and read the back. It was a John Scalzi book, it was SF, and that was all I needed to know.

In fact, if you're a fan of John Scalzi's work, don't waste your time reading this review. You probably already have a copy of the book on preorder; when you get it, just open it up to page one and start reading. You know John's going to deliver quirky characters and quirkier dialogue; just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Sometimes I think we live in a world of Too Much Information. It's gotten to the point that when you sit down to watch your favorite TV show, the following happens: First, you see a preview for the show you are about to watch, containing possible spoilers about the episode ("Tonight, on Storage Wars"). Then, before each and every commercial break, there is a preview for what's going to happen directly after the commercial break -- including more possible spoilers -- so you won't be tempted to change the channel. ("Coming up, on Top Shot . . .") Finally, at the end of the episode, they spoil the next episode ("Next week, on Ax Men"). Like they don't trust us to continue watching. For one week, or three minutes.

Thankfully, books haven't reached this point. Yet. In the two straight days it took me to read Fuzzy Nation, I didn't need someone tapping me on the shoulder wearing a neon sign that flashed, "NEXT UP, ON JOHN SCALZI'S FUZZY NATION." (Though, to be perfectly honest, if such a thing were possible, John would be the one to do it, just because he could.)

For those who need previews: Fuzzy Nation is the story of Jack Holloway, independent contractor/prospector for ZaraCorp, and his dog Carl. Through a series of mishaps, Jack stumbles onto a major vein of insanely valuable sunstone. That night, Carl befriends an incredibly cute cat-like indigenous creature that finds its way into Jack's house. Between the relative worth of the sunstone, the possibility that the "fuzzies" could be an intelligent species, and Zarathustra's hostile environment (both human and non-human), Jack finds himself in one serious mess.

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The first third of the book barrels through quickly, and once you've fallen in love with the characters, it's hard to stop. The middle of the book becomes a bit "talking heads" -- one of the characteristics of classic SF short stories that I dislike greatly. As Fuzzy Nation was inspired by "Little Fuzzy" by H. Beam Piper; perhaps the format is similarly inspired. The saving grace here is that it's Scalzi dialogue, full of clever twists and turns and zingers that made me laugh out loud (and never feel awkward about it). The book easily could have been bogged down with legalese, or become heavy-handed with environmental or animal rights soap-boxing. It toed the line, but pleasantly did neither. I also found the ending, while possibly predictable, delightfully satisfying.

Can the fuzzies be described as sentient? Will Jack make millions on this score or lose it all? Will Jack get the girl? More importantly, will ZaraCorp let Jack and the fuzzies survive the week? Find out next month, when Fuzzy Nation releases nationwide.

Title: The Uncertain Places
Author: Lisa Goldstein
EAN: 9781616960148

Sometimes there is magic in every day life. It's there; you just have to find it. Are your eyes open? Are you concentrating? Because once you start to see it, you'll never stop. Take Lisa Goldstein, for example.

At the beginning of March, I hit a bit of a wall in this fairy tale novel I'm working on. So I decided to do what most red-blooded authors do in this position: more research. I consider myself fairly well-versed in more fairy tales than you can shake a stick at, but I know I haven't read them all. I needed to go back to the source. I've already taken on the project of podcasting all the Grimms' tales, so I took out a notebook and concentrated on the Lang fairy books (at least, the three volumes that managed to make it out of storage). I plowed through the Crimson Fairy Book and went straight on to the Red Fairy Book . . . and stopped at the introduction.

In the introduction, the editor of the version I have pointed out that four of the tales from the original 1890 printing had been left out. An explanation as to why these stories had been omitted was promised in an Appendix, but upon reading the Appendix, each omitted story's entry referred the reader to another entry, with no explanation whatsoever. It was maddening. I finally forced myself to stop fretting and start reading the stories I did have. But I couldn't stop thinking about those missing ones.

A few days later, Charlene Brusso at Tachyon Publications -- a fan of this column, hooray! -- sent me an email telling me about a new book they had coming out that would be right up my alley. The Uncertain Places, by Lisa Goldstein, about a long-lost fairy tale discovered by the Grimms' and then suppressed for centuries.

Nope. Not kidding.

The Uncertain Places opens with Will Taylor's first encounter with the Fierabend women: the mother, Sylvia, and her daughters, Rose, Livvy, and Maddie. Will and his best friend Ben double-date elder sisters Maddie and Livvy for a while. Will gets used to the eclectic family's lifestyle ("eclectic" in the 70s is saying something). The two young men finally stumble onto the fact that the Fierabend family is laboring under a curse, and has been for centuries. This deal with the fairy folk was made long ago and leaked to Wilhelm Grimm, who wrote it up as "The Bondsmaid," at which point the family went through great lengths to hide the tale from the world. The Uncertain Places chronicles the Fierabend family's life over the decades, Will's fight to release them from the fairies' bargain, and the philosophical question of whether or not he should.

The Uncertain Places is an absolute pleasure to read. The reader joins the Fierabend family right along with Will; I was just as anxious to see what happened next as I was to discover with them what happened before, and how the original bargain came about. I wanted to pull all my fairy tale volumes off the shelf and access an OED and research the bondsmaid's tale, even though I knew it was just a story. Goldstein makes this story real. Her masterful telling melds fairy magic with the contemporary world as if it were something she sees every day. Like some of the rest of us.

I enjoyed The Uncertain Places from beginning to end, and recommend it to any of you who are fledgling (or not) fairy tale scholars yourselves. I look forward to reading more of Lisa Goldstein's fantastic work in the future, under considerably less creepy circumstances.

Read more by Alethea Kontis


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