March 2012

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

It's Like Our World, but Twisted a Little

Penguin's Firebird imprint reissues three outstanding novels from the great Diana Wynne Jones this month with DogsbodyA Tale of Time City, and, one of my favorite books of all time, Fire and Hemlock. In this modern retelling of the ballads "Tam Lin" and "Thomas the Rhymer," Jones startles readers from the very first pages when new Oxford student Polly realizes that she has forgotten large swaths of her life. While she can recall experiences with friends and family, there are nagging gaps that only grow wider and more disturbing as she nudges her brain to recall what she is missing. Reaching back to her childhood and her parents' deteriorating marriage, Polly latches onto one person in particular who is absent from most of her memories. Finding out why she has forgotten Thomas Lynn and the sinister reasons behind her selective amnesia propels the narrative forward but there is so much more here than a little mystery. Fire and Hemlock is mythic fiction at its very best and a strong example of how the most captivating stories are often found in traditional sources.

Polly's relationship with Thomas Lynn begins when she mistakenly crashes a neighborhood funeral and continues from there through long fanciful letters (the story is set in the prehistoric period before email), occasional meetings, and the exchange of great books and music. They meet when Polly is only ten and desperate for adventure. In Mr. Lynn she finds an unlikely sympathetic listener who seems to have his own need to escape from the pressures of reality. (Polly soon realizes he has the ex-wife from hell.) The funeral also introduces Polly to Seb, a Draco Malfoy-esque boy who appears haunted by ulterior motives and his father, the terrifying Mr. Leroy. In the years that follow, Polly and Mr. Lynn find themselves making bizarre discoveries on their occasional afternoons together. They are pursued by unnatural beasts and monsters, save a great horse, are saved in turn by a car, befriend three stellar musicians, wander through a hardware store from the X Files and learn why you should never go on a carnival ride. (For more evidence of this, read Something Wicked This Way Comes and commit it to memory. Please.)

The dozen years age difference between Thomas and Polly is explained more than once in the story and although our twenty-first century suspicions might want to find something nefarious in that, Fire and Hemlock is a story about contemporary heroes and ancient tales that are rooted in medieval songs. As Polly uncovers the clues to her past (letters, pictures, and toy soldiers point her in the right directions), she must come to terms with how much of her life she has lived as the pawn in a game she never knew the rules for. The world is a more powerful and complicated place then she ever imagined and that reality is a shock, as it should be, and gets to the root of why mythic fiction is such an endlessly appealing genre. Fire and Hemlock, like the ballads that inspired it, is a book of richness and intensity, language and ideas, and wild, wild nights that invite readers to escape into a powerful fantasy that leaves much of modern paranormal fiction in the dust. I cannot thank Firebird enough for bringing it back. (Also be sure to check out the Firebird title Tam Lin by Pamela Dean for another outstanding take on that ballad.)

Elizabeth Hand continues to plumb the souls of creative teens in her new novel, Radiant Days. As she did so brilliantly with Shakespearean plays and complex family dynamics in Illyria, Hand now turns to art and poetry in a whirlwind look at the lives of two starving artists separated by time: Corcoran School of Art student Merle in 1978 and outlaw poet Arthur Rimbaud in 1870s France. Their separate passions for painting and words overwhelm every facet of their lives, sending Merle into a tailspin after a disastrous love affair and Rimbaud onto the road to Paris in search of intellectual freedom. The twist here is that on one spectacular night, when everything seems to go wrong, Merle and Rimbaud are brought together. The magic that happens is not their meeting however, but what it inspires each of them to do and how it fills them later with memories that become powerful purposes.

Both Merle and Rimbaud are fierce in their desire to live lives less ordinary. Rimbaud however, as fans of his writing are aware, was bolder in thought than most teens and insistent upon making a mark to the point of attaining literary immortality. The fictional Merle has enormous talent but struggles with the courage to embrace her art fully and suffers from a self-destructive streak that pulls her away from her studies and onto the streets. Merle wants so much but is not sure how to get it and feels weighed down by the more prosaic needs of food and shelter. The bitter end to her romance and the loss of her precious sketchbook is enough to push her over the edge. The second part of the book begins when she has very nearly hit bottom and that is when Rimbaud arrives in her life.

