Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction April 1989
By Orson Scott Card
The Healer's War, Elizabeth A. Scarborough (Doubleday/Foundation, cloth, 303
Elizabeth Scarborough's The Healer's War is the finest work of fiction I've
seen about the Vietnam War.
This is hardly a surprise. Scarborough should be an excellent writer. Her
previous novels have proven her a master of the hardest of all types of writing --
comedy -- in which you not only have to be good at creating a story, character,
and milieu, but also have to twist your characters; pain until it's funny.
With Healer's War, though, Scarborough had no interest in making that
comic twist. Scarborough, a former nurse and Vietnam veteran, knows and loves
the people in this book; they are not to be laughed at.
Because of her direct experience, the attitudes and experiences of military,
medical, and civilian characters all ring true. But Scarborough is not a mere
reporter. She is a fantasist, and so she takes us through the bloody reality of
Vietnam into the darker -- and brighter -- truth that only fantasy can discover.
Xe, a wizened old Vietnamese wounded in a firefight in the countryside, is
brought in for medical treatment, against all regulations, by Charles Heron, an
American soldier who has come to love the Vietnamese people and knows what
Xe's survival means to them. Xe, though, has his own plan -- to pass his healing
power to a nurse named Kitty.
This book is about pain, and it hurts sometimes to read it. Yet it is not
pain that makes it powerful. The novel begins with Kitty nearly causing a girl's
death through a mistake she made, or might have made, despite all the best
intentions. Thus Scarborough recapitulates the whole American experience
there. We came to save them, and instead do harm, and don't know how to
undo it. Yet the novel ends with something like hope. Even magic can't undo
the world's suffering, or even our own mistakes, Scarborough seems to say, but
there are still some good things within our reach, some people we can help, and
that is what we live for.
The Devil's Arithmetic, Jane Yolen (Viking/Kestrel, cloth, 170 pp, $11,98).
I recently visited a young-adult's librarians' convention in Texas. One of
the speakers was an editor for a journal that reviews new children's and YA
books, to help guide librarians in their buying decisions. I was astonished when,
in the midst of otherwise illuminating remarks, he launched an attach on a new
book by Jane Yolen -- The Devil's Arithmetic. This is a simple but devastating
story about Hannah, a modern Jewish girl who, bored with her parents'
insistence on remembering things, is plunged back in time, into life on the edge
of death in a Nazi genocide factory. Hannah is seared by the experience, and so
The critic did not deny this. Instead, he questioned whether it was worth
doing this way. Putting a modern girl back in time seemed to him to trivialize
the holocaust. Why, he asked, when we have a real account like The Diary of
Anne Frank, should we waste time with Yolen's "less real" story. Yolen's hero is
never at risk; she comes back to the modern world, where she is "safe."
Ah, the blindness of the literary bigot. So sure that all fantasy is frivolous,
escapist, he is unable to understand that Yolen's book might to some readers be
more powerful and more real than Anne Frank. After all, Frank's account ends
where the true horror begins. And Anne Frank, however sympathetic she was,
died before most young readers' parents were born. Through the character of
Hannah, Yolen forces today's young readers to put themselves in the most terrible
part of the most terrible crime mankind is capable of, and makes it clear that we
are never "safe."
Those who read this book will never forget; and, just as important, they
will know why we must never forget. In a world that includes criminal
governments like those that have slaughtered innocents in Cambodia, Ethiopia,
and Chile, I would like to think that this generation of children will all read The
Devil's Arithmetic, precisely because it does not trivialize the holocaust. It
infuriates me to think that because of an elitist critic, there may be thousands of
children who cannot find this book in their library.
Shame on him, and on all who would narrow the literary possibilities of
Wyrldmaker, Terry Bisson (Avon, paper, 1988 [reprinted from 1981], 176 pp,
This book is Terry Bisson's entry in a fantasy tradition that includes
George MacDonald's The Light Princess, Patricia McKillip's The Throne of the
Erril of Sherill, John Crowley's The Deep, and Geoffrey Ryman's The Warrior Who
Carried Life. All of these seem to be very short novels; but in fact they are at
exactly the same length as the great medieval romances like King Horn, Havelok
the Dane, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
These books are not any longer because they don't need to be. They
aren't meant to develop full characters or a detailed, believable milieu. In fact,
they are not "short novels" at all. They are long fables, stories that explore a
single quest or adventure with no distractions.
Wyrldmaker, like Crowley's and Ryman's fables, is at root a story of a
character who discovers the secrets of creation. In Bisson's story, we find the
universe to be a tapestry woven out of moebius strips. Kemen pas Treyn is forced
from his native wyrld, leaving behind blood and horror, but carrying with him a
sword named Wyrldmaker. He joins a vast migration of land-bound wooden
ships, finds himself among sacrificial offerings under the earth, and, like the
sorcerer's apprentice, faces a horde of enemies that he created himself. When I
closed the book, it was almost impossible to hold in my mind all the places I had
been, all the things I had seen and done in so few pages.
Unfortunately, there is a cost. Because Bisson, like Crowley in The Deep,
is creating a new and original world without using the novelistic techniques of
detailed descriptions, the story is sometimes confusing, particularly at first, where
I found it hard to engage. Some readers may never become emotionally
involved; that's often the price of this literary form. It's like the long slow pull
up to the top of the roller coaster track. Nothing thrilling about it -- but you
have to go through it to get the rest of the ride. I say it's worth it.
Trust Me On This, Donald E. Westlake (Mysterious Press, cloth, 293 pp, $16.95).
OK, I know I'm supposed to review fantasy and sf, and this one is a comic
mystery. But if I know anything about sf and fantasy readers, I'm betting you'll
like this book as much as I did. On the way to her first day of work as a reporter
for a supermarket tabloid, Sara finds a dead body in a car at the side of the road.
That's the mystery. But the delight of this book is the marvelously funny and
absolutely believable menagerie of characters who are involved, like it or not, in
putting out the Weekly Galaxy. If you ever stand in the checkout line and look
at those grotesque headlines and ask, "Who writes this stuff and how do they live
with themselves?" then you must read this book. You will laugh out loud, I
promise. Trust me on this.
Greenmantle, Charles de Lint (Ace, paper, 327 pp, $3.50).
Greenmantle is not only a gripping thriller but also an introduction to the
most profound philosophical issues in literature -- what stories are for and how
they create us.
Charles de Lint shies away from the title I've bestowed on him -- the
prophet of contemporary fantasy -- and in fact there are authors like Peter
Beagle and Robert Holdstock who have cut their own roads into the unexplored
woods of non-horror contemporary fantasy. But de Lint shows an awareness of
what he's doing that makes his fiction not just a damn fine read but also a clear
map of the road that fantasy follows through the human mind.
Greenmantle is a miracle of seamless combination. A former mafia hit man
straight from the world of The Godfather and Prizzi's Honor winds up living in the
Canadian woods next door to an eccentric teenage girl straight out of young
adult literature, with a divorced mother who would fit in very nicely in
contemporary social novels. And yet all of them belong together, fulfill each
other, even as their lives are disturbed, deformed, remade, saved by the strange
music and unimaginable power of a godstag who is endlessly fleeing from the
Even as the novel discusses primal human urges, it arouses and satisfies
them in the characters and, for me at least, in the reader. De Lint is perfectly
capable of writing ho-hum ordinary fantasies like his recent Wolf-Moon; but with
Greenmantle he shows that, far from being mere escapism, contemporary fantasy
can be the deep mythic literature of our time.