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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction August 1990

By Orson Scott Card

Thomas the Rhymer, Ellen Kushner (Morrow, cloth, 224 pp, $16.95)

Ellen Kushner is a throwback. I think she's doing it on purpose, in fact. Her first novel, Swordspoint, was a marvelous Graustark novel, in that wonderful tradition of nonmagical imaginary kingdoms that was almost buried in the avalanche of Tolkien-ish middle-earths in the last two decades. And now, with Thomas the Rhymer, she seems to be doing the same sort of thing to Elizabethan magical romance.

What has been lost, in most contemporary American medieval fantasies, is Wonderland. Our best fantasists, rejecting warmed-over Tolkien and ersatz Robert E. Howard, have found various antidotes. Bruce Fergusson and Paul Parks have freshened their fantasies with an infusion of grimy realism; David Smeds and Stephen Boyett have brought their imagined worlds of sensibility of the best of anthropological science fiction; Lisa Goldstein and Megan Lindholm have invented new magics to fit our contemporary world; Stephen King and Charles de Lint have taken the old magic and set it into urban spaces. What almost no one seems to attempt is the opposite of all these strategies, for where they all represent a move toward realism, it is also possible to freshen our fantasies by rediscovering and reinventing wonder.

Thomas the Rhymer is realistic enough to please the most sophisticated contemporary fantasy audience -- Kushner actually knows how people in England at this time lived, what they did with the hours of their days, and their manners of speech and behavior. None of this phony ostentatious Elizabethan English from her -- she gives us the flavor of another language without rubbing our noses in it. But behind the realism there is something else going on, as we discover when itinerant bard and bedder-of-ladies Thomas the Rhymer finds himself consort of the Queen of Faerie. As Thomas moves through Faerie, he sees things and experiences things that aren't directly connected to the action of the story. That is, the world is wider and deeper than it needs to be. And what he sees are not sociological details or extra bits of disgusting muck to make us feel like this place is more real; what he sees are merely strange and wonderful, to make us realize that we are in an Other place. Outside of Faerie Queene it's hard for me to remember other writers who have done this particularly well. Tolkien had some elements of it, with the Tom Bombadil sequence, for instance, and some of the side stories in the poems and songs -- but where Tolkien stopped the action cold for these wonders, Kushner never stops. She packs more good story into 224 pages than most writers can get into a trilogy.

The story is still not a "great" one, in part because it is too slim a volume to hold that large a work, and in part because her Rhymer is more trickster than hero. But it does not slight this early work of hers to recognize that her magnum opus lies ahead. Nobody is writing more elegant and gorgeous English these days than Ellen Kushner. Her books ought to be given to writing classes as texts on how the English language can be made so pure and cold and clear that you long to drink it down. But no, that's a bad idea -- student writers are already too prone to get depressed and comparing one's prose to Kushner's is like to provide thoughts of self-destruction.

Let's just say Kushner is still playing with old traditions that seemed to be dead, and showing us that their burial was indeed premature. Is there anything this writer can't do well?

Daily Voices, Lisa Goldstein (Pulphouse Publishing, Box 1227, Eugene, OR 97440, "Author's Choice Monthly," cloth, 100 pp, various prices depending on edition)

If you pointed a gun at my head and made me choose the best storyteller working in English as of the beginning of 1990, this is the name I'd say: Lisa Goldstein. A Mask for the General and Tourists were both brilliant, imaginative, disturbing, and truthful novels. She effortlessly (or so it seems) fills her pages with living characters, provocative ideas, well-developed communities and settings, and stories that move and entertain us. And she does all this with language that feels as clear and natural as if she slipped the thoughts into our heads.

