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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction July 1990

By Orson Scott Card

Lens of the World, R.A. MacAvoy (Morrow, cloth, 288 pp, $17.95)

Nazhuret begins life as a student at an elite military academy -- but he is no ordinary student, for though he must have had noble sponsorship to get into the school, he has no known parentage, and his profound ugliness makes him a butt of the other boys' worst behavior. But he survives, even finding a friend or two along the way, until at last he is forced by age to leave the school and strike out on his own. Almost at once he "happens" to find an enemy who becomes his teacher and then, at last, a kind of father to him; but all this is prelude to his emergence into the real world, where he finds himself called upon to act in the affairs of humble countrymen -- and of kings.

Not every author aspires to create a Great Work (otherwise referred to as a "Magnum Opus"), and not all who attempt to achieve it. Those who do not have such high pretentions can be given credit for modesty, those who try and fail can be given credit for ambition. But those who aim high and reach the mark will always have a place of special honor in the rolls of literature.

R.A. MacAvoy's Lens of the World bears all the earmarks of an attempted Great Work. Instead of beginning with a character in jeopardy or a character being assigned a quest -- the stock openings for multi-volume fantasies -- we begin with an epistle from a trusted adviser (we assume) to his overlord. It seems that a middle-aged Nazhuret has been assigned to write his autobiography, and now is reluctantly fulfilling that request.

Uh-oh, I said to myself. An epistolary opening usually means that we are going to have a self-conscious, reflective, tedious narrator who will constantly interrupt the story to comment on it. Sometimes, though, it means that we are going to be able to see a finely-honed, well-created character at several stages in his development, all at once. I wasn't surprised that MacAvoy was a writer who would try a Great Work; I was only worried that, like so many others, she might flounder in the attempt.

My worries were groundless. Oh, her narrator's interruptions can be distracting at times, particularly when she uses them as a transitional device. But they are always brief, and if that is the only flaw in the finished novel, if she keeps up this level of storytelling, then MacAvoy will have added a new literary work to a shelf that is still not overcrowded: The Lord of the Rings, The Book of the New Sun, the Once and Future King, Helliconia -- the massive projects of 20th century fantastic literature that succeed in every part; the Great Works that deserve to outlive their authors.

Of course, she could still blow it. But so far, so good. This first volume promises much in the volumes to come -- and yet it manages almost complete closure in itself, so you don't need to wait for the series to end before you start reading. More important, she has found that delicate balance between story and art, between romance and aesthetics. As far as story is concerned, she uses all the old romantic motifs and makes them fresh: The child of unknown parentage who, odd man out, suddenly discovers himself to have a native country, a noble birth, and a remarkable destiny; the enigmatic figure who emerges from disguise; the character who changes sexes; passages through water, through caverns, through darkness, and through death; the parent-figure who rejects one child and accepts another, for reasons that neither understands.

And when it comes to the art, MacAvoy has met my standards which may be different from you average college English teacher's but are also higher. She has mastered the difficult tasks of creating a narrative voice that is not her own; of writing clearly and gracefully without ever interfering with the onward flow of the story; and of so connecting symbol and metaphor to the literal story that they are inseparable. It is possible to read this story for sheer entertainment, without ever suspecting that one is experiencing "art" at all. And that is when the art of storytelling is at its best.

Laying the Music to Rest, Dean Wesley Smith (Popular Library/Quester, paper, 194 pp, $3.95)

It's one of the rules of writing science fiction and fantasy: You can make your readers swallow one porcupine, but you can't make them swallow two. I mean, I'll buy time travel, with all that that entails, but then don't make me deal with reincarnation or poltergeists or alien ancestors of humanity in the same book.

Like all literary rules, of course, this doesn't mean you can't make a two-porcupine book work, it just means you have to work a hell of a lot harder to bring it off. And I must tell you, right off the bat, that Dean Wesley Smith does not do what's necessary to let you swallow both porcupines in Laying the Music to Rest. Indeed, this might even be a three-porcupine story, when you figure that not only do we have time travelers carrying on a future war in our own time, but also we have a ghost of a woman who drowned in an old Idaho mining town disturbing some contemporary wilderness freaks trying to build a rough-country resort in her haunting grounds; and when, exactly halfway through the book, we suddenly find ourselves trapped in a time loop on the deck of the Titanic, of all things; well, you can swallow hard if you want, but you'll end up with quills in your throat. Maybe with the proper foreshadowing and with three times this number of pages Smith could have made these elements work together, but as it stands, credibility is down the toilet.

