Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Book Hungry
November 2007

Dreamsongs: Volume One by George R. R. Martin
Bantam Books, 2007, Hardcover, 683 pp, $27.00

Alright, I confess: I have yet to read A Song of Ice and Fire.

Wait, don't eat me.

It's not because I haven't wanted to, mind you. I am a good little fad-sheep, after all. No, it's more along the lines of: I read the first couple chapters at Powell's Books and loved it so much that I knew I'd read the whole stupid epic in a weekend if given half a chance, but it wasn't finished yet. Still isn't.

This is maddening, you understand.

To keep us just a little bit sane, Martin has kindly gathered up all his stand-alone short stories into two mammoth volumes -- split in half from the utterly backbreaking Subterranean Press one-volume edition from a few years back. (Volume One is still a little backbreaking, but they're hairline cracks rather than compound fractures.)

This is the volume of record -- practically every major story Martin has written is included, subcategorized by the genres he's worked in (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) and shuffled into a vaguely-chronological order:

The first two sections deal with his previously-unpublished amateur work and his early pro work. Most of these stories are unintentionally hilarious, overwritten, under-focused, and just plain ol' bad. Really, really, bad. The good part is that although Martin obviously cared deeply and passionately about the stories when he wrote 'em (and still probably has fatherly affection for them despite their purple-prose deformities), he also possesses a great sense of humor about the whole business, and seems to be saying "Hey, these were stinkers, but they were my stinkers, and the best I could do at the time. They helped me grow and earn the skills it would take to write my epics."

That's really what ties the diverse tales in the book together: Martin's introductions/commentaries/autobiographies sprinkled liberally throughout the whole thing and his ever-increasing mastery over the short-story form.

The Second Kind of Loneliness and With Morning Comes Mistfall are the first of his stories to show the ache of melancholy that would later suffuse his work, and they are not-coincidentally the best of these early stories. The first deals with isolated space voyagers, the second with businessmen who take the mystery out of alien worlds and their fauna, and they're both hints of what is to come.

It's with the "Light of Distant Stars" section and onward that the book really starts to sing. My favorites from the latter half of the book:

A Song for Lya, of course -- completely unsurprising that this won a Hugo and was nominated for a Nebula; it's one of the most powerful stories about communication and love I've ever read. Dealing with two "empaths" who read people's feelings and become entangled in an alien race's strange religious ceremonies, this is an absolutely heartrending meditation on individuality and society and acceptance. The aliens are a sort of stand-in for religious communities, and the fact that their God is non-transcendent and corporeal doesn't take away the majesty and the horror and the beauty of the idea. All the complicated moral dilemmas about the balance between the needs of the community in conflict with the needs of the individual come into play. Martin explores the clean bright joy in truly belonging to a society and knowing it, and knowing that the others know you too, as well as the hidden sadness and power belonging to those who are outside. I want to live forever among people who take these kinds of hard questions about love and relationships seriously, and this story is a starting point for discussion, for learning to bridge that impossible gap between people.

This Tower of Ashes, while much slighter that Lya, is still a gem. The main character has exiled himself after heartbreak to a world in which he can be master of all, most especially his memory of the events that led to his heartbreak in the first place. He builds his lies about what really happened into a kind of tower, lies to live by, fictions to allow reality to be bearable, until they're smashed apart by the arrival of the lover from his past. It's painful but necessary to watch his disintegration.

And while Martin's fantasies are wonderful (The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr and The Ice Dragon are both melancholy enough to earn my depressive love), what I was least expecting to be impressed by was the "Hybrids and Horrors" section, which ended up being my favorite chunk of the book. Part of the reason might be what the section-title refers to, the fact that these stories are all strange combinations of genre -- science-fantasy-realistic-horror-fiction, if you will. I guess I just tend to be drawn to the weirdness:

Meathouse Man is an absolutely brutal look at the narcissistic annihilation of a man searching for love, his endless circles of loneliness, his efforts to try to reach out and touch someone, his inevitable spiral of festering despair. It works as a kind of fantasy-ish science fiction, what with the concept of teams of reanimated corpses being controlled by the will of a living person to do manual labor, but it's much more a metaphor about love and loss and quiet betrayal. I can easily see how deep Martin must have opened a vein to write this one; what's incomprehensible to me is why our boy Harlan Ellison never selected it for that last Dangerous Visions collection. This story is about nothing if not the danger of losing your dreams.

Sandkings, of course, is the story Martin is most associated with after Ice and Fire, and it lives up to the reputation it built for him, dark and morally-complex. But I was just as horrified by The Monkey Experiment (I told my roommate the bare gist of the story, and she was nearly as freaked out as I was) and The Pear-Shaped Man. In these, Martin takes everyday situations (the battle of losing weight in Monkey and the moving-into-a-new-apartment-with-creepy-neighbor in Man) and runs with the bizarreness of his fantasy elements until the horror is almost unbearable. It's not gory, it's not dumb, it's psychoses-inducing and disturbing.

