Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction September 1989
By Orson Scott Card
I've been doing this column for a couple of years now, yet it seems that a
few readers still don't understand what it's about. One fanzine, for instance,
refers to me as a "book recommender" rather than a "book reviewer." Another
reader has pointed out that my reviews are so unrelentingly positive that I lose
credibility, and suggested that manic raves like my review of Dave Wolverton's
On My Way to Paradise would be more effective if I occasionally trashed
To which my answer is: Look at the title of this column. "Books to Look
For." I'm reviewing books that I think are worth paying attention to. My
reviews aren't completely positive -- many of the books I write about are flawed.
But I only mention a book if I think it's worth reading in the first place.
I believe, very strongly, that a reviewer has nothing intelligent to say
about a book he despises. This is not out of a sense of good manners or
exaggerated gentility. It's because I believe a reviewer should only review a book
he understands, and if you find nothing of value in a book, you clearly do not
understand it. Every book has a value to somebody, or the author could not have
A review that completely trashes a book says nothing about the book, but
it can say several things about the reviewer. In increasing order of repulsiveness,
1. The reviewer is not in the natural audience of the book in question.
2. The reviewer is narcissistic enough to assume that books he doesn't like
are objectively bad.
3. The reviewer is willing to accept money and applause for heaping abuse
on a person whose worst crime was to offer an imperfect tale to an audience that
is quite free to ignore it anyway.
4. The reviewer vents his personal spite against an author by attacking his
books, an act roughly comparable to spitting on the children of your enemies.
Could I write viciously entertaining trash reviews? Oh, indeed I can, and
in private conversation I sometimes do. But I am not eager to establish my
public credibility on the books of eviscerated authors.
There is another reason, however, why I don't write trash reviews, and I
find it quite a compelling one. I only review novels that I finish, and I only
finish novels that I enjoy. Life is short. Why should I spend hours reading a
book that does not engage me?
So I will continue the policy implied by this column's title, until the
editor of this magazine determines he'd rather use this space for another purpose.
And if my unrelentingly positive tone bothers you, remember that for every book
I review here, I begin reading and then set aside at least a half-dozen others. My
negative reviews of those books are elegant in their simplicity. I do not mention
The Schemes of Dragons, Dave Smeds (Ace, paper, 246 pp, $3.50).
Dave Smeds writes fantasy with the inventiveness and rigor of the best sort
of hard science fiction. His story of a world being conquered by a Hitlerian
dragon is so real that when you set it on the same shelf with woodsy-elvesy
fantasies, within a week they crumble into dust.
After a confusing, melodramatic, and completely unnecessary prologue
(NOTE TO WRITERS: Consider cutting off your fingers before you write a
prologue), The Schemes of Dragons begins with Toren, a Fhali tribesman, getting
captured by strangers, who magically force him to disgorge his tribe's totem.
That's right, disgorge it -- a translucent blue tortoise that contains the memories
and personalities of his ancestors. Since childhood they have been present in his
mind, teaching him but also keeping him tied to all the tribal traditions and
tabus. Now, for the first time, he is alone in his own body -- and begins to
discover things about himself that he never knew before.
This is just the first of many wonderful events. We meet the goddess
Struth, a strange and perverse character; the closely bonded brother and sister
Alemar and Elenya, who struggled to obtain two powerful talismans, only to
surrender them to Toren at the end; a brilliantly malicious wizard who spies on
his enemies through the eyes of birds; a marvelously believable non-human
species of "fairies."
Most of all, though, what impresses me is the way Smeds makes all his
characters deep enough to have the illusion of life, a bit of magic that most
fantasy writers never quite master. I was especially taken with the way Toren
responds to having his totem restored. In a perfect figure of the way individuals
connect with, yet diverge from, their community, Toren finds that he has
changed so much that he can hardly bear to have his ancestors inside him
anymore. Yet he can't bear not to have them, and so must find a precarious
balance between independent and connection. As must we all.
This book does not end -- at least not in a satisfying way. It is clearly a
middle book in a series, but given how many years we waited between volume
one and volume two, I dare not hope for the finale until well into the 1990s.
Snow White and Rose Red, Patricia C. Wrede (TOR: Fairy Tales, cloth, 273 pp,
Edited by Terri Windling, with luscious covers by Tom Canty, I thought
the Fairy Tales series was the best publishing project launched at Berkley-Putnam-Ace-Kitchen-sink since they devoured each other in a corporate feeding
frenzy a few years back. These were beautiful, fascinating hardcover books, with
masterful entries by such lights as Stephen Brust, Charles de Lint, and Kara
So of course Putnam-Berkley-Ace let it drop.
I was disappointed -- another worthy project down the tubes. Until I got
TOR's monthly mailing and discovered that, lo! the Fairy Tales series has been
resurrected under another rubric. Same Tom Canty cover art. Same Terri
Windling mix of whimsy, fancy and devotion to the old masters.
The new entry is Patricia C. Wrede's Snow White and Rose Red. Her twist
on the old Grimm fairy tale is to set it in Elizabethan England, and the setting
works very well, with echoes of A Midsummer Night's Dream and witch-burnings,
the Virgin queen and King Lear. The story attempts nothing of great
significance, but there is much delightful comedy and pleasant danger along the
In fact, my only problem with it was the Elizabethan dialogue. While
most of the time it was accurate enough, it seemed to have been modeled on
Shakespeare's highly formal blank verse rather than the much more appropriate
vulgar speech of his clown scenes; it wasn't Hamlet whose voice we needed here,
it was Grumio. And even if the level of language had been right, the humdrum
modern English of the narrative made the archaic dialogue all the more jarring.
But it's a tricky period to write in, anyway, and by the end of the novel I was
finally used to the dissonance and stopped being annoyed by it.
Besides, most people don't give a damn about Elizabethan English, so what
bothered me probably won't bother you at all. Enjoy the book -- and then set it
on your shelves face out so that everyone who visits your home can enjoy the
Tom Canty cover. It's the cheapest way I've seen to get a good print of our most
romantic fantasy artist.
A Dozen Tough Jobs, Howard Waldrop (Mark V. Ziesing, PO Box 806,
Willimantic CT 06226, cloth, 135 pp, $16.00 trade edition, $40 limited
You've heard of Southern Gothic fiction, right? Well, here comes Howard
Waldrop, the new apostle of Southern Manic.
For many years, Waldrop has been sort of the Jonathan Winters of science
fiction, writing offbeat humor that ranges from black comedy to the truly weird.
His first novel, Them Bones, an alternate-history tale set in the Mississippi basin,
was one of the best of the 1980s. Now he brings us A Dozen Tough Jobs, which
is, yes folks, a retelling of the Labors of Hercules, set in a Mississippi town in the
Because it's Waldrop writing it, though, it's more than a comic reworking
of an old myth. It's also a clear depiction of life in that sunbeaten, humid,
fearful place and time. The rhythms of speech, the slang, the relations between
the races, between rich and poor, between men and women, all are there, with
the power and ugliness and majesty of real life. Waldrop's comedy comes from
his true-seeing eye, and A Dozen Tough Jobs puts him right among William
Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Conner, and Harry Crews as one of the
uncompromising prophets of the American South.