Letter From The Editor - Issue 56 - April 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Book Hungry
May 2007

Wizards edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
Berkley Publishing Group, 2007, Hardcover, 400 pp, $25.00

(Please be aware that IGMS's publisher Orson Scott Card has a new novella in this collection -- a bit of a conflict of interest on my end, so I'm going to be pretending it doesn't exist for the purposes of my review.)

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a fan of themed story collections.

I suppose it's horribly elitist and snobby of me, but whenever a friend shoves the latest anthology of Generic Dragon Stories at me, I just kind of cringe. (Inwardly, of course, so that they don't toss me out of the club for putting on such high-falutin' airs. But still.)

It's just ... these collections are always so one-note. Completely counter to one of the big reasons I'm drawn to Fantasy and Science Fiction; namely, the possibility of true strangeness, the possibility of looking at things in a new and wholly unique way in every story. (To be clear, this is different than a Taste for Cheap Novelty in a way that is both totally profound and conveniently impossible for me to quite describe.)

The point is, I was more than a little hesitant when I saw this anthology at Borders. Wizards? Honestly, if I wanted more Gandalf, I'd rather reread The Fellowship than slog through another new batch of stories involving the same pale witless imitations that've plagued the genre for so long.

Still, it's Dann and Dozois. Trustworthy folk. They'd never dream of abusing their powers for the cheap thrill of serving substandard work to the wide-eyed innocents who look to them for guidance in the dark alleyways of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy ghetto, would they?

Nah. Silly of me to lose the faith. The sheer number of first-rate, powerhouse authors alone should convince more than a few cynics that Dann and Dozois are playing for keeps with this one.

For one thing, even the yarns that are set in a tradition that isn't usually my cup of Aquafina are really, really good.

We get some very fine stories turned in by Garth Nix, Peter S. Beagle, Jeffrey Ford, Tanith Lee, and others -- they're not All-New-All-Different, but they're solid pieces of work. Let the artsies and the flashies redefine the genre -- these guys are content to use the Grand Old Motifs for their own purposes, twisting them into interesting shapes and managing to tell powerful tales with refreshing, um, freshness. I'm particularly fond of Beagle's entry, a dark and enigmatic work of love and lust and dance, and Ford's haunting story of a wizard's apprentice searching for eternity.

Still, perhaps because of my thirst for weirdness, I'm nevertheless drawn most powerfully to those stories that don't bother trying to fit themselves into the usual school of thought of What Wizards Should Be Like:

"Winter's Wife" by Elizabeth Hand, for instance, is truly remarkable. In this chilling tale of ancient power colliding with the present, I was utterly captivated by the sheer persuasiveness of Hand's deft narration, the sheer reality of it, the unobtrusive details that made me believe that magic might really exist in the woods of a tiny community in the Northeast. She made me breathe the same air as the characters, and it was cold as winter.

"A Diorama of the Infernal Regions, or The Devil's Ninth Question" by Andy Duncan is another decidedly unusual look at one girl's wizardry. Duncan takes magic out of the middle ages and puts it in the post-civil-war South in a story that manages to be hilarious and folksy and dangerous all at once. Pearl, the young protagonist, runs away from her freak-show of a life, pushing through a diorama and into a house full of ghosts; there are more memorable and eccentric characters in this short little work than a good many novels, and I loved every one of them, even the baddies. Heck, even the Devil's representative was a charming old rapscallion. But then, he would be, right?

And this is just a sampling, a taste, something to whet the appetite. There are far too many good stories in this collection for you to be without it; I haven't even gone over the stories of many of the big names, since you can't really go wrong with Gaiman, Yolen, Wolfe, et al. Enough for me to say that this collection is a complete success -- I know because I wasn't predisposed for it to be, and the sheer variety of commendably high quality stories still managed to change my mind.

Sounds of Your Name by Nate Powell
Microcosm Publishing, 2007 edition, Softcover, 328 pp, $18.00

This hefty collection of moody indy comics is probably not going to be found in overflowing abundance in your local bookstore.

Also, a fair portion of the short stories contained within aren't even, strictly speaking, fantasy.

Still, I urge you to seek a copy out. (Look online for the February 2007 edition, it's not hard to find at www.microcosmpublishing.com -- it's the corrected reprint of the original run, which was tragically fraught with printing glitches.)

The first thing you'll notice about this book is the fact that, unlike the teensy, flimsy, "mainstream" comics in the magazine section at Barnes and Noble, this one is a freaking tome. It's nice and thick and will take longer than ten minutes to read, so you won't feel like you've wasted your money on stories with so relatively few words.

This is because Powell has been publishing in the alternative comics scene for well over a decade, and this collection is the definitive volume of record. What we have here is a selection of vignettes, melancholy meditations on smalltown ennui, and the magic that is inherent to the tiniest of relationships. Plus talking animals and fairies. A personal apocalypse or two. Y'know.

"Invisibilities," one of my favorite stories of the collection, shows how two friends maintain the glorious myths that are believed in by so many in their small town. Dressing up as a monster and a ghost, they provide a continuation of the tradition started by strangers they never met. An exploration of the human universal of storytelling, this is a lyrical gem of a story. It sings.

In "Satellite," a man is resurrected from his television-induced zombiefication by a mischievous squirrel who forces him to look at the stars. There's a hilarious bit where two (previously wild) housecats (one sporting an eyepatch) become annoyed with their owner's rock 'n' roll friends and plot a sneak attack.

