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Fantasy & Science
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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction December 1992

By Orson Scott Card


Boy's Life, Robert R. McCammon (Pocket, paper, 578 pp, $5.99), audio abridgement read by Richard Thomas (Simon & Schuster Audioworks, 2 cass 180 min, $16.00)

When I drive long distances, I often pick up audiotapes of books so I can, in effect, have someone read me a story while I drive. That's how I came upon the works of Martha Grimes and Tony Hillerman, for instance; that's how I "read Prairy Earth by William Least-Heat Moon and came to know Olive Ann Burns's wonderful Cold Sassy Tree.

Usually, though, I confine my listening to "out-of-genre" books, and to authors whose works I don't know. Robert R. McCammon's writing I have known for some time, ever since he first started popping up with short stories in anthologies and Alan Rodgers's wonderful old Night City magazine. I admired his work then, and said so, and have said so since. And because he has developed a large following, I felt no need to read his novels for review -- with exceptions, I generally try to read for this column books that aren't going to be recognized immediately by a large audience.

But as I headed out for a trip to Myrtle Beach, there wasn't anything that really tickled my fancy outside the genre. And there was McCammon's Boy's Life. The title reminded me of a brilliant work of autobiography by a mainstream author, which was both encouraging and off-putting; and it was read for audiotape by Richard Thomas, who did a fine job of reading Cold Sassy Tree; I figured, What can I lose?

I lost nothing, folks; I gained much. Even in its abridged audiotape presentation, Boy's Life is far more than a mere horror story; rather it is worthy, both in ambition and execution, of pushing its way out of a genre whose purpose is to arouse a single emotion and into the lives of a broader audience, the one that seeks character and meaning, vision and the wide range of human feelings.

What McCammon has wrought is, not a story of horror, but a story of hunger, love, and death in a small southern town, where the river contains a dangerous and hungry serpent that is propitiated by annual blood sacrifices, and where the narrator is a kid who rides his bike all over town and takes piano lessons in the home of a matched set of quarrelsome old ladies and, oh yes, gets caught up in a murder investigation that almost gets him killed.

The fantasy and the reality of decades-ago life in the deep south merge in a way that reminds me of Bradbury without the rhapsodies. From the bone-chilling scene where the narrator watches his father, a milkman, run from his truck and leap into a bottomless lake, trying to save a man hand-cuffed inside a sinking car, to the terrifying scene in a flooded-out cabin where the river serpent bites a dog in half and then comes after the narrator and his younger black companion, McCammon shows that he hasn't lost a speck of his talent for horror. But this is horror, not for its own sake, not because the author thought of something really icky and built a story around showing it to us, but rather horror as a part of a larger story, as a part of life.

After listening to the tape and being moved and exalted by the story, I bought the book and skimmed it, realizing that to turn Boy's Life into a three-hour read, the abridger had to chop the book to bits, leaving out an astonishing amount. Like a movie adaptation, the audiotape did not really do justice to what McCammon wrote. The book is even better, richer, more full of details of life and with far more story than any three-hour tape could possibly contain. But this does not mean the audio version is "bad," any more than the film of Gone with the Wind is "bad" because it leaves out half the book. More than ever before, the experience of these two versions of McCammon's story has shown me that reading a book aloud is a different medium with its own possibilities. The audio version is more of a mystery novel -- who killed that man in the car? -- than the book as a whole, which is so much richer than the mystery is only one of the threads instead of the main structure. But it is an excellent story, no less so than the longer, fuller life created in the book.


Strange Device of the Sun and Moon, Lisa Goldstein (TOR, 1992)

Goldstein is one of our best writers. Indeed, with Tourists and A Mask for the General I came to the conclusion that she simply was the best writer in our field today, bar none. Her view of reality is so quirky but true, her characterization so sympathetic yet brutally honest, her writing to extravagantly clear, that I honestly thought she couldn't write a bad book.

Well, I still believe that. With all the mistakes in the making of Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon it should be a bad book, and it still isn't. And while it is not the polished, perfect work that some of her previous books have been, it is still a book that rewards you well for the reading of it, and it is still a book that affirms Goldstein's talent.

The setting is Elizabethan London, just before Shakespeare. There are really two stories spinning along at once: The story of Christopher Marlowe, poet, dramatist, and spy, who slips easily from the world of palace intrigue back into the free-for-all society of London writers; and the story of Alice Wood, a widowed bookseller struggling to maintain her independence in a world that does not know how to deal with a female doing business in her own right.

It is the story of Alice Wood that you want to read, for hers is the tale that reflects Goldstein's imagination instead of just her research. Alice had a son, you see, who disappeared, but in the course of the story he comes back, and fancies himself king. This is treason, of course, and because various factions want to make use of him, he comes to the attention of the government. However, there is a far deeper game being played, for this boy is not king of England, but rather the heir of the king and queen of Faerie, and a terrible battle is looming in which this young man's role will be pivotal. Who will possess him. Not Alice Wood, for he is not really hers -- her own child was stolen from her in infancy, and she reared this prince of Faerie as a changeling in his place.

It is a delight to read Alice's story as she discovers the reality of Faerie, fights off an attempt by a one-time friend to marry her or destroy her, develops a friendship with a woman who, by any definition of the era, is a witch, and deals with the presence of a large and sometimes surly brownie in her house. Goldstein deftly gives us the feel of Elizabethan speech without beating us over the head with forsooths or lifting ludicrous quotes from Shakespeare or Marlowe and planting them whole in places where blank verse does not belong. And while she never gives us much of a personal stake in the struggle within Faerie, it is still interesting when seen through Alice's eyes.

The mistake in this book, the reason why a lesser writer would have failed utterly, is that Goldstein seems to have fallen in love with her research. Christopher Marlowe takes up fully half the pages of this book without ever amounting to anything -- unless you already know a great deal about him and so would feel a great admiration for the clever way that Goldstein accounts for his death. But unless you bring attitudes about Marlowe to this book, you will find no particular reason for his story to have been included. He has no deep personal goal, beyond survival, that drives him; he has no hopes or plans that we can identify with; rather he lurches along, responding rather prosaically to whatever wind is blowing. This may be realistic, of course, but it is hardly the stuff that great novels are made of; Marlowe doesn't even have some kind of epiphany that shows us why we have spent so many pages reading about his life. Marlowe seems to be in this book solely because the author fell in love with him and then neglected to put within the pages of this novel anything that would evoke that same response in us. His emptiness was so frustrating that I found myself constantly tempted to skip ahead to the next Alice section; I even found myself hoping that Goldstein would at least tie him in with the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, dumb as that would have been, just so there would be some reason for having read so much about him. No such luck. Shakespeare is barely mentioned, and Marlowe, who has his hour on the stage, is given nothing important to do, so that when he leaves in a quick little death scene, we hardly miss him.

A flaw? Yes, and a serious one -- but Strange Devices is a Goldstein novel, and therefore even with flaws is well worth reading. The story of Alice Wood is strong enough to carry us through; and now that Goldstein has worked out her mini-affair with Marlowe in the pages of this book, we can expect her next book to be aspark with the lightning of her inventiveness instead of being dampened by such humid study.


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