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Book Briefs: October 2005

«Notable Novels»
«Dazzling Debuts»
«Excellent Collections»

Notable Novels
The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks
Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler
Thud! by Terry Pratchett
Tumbling After by Paul Witcover

While combing through data he has obtained by communicating with the Dwellers, a race of beings who live for billions of years, a smalltime human researcher discovers a secret, which, if it really exists, would launch an interstellar war for its possession. Full-blown modern space opera ensues. Some have found Iain M. Bank's The Algebraist (Night Shade Books) to be bloated and meandering. It may not become a classic, but for sheer imagination and vastness of scale, this Scottish author's return to SF is worth reading.

There's still life in the undead. Octavia E. Butler re-imagines the vampire science fictionally in Fledgling (Seven Stories Press). Butler's vampires (well, most of them) only kill when they must and have devoted "symbionts" who exchange blood for bliss and good health. The plot hinges on Shori, who looks to be 10 years old, but is actually over 50, and is a genetically engineered half-human/half-vampire with dark skin pigmentation that helps protect her from sunlight. A page-turner that's also a parable about race, relationships, and sexuality

Terry Pratchett's serio-comic speculative fiction Discworld novels began in 1983 and Thud! (HarperCollins) is, amazingly, the thirtieth in the series. Despite all that back story, new readers will still delight in this hilariously goofy tale of a long-standing feud between trolls and dwarves that allows the author to take satirical swipes racial strife, religious extremism, and The Da Vinci Code.

If labeling is needed, Tumbling After (Eos) by Paul Witcover could best be described as speculative fiction. Mixing sharp prose with elements of a mainstream coming-of-age novel, role-playing quest fantasy, twinship, odds, sfnal alternative realities, and Witcoverian uniqueness for what may prove to be the sleeper of the year. There's a certain indelible quality here that could stick with enough readers to be parlayed into a higher level of commercial success.

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Dazzling Debuts

Counting Heads (Tor) by David Marusek is a dazzling science fictional debut from a gifted writer. Life on twenty-second century Earth is nearly perfect -- so perfect that most of its 15 billion human inhabitants are redundant. The powerful Eleanor Starke, is able to ride herd on the greedy, dastardly affluent elite, but her assassination leaves only her daughter, Ellen, to keep the world safe. Ellen, decapitated in the attack that killed her mother, survives only as a cryogenically preserved head and all factions are after her. Savvy, amusing, and original.

Elizabeth Bear's Hammered, Scared, and Worldwired (Bantam Spectra) were released in January and July respectively with the third due in November, But consider all three as a single 1000-page mass market paperback debut novel. Set in a cyberpunkish near-future dystopia, the story features 50-ish Canadian woman warrior Jenny Casey's techno-thrilling adventures with multi-threads of plot and myriad well-drawn characters. Bear tosses in just about every sci-fi spin and associated kitchen sink, but there's more here than mere mind candy.

Two solid fantasy debuts named for their invented cities: Melusine by Sarah Monette (Ace) and Elantris (Tor) by Brandon Sanderson. Monette's strong characterizations of a cat burglar and court wizard thrown together by fate and Sanderson's world building are first-rate. Janine Cross also makes a notable debut with a well-imagined world in Touched By Venom (Roc), the first of the Dragon Temple Saga.

Nominally for young adults, Twilight (Megan Tingley) by first novelist Stephenie Meyer crosses (yes, again!) vampires with star-crossed young lovers when teenage Bella falls for benign and beautiful bloodsucker Edward. This darkly horrific romance deals well with the supernatural by realistically portraying teenage life (which is pretty scary) and draws suspense from the dangerous theme that one mistake might mean your life. Grown-ups didn't ignore Harry Potter and they shouldn't overlook this book either.

[Also: Jeff VanderMeer's first novel, Veniss Underground.]

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Excellent Collections

China Miéville's Looking For Jake (Del Rey) and Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners (Small Beer) are probably frontrunners for any year's best lists. But you can't go wrong with veteran Gene Wolfe. His new collection Starwater Strains (Tor) samples a diverse batch of his more recent, frequently stellar, short fiction. Gregory Frost's first collection, Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories (Golden Gryphon) is both varied and accomplished. The previously barely published Holly Phillips makes a strong positive impression with her The Palace of Repose (Prime) collection. On the dark side To Charles Fort, With Love (Subterranean) is yet another exquisite collection of lyrical disquieting fiction from Caitlín R. Kiernan, Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales: A Collection, A Recollection, A Writer's Handbook (Subterranean) republishes Norman Partridge's famous 1992 debut collection of seven stories adds eleven more and offers a sizable amount of nonfiction. Partridge's "recollections" are interesting and his advice to writers insightful and needful. Even if you've read the fiction or feel Partridge's later oeuvre outshines his early work, the nonfiction alone makes it worth a read. Another re-issue is Conference with the Dead by Terry Lamsley (Night Shade). Lamsley is a master of mood and the modern weird tale and this collection from 1996 went a long way toward proving it. (Winner of an International Horror Guild Award.) The Dogs of Truth: New and Uncollected Stories (Tor) warns author Kit Reed, is not for those who "want to go somewhere warm and fluffy where everybody's nice and only nice things happen..." but her dark humor and uniquely unsettling stories will please those who prefer good fiction rather than fluff. -- PRLG

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