This collision of destinies involves the arrival of a third character in the plot, a musician who carries with him a hint of mythology that Hand artfully weaves through the brasher moments of Merle and Rimbaud's adventures. The theme of "one wild night" beats through the plot, a reminder that sometimes you have only one chance to choose the road not taken, and only one opportunity to be brave enough to grab the life you dream of. This is something Arthur Rimbaud was clearly born knowing and gifts to Merle in the hours they share.

While reading Radiant Days, it becomes clear that what elevates Hand's work above that of her peers and makes her one of the strongest writers for teens today is the gorgeousness of her language. Readers of her adult mysteries and sly fantasies will have learned to expect nothing less but for teens navigating a sea of interchangeable and forgettable paranormal titles, the images and emotions Hand conjures up will likely startle and shock. In the voice of Arthur she writes: "People want poetry to be a nursemaid. I want to be a murderer and a thief. Art should be... ugly, and hurt so you can feel it. That's what makes it powerful."

By showing Arthur Rimbaud as a modern day hero on par with the significance of Kurt Cobain, or Jack Kerouac before him, Hand shows that nothing is beyond her literary reach. Radiant Days is a most startling achievement.

With his latest novel, Matt Ruff shows yet again that he is a master of crafting intricate, complex plots that read as effortless dreams. The Mirage is a book that should not be able to exist -- it should just be too damn hard to pull off -- and yet in it Ruff gives readers a modern day thriller with real characters who pick everything apart, solve the mystery, and face a new day in the most satisfying ending I have read in, well, forever. Ruff is phenomenal, he is like no one else, and he should be at the top of the award and bestseller lists because he writes for everyone and he does it very well.  

The Mirage is set in a world eerily like our own that is not a construct for the sake of fiction but has a real reason for existing. It's a world much like this one: same time, same technology, similar cultures -- with one glaring exception. In the first chapter we learn that the United Arab States was attacked on November 9, 2001 in Baghdad by Christian fundamentalists from the "World Christian Alliance, a North American white supremacist group based in the Rocky Mountain Independent Territories." The UAS retaliated with the War on Terror, which resulted in the capture of the city of Denver and ongoing fighting in the North American continent. A "Green Zone" has been established in Washington, DC from which the UAS continues to attack Alliance forces and the "Axis of Evil" (America, UK, and North Korea) has been informed that the UAS will not back down in its determination to bring peace to the world.

Yeah, things are a little bit different then you expect in Ruff's world.

The author provides necessary world-building background via Wikipedia-type entries between chapters. This allows Ruff to provide readers with thorough historical explanations while not having his characters get bogged down in forced extraneous conversations. It's brilliant and effectively answers questions as you read along. The story itself centers around three Arab Homeland Security agents who have been tasked with getting to the bottom of an odd puzzle. After the capture of a suicide bomber and routine search of his apartment they discover a copy of The New York Times dated September 12, 2001 that asserts the United States of America was attacked by Muslim fundamentalists and the Arab states are a "collection of third-world countries." The odd meme of an alternate world, or that everyone is living in a "mirage," has started to gather steam among fundamentalists in the American states and territories and is proving to be fodder for a growing number of suicide bombers. Mustafa, Samir, and Amal figure it's just mind games and Photoshop, but the more they investigate, the more they encounter powerful people who seem to have agendas of their own that include the mirage idea. These people include the gangster Saddam Hussein; the extremely powerful senator Osama bin Laden; and Americans, including the director of the Waco faction CIA (Christian Intelligence Agency) from Texas, David Koresh, his agent, Timothy McVeigh, and his enemy, the CIA director from Crawford, who is known by his nickname, "The Quail Hunter."