Alas, Goldstein has written only a few short stories, all of which to date have appeared in a single magazine -- and not this one, so you may not have seen them. Thanks to Pulphouse Publishing, however, you can now rectify this sad lack in your life. Story collections are regarded by publishers as iffy propositions at best -- they never sell as well as novels by the same author -- and when you've got somebody like Goldstein, who has only five short stories -- and I mean short -- ordinarily there'd not be a chance in hell of getting a publisher to bring them out separately. But Pulphouse has decided that what such authors need is a slim, elegant hardcover targeted for the elite of the book-buying audience, accompanied by a relatively inexpensive trade paperback for those who have to choose between buying a book and eating lunch. It's a lovely compromise and I hope Pulphouse makes a profit on it, so that they can keep bringing us books like this one.

What's in the book? Goldstein's introduction is clear, and tells exactly the things about her stories that I always want authors to tell. The stories "Death Is Different" and "Tourists" are set in the same magical Erewhon as her novel Tourists, which, for those who have read the book, will be enough information to make you write to Pulphouse for your copy. (I must point out that the short story and the novel, though they have title and setting in common, are completely different and almost unrelated stories.)

"Ever After" is a whimsical tale of what happens to Cinderella after marrying the prince -- and yet, despite the biting satire in it, its ending is actually more hopeful (and perhaps as much of a fairy tale!) as the ending of the original. "Cassandra's Voices" is a neat little Twilight Zone-ish story about a man who finds out that "knowing" your future doesn't mean you actually know it. And "Daily Voices" is a scary little plunge into madness that will probably end up in eery high school story anthology -- or would, if the people who edit those things actually want young people to learn to enjoy studying literature.

The Tery, F. Paul Wilson (Baen, paper, 246 pp, $3.50)

The reason this book exists is made clear on the page after the last page of the text. which consists of an announcement: "The further adventures of Steven Dalt (and Pard) will continue in HEALER, coming soon from BAEN BOOKS." If this book were not the anchor of a series, I don't think it would exist, because it consists of a trio of stories that are definitely early work of a writer who has become much more accomplished and sophisticated in the years since they first came out (1972, 1973, 1978). And yet, unpolished as they are (though the title story, which is also the one from 1978, is considerably better than the other two), you can still see in them the strong sense of story as an emotional experience that raises some writers above the common run of science fictioneers.

"The Tery" is the story of an apelike semi-human misfit whose parents are slaughtered in a pogrom by racial purists. He falls in with a group of telepaths who are also fleeing the same persecutors, concealing from them the fact that he can speak and understand their language so that they can talk perhaps too freely in front of him. He is befriended by the young girl who is the only member of their group not to have telepathic abilities. He becomes their spy, penetrating the fortress of their enemies through a hellish dungeon of genetic experiments gone awry, where he discovers that he and they are all the results of genetic games played by their ancestors -- so that they truly are brothers under the skin.

This would have been a wonderful story if it weren't part of the series -- that is, if we hadn't also had to have a really lame set-up in which the Tery is the Christ-figure in a future religion, and if we hadn't had to put up with the intervention of the series hero, a vanilla non-character named Steven Dalt. Even though he gets involved in the plot, he isn't part of the story because he really has no stake in it -- he's going to ride off into the sunset untouched after having saved everybody. And I can't help but think that Wilson -- that is the guy who wrote the wonderful future-detective story "Dydeetown Girl", you remember -- was well aware of the shortcomings of the tale. But at some point somebody said, "Hey, it's good enough as it is. We'll publish it this way, and you spend your time on new stuff."

And whoever said that was right. The Tery is, in fact, "good enough," especially for newer readers of science fiction who are, perhaps, less sensitive to cliche and less demanding of plot and character. It's a good read; I enjoyed it. And if this were a first book by a new author I'd probably be pointing him out to you as somebody to watch, because this book is long on talent even though it's short on polish. But Wilson has taught us in the intervening years to expect more from him, and I do, and so this one doesn't work.

I'm not against writers recycling their old work -- but I think we also have a responsibility to rewrite it, transforming it into our best work, if we are releasing it to our audience as if it were something new. And if we don't have time to do that, or don't care enough, then perhaps we ought to wait to allow it to be published until we do.

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