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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction February 1992

By Orson Scott Card

Death Qualified: A Mystery of Chaos, Kate Wilhelm (St. Martin's, cloth, 438 pp, $22.95)

There are other writers of sf mysteries, but nobody's doing quite what Kate Wilhelm is doing with this hybrid form. When I think of first-rate sf-mystery writers like John Stith and Robert Sawyer, it is the science fiction aspects that come to mind first, the mystery second. With Wilhelm, it's the other way around. Indeed, while the mystery in Death Qualified involves characters who were involved in scientific research, through most of the novel that's the only hint that this is anything other than a straight contemporary murder mystery. It's only near the very end of the book that we realize just how much the whole story depends on a decidedly practical application of a quirky version of chaos theory -- first-rate sense-of-wonder sci-fi that is so seamlessly woven into the mystery, so deftly prepared for, that we never doubt and are never confused as the meaning of previous events is transformed. And, playing completely fairly with us, Wilhelm manages to distract us from the identity of the real murderer until the moment the main character discovers it for herself. I guess what I'm saying is that if you're pining for a great mystery while you wait for Ruth Rendell to get back to Inspector Wexford, or for John Mortimer to give us another Rumpole, or while you mourn for the decline of Robert Parker's Spenser, or wish that Gregory McDonald had more Fletch in him, you can't do better than to pick up Wilhelm's Death Qualified. And, oh yes, if you're fan of character-driven science fiction, you already know that Wilhelm is among the best.

Let me do my job, though, and tell you enough about the story to (I hope) pique your interest. The first character we meet is a mentally handicapped man named Tom, who serves as a handyman on a college campus. Only he has begun to remember things that don't fit in his current world, and so he stops taking the drug they've been giving him and then a whole lot of things start to be clearer. He isn't who he thought he was at all. He has a family that he needs to get back to, a life that has been taken away from him. And, on top of that, he has some secrets -- some valuable secrets -- that some people have already died for.

Then we meet Nell, a tough woman raising her two children on her land in the Washington woods, where she struggles to hold her own against neighbors and her own loneliness. She has a lover, under circumstances she isn't proud of, and a lot of problems -- but then she gets word that her husband is coming home from wherever it is he's been for the past eight years. It is at once frightening and exhilarating news.

It is not until page 59 that we meet Barbara Holloway, the self-exiled lawyer who is dragged back to her father's home in Washington to help him handle Nell's defense -- for Nell's husband did come home, and was promptly murdered under circumstances that point relentlessly to Nell as the killer. What makes the case especially hard -- besides Barbara's disdain for the legal system, the fact that an old lover of hers is the prosecutor, and her perpetual conflicts with her father -- is the fact that Barbara is not at all sure that Nell did not kill her husband.

But we know that Nell is innocent, even when Nell herself is tempted to plead guilty to a lesser charge just to end the turmoil in her life. What we can't figure out is how to reconcile the evidence with the truth. It seems that there's just a touch of chaos mixed into the reality of this tale. Chaos that, in the end, leads us to a kind of madness and magic that could change everything.

It is a measure of Wilhelm's skill as a writer that, along with a fully satisfying climactic confrontation between the killer and the man who has become the key to Barbara's life as well as her case, Wilhelm also manages to slip in her long-beloved motif of the children who will grow up to transcend their parents in every way. That's sci-fi at its mythic core, and nobody does it better than Kate Wilhelm.

Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life (Knopf/Bullseye, paper, young adult, 218 pp, $2.95); Witch Week (Knopf/Bullseye, paper, young adult, 243 pp, $2.95); The Lives of Christopher Chant (Knopf/Bullseye, paper, young adult, 230 pp, $3.50); Howl's Moving Castle (Ace, paper, fantasy, 212 pp, $3.50); Castle in the Air (Greenwillow, cloth, young adult, 199 pp, $12.95); A Tale of Time City (Knopf/Bullseye, paper, young adult, 279 pp, $3.95); Eight Days of Luke (Knopf/Bullseye, paper, young adult, 150 pp, $3.50); Dogsbody (Knopf/Bullseye, paper, young adult, 242 pp, $3.50); Cart and Cwidder (Collier, paper, fantasy, 193 pp, $3.95)

Diana Wynne Jones has been around, if not forever, then at least longer than I have. But her works in America remain strangely invisible to many readers, I suppose for the same old reason: Her books are marketed to the young adult audience.