I don't know about you, but sometimes I need a little of that to shake me out of my complacency. Keep 'em coming, brother.

The Ivory and the Horn: A Newford Collection by Charles de Lint
Orb Books, 2007, Softcover, 318 pp, $14.95

So here's a shiny new edition of an oldish book:

Newford is a place where magic lives in the gutters instead of the forests, where bag-ladies and cops have as much connection to the Mysteries as any witch or warlock. A melting pot of every religion and mythology imaginable, all of them weaving together in strange ways without overtaking the reality of the city's nightlife.

C'mon, people, it's de Lint. He's been doing this for ages and doesn't miss a beat in this one.

A rotating cast of semi-recurring characters populates this group of related short-stories; we get their lives mostly in the margins, by the mentions they make about each other in offhanded comments. Some of the characters don't even get full stories about them, but the effect is cumulative and we're gradually immersed in a whole community of people passing by each other without realizing how strangely interconnected their seemingly idiosyncratic magicks are.

Angel runs a sort of social-services office for, as the title of the first story in the collection suggests, waifs and strays. She seems to be the hub on which all the other stories turn, usually popping up somewhere in the background. Jilly, a strange girl who is open-minded about beliefs to the point of ridiculous wisdom also shows up time and again.

Of course, while de Lint's characters are always memorable, the locations he writes about are just as fascinating. I, for one, loved the idea of the city that was formed and is continually maintained by dreams, where wanderers from a sort of Jungian collective unconscious come to mingle.

Though a fair portion of the time the bones of the story are the usual "anorexic girl learns empowerment," "vigilante learns dark secrets while battling crooked cops and self," "angels are where you least expect them" kind of cliches that bad writing thrives on, the difference here is that de Lint gives them a twist, something that makes them more than their mere outlines. And though at times the pop-psych can rear its head a little too visibly, what really hits you is the kind of earthy-yet-urban magic melting throughout.

Some faves:

Saxophone Joe and the Woman in Black, a semi-tragic sort of romance written in jazz-club vernacular that's smooth and slinky and sad. Pal o' Mine, an artsy musing on lost friendship and the magic of music, always one of de Lint's specialties. Where Desert Spirits Crowd the Night, a dream-meeting of two unlike people. Dream Harder, Dream True, an absolutely heartbreaking song to home life and the love of parents for their child. The Pochade Box, consisting of conversations with dead people. Coyote Stories, where a disparate group of Native Americans gradually relearn the old ways and form a new community. And The Forever Trees, a lonely tale about mixing love and frienship together and ending up with nothing but confusion. The stories are hugely mythic and tiny and intimate all at once.

Really, I could save time and just say that the latter half of the book is exactly what we've come to expect from de Lint in the years since this book was first published: magic so real that we can feel it, taste it, hear the aching music of it thrumming around us and people walking with us in the night.

Betwixt by Tara Bray Smith
Little, Brown and Company, 2007, Hardcover, 487 pp, $17.99

Nix Saint-Michael has been seeing halos around people about to die.

He meets the doomed in bus stops, in rest areas, in the cars and trains that he uses to travel down from Alaska to Oregon. And he saw a halo around his mother's head before he ran away from home.

The weight of knowing too much about the fates of those he cares about gives Nix just enough reason to convince himself that Dust -- the drug of choice for the misfits of his generation -- is an easy escape. Instead, he finds that it has a price -- he's kicked out of the little group of squatters he's been living with in the forests of Oregon for bringing a dealer to their straight-edge camp -- and he begins to see the way the drug is rippling through Portland, wrecking lives wherever it goes.

Nix's sort-of girlfriend Ondine and her "best friend" Morgan are soon drawn into the conflict, as their friends and families get sucked into a haze of drugs and addiction and cruelty. But it's not until another dealer named Moth shows up that things start to get really hairy.

Moth is a complicated man with a complicated past -- complicated with magic. With fairies, though they've stopped calling themselves that. At a hidden rave in the summer, Moth finally gets Nix to see that the halos and the Dust are part of something bigger, that the blood Morgan has on her hands when she wakes up isn't a dream, that the secrets Ondine's parents have kept hidden from her are even weirder than she thinks. He reveals to them the truth about who they really are.

This book is a fantasy that is both urban and lush. For reasons which are either hidden genius or terrible marketing, this book is being targeted at the YA crowd -- but it's actually an adult novel that happens to deal with characters in their adolescence, in that time when their characters are being formed. That it's dark, seductive, steamy, and altogether far too violent to really be suitable for middle-schoolers makes it exactly the type of novel I would have devoured when I was that age.