In "Autopilot," an absolutely gorgeous story, a young girl escapes from her troubles at home by drawing an entire world populated by punk fairies living in cacti, looking out at the wreckage of a crashed ship, observing the survivors who are divided with miscommunications between the travelers speaking different languages. In another, ghosts of dead friends haunt young adults trying to make sense of the world, in what is an amazingly true-to-life portrait of the malaise that so many adolescents seem to fall into. Pet birds question the motivations of their owners, and anthropomorphic animals met by a man in a snowstorm discuss philosophy.

And the art, oh the art: the black and white is very ably-designed, punching us in the gut with the sheer expressive force of characterization. People morph from cartoons to detailed portraits, the portraits exaggerated and misproportioned at times and yet perfectly appropriate. You feel like you've met these people. Powell's line varies from manic expressionism to coolly-composed realism in the space of a single panel. There are moments of wordless storytelling that are simply stunning in their power.

Alas, like many a disgruntled 'zine-er, Powell has a pretty blatant political agenda in a couple of the shorts -- but they are short enough to get past with only mild grimacing. Yes, the narrative is more than a little choppy in places as we watch him learn his craft, and because of this, the action can at times be muddied and unclear. He goes for the "edgy" shots a little too often for my liking, and some of his experimentation just plain doesn't work, especially when his manic scribbling overtakes the actual sense of the picture.

Doesn't matter. Powell is a brilliantly original voice in the comics industry, precisely because his artwork and writing are so inextricably entwined. His work epitomizes the unique power of an individual combining words and pictures in amazingly well-observed and lyrical pieces. Even the stories that aren't explicitly fantasy are imbued with a quiet magic, a sort of acknowledgment that the mundane details of washing dishes and trying to learn to communicate with a loved one are still important, still worthy of being explicated in art and story:

"It's always been the 'us'es making the magic. Was there any real magic to begin with? Myth is myth. Never to be confused with lies. And as we all know, there are no true stories."

Endless Things by John Crowley
Small Beer Press, 2007, Hardcover, 341 pp, $24.00

John Crowley has made a career out of memory.

My first exposure to his work was the short story "Snow" (in our esteemed host's own "Future on Ice" anthology, no less). A haunting vision of loss and entropy, Crowley proved he was a master of evoking a bittersweet nostalgia that made the past as real and important as the present. His Aegypt series (consisting of the previous novels Aegypt, Love & Sleep, and Daemonomania, all of which are coming back into print in the coming months if the rumors are to be believed) continues in a similar vein, in a re-imagined history exploring through a story the nature of storytelling itself.

Plot synopses of Crowley's books are never worth much, inevitably leaving out much of what is valuable about the actual experience of reading them. Enough to say that this book was at one point going to be titled "A Y," referring to the book's central idea that history is shaped by innumerable branching choices, the decisions we make every second to walk down one path or the other.

Pierce Moffet is back for a final round of rediscovering alternate histories in his books, along with friends and family old and new (I especially liked the scenes with him and his reunited father, as well as his struggles with learning how to be a regular citizen working as a factory laborer rather than an angsty novelist). However, Endless Things is more a denouement than anything else, a capstone, and while it does stand alone fairly decently, readers unfamiliar with the rest of the series should probably pick up the other three books as well and read them as a piece. Like The Lord of the Rings, this is meant to be one long adventure; plots that are left unfinished in other books are either dropped or reach fruition, ironies in this volume are not complete without their set-up in earlier volumes, new characters interact with old ones in surprising ways that won't make sense unless you've seen what comes before. So, a demure coda, rather than an overblown ending...for of course everything is endless.

The contradiction of all of Crowley's work is present as well: like a memory itself, the sense of place, of intimate moments and gestures, can sometimes overshadow the movement of the story, so that I'm left confused at times as to how the scenes link up. The narrative is constantly dissolving and reforming, recontextualizing into moments of crystal-clear beauty, resolving in climaxes that subside as quickly as they came, until we find the thread of plot again and continue on. You realize that the little thing that was bothering you because it didn't make any sense actually made perfect sense all along if you looked at it from this angle.

The intricate histories of Giordano Bruno and the Talking Ass with a cross on his back and many others unravel and unwind, until we can barely see where the strands of history and myth diverge from one another. All choices are highlighted, all possibilities known, time splits into endless Ys. Crowley's amplifications and distortions of the Mythical Egypt believed in by the old Hermeticists seems so obscenely wrong, and yet so perfect because of it, as the characters have conversations about ideas that matter.

For this is ultimately a novel about the power of ideas -- a love song to stories themselves, as we use them for our own purposes, shaping the world through our belief in them, things that are not true until we make them so. A love song to ourselves as well, we communities of people gathered around the stories we believe in without even knowing how or why we believe, enacting our rituals and magics that we don't call by their true names in order to bring some form to chaos and impose some boundaries on the nonsense in order to draw the hesitant conclusions that the frame of a story can provide.

Yes, Crowley's prose is delicious as always, but all the pretty words in the world wouldn't amount to much if they weren't describing things that are true and important: Crowley's words are describing some of the most interesting and wise truths we can know.

For history isn't science, it's the art of telling true-seeming stories. This obvious idea is explored until it's made new again, and you can feel it, the power and possibility of it. And the responsibility, too, as you realize that you're a part of the world along with everyone else, and can shape things for the better (but also possibly for the worse) with something as simple as an idea, spreading like wildfire through us all.


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