Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction April 1992
By Orson Scott Card
Soulsmith, Tom Deitz (Avon/AvoNova, paper, 449 pp, $4.99)
Tom Deitz's first novel, Windmaster's Bane, led to his first series, including
Fireshaper's Doom and four other books. I reviewed the first two with much
enthusiasm, for Deitz had done a fine job of mingling a contemporary Georgia
setting with some strong and interesting fantasy. The only drawback, I thought,
was the fundamental problem that Celtic mythology really had no logical role in
America -- the result was that, for me at least, these novels were best the less they
had to do with the Celtic gods and the more they had to do with the rural Georgia
high school kids.
I'm happy to tell you that I got my wish. Not with the original series, but
with a new trilogy whose first volume, Soulsmith, promises that Deitz will follow
the direction that brought most value to his work. We're back in the Georgia
countryside, in a country that is -- well -- lucky. But the source of the luck is no
mystery. It's the Welch family, and most particularly the Welch, old Matt, who
has a way of doing favors for people. Not that he actually does anything directly,
mind you. It's just that people sort of get lucky after asking him for help. Things
work out. And then they bring him gifts and so you could say he's kind of lucky,
Only Matt Welch has been getting a little greedy. A little untrusting. These
days he insists on setting it up as pre-agreed payments instead of relying on the
gratitude of the people he helps. And he has also been messing around with
tradition. Instead of planning to have his heir as the Welch be his sister's son (or
his niece's), he has his own little genetic project going on.
Into this situation comes Ronny Dillon, a boy who has lost everything.
First, he had shattered his knee in a diving accident, ending his athletic prowess
and leaving him almost certainly a cripple for life. Then his adoptive parents had
died in a traffic accident, and he had to go live with his godmother, his mother's
old roommate in college. Her name? Erin Welch. And her son, Lewis, would
normally have been Matt Welch's heir. But Ronny knew nothing of that. He only
knew that he was almost friendless in high school, and the only thing he had going
for him was as surprising gift that he had never known he had: He really knew
how to make things out of metal. He was a born smith.
I can't begin to tell you all that happens from there on -- Deitz is
wonderfully inventive, both with his characters and with the magic in this tale.
You'll never forget the Road Man, I can assure you -- a wandering tinker who is
powerful and strange, reminiscent both of Tom Bombadil and of the Wizard of
Oz. And in the Welch family itself, you can find the kind of majesty mixed with
madness that feel like the powerful figures in Octavia Butler's Wild Seed -- or
like characters in a southern gothic novel.
Most of all, though, I think you'll come to like the teenage kids in this book.
Deitz has not forgotten that age when the full growth of adulthood is on you, but
you don't quite know yet what to do with it -- the age when you feel great power
inside you, but can't begin to guess what your role in life might turn out to be.
Everything is negotiable, discoverable; and it is also dangerous and terrible, for no
one can really protect you anymore. Indeed, near the climax of this book there is a
terrible moment of adolescent frisson, when the child realizes that he is no longer
under the protection of his parents, and must choose and act alone for the first
time. That will certainly make this novel a hit with high school age readers, but I
hope that will be no barrier to older readers like me. After all, most fantasy heroes
are adolescents -- it's just that Deitz is honest enough to state it openly, instead of
pretending that his many characters are grown up.
This is the first book in a trilogy, and when I inquired, the editor told me
that while the second book, Dreambuilder, exists in draft form, the final book,
Wordwright, is only an outline. I must say, though, that Deitz does a fine job of
closing this book. While I certainly would love to know more about the future of
the characters, the fundamental issues in Soulsmith are all resolved by the end.
This is not a trilogy where you should wait until the last volume is published
before reading the first.
I think what I liked best about this book was the American-ness of it. Deitz
has scant debt to Celtic fantasy here. Where the old modes of fantasy touch the
story, it's in the life of the kids -- metal figurines like the ones kids used to play
fanatical games of Dungeons and Dragons. Instead the magic of the Road Man is
displayed in weird impossible machines, in revival meeting rhetoric and rituals, in
boasting and unpredictability, two of the most wonderful and annoying of
American traits. Much as I have loved the finest of the fantasies that echo the
European tradition, I'm much more excited about a story that feels like something
out of the collective memory of my own people. We have no relics of knights and
castles in our landscape -- but we do have heaps of rusting metal and road, both
paved and dirt, running off into the wood and hills practically everywhere. This is
the world that Deitz is exploring and re-creating with Soulsmith, and I'm glad to
have spent some hours there in his company.