It would all be mindless and maybe even silly if Ruff was not deadly earnest about proving just how everything happened and why, and because of this The Mirage ends up being a very serious book with serious ideas. (And a lot of humorous moments too, of course.) There is talk of politics and culture, religion and love, science and magic. Not one word is wasted; every page builds on what came before it and the characters, even those you think you know so well, are permitted their moments of introspection. The agents, who are fictional "everymen," are the ones to be most admired, and as they slog through all the chaos that surrounds them, you can see Ruff easing into a suspension of disbelief that gradually becomes an embrace not only of his new reality but the aspects of our own that are so achingly similar. He does something with The Mirage that is compelling and elegant. Older teens who have only known the post-9/11 world should read it as an echo of earlier satires on war and politics but also for the great gripping story it provides. And anyone who looks at our world and wonders what we have gotten into will find The Mirage illuminating. I remain deeply impressed by what Matt Ruff has accomplished here and hope he receives all of the attention for it that he deserves. I am, in a word, amazed.

In a futuristic Earth putting together a new world government, Jackal Segura is the center of attention on her island nation in Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge. As the first baby born there when the new world coalition was forming, Jackal is a "Hope," one of the chosen few from each country who, in her case, will serve as an international representative for Ko Island. Jackal's life has been mapped out and planned by her parents and Ko itself, the corporation that runs the island and houses, and feeds and employs everyone on the only corporate nation on the planet. She is a project manager, dedicated to learning all that the company has to teach her so she can best represent Ko after attaining her Hope status -- a middle manager the whole world will look up to along with a host of other Hopes, some of whom may be nothing more than pageant queen wannabes. "Lots of artists dedicating their lives to furthering world peace through mixed media," one character notes sardonically. Jackal is serious, and dedicated, she understands that a Hope represents all of Ko and must always be on her best behavior. Unfortunately she is also very quietly losing her mind from the stress of her birthright and a recently revealed huge family secret, but none of that can matter because keeping it together is the job she was born to do. In a few short months, Jackal will be the best Hope she can be, but then, before it all happens as scheduled, there is a dreadful accident and Jackal's whole perfectly planned out life goes to hell.

Solitaire is science fiction that includes exploration of some serious virtual reality issues but more than anything is a novel about one person, one secret, and a job that just never stops making demands. Eskridge has done some great world-building, but the changes in her future are subtle rather than apocalyptic, which allows Jackal's dire situation to take center stage. This Earth is not really so different from our own, and anyone who has ever lived a cubicle life will recognize Ko's corporate culture. Once Jackal's life is upended, however, Eskridge allows her imagination to run wild in a penitentiary setting that has all the combined cynicism of Escape From New York with the violent paranoia of an Akritirian maximum security detention facility (that is the only Star Trek reference I'll make, promise). Jackal finds herself sentenced to an experiment designed to make her lose her mind. Her post-release survival means she has to figure out how to live with what happened to her (recidivism is a real bitch in this case), and somehow find a future that a onetime Hope could never have been prepared for.

Teen readers who are fond of the genre will embrace Solitaire with ease while fans of YA dystopian titles will find a character who possesses all the cool and quiet power of the best girl hero in a story that is light years beyond the standard fare. Jackal is no wimp or whiner, nor is she a born "chosen one." In every way that matters she is the product of the corporate culture (both personally and professionally) that embraced her from birth; she is certainly a twenty-first century construct we can all recognize. The struggles she goes through are always tempered with very personal loss, both as a result of the accident that finds her imprisoned and the distance from the love of her life who remains back on Ko. What rocks so much about Solitaire is that Eskridge has put as much time and attention into her character building as the plot and that means that while we marvel at the world she created, we also respond on a fundamental level with Jackal and the girl she loves who never stops loving her back. This book is a treasure; a true jewel for readers longing for big ideas and intimate story.

