cover image The NCF Guideto

and Fandom

Fourth Edition
Edited by Robert Runté


By Doug Barbour


Recent Anthologies

David G. Hartwell and Glenn Grant, editors. Northern Suns.

TOR Books, 384 pp.

Two new anthologies of Canadian sf (which signifies everything from science fiction to spectacular fantasias) have arrived, one that has become an old friend by now, with brand new stories every year, the other a US collection of previously published material. Both are well worth a reader's attention, a sign that the editors are absolutely correct to tell us that Canadian sf is a very healthy beast right now.

Northern Suns is the second anthology of Canadian sf from TOR Books, perhaps the major publisher of sf in the US. It's a companion volume to the earlier Northern Stars, and perhaps its most interesting aspect is that not one author repeats from that first book. At the same time, editors Hartwell and Grant have continued to range far and wide in their search for Canadian speculative writing. There are works by both internationally known and almost unknown authors. The former are well represented by a savage satire from Margaret Atwood and a much lighter comic anti-scientific jape from Robertson Davies. But these are not the best stories in this fine collection.

There are traditional science fiction stories like Sally McBride's 'The Fragrance of Orchids' and Karl Schroeder's 'Halo,' both of which feature compassionate female protagonists. There are some interesting variations on horror themes. There are a number of alternate histories, at least two of which take up Canada's divided history, but the most interesting is Alain Bergeron's 'The Eighth Register,' with its 20th century Holy Roman Empire and its Church-dominated scientific research - a frightening representation of a world trapped in intellectual stasis. Ursula Phlug's 'Bugtown' and Wesley Herbert's 'Twilight of the Real' offer bleak yet energetic views of apocalyptic near futures, while Derryl Murphy's 'The History of Photography' is a gently meditative overview of the same destructive arc.

The quality of the writing throughout is very high, but Geoff Ryman's socially complex and psychologically subtle 'Fan' is certainly a highpoint of the anthology. If you don't already own his Unconquered Countries, in which it first appeared, Northern Suns is worth it for this story alone. But, in fact, it's a wholly entertaining and provocative collection, and, for readers who have not kept up with all the smaller Canadian publications of the last decade or so, it's a must. Northern Suns shows just how good Canadian sf has become, and why so many of our authors are winning awards and receiving praise around the world.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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Paula Johanson and Jean-Louis Trudel, editors. Tesseracts7

Tesseract Books, 284 pp.

Tesseracts7, of course, contains all new work, and the general quality is very high, indeed. Usually, with an anthology, it's easy to pick out the best stories, but in this case it's much easier to pick out the very few that are less than tops. Admittedly, I find much of the poetry a bit tame, but some of the stories achieve their own poetic effects. As with Northern Suns, the editors apply the loosest possible definition to sf: there's pure science fiction, alternate history, fantasy, and horror here, much of it presented with a sharp magic realist energy.

Scattered throughout are M.A.C. Farrant's "Altered Statements,: mordantly funny satires of possible government agencies' press releases. They set a tone a number of the stories pick up, including the "Mars-Venus" conflicting points of view of Pierre Sormany's "Everett's Parallel Universes or How to Make Love to Someone Without Ever Meeting," a title the simply demands you read the story. But there are some fine, compassionate stories too, such as Gerald Truscott's "Millennium Songs," Cory Doctorow's truly weird "Song of Solomon," Elizabeth Vonarburg's "The Knot," and Allan Weiss's "The Solomon Cheats."

Such compassion, albeit traced with blood and violence, can also be found in Candas Jane Dorsey's cyberpunk redaction, "ICE," and Karl Schroeder's truly original take on vampires, "Dawn." As for pure horror, David Annandale's "Tremendum" takes pride of place: it takes a Lovecraftian theme, modernizes it, and achieves a climax at least as fine as anything in Lovecraft.

These are not all. Most of the writers here know how to craft a narrative that holds a reader's attention, and when they deny traditional plot, it's for a good reason. But it's the style, the rhetorical range of the writing throughout, that impresses me the most. Indeed, both Tesseracts7 and Northern Suns demonstrate just how strong and mature Canadian sf has become.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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Nancy Baker A Terrible Beauty

Viking, 326 pp.