The Hemingway Hoax, Joe Haldeman (Morrow, cloth, 155 pp, $16.95)
Haldeman's novella has already won a slew of awards; it hardly needs my
endorsement now. But just in case you've been living with your head in a
soundproof box, let me point out that this is Haldeman at his best, in part because
this is Haldeman writing contemporary fiction instead of Haldeman writing gung-ho far-future sci-fi. Yes, the science fiction element is strong, as time travelers
labor to prevent some never-named catastrophe (or, perhaps, labor to prevent the
prevention of a eucatastrophe that they are determined must occur); but stronger
still is the life of Hemingway scholar John Baird, a man with an eidetic memory,
an old war injury, a lost fortune, a half-faithful wife, and the bad luck to run into a
con man who sets him on a path that leads to death -- many times over.
The maguffin of The Hemingway Hoax is, of course, the hoax itself. As the
con man envisioned it, it would be a straightforward fraud: a Hemingway scholar
"finds" lost stories by Hemingway which, of course, the scholar wrote himself.
Baird is sold on the idea, however, only by thinking of it with a double twist: The
hoax will go on only long enough to win endorsements from a few scholars, and
then the book will be published as a deliberate Hemingway pastiche that was
nevertheless good enough to fool the scholars. Baird's dilemma at first is the
simple moral one -- if his hoax succeeds, it will seem as though he deliberately
set out to humiliate his fellow scholars. But soon enough it becomes quite a
different dilemma: How can he keep the time traveler from killing him in
timestream after timestream? Eventually he is going to run out of lives -- even as
some of his alternative lives seem a great deal more attractive than the "real" life
he remembers so closely.
If any flaw mars this near-tour-de-force, it is the irresolute ending. I think I
know who ended up winning and how it happened, but like so many authors,
Haldeman, perhaps fearing to insult his readers by explaining what must now be
obvious, has instead told us far too little for us to be sure that our guesses about
what the ending means are accurate. I wish I could measure all storytellers who
suffer from this malady that we readers are not as aware of every detail of plot as
the author is; especially we are not aware of how everything leads to the outcome
that the author has devised. So we won't be offended, not even the teensiest bit, if
you definitively explain what has happened before you type THE END. Those
who have already guessed what it all means will feel completely vindicated, which
they won't mind a bit, while the rest of us will be pathetically grateful for having
been let in on the great secret.
Black Cocktail, Jonathan Carroll (St. Martin's, cloth, 76 pp, $13.95)
What if people are born as members of a matched set of a certain number?
Most people never find the other members of their set, and so they go through life
feeling incomplete, always searching. But some are more fortunate, and find their
counterparts, fulfilling themselves: They are, in Vonnegut's words, lonely no
That is the mad crusade in which the narrator of Black Cocktail, Ingram,
finds himself. His longtime lover, a man named Glenn, was killed by "the big
one" when it finally hit Los Angeles; Ingram thought that this feeling of lostness
was because Glenn was gone. Then he meets Michael Billa and strange things
start happening. For one thing, Billa tells great stories that have a way of being
true -- but not necessarily the way Billa told them. Frightening things start
happening to Ingram, and no one seems to be able to tell him the straight story
Everything will all be fine, though, if they can just assemble all five
members of their set.
Carroll's strength is his easy evocation of place -- in this case, the sunlit,
brooding milieu of Los Angeles. With character, he is not as much at ease. He
can easily show the grotesque and the eccentric, but finding the complicated heart
of more "normal" people is a job he seems not even to attempt, as such people
either disappear entirely or act for only the most obvious of motives. In this case,
though, the adventure is gripping enough and the idea compelling enough to make
such faults invisible. This is the kind of horror fantasy that I enjoy. Its object is
not to induce nausea, but rather to create that frisson of awe that the world might
really be as strange and terrible as this.
