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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, too.

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 more.

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 about anything.

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 happy.

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 Maria.

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 Aunt Maria.

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 other.

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, 780 pp)

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.

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