Now, admittedly, I've long been a sucker for good magical-teen-angst stories, but this one stands out. The characters are sharp and well-drawn individuals, with webs upon webs of relationships strung between them that feel utterly real.

Part of the reason might be because the book appears to have been written to shed a little light on dark teenage behavior, always noting with a keen eye the very subtle but devastating consequences of cruel or unthinking actions. Put in context with the rest of real life, the terrible things the characters do are irresponsible, socially-destructive, heck, downright stupid -- but that's the point. Everyone jumps into bed with anyone they feel even the slightest bit of romantic attraction to, which is just exasperating -- but again, lets look at the reasons the author does this. After giving the experience of the vicarious depravities of drugs, violence, treachery and irresponsible sex (or at least the temptation towards all those things), Smith shows the individual characters' justifications and rationalizations, and then slowly infiltrates the plot with the step-by-step process they use to pull themselves out of the pit of hell. People do bad things, but at least they try to rise above them, and know that their failure to succeed is not an excuse to quit reaching.

Doesn't mean the book is immune to the usual bevy of first-novel-for-young-adults trip-ups -- it's decidedly not. Parts feel like an extended "look everybody, I can be edgy too!" rebellion, for instance. It's written in a kind of shifting omniscient point of view that is earnest but awkward -- we can see all the characters' thoughts all at once, but because we never stay with a single one deeply for very long, we end up just a bit detached from the scenes. Dialogue tries a little too hard to be hip, but of course by the time slang reaches people who weren't in the original community of speakers, it's already out of style -- can't be helped. The ending is hasty and a little jumbled, leaving you impatient for the sequel, and Moth is only one of a slew of Exposition Guys, whose speechifyin' about magicks and ur-fairies can get old. (I suspect the reason for this last bit is mere inexperience with the fantasy field; Smith's previous book, West of Then -- which I will be buying a copy of -- is a decidedly non-fantasy memoir, and I'm sure that by the time the sequel to Betwixt is out her exposition will have improved.) But just get off your high-horse already and read for the story -- it's a powerful one if you look beyond the imperfect technique used to tell it.

Powerful, for instance, is a chapter wherein the father of one of the teens takes center stage. A wonderful dream interrupted by a horrible nightmare, the scene is exquisitely set-up for self-destruction. One of those "cool dads," we ache for his good intentions and his daughter's lost innocence as he sees how his child behaves, realizing that his behavior isn't cool at all, since by giving his kid yet another buddy, he is inadvertently depriving her of a more meaningful father. Nix confronts him, and there's an overwhelming sadness from the perspective of someone helpless to stop needless death. Nix learns to take responsibility for his knowledge, instead of merely getting lost in a drug-induced haze. Though the first third of the book is filled with pretty standard -- though compellingly described -- parties'n'drama, stick with it and the power scenes get thicker and thicker on the ground.

Ondine's family, who inexplicably abandon her and move to Chicago while letting her finish the school year in Oregon, are nevertheless otherwise an excellent example of goodness and caring, showing a sharp contrast to their daughter's secret life and a blessed relief from the boring, bad parents the kids whine about in most YA. And Ondine's "friend" Morgan is an ambiguous character, always testing her boundaries but never quite crossing the line into fullblown evil. She's a study in how far someone can push the limits and still remain at least somewhat redeemable. Every character has understandable, even sympathetic (if not in the least bit noble) motivations.

Smith even finds a little space to play with religious ideas in interesting and fairly non-cliche ways -- somehow managing to avoid mean smugness -- which I appreciate, though I'm agnostic. As Nix starts to believe for magical reasons that their bodies are mere vessels for a kind of "soul," Ondine doubts the reality of Nix's claims, and he is hurt. How do you describe an event to someone who has never lived through it, like religion? You want to somehow transfer the experience of living through the events, but despite our great gains towards understanding we've made with the mutual consensus reality formed by the symbolic representation of words, mere words are not enough, can never be enough. Or maybe I'm just drawing religious parallels where there are none.

And of course, to be fair, I might be a bit biased in favor of the book, because it feels personal in a few ways that are only peripheral to the plot but which resonate deeply with me. Like the author, I'm from Hawaii, and so there's a sort of proud alumni feeling that someone else from home is making it in this field. There's a cadence in the author's voice that I've noticed in a few other writers from Hawaii as well, a sort of joy in the sensual that is distinct if you know to look for it, which makes me a little homesick. (Mostly, though, I'm a little bemused at the attention paid to the author's place of birth, since we're, uh, part of the states too, folks . . . did you make a fuss about the author from Kansas? Didn't think so.) Large sections of the plot also take place in Alaska and Oregon, two other places I've spent extensive amounts of time in. So take my words with a grain of salt.

But not too much, y'hear? Though this is a dark piece of story, it is also a fine one, and if it's painful to read in parts, it will also show you why the struggle for goodness is worthwhile.


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