Cloven Hooves, Megan Lindholm (Bantam Spectra, paper, 360 pp, $4.99)
Megan Lindholm's first novel, The Wizard of the Pigeons, was a marvel of
contemporary fantasy -- along with Charles de Lint's, her work defined the true
direction of post-King urban fantasy.
Cloven Hooves, however, is not so much a contemporary fantasy as it is
simply a contemporary novel. Few contemporary mainstream novelists are able to
evoke the complexities and contradictions of an entire family -- one thinks at
once of Ann Tyler, and then finds only a bare handful of others, most of them
women, who deserve to be added to the list.
With Cloven Hooves, Lindholm puts herself firmly on that list. Her
narrator, Evelyn, is a young mother who grew up in Alaska, where she and her
husband, Tom, had an almost-idyllic life poised on the boundary between city and
primeval forest. Now, however, she finds herself trying, with more and more
desperation, to hold her little family together in Washington, where Tom has
brought them to "help out for a while" on his parents' prosperous mega-farm
while a brother-in-law recovers from an injury. She has never much cared for her
in-laws. Their sense of family is so powerful, so authoritarian, that it swallows up
everyone who comes within their orbit -- and they have never, never approved of
anything about Evelyn herself. She is simply not civilized -- at least, not in the
way that they define it.
This is not a case of conflict between city and country -- nobody here is
urban by any stretch of the imagination. Rather it is a conflict between the wild
ancient forest and the humans who cut and clear it to plant tame crops, making
themselves into domesticated animals in the process. And in Evelyn's life, the
wilderness of the forest is embodied by the faun that first came to her when she
was a child wandering the woods and meadows of Alaska. In those days there was
an innocence in their wordless games together, but now, when the faun comes to
her again, it is not an innocent game they play at all, but rather Evelyn's
renunciation of the claims of civilization in order to be free (as she imagines) and
In a way, Cloven Hooves is really two novels. The Ann-Tylerish part is
Lindholm's devastating portrayal of the relentless, bit-by-bit invasion of Evelyn's
and Tom's fragile desmesne by Tom's ever-cheerful, well-meaning, and innocent
parents. When, finally, a genuine tragedy strikes, a tragedy that is nobody's fault
but which would never have happened if Evelyn had not lost all her power over
her own husband and child, it is almost inevitable that the blame is twisted around
and placed squarely on the one innocent person, Evelyn herself -- for of course
Tom's family can do no wrong.
The other novel is the tale of Evelyn and the faun. The stories barely
intersect for a short time in Washington; when her life with Tom's family ends, we
are really beginning a whole new story of her life in the wild.
Yet, unrelated as the stories sometimes seem to be, they are the two faces of
the same coin. However much Evelyn may think she does not belong in human
civilization, she also cannot bear the heartless logic of life in the wild. In neither
place can she truly create a home, even though that home is all she ever wanted.
She is a woman of the border, and neither of her husbands -- Tom nor the Faun --
is able to stay with her there.
Awkward as the structure of Cloven Hooves may be (and annoying as
Lindholm's decision to use present tense is), the story itself has all the anguish and
passion of the finest tragedy and all the mythic resonance of the finest fantasy.
And Lindholm's writing of it is rich with the telling details of the finest of
contemporary domestic drama. The result of such a melding of traditions as this is
too often that the book is ignored by everybody -- it is too much of a fantasy for
the contemporary fiction audience even to look at it, while the fantasy audience
doesn't know what to make of the decidedly unmagical pages of family tragedy.
Don't let yourselves be caught up in the useless contradiction. When you
pick up Cloven Hooves, set aside your genre expectations and let Lindholm take
you along on an unforgettable journey. She has embarked into a territory without
rules -- a kind of wild fiction, where the trees are not set out in rows and the
narrative is as untamed as a hungry animal. It is a fiction that neither can nor
should be imitated. But you must experience it. If only to feel again the hard,
driving pulse of raw storytelling that is so commonly drained out of more
traditional, predictable tales. And, while women will certainly respond to
Lindholm's depiction of a female dilemma, I hope the readers of this book are not
only women, for in fact the book is at least as much about men -- both weak and
strong, both tame and dangerous, all at once. It is no accident that both of
Evelyn's children are sons.
