Princess Alethea's Magical Elixir
Title: Fuzzy Nation
Author: John Scalzi
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
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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
Title: The Uncertain Places
Author: Lisa Goldstein
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
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
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