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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction June 1989

By Orson Scott Card

Journey to Fusang, William Sanders (Pocket, paper, 310 pp, $3.95)

Somtow Sucharitkul did is splendidly with The Aquiliad. John Maddox Roberts did it powerfully with King of the Wood. Heaven knows they weren't the first to invent an alternate American history in which somebody else discovered this continent. It takes a lot of gall for a new novelist to tread in the same territory. But Sanders dared -- and out of sheer ornery fun, Journey to Fusang earns its own place in that tradition.

The Mongols have ruled Europe for generations, and when Finn, the Irish narrator, has to flee because of various less-than-legal activities, there aren't many options. He comes to America on a slave ship that delivers sacrificial victims to the Aztecs in exchange for gold, but a fortunate shipwreck (it worked for Ben-Hur, after all) puts him and some companions in -- well, not New Orleans, but the Arab equivalent. From there he gets caught up in saving the New World from a would-be conqueror, meeting Apaches and Ninjas along the way.

Did I mention that this book is funny? Sometimes too funny, in fact, since Sanders proves himself willing to throw out credibility for the sake of a cheap joke, like having Chinese children in San Francisco chant the lyrics to the dumbest Beach Boys song ever written. This is especially jarring because most of the time he seems to want us to believe it and care about his characters. In short, while Fusang is mostly good comedy, occasionally it gets confused and acts like a Xanth or Hitchhiker joke book. Maybe those will be the best bits for you. What the heck. I had a great time reading it, and unless you're obnoxiously serious about your literary forays, so will you.

Deep Quarry, John E. Stith (Berkeley, paper, 140 pp, $3.50)

Most cross-genre novels aren't. The romance writer who tries to write a "science fiction romance" usually ends up writing a romance with spaceships. The fantasy western is probably going to be funny whether you mean it to be or not.

But the sf mystery is an exception. Maybe this is because so many hard-sf stories already have the same structure as almost all mysteries. Some casual question is identified early in the tale, and the rest of the story is devoted to finding the answer. How did Fred Bliss end up dead on the floor of his son's bathroom? Why does the third moon of Ekbavar have only a tenth of the expected mass?

Still, it takes real skill to combine both genres well. The sf mystery must do all the work of science fiction -- creating a plausible and interesting world and characters whose actions and motives reflect that milieu. And it must do all the work of detective fiction -- creating a plausible and interesting crime, a sympathetic inquisitor, and a complex structure that reveals all the pertinent information without exposing the casual connections.

Both assignments are hard enough. But the sf mystery must combine them so that the solution to the mystery depends on the science fictional milieu. Otherwise, the reader is left asking questions like, "What was all that stuff about the third moon of Ekbavar? This story could all have happened in Nebraska."

Asimov showed us how to do it right. Few sf writers have been dumb enough -- or arrogant enough, or just plain good enough, even to attempt the feat again. John Stith attempts it, but he ain't dumb, and -- I've met him -- he's no way arrogant. He's just plain good.

Stith's new sf mystery, Deep Quarry, taps one of the deepest wells in science fiction -- the discovery of the ancient secrets of a sentient race. Ever since Andre Norton's Galactic Derelict, I've loved stories like this, where archaeologists discover an object that has no business being where it is. Stith creates a fascinating bunch of aliens to share this universe; the detective-narrator, "Bug-eye" Takent, won his nickname because he has a penchant for getting along with -- and helping -- various aliens, still called "bug-eyed monsters" by human bigots.

The crime that initially gets Takent involved, though, is simple enough. Somebody's stealing valuable artifacts from an archaeological site. The problem is that once Takent gets on the case, people keep dying. What's most disturbing is that it's Takent who kills them. Since he's never killed anyone before, it bothers him. But that's no surprise -- this is a Stith novel, so even a wise-cracking detective has a soul. Like the best mystery writer, Stith seems incapable of writing a shallow character.

Eventually, though, the initial crime takes a back seat to a much bigger sf mystery relating to a terrible secret buried at the site of the archaeological dig. It's sense-of-wonder storytelling at its best, with enough danger to keep me reading long past my bedtime, just as I did with Andre North -- and Agathe Christie -- when I was twelve. The difference is that now, being middle-aged, I've also come to value characterization and mature social vision in the fiction I read. Deep Quarry has all that, too.

Come on. You've been good. You deserve to read Deep Quarry. And when you're through, go back and read Stith's earlier novel Memory Blank. Proof positive that Deep Quarry isn't a fluke. Stith can do it every time.

Spirits of Cavern and Hearth, M. Coleman Easton (St. Martin's, cloth, 294 pp, $16.95)

Yarkol, a physician serving many peasants and villagers, is suddenly "soulstruck," a terrible disease that leaves him as smooth-faced and sexually incapable as a child. He is expelled from his clan; his wives and children regard him as dead. Worse, the disease makes it impossible for him to stay in a house for very long, forcing him into a nomadic life, and it marks his face so that all who see him know immediately what has happened to him.

He soon runs into Chirudak tribesmen, and discovers that they call his condition "godstruck." Certainly he now can see what he never saw before -- all the hobs and sprites and kobolds who invisibly plague whatever humans don't make offerings to them. The hobs and Chirudaks alike have plans and uses for Yarkol, but nobody's plans work out just as they intended.

No one can ever accuse Easton of being a flamboyant writer. For the first fifty pages or so, you usually can put down his books, because he doesn't resort to any of the dazzling tricks we writers usually use to keep you hooked until you finally begin to care about our characters. Instead he starts quietly, introducing his characters and creating his world so subtly that you hardly notice he's doing it. But by the end of Easton's books, you feel like you've known the characters forever, and you care very much what happens to them.

Because of Easton's lack of flamboyance as a writer, he hasn't flashed through the fantasy community. But his novels have staying power. There are scenes that come back to my mind again and again; over the years I have forgotten many good stories, but Easton's Masters of Glass and Iskir remain fresh in mind. Quietly, modestly, he has become one of my favorite fantasy authors, and Spirits of Cavern and Hearth is his finest work to date.

At the end of the book, Yarkol's people know they have been saved, but have no idea Yarkol had anything to do with it. Only his companions understand what he has done. "Come with me," Etou tells him. "Come home to Greatwing tribe. We know how to honor our heros." That's the way it is for M. Coleman Easton, alas. His praises are not widely sung. But I'm part of the tribe that knows exactly what he has accomplished. You should be, too.

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