Finally, Delia Sherman riffs on Edward Eager's classic The Time Garden in her deeply affecting time travel and coming-of-age novel The Freedom Maze. Set in 1960 Louisiana and reaching back one hundred years to the same location during its antebellum peak, this should be a predictable, maybe even pedestrian message story. It has all the ingredients to teach readers that slavery is bad and bookish misunderstood girls are good, and yet Sherman turns a phrase so effectively and infuses this tale with so many memorable characters that even though you know an older wiser Sophie will eventually get back home, it quickly becomes a gripping page turner.

In the past, darkly tanned Sophie finds herself mistaken as a slave and quickly learns that slavery had no place for children. She has to grow up or surviving long enough to get back home is not going to be an option. She makes a lot of friends and enemies, she stands up for herself and discovers why some people do not have the luxury of doing that, and, more than anything, she figures out just who she is going to be. Most surprisingly (and a big departure from Eager), the time travel portion of The Freedom Maze quickly becomes the least significant aspect of the plot as the trials and travails of plantation life overwhelm not just Sophie but the reader as well. It would be trite to say she is transformed by her experience; it's far more important that Sophie is determined to change her life before the adventure begins. It is also significant that while she certainly grasps that slavery is disturbing and wrong, it is the way people lie to each other that affects her the most. A refusal to accept this simple cruelty that permeates society (and especially her family) from past to present is what lingers with Sophie and gives her the courage to return to 1960 a truly changed person. The miracle at work here is how Sherman accomplishes all this while not letting the story be about the message and thus giving a lessons to writers everywhere who look to the past as a potential setting.

Readers will love Sophie. She is ticked off at her parents for getting divorced, at her father for leaving and finding a new wife, at her mother for endlessly wishing Sophie could be the child she envisioned rather than the one she gave birth to, and everyone, everyone, for treating Sophie like a small child while nevertheless expecting her to cope with all the change as if she were an adult. If there is a god, divorced parents everywhere will take note of this revelation. Realistic, compelling, and not the slightest bit condescending, The Freedom Maze is all about changing your world. Well done, Ms. Sherman.

COOL READ: The death of Kage Baker in 2010 left a hole in the science fiction world and fans of her time traveling Company series, tales about immortals who travel into the past in search of items sought by Company officers to help mankind (or turn a buck) in the future, utterly bereft. For those looking for an excellent taste of Baker's short fiction, Subterranean Press has published The Best of Kage Baker, a 496-page collection that includes several outstanding Company stories and novellas as well as many others tales of note. The classics "Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst," a Company novella set in Hollywood of the 1930s and "Son, Observe the Time," which takes place in the days leading up to the San Francisco earthquake, are both included and to be enjoyed not only for the way the characters immerse themselves in the periods but for the colorful way in which Baker recreates history and places the readers right in the midst of it. Other Company stories include "The Catch" and "Hanuman," both of which peer into the intricacies of the Company idea and the ways in which mistakes were made on the path to immortality.

Baker wrote outside the Company world as well however (as wonderful as it is) and in particular her story "What the Tyger Told Her" is a stunner. Set on a family estate, where an old "tyger" is kept caged as an entertainment, a young girl watches and with the big cat observes the family secrets unfold around her. Bit by bit she learns, and then, in a shocking few paragraphs, she takes retribution. It is not quite as disturbing as "All My Darling Daughters" by Connie Willis, but packs a similar wallop. Teens in particular will find this a powerful tale, especially as it focuses on a child who unleashes her own power. That personal boldness is actually a cornerstone of Baker's writing, from the decisions made by the Company operatives, to the twists and turns within Mr. Hearst's mansion to the tyger restlessly pacing in its cage. Baker knew that plots hinge on the smallest of moments and the unlikeliest of characters. The Subterranean Press collection is a reminder of all the amazing worlds she called home.

Colleen Mondor is the author of the memoir The Map of My Dead Pilots. She maintains a literary blog (with occasional forays into polar exploration) at Chasingray.com