Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction October 1988
By Orson Scott Card
William Sleator, The Green Futures of Tycho (Bantam, paper, 130 pp, $2.25);
Fingers (Bantam Starfire, paper, 197 pp, $2.95)
I've already called William Sleator's work to your attention in an earlier
column; since then I've read two more of his novels, and thought they were
Sleator, you'll recall, is a "young adult" writer, which means that when
young readers are first introduced to science fiction, his books are likely to be
among the ones they read. We couldn't be making a better first impression.
There's a darkness to Sleator's books. Almost all deal with poisoned
families, and his protagonist almost always feels isolated, even hostile to parents
or siblings or both. In the horror fantasy Fingers, the narrator, Sam, loathes his
younger brother Humphrey, an obnoxious child prodigy. When Humphrey at
age 15 gets too big to be a prodigy anymore, threatening the family income, Sam
is forced to compose phony musical pieces which they all pretend were
"revealed" to Humphrey by a ghost of a dead second-rate composer named
Magyar. But their pretense turns out to be real, as Magyar transforms both Sam
and Humphrey into something more than they used to be before.
The Green Futures of Tycho again stars the singularly untalented brother
among a family of genius children, but when Tycho finds an ancient alien
artifact that allows him to go time traveling, he uses his new power to "set things
straight" in his family. The result is a lesson on what absolute power does. It's
also a telling exploration of family dynamics.
Neither book is as sophisticated or wise as Sleator's more recent
Singularity, but both are rich and his understanding of the fears and resentments
of the adolescent souls, however we struggle to control them. Sleator speaks to
us all. My nine-year-old son is passionate in his enjoyment of Sleator's books --
and so am I.
Queenmagic, Kingmagic, Ian Watson (St. Martin's, Cloth, 205 pp, $14.95)
Ian Watson is a writer who never does the same thing twice. Furthermore,
he doesn't often do the same thing anybody else has done. Queenmagic,
Kingmagic can't be compared with anything except perhaps a screwy comparison
like "This is how Pirandello might have written Lord of the Rings" or "With
Queenmagic, Kingmagic, Franz Kafka meets T.H. White."
The hero, Pedino, who will be familiar to all of you who read Watson's
wonderful novella "Queenmagic, Pawnmagic" in this magazine, is a young man
who is found to have a "full-soul" when with his magical power he inadvertently
murders a friend who had lecherous designs on Pedino's sister. Pedino is taken
into the palace, where he becomes a magical White Pawn in the vicious ongoing
chess game between black and white magic in this medieval world.
Watson's adaptation of chess to form the basis of a fantasy world is
marvelously entertaining, but Watson is never content with a tour-de-force.
Pedino becomes obsessed with concern about what will happen if one side
actually achieves checkmate and the world ends. What next?
The answer is a mad tour of world based on Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders
and other games, and by the time the novel ends, if your head isn't completely
in a whirl you weren't paying attention. Queenmagic, Kingmagic is a frustrating
book because it's so short -- just when another writer might think he was well
begun, Watson is done. But it's hardly a criticism when the worst thing I can
say about a novel is that I wish there were more of it. It's fast and funny and
painful and desperate, and it raises questions that will make you uncomfortable
for days as you wonder if our own world is quite real.
Suzy McKee Charnas, The Silver Glove (Bantam Starfire, Cloth, 162 pp, $15.95);
The Bronze King (Bantam Starfire, Paper, 189 pp, $2.95)
The narrator of Charnas's new series of young adult novels is Val, a girl
just coming into adulthood in Manhattan. She lives with her divorced mother,
and their relationship isn't as close as Val would like -- her mom has troubles of
her own. The result is that Val is pretty much on her own, except for her
Granny Gran, who lives in a nearby rest home in New Jersey.
In The Bronze King, Val gets involved in an effort to stop a kraken from
invading our world and swallowing it up. Charnas has conceived of a lovely
kind of magic to keep such enemies at bay. There are key landmarks and
structures in the world that make a kind of net, holding things together. A
statue here, an old building there, and as long as they remain in place, we're
safe, things won't collapse. But vandals and real estate developers, between
them, have long been undoing our world until the kraken has been able to find a
weak place where it can slip through and tear things apart.
Val teams up with a street magician named Paavo, who has been assigned
as the magical guardian of our world, and a teenage boy named Joel, who is
struggling with his identity in a musically brilliant family. Val also discovers
that Granny Gran is one of the great wizards of our world, and at least some of
Granny Gran's power has come down to Val.
To my delight, Charnas avoids both cliche and polemic. Joel and Val
don't become good friends and have adventures together forever; and though
Joel's attempts at being star of the show keeps him out of the climax altogether,
Charnas doesn't turn it into a feminist lesson -- rather it's a lesson about not
overreaching yourself in pursuit of glory.
The Silver Glove continues Val's story, only now the focus is closer to
home. A renegade wizard is stealing the souls of old and helpless street people,
and the only people who can possibly stop him are Granny Gran and her
daughter and granddaughter. The wizard maneuvers to use our real-world laws
against us -- he gets Granny Gran diagnosed as having Alzheimer's, poses as
Val's school counselor to get control of her, and seduces Val's mother both
sexually and emotionally.
Charnas handles the sex so delicately that I, as strait-laced a parent as
you're likely to find this side of the 700 Club, have no qualms about handing the
book to my children; she handles the human relationships so truthfully that I
have no apology about recommend this "young adult" novel to serious adult
fantasy readers. The stories are exciting, the tension is unrelenting, the people
and places are wondrously real. With these books, Charnas joins Charles de Lint
(Yarrow, Jack the Giant Killer), Megan Lindholm (The Wizard of the Pigeons), and
Tom Deitz (Windmaster's Bane, Fireshaper's Doom) in the movement toward
contemporary magical fantasy -- a much more promising literary development, I
think, than contemporary horror.