Aunt Maria, Diana Wynne Jones (Morrow/Greenwillow, cloth, 214 pp, $13.95)
Recently I devoted a long review to a summary of most of the works of
Diana Wynne Jones. Let me add to that what may be her best novel yet, Aunt
Most young adult fantasy deals with extraordinary children in ordinary
families. Jones reverses the equation quite regularly, for her narrator, Mig, and
her brother, Chris, are quite normal children in a far from ordinary family. It's bad
enough that Dad recently ran off with a bimbo, and then managed to get himself
killed in a traffic accident when his car plunged off a cliff into the sea. But now,
despite Mig's and Chris's best efforts, Mother has got them roped into spending
the Easter holidays with Aunt Maria.
Not ma-REE-ah, mind you, but ma-RYE-ah -- and don't you forget it
(though Aunt Maria herself relentlessly forgets that Mig does not like being called
by her real name, Naomi). Aunt Maria is the sweetest and dullest old lady -- but
in the midst of her unending torrent of cheerful babble, she manages to manipulate
people into doing exactly what she wants at all times. Within hours, Mother is
acting as Aunt Maria's house servant, and the children, far from having a holiday
by the sea, are part of a rigidly obedient community that has grown up around
There is magic here, of course, and soon enough the children run into it
headfirst. But what makes this an extraordinarily successful novel is the fact that
the magic is always rooted in reality. It consists of power arising out of the
different ways that men and women get control of their world. The final
confrontation between men's and women's magics is at once comical and
disturbing for its very ordinariness. You have seen men and women in conflict in
exactly this way, and it never felt like magic before!
Yet magic it is, so skillfully woven into the character story that belief in the
tale is never strained.
Perhaps there is no better way of letting you see just how wry Jones can be
than by telling you that the novel has a happy ending, and their father is not quite
as dead as they had thought -- but the one fact has nothing at all to do with the
The Shape Under the Sheet: The Complete Stephen King Encyclopedia, Stephen
Spignesi (Popular Culture, Ink, P.O. Box 1839, Ann Arbor MI 48106, cloth, 1991,
What can I say, except that as far as I can tell, the title is truthful. This
sucker is complete. I mean, you could kill a rat just by dropping this book on
them, it's that heavy.
Now, I've enjoyed many of the works of Stephen King, and I believe his
work will last for some time in the American consciousness. But I'm not the kind
of fan who wants a virtual concordance to his works. And yet there's a peculiar
kind of delight in looking under Tommyknockers and seeing a list of people who
were at Ruth McCuasland's funeral, or a reference to the t-shirt Jack was wearing
on Arcadia Beach (it said "School-lunch Victim"). Under each published work is
a box listing the table of contents and the dedication; then there are sections
headed people, places and things.
The book also has a listing of the first line of all King's books, poems, and
stories ("The engine of the old Ford died for the third time that morning" -- from
The Aftermath, an unpublished novel -- hard to believe there is such a thing isn't
it?); interviews with employees, family, friends; examinations of King's juvenilia;
comparisons of all the movies based on King writings with the writings they were
based on; and here's the strange thing: It's a real kick to go through this book.
Part of the fun is thinking, "Somebody actually put all this together." And part of
the fun is remembering the particular King piece that's being talked about. Or
wondering how these little bits and pieces fit into the books I haven't read. For
instance, I never got around to reading It, but I'm intrigued to know that there was
somebody in the book who was referred to as "The Rotting Leper." And that Patty
Uris apparently watched a Ryan family on Family Feud. And that Willard Scott,
the Today Show weatherman, is also a character in the book.
I can't find the price in my review copy of the book, but I suspect you can
buy a good lawnmower for less. Librarian's will want it, of course, but I don't
think that this book is really meant for scholars. I suspect that if you're part of the
audience for this book, all I have to tell you is that it exists, and you'll do the rest.