Thus many of you may well remember her books from junior high or high school. But you won't see them in many of the speciality science fiction stores, and in others her books are scattered here and there -- Howl's Moving Castle in the adult fantasy section; The Lives of Christopher Chant and Dogsbody in YA; and, far too often, many of her titles nowhere at all!

But go to any junior high school library, and there you'll find her work missing from the shelves for another reason -- the good reason. The books are checked out. The books are read. And so it is that as with William Sleator and Daniel Pinkwater -- some of the best sf and fantasy of our generation is well known to kids and ignored by most adults.

Absurdly enough, however, Jones's writing is not by any means childish. Indeed, she has this in common with the original fairy tales: She is coldly honest about the cruelties of life. There is no sentimentalizing of childhood in her stories. The heroine of Dogsbody is the daughter of an Irish rebel, being "cared for" by anti-Irish relatives while he is serving time in prison; the hero of Eight Days of Luke is an orphan, taken in by relatives who despise him and insist on his showing gratitude for their disgusting treatment of him. In both cases, Jones does not stoop to mere cinderellifying of her hero-victims -- instead the family relationships are complex and believable in their viciousness. And children -- who often feel trapped and helpless for the very good reason that they are trapped and helpless (what escape does any child have from the fears and miseries of family life?) -- know that here is an author who remembers.

Jones remembers, yes -- but also imagines. Most of her tales stay away from the cliches of medieval fantasy. Eight Days of Luke takes us into the world of the Nordic gods, as both sides in the intensely amoral struggle prepare for gotterdamerung. Yet she manages to connect their quarrels and maneuvers with contemporary life, including giving Thor a leather-jacket gang in a pinball arcade and putting one-eyed Wutan in a business suit. And our hero's passage from "real" to fantasy world and back again is as smooth as in the best of contemporary fantasists -- Charles de Lint, for instance, or Megan Lindholm, or Lisa Goldstein. Yet Eight Days of Luke bears a 1975 copyright, predating these others by years. (Indeed, I wonder how many of our contemporary fantasists might not have been exposed to Jones in their youth. How strong is her influence? Or is she simply weaving her own thread into the fabric of contemporary myth?)

Dogsbody is even more inventive. In a universe in which each star and planet is ruled by a god of varying powers, Sirius is found guilty of having caused the murder of another god by use of a singularity, which has since been cast down to Earth. His sentence is to live in the body of a dog until he either finds the singularity or dies a natural death in dog-form. He finds that other gods are out to get him killed as quickly as possible; but with the help of the beleaguered girl who protects him -- and whom in, in turn, protects -- he gradually discovers where the singularity is, and who is hiding it, and why. Yet even with a dog hero, Jones does not overload us with cute animals. Instead they are dangerous and, by and large, rather stupid. Of course, so are the humans, so the struggle between human and animal isn't entirely one-sided. Dogsbody has become, deservedly, a classic, not despite but because of its completely nontraditional cosmology.

The Lives of Christopher Chant, Charmed Life, and Witch Week are a charming trilogy of tales that all play off the traditional idea of witches and wizardry -- along with the science fictional idea of alternate worlds. They can, however, be read in any order, and they can surprise you by the way they are deftly fitted together into a seamless whole. All of them focus on children who are variously tempted by the power of magic they are born with and must learn to control. Civilization comes hard to the children who can get their way without necessarily following the rules. Indeed, all three books come to a point where order is only possible because of the intervention of the far-from-omnipotent Chrestomanci -- the enchanter who is charged with keeping the practitioners of witchcraft under control.

