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Fantasy & Science
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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction July 1991

By Orson Scott Card


The Illusionists, Faren Miller (Warner/Questar, paper, 231 pp)

Nicoji, Shayne Bell (Baen, paper, $3.95)

Having read with relish Spy Magazine's log-rolling pieces, in which they show authors giving each other flattering quotes for book jackets (X: "Y is our greatest living stylist" -- Y: "X has such a sensitive soul"), I am quite uncomfortable giving a favorable review to a novel by someone who has already given favorable reviews to some of my own books. I could just point that it's part of the vitality of our field that so many critics are also authors, and that it would be hard to write a review column that never reviewed a book by someone who also wrote reviews . . . but that would be a cop-out. Because the fact is that, in the normal flow of books and galleys and manuscripts across our kitchen table, the reason The Illusionists caught my eye was because I remembered Miller's name as that of a reviewer who had been kind to my work.

Likewise, Shayne Bell is a dear friend, and I have great hopes for his career. I read early versions of Nicoji, his first novel, in manuscript, and again, I have many nonliterary reasons to be favorably disposed to the final published version. I picked up both of these books with a strongly favorable bias. I truly wanted them to succeed.

But then, I want every author to succeed. I want every book I start to read to be wonderful. Unfortunately, regardless of how well I know an author, or how favorably disposed I might be toward him or her, I am usually disappointed. Most books fail. And since it is my preference not to review books that I don't think are worth reading, I do for friends the same kindness I do for strangers: I do not mention the book in print.

What about when the book succeeds, though? What do I do when the author's style is delicious, when the story's moral universe is deep and fascinating, when the milieu is richly created, when the ending feels true and right? Am I fettered by my friendship or my appreciation? I hope not; I hope that it is enough to let you know my probable bias, and then to review these books as I would any other that pleased me as much.

The Illusionists is a fantasy, set in a vast medieval city that still revolves around a fascination with the ancient mages who once ruled there. Scavengers still scrabble through the ruins of the mages' old palaces in order to find relics and artifacts, one such scavenger has found a globe that has a malevolent will of its own. By theft and murder it has finally come into his possession of the Vinculine, a man with Lyndon Johnson's lust for power and even fewer scruples than LBJ about how to get it.

The story is about a brilliant woman -- a "percept" -- and a vengeance-bent young man with a gift for mimicry and acting, as they pursue their separate courses through the city in an effort to keep the Vinculine from mastering the use of the artifact. Miller's style is lush without interfering with the story; the relationships among characters are quirky and well-conceived. The only problem with the book, I believe, is that Miller is not yet aware of how much room there is in a novel. This is a story that should have been told in four hundred, not two hundred pages. Especially toward the end, things happen far too quickly. There isn't time to digest the shifting relationships among the characters, and by the novel's finish the reader is left exhausted from having sprinted through the last seventy pages. There simply isn't time to get to know as individuals all the characters whose names and relationships Miller expects us to remember; more frustrating is the fact that, because Miller is such a wonderfully inventive storyteller, we would surely have relished every additional page had the novel only been thicker.

Never mind . . . brevity aside, this strong debut not only promises many good works from Miller in the future but also is a good read in itself. One of the real delights in the book is the way Miller's magic makes use of the sense of smell, perhaps the least consciously understood of our senses. By the time I was through reading The Illusionists, I was vaguely disappointed that in the real world my olfacture is as blunt as a bludgeon; I wanted to be able to experience odor with the precision and discrimination of the characters in this book.

Shayne Bell's Nicoji is a much darker book, a novel about oppressed and exploited peoples struggling to win their freedom. Like some of the great liberation novels of the past -- I think of Vandenburg and White Lotus -- Nicoji does not pretend that rebellion is easy or that success can be quick. This means that it isn't as much fun to read as The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, a novel that I loved but never, not for a moment, believed -- but at the end you know that in these characters you have met, not cleverness, but nobility.

The novel takes place on a world that is being mercilessly exploited for the highly edible and hard-to-harvest nicoji, a lobsteresque alien creature that civilized people can't seem to get enough of. The human beings on this world are either bosses or grunt labor; naturally, it is with the grunt labor, their souls owed to the company store, that we spend our time. To complicate the picture, the humans routinely make use of trainable animals called the Help, who (of course) turn out to be sentient.

This situation could easily have degenerated into cliche, but there was no draft of this book in which Bell was anything but inventive and truthful. People that we come to like a lot can die in this book; people who do their best can fail. And yet in the end the message is clear: It is not vain to have struggled, and even those who die with their story known only to the handful of people -- or aliens -- who loved them have nonetheless justified their lives. As Bell's heroes escape from "civilization" and wander out into an increasingly hostile native terrain, their focus becomes more and more narrow -- survival for another day, another hour -- and yet their vision also broadens, until they see what no one in the corporation has ever seen -- the larger rhythms of the planet that make life there a constant challenge for any kind of life to survive at all.

Nicoji is good science fiction, in that the science is carefully invented and utterly plausible. It is good sci-fi, in that the story is gripping, the characters easy to believe in and care about even at their bleakest moments -- though the story can get awfully bleak! It is well and clearly written, with an author who never interrupts the tale to show you the cool stuff he can do with words. And even if Shayne Bell were not one of the most wise and decent human beings it's been my pleasure to know on this planet, I'd recommend this book to you without reservation.


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