But credibility isn't everything, and Smith is a damned good writer, and what does work in this book works very well, which is why it's getting reviewed in a books-to-look-for column. Even if the parts don't fit together well, the parts are all very good. The ghost story is one of those love-stories-of-the-dead that are a pleasure to read even when you know you're being had. The war-among-time-travelers story is thin and perfunctory, but once we get to the deck of the Titanic we find ourselves immersed (sorry) in a terrific little caper with a lot of fast action, the kind of science fiction that we used to love before we got all serious about it. In short, except for having to swallow painfully a few times, this book is a lot of fun. And now that Smith has gotten a couple of completely unrelated and incompatible storylines out of the way in a single entertaining volume, I'm looking forward to seeing what he does next.

The Golden Thread, Suzy McKee Charnas (Bantam, cloth, YA, 209 pp, $15.95)

I hope there's no high school or junior high school library in America that does not have copies of Charnas's Sorcery Hall series. (The dustjacket calls it a trilogy, but the ending of this third volume is so clearly open-ended that I would be surprised if Charnas hadn't already plotted out volume four.) These stories of Valentine Marsh, who has inherited her family's sorcerous powers and is learning to use them despite the opposition of her mother, are extraordinarily good as fantasy and as young adult literature.

Part of the key to Charnas's success with these books is that she doesn't have Valentine Marsh follow the genre cliche, becoming an isolated recluse alienated from society. Instead she has good friends and gets along at high school about as well as anyone; she also has strong and real romantic interests that never wallow in coming-of-age cliches.

In The Golden Thread, Valentine finds "celebrating" New Year's at a sort of anti-party for people who didn't have much to be happy about in the year before. Valentine's own grief is that her grandmother, the women who taught her all she knows about magic, is in a coma, expected to die. At the party, one particularly obnoxious girl suggests they form a ring to launch a shooting star -- a tacky suggestion, but Valentine nevertheless forlornly joins the circle. The result is that they inadvertently summon a goddess from Somewhere Else -- and discover that people of such enormous power don't always make for good company.

The book is a fine mix of funny and scary and real, and although I don't get as sentimental about dolphins and whales as some people do, I liked the rest of the book well enough to forgive Charnas the semi-dopey off-the-wall resolution of one of the plot threads. That one misgiving of mine won't be a barrier to most readers; I think this book is a sure hit, even for adolescents and mature children who think they don't like fantasy.

The Jedera Adventure, Lloyd Alexander (Dutton, cloth, YA, 152 pp.)

I've been having fun with the Holly Vesper stories since Alexander began telling them with The Illyrian Adventure and The El Dorado Adventure several years ago. These books are pure romps -- think of Indiana Jones as a teenage girl -- set in the 19th century so that there are still many corners of the world that are strange and forbidding and not entirely known.

As with all other books, The Jedera Adventure begins with Vesper dragging her "guardian" to the ends of the Earth to accomplish some improbable purpose -- in this case, to return a valuable book that her late father borrowed from a library in an ancient Arab city. As always, they immediately find themselves caught up in local struggles, with Vesper's audacity and intelligence often the key to resolving the situation.

But, far from descending until self-derivative cliche, as most series authors seem to do, Alexander seems to be taking these stories more seriously with each passing volume. Certainly in this book the "anything-for-a-joke" mentality rarely surfaces, though the comic figure of Maleesh, volunteer guide and occasional lover, is a pleasure on every page. Meanwhile, the figure of An-Jalil, the rightful ruler of the city, takes on a kind of majesty missing from the earlier books. Indeed, with this volume Alexander seems to have struck the right balance between mythic grandeur and wry self-mockery that is the hallmark of the best of the grand romantic tradition.

It may be that Alexander's choice of a female protagonist was part of a conscious effort to write adventure for girls, but I believe these books transcend such audience stereotyping. I'd have no qualms handing these books to a boy as readily as to a girl. You can start with any of the series, since each book is completely self-contained, but if you haven't read any of this series before, I recommend that you begin with The Jedera Adventure as the best of a good lot.

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