Chrestomanci himself is an intriguing character, eccentric and bossy and dangerous, who always knows more than he says and is often both weaker and stronger than he seems. Thus it is that underneath what seems to be rather low comedy -- brooms that demand to be taken riding by witches (and hoes and rakes and mops that can be ridden, but behave more like mules and pigs than noble steeds); prankster spells at about the level of magic spitwads -- there is a continuous foundation of truth. Children need powerful adult intervention to help them get control of their powers and keep their powers from taking control of them. Instead of using them for immediate self-gratification, the children instead have to create and respect certain limits in order to avoid destroying themselves and others. Not that anyone ever says such a thing outright. Rather the stories are that lesson, learned over and over again, yet with such humor and extravagant imagination and devastating satire that few readers will imagine that they are being civilized as they read.

Cart and Cwidder has nothing like the energy of the other books, and it is more of an imaginary kingdom tale than a magic fantasy, though there is some magic in a great old cwidder (guitar) played by the young hero in a family of traveling minstrels who find themselves caught up in a war between rival kingdoms. This novel also begins very slowly; it can seem for many pages as if nothing is happening. But, with her customary abruptness, Jones suddenly lets us know that this is not just a sweet little story of musical people, as the father and head of the troupe is murdered -- and his children watch their mother immediately go and marry her old suitor, who seems well acquainted with at least one of their father's assassins. Once again, adults are dangerous and powerful in Jones's world, only in this novel the children are able to slip away and leave their faithless mother. Out on their own, however, they soon learn that nothing is as they thought it was -- and their father's death was far from unpredictable.

With Howl's Moving Castle, Jones took a step in another direction. Her protagonist is a daughter, but not a child. Rather she is of that age that Jane Austen wrote about -- marriageable, in a society in which marrying well is the primary business of young women. That there are jealous witches around is hardly surprising, as Sophie, who has unknowingly been enchanting hats in her mother's hatmaking shop, is put under a spell by a vicious and spiteful witch. The spell? That Sophie's body is old before her time. No one knows her; and yet, in that aged body Sophie immediately recognizes herself, for she had already become rather old in her heart, and she takes to the crustiness of old age quite readily. She can speak her mind with the same frankness as a young child, and -- having little to fear from death, since it is never far away -- she does what she likes, too.

The result is a delightful comedy of manners. Not the endless silly puns and slapstick that pass for humor in the fantasy genre these days, but rather the kind of comedy that, once again, recalls Jane Austen -- true wit, and the comedy of people trying to act like what they are not, or failing to keep up the proper social pretenses. So even as Jones subverts the devices of traditional fantasy, she is also juggling character and caricature and language with deftness that it seems a shame to me that her novel is likely, from its packaging, to be taken for just another punfest.

And it is possible that Jones herself misunderstood what made Howl's Moving Castle so fine. It also suffers from the strain of trying to fit together the magic of djinns and the magic of witches and the magic of angels, too. Not that it couldn't have been done well. She simply didn't have or didn't take the time to create characters and a believable universe in which all these things could work together well. Still, because she is such a wonderful writer, it is quite possible not to notice why Castle in the Air feels thinner than Howl's Moving Castle; and, by the end, it is certainly an entertaining story with a satisfying conclusion.

A Tale of Time City is almost-pure science fiction, though she delights in flouting the conventions of time-travel stories. The novel begins in 1939, as a young girl is kidnapped on the platform of an English train station, where she is supposed to be meeting a relative who will care for her during the blitz. She finds herself in the company of young time travelers who thought they were saving their world by kidnapping her. Instead, they have only made matters worse, particulary because the world she came from is continuously being transformed by the decaying structure of history. Someone is stealing the artifacts that are holding time together, and she and her kidnappers-turned-friends must stop them. It's a fine adventure and a fair mystery, and if the villains and gods seem rather to come out of a hat near the end, it's still a satisfying book.

If you've never read any Diana Wynne Jones before, seek out a copy of The Lives of Christopher Chant or Charmed Lives or A Tale of Time City or Howl's Moving Castle or Eight Days of Luke and discover why schoolchildren regard Jones as one of the great writers of our genre. Like Jane Austen, her works are deceptively light and easily overlooked; but they are, at root, as serious as anything anyone is doing in the field today, and because her audience is the most impressionable and honest one, youth, she has an influence far beyond most writers in our field.

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