September 01, 2006

Recent Reading

by Alan Beatts

I've been reading quite a bit lately.  Not quite sure how that worked out since I've also been very busy with World Con and all and yet . . . it happened.  Not that I'm complaining.  Since I opened Borderlands I've probably had less time to read than any other time in my life.  That's what happens when you make a hobby into a business.

One of the standout novels I read was NIGHTWATCH by Sergei Lukyanenko.  This is the novel that was the basis for the film.  The translation from Russian is excellent, so good in fact that it almost reads like it was originally written in English.  When I started it (partly on the advice of my daughter) I was pretty doubtful but within the first chapter or two I was hooked.  As usual, I'm not going to waste time with a synopsis but I will say that it is probably the best novel of its type that I've _ever_ read.  I should probably explain what its "type" is -- a story of secret warfare between the supernatural forces of light and darkness set in modern times.  Think of Green's Nightside novels, Leiber's Conjure Wife, Butcher's Dresden Files, Lackey's Diana Trigarde or about half of Tim Powers' work.

I just finished THE HARROWING by Alexandra Sokoloff.  It's a pretty straightforward ghost story with all the usual props (like ouiji boards, stormy nights, a deserted school and so forth).  That said, the writing is quite good and the pace is engaging.  If you like ghost stories, this will satisfy.  You'll also have a chance to meet the author in about month since she'll be doing a reading at the store on October 4th.

It must have been the sunny summer weather that drove me to reading more supernatural material than usual.  I didn't notice the trend until now but another book that I greatly enjoyed was SNAKE AGENT by Liz Williams.  Detective Inspector Chen works for the Chinese police in the near future.  But it's not our future.  In Chen's world the supernatural and high tech coexist and the gods (and hell, for that matter) are very real, everyday forces in the world.  And Chen's specialty is investigating cases involving the supernatural.

The thing that I thought was outstanding about SNAKE AGENT is Williams' artful job of sidestepping some of the awkward questions that come up when a writer adds magic to a modern society.  For example, how does history change when the forces of hell are players in world politics?  One common solution is to make the existence of magic a secret, as Lukyanenko does in NIGHTWATCH.  But if the general population knows that the supernatural exists, history and the structure of society changes.  If these changes aren't addressed by the author it makes it very hard for the reader to "believe" the story.

Williams' solution is to set the story both slightly in the future and in a very foreign culture.  I (and I suspect most readers) don't know enough about Chinese society and culture to spot the inconsistencies (if there are any).  Combined with Williams' solid prose and descriptions, this gives the world a depth and reality not often equaled.  It's good stuff and I'm quite looking forward to reading the sequel, DEMON IN THE CITY, which has just come in as a hardcover.

And now it's time for an embarrassing confession -- until last month I had never read WAR FOR THE OAKS by Emma Bull.  Mikael, when he heard, said something very unflattering about my intelligence and my parents' marital status.  I would avoid mentioning it to anyone but I really liked it and so I want to tell people about it.  It's a great story about a mortal who is pulled into a war between two factions of fairies.  Not the cute, Tinkerbell type of fairies but the scary, Thomas the Rhymer variety.  If you enjoyed books like TITHE by Holly Black or some of Neil Gaiman's work, you should really give WAR FOR THE OAKS a try.  One warning though, it was first published in 1987 and though not dated in most ways there is a sometimes painful New Wave quality that pops up once in a while, especially in the characters' wardrobes.  Very painful at times.  Did _anyone_ ever actually dress that way?  I have some faint memories of it but they're very blurry.  It's probably a subconscious self-defense mechanism.

I've still got lots of catch-up to do in the aftermath of the World Science Fiction Convention so I'll wish you all a nice September and talk to you soon.

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