Maclean's calls Nancy Baker "the dark star of Canadian vampire writers." I'm not sure just what that means, but it's clear that she has attained great popularity with her first two books of contemporary horror, The Night Inside and Blood and Chrysthanthemums. With A Terrible Beauty, Baker is after something different, perhaps something subtler, so she has chosen to emigrate from here and now to an indefinable there and then. The result is a kind of dark fairy tale, and like most fairy tales it takes place in ahistorical time and geographically indeterminate space.

In a large city, with a famous university, in a cultural context very like fin de siècle Paris, the aging scholar, Simon Donovan, receives a letter reminding him of a youthful indiscretion that both made his reputation and could, if exposed, destroy it. As he is too sick to answer its summons, his son, Matthew, a struggling painter, and the only one of his sons free of responsibilities to others, agrees to go north to see the woman who has called in what she calls Simon's debt to her.

Finally arriving at an outlandish castle in the middle of nowhere, he does not know what to expect; but the appearance of a young woman about his own age convinces him that he is meeting the daughter of his father's lover. When he eventually learns Sidonie Moreau is a vampire, the real story begins.

Matthew does not know exactly what Sidonie wants. He wants out, but cannot escape, so he paints, haunted pictures of a figure representing her alien horror, and something more, his changing feelings for her. Baker has chosen to write a liesurely tale here, much in the nineteenth century manner. Sidonie is a terrible Beauty indeed, and while it is unclear at first just what she needs awakening from, in the end, as in all fairy tales of this kind, love wins through. Although somewhat slow and awkward in places, A Terrible Beauty offers an intriguing possibility of redemption in a world where traditional standards no longer suffice.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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Michael Barley Jackal Bird

Edmonton: Tesseract Books, 1995; 298 pages

Jackal Bird is one of the most assured debuts in sf in some time; each time I read it I grow more impressed by it, and by the imaginative reach of its author, Vancouver architect Michael Barley. In fact, Jackal Bird is so complex, evocative, and well wrought, that it is hard to believe it's Barley's first book. A novel made up of three interlocking novellas, it creates a world as marvelous and believable as Frank Herbert's Dune (lacking only a planetary map, and I would argue that an American publisher -- hint hint -- would be smart to ask for one), linking together stories of childhood, war, betrayal, intrigue, and love that are both richly complicated and utterly rooted in its invented world of Isurus.

With Isurus, Barley puts his architectural background to good use in the creation of a colony world undergoing millennia-long terraforming. Almost entirely cut off from contact with the few starships left from the first human surge into the universe, the people there must live according to "the Quatrec," which provides the rule by which their slowly growing society can eventually make the whole planet habitable for humankind. Barley has invented a fascinating history, glimpsed only in occasional asides of thought and conversation, of the failed attempt to create a human interstellar diaspora. Long ago the great starships set out, but few found compatible planets, communications remained incredibly limited given the constraints of sub-light speed (we are in a universe somewhat like Le Guin's before the invention of the Ansible). A few starships remain, mostly concerned with exploration, making contact with the few colony planets every few hundred years.

In that implied historical context, Jackal Bird follows the changes in the colony world of Isurus during a particularly difficult century, some 2000 years after landfall. By now, the coastlines have been made safe for habitation, although the higher inland areas are still dangerously lacking in oxygen and human transplantation of crops and new animal life. There have been minor revolts against the Quatrec in the past, but they have been quickly suppressed for the benefit of all. Technology has not progressed all that much from the level it had attained among the original colonists, the carcasses of whose starships still circle the planet, glowing in the light of the two stars which serve as its suns.

In "Jackal Bird," four children, two brothers and twin brother and sister, lead the children of a small town in war games, aping a rebel uprising hundreds of years before. They find a lost piece of ancient war technology and slowly learn how to put it together. Not understanding the power of this gun, they decide to use it in a ceremonial marchpast during the summer holiday. The weapon causes a horrible accident in the ruined square of their small city, killing some children and destroying one eye of the leader of their small group, Osseph Tokastevor. This event informs the lives of all four as they grow up, separate, and work with and against one another during adulthood. Their childhood play affects everything they do, throughout their lives, and even after the physical deaths of three of them.

"Jackal Bird" is Osseph's story: the way it is set up explains a lot about the way this novel works, although it seems somewhat mysterious at the time. After a Foreword, in which "Hedre G. Addiman, Translator" says something about her father and her great moment of illumination, the story begins with this statement: "The following is based on notes made by Cultural Historian, Greghory Addiman, during a series of private conversations with Osseph Tokastevor, Status SRM. At the time of these interviews, Osseph had been released from restricted status for slightly more than a trueyear." A master tactician, even as a child, Osseph was the top general of the war games that went awry. Osseph tells his tale without remorse, but it isn't until the next story, a longer one, that we learn why remorse might be required.

In "Pangaelene," one of the twins, the adult Iilaria, leads the resistance against the anti-Quatrec military dictatorship Osseph establishes on the mainland. A master spy, she keeps detailed diaries, which Greghory later edits. Thus she too tells her version of events. After succeeding in uniting various factions against Osseph, she becomes a major political player in the rejuvenated society that finally defeats him. Reading her diaries, we learn that years before, Greghory left Isurus with a starship. So how is it he is the editor of her story?

The final novella, "Illusions of Grace," explains much. A hundred years after he left, Greghory's starship stops at Isurus to make repairs and he returns to his planet of origin, still a young man, to find Iilaria has died. But things are not as they seem, and he must deal with both the new illusions of a technology she has helped to create and the illusions of his own mind and heart. As the narrative develops, Greghory is seduced by the avatar of his beloved sister (and by the new technology developed by Mihan, Osseph's brother, and the fourth of that extraordinary childhood quartet): he is slowly taught that Iilaria has long ago come to see the direction her society must take, and will eventually become its guide. Does this mean that Jackal Bird is just another superman story? If so, it's much more complex than the conventional sf version. In fact, it's so interesting partly because it raises questions it refuses to answer.

A long time ago, Samuel R. Delany made the important point that it's the language that creates the other worlds of sf. Barley knows this, and skilfully interpollates a terminology that both suggests a particular future and its particular past. I was reminded somewhat of Gene Wolfe's New Sun novels. Yet the characters are recognizably human in their desires, hopes, betrayals, and fears. Power and sexuality mix and cause the usual, and some unusual, complications among the protagonists. In the end, many of the mysteries are clarified, but not all, and there's a deliberate refusal to resolve the ethical indeterminacy attached to the development of an sf superhero. Is the being that Iilaria has become a dictator and melagomaniac even worse than her old enemy, Osseph. The way the novel leaves such questions open signs its maturity.

I know that it's a reviewer's job to point out flaws in a work, but that's rather difficult in this case. There are some narrative slippages in the final novella, and perhaps the intrusion of Iilaria's and Mihan's voices are handled somewhat sloppily. On the other hand, Barley is extremely fair in the way he plants information throughout the novel, even if he sometimes does so via those dreaded expository lumps. He is savvy enough to make them part of a character's rather than a narrator's discourse, as with Greghory's description of the "unbelievable display" of luminosity caused by "the declension of a deep-space vessel entering the Isurus system." It is Greghory, too, who adds the further insight derived from the vision: "And to those who thought about such things it was a sad reminder of the ancient dream of galactic glory. We were forever doomed to our finite worlds. That mankind had penetrated space at all and that there was still such a craft operating was the real miracle." Like many statements in the novel, this one is ruled by proleptic irony.

Each story is complex enough on its own, but together they weave a much more complicated and grander tale of human possibility. Barley knows his sf tropes, yet brings something new and fascinating to each one he takes up in Jackal Bird. Intellectually, ethically, psychologically, and technologically challenging, it immediately establishes Barley as a talent to watch. I hope it doesn't prove to be the sole work he has in him, because more such will make him a major figure in the field. Do yourself a favour and read this book.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from The New York Review of Science Fiction by permission of the author]

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Joël Champetier The Dragon's Eye.

TOR Books, 304 pp.

The Dragon's Eye, Québe┴ois sf writer Joël Champetier's first novel to be translated into English, is a fast-paced spy thriller set on New China, the fifth inhabitable extrasolar planet, and a rather dangerous one to boot, due to its double star system. The dragon's eye of the title is the smaller bright blue star, which floods the planet with ultraviolet rays for a portion of each day.

The protagonist of The Dragon's Eye is a young spy working for European Bureau of External Affairs. Sent to New China to work out of the European Free Trade Zone there, he is soon thrust into the new world, seeking to contact a hidden agent in the New Chinese government. It turns out that this government, deeply in debt to Earth and full of Chinese angry that their escape from the overcrowded conditions in the old China, is planning to declare its independence.

The novel moves quickly into counter-espionage as he is forced to take over for his wounded superior and, disguised as a Chinese immigrant, he makes his way across the new world, searching for his contact. Luckily, he finds a young Chinese woman willing to help him in his quest, with whom he is soon in love.

As a thriller, The Dragon's Eye is more than competent, and it moves right along. What lifts it above the average of its kind, however, is Champetier's marvelously complete rendering of the new world in which its chases and escapes take place. New China is extremely challenging in its difference, and everything about the environment affects peoples' behavior. If he is to survive, the young agent must learn to deal with all the things the inhabitants now take for granted, as part of their world's 'nature.'

The way Champetier subtly implicates New China's environmental context into every action of the novel makes it work as solid science fiction. The Dragon's Eye marks the English language debut of another exciting sf writer from Québec.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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Charles De Lint Someplace to be Flying

TOR Books, 384 pp.

For some time now, as in last year's Trader, Charles De Lint has been creating both a fascinating fictional metropolis, Newford, and a metamyth based on a wonderful mixture of North American Native and Celtic mythology. Certain figures have been appearing in various stories and novels, often just in the background, but playing important roles in helping his protagonists make the shift from ordinary reality into a larger, magical world. In Someplace to be Flying, De Lint tells a multi-layered apocalyptic tale, not quite so funny as Good Omens (a Gaiman/Pratchett opus everyone should read too) but similarly determined to somehow save the very world it sets out to destroy.

The thing is, Newford seems to be one of the places the animal-people like to gather, especially the corbae and their friends. It seems the corbae and the canids have been somewhat at odds since the beginning of the world, which leads into considerations of Raven and Coyote (herein known as Cody), and their relation to Raven's pot, which might or might not be the principle by which the world exists.

Then there's the fact that many people have some animal blood, even if they don't know it. And the further fact that, in Newford as in any other city, crime, suffering, pain, loss, love, and hatred all play their parts in peoples' lives. Hank's a Gypsy cab driver who's chosen his 'family' among the castoff folk who live in the Tombs, an area of junkyards, old factories, run-down buildings. One evening, he sees a man about to kill a young woman in an alleyway. Although he knows he shouldn't interfere with a man with a gun, Hank can't let it go by and stops to help. The man shoots him but suddenly two young girls, dressed all in black, appear, stab the killer, touch both Hank and Lily, the woman he stopped to help, thus healing their wounds, and then disappear.

Lily has heard stories of the crow girls from Jack the Storyteller; she's simply never believed they were true. Now she isn't sure anymore -- about any aspect of what she thought was ordinary reality. Meanwhile, in the Tombs, Jack is trying to help a young woman who may or may not exist; and her twin sister is coming to town. Then there's Cody, trying one more time to get his hands on Raven's pot so he can stir it up & change the world back to before he created humans and started all the chaos. Not to mention the cuckoos, who hate everyone, especially the other birds, and the first people, and want to use the pot to destroy them.

Hank and Lily find they're caught in the middle of this fight they didn't even know existed; but they also find all kinds of new friends and helpers, not least each other. De Lint brings together many of the characters he has developed over the years, and suggestively links them in a mosaic of interlocked tales that stretch through time from the beginning, but especially from the 40s through to the 90s. Especially important to the working out of the apocalyptic possibilities unleashed by Cody's rash alliance with the cuckoos is the tale of love and learning concerning Jack and a young woman with fox blood, whose daughters are the twins, one truly alive, the other not so.

How all these tales mesh, and how the whole thing works out, are only some of the pleasures De Lint offers in what may be his most complex and profound fantasy yet. De Lint's a romantic; he believes in the great things, faith, hope, and charity (especially if love is included in the last), but he also believes in the power of magic (at least the magic of fiction) to open our eyes to a larger world than we usually perceive. And he knows that a good story is worth a thousand sermons. It's possible that readers of De Lint's other Newford stories will get more out of Someplace to be Flying than newcomers, but anyone will find this fine novel a terrific advertisement for contemporary urban fantasy. Someplace to be Flying is good old fashioned storytelling at its best.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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David Duncan The Gilded Chain

Avon Books, 338 pp.

Dave Duncan writes up a storm, but the general level of his fantasy remains high and he never fails to come up with a really good basic concept. This time the Calgary author has created a fantasy world in which only certain kinds of conjuration work. The Gilded Chain's subtitle, "A Tale of the King's Blades," suggests more such tales to come. If they're all as exciting and thoughtful as this one, they will be worth waiting for.

In the kingdom of Chivial, there is a grim place called Ironhall, which takes rebellious boys and trains them to be the finest swordsmen in the country. When they are ready to 'graduate,' a dangerous ritual, in which the King, or a ward chosen by him, stabs them through the heart, binds them to their ward till death (or until they are released). Known as "the King's Blades," they are envied by everyone.

Duncan sets up his narrative with the appearance of a youngster at Ironhall, where he becomes the Brat and begins his long and very hard education. Then we meet the Chancellor of the Realm, Sir Roland, who is stripped of his office by Krommen, the King's Secretary, a sly, nasty spying figure who, we learn, has long hated Sir Roland. But Sir Roland has recently bound a Blade to his service, so he gets away for the present.

But who is Sir Roland, and when does this occur? As the novel proceeds, we go back and forth in time, following the long maturing and education of one Blade, his first binding to a foppish lord, as well as his adventures in other parts of the world, and eventually his service to his King.

Indeed, it is that service that is the core of this powerful narrative. All Blades bound magically to the King must serve him till their death, and must protect his life at all costs. They have no choice in the matter. But Duncan is interested in exploring the whole morality of such service, and as the protagonist grows into self knowledge and knowledge of the realm, he also learns how complex true service must be.

In the end, he must make an agonizing choice in order to serve his monarch, and all he stands for, best. All he has been through, the grand adventures, the foolish acts of impulse, the dangers and evils faced, the loss of loved ones but also the discovery of love, give him the integrity to act as he should. Duncan has always been able to turn out a great tale of adventure, but with the Great Game trilogy, and now with The Gilded Chain, he is creating highly moral tales of the hard choices people of integrity face in any world. The Gilded Chain will add lustre to his reputation.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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Dave Duncan The Cursed

Ballantine Books, 437 pp.

Calgary author Dave Duncan has steadily grown as a writer of complex fantasy over the past decade, and The Cursed is one of his most interesting novels yet. Here he has imagined a world controlled by seven stars and their peculiar powers. A hundred years ago the Empire fell, but now a new horde of barbarians is attacking the various kingdoms scattered across the Empire's former lands. Gwin has been widowed by the new war, and has lost her children to the plague, which often curses those who survive it with powers associated with particular stars. She believes she is not cursed, but in fact, she has been granted the power of the most powerful and enigmatic of stars, although she will not discover this for some time.

Acting out of her own compassion for the oppressed, she gathers various cursed people around her, and also marries the patriarch of a large family descended from the barbarians who sacked the Empire a century before. Although she does not know it, she is at the centre of a movement that may well create a new Empire, and The Cursed is the complicated story of how that eventuality comes to pass.

Duncan has organized his narrative around the powers of each star, and so it enacts Gwin's slowly growing awareness, and power. Essentially a story of heroism and sacrifice, it does not deny the losses that must inevitably accompany such an adventure in times of war. Gwin is a feisty and engaging heroine; the other characters all have qualities to recommend them, especially old Bulion Tharn, who cannot believe his luck in winning her love, but who shows that an old dog can learn new tricks as they journey out away from the safety of his valley.

The Cursed is an especially interesting heroic fantasy because it presents a truly different world, and then constructs a narrative that could only occur under the rules by which that world operates. It's a strong and entertaining novel, and further cements Duncan's reputation as a writer of solid, idiosyncratic fantasy.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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Dave Duncan The Great GameTrilogy

Dave Duncan has also created some nifty fantasy worlds in his time. The latest is a universe of parallel worlds in which the humans of one can become the gods of another if they are lucky enough to find a way between. Thus the many gods of our past are likely just strangers from worlds like "Nextdoor," the site of much of the mischief brewing in Duncan's trilogy, The Great Game. Being only human, these gods are given to gambling and gamesplaying. They have a great time, but don't always think about the side effects on the humans under their aegis.

Dave Duncan Present Tense

Avon Books, 352 pp..

Present Tense is Round Two of The Great Game, and is as delightfully devious in its narrative as the best of Duncan's works. It begins when a naked man suddenly falls out of the sky into the hell that was Flanders during the third year of the First World War. Everyone agrees he fell, he was naked, he was screaming in some foreign tongue.

That's a good beginning: Edward Exeter suddenly disappears from the Army's gaze, helped it seems by a certain Brigadier-General. When he appears again, he is being treated as insane at a hospital back in England. Exeter has finally found his way back from Nextdoor, where he appears to be The Liberator predicted in an ancient prophecy. Being a young gentleman of good family and education, all he wants to do is enlist. But there are problems, as he is still wanted for a certain murder. Moreover, there is that prophecy.

Duncan mixes realistic detail about the war at the front and at home with inventive details about the kind of war, much more primitive, that is fought in the vales of Nextdoor. The narrative proceeds at a quick pace, following Exter and his friends as they try to avoid the bad guys on Earth, while filling us in on what happened to him during his three years on Nextdoor. Duncan neatly sketches in the characters of his companions both here and there, and provides an intriguing overview of social change during that awful period.

Present Tense is only a fantasy, and an entertaining one at that, yet it confronts some complex social and cultural situations. It is extremely interesting that so many recent novels have dealt in one way or another with the WWI period. Duncan does not pretend to be doing anything new, but the horror of that time casts a fascinating shadow over the doings of his characters, both gods and men, in The Great Game. I look forward to the final volume.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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David Duncan Future Indefinite

Avon Books, 352 pp.,

Calgarian Dave Duncan's Future Indefinite is the third volume of his The Great Game trilogy, possibly the finest work he's yet done. Although it would help to have read the previous two volumes, Past Imperative and Present Tense, on its own it's a thoroughly engaging and highly entertaining tale of, among many other things, the construction of a new religion. The Great Game is set in a universe of parallel worlds where the humans of one become the gods of another should they somehow find their way from their homeworld to a parallel one. Thus the many gods of our past are likely just strangers from worlds like "Nextdoor," the site of much of the mischief brewing in Duncan's trilogy. Being only human and thus easily bored over the centuries, these gods are given to gambling and gamesplaying. They have a great time, but don't always think about the side effects on the "ordinary" humans they use as kings, bishops, and, especially, pawns.

Edward Exeter, the protagonist of The Great Game, is apparently the Liberator prophecied in The Filoby Testament, which said D'Ward, the Liberator, would bring death to Death -- the evil god Zach. It is a role he does not wish to play; rather he wants to do his duty and enroll in the Army to fight the Germans in what is to become World War One.

But Edward Exeter is as honorable an English schoolboy as there ever has been, and a product of the public school system that served only to create the best colonial administrators turn of the century Britain could produce. So, after surviving a number of assassination attempts by the god of Death in Nextdoor, including charges of murdering his best friend, being dropped into the middle of a battlefield in Flanders in 1915, and then upon his reluctant return to Nextdoor finding that Zach has killed many of his friends there, he has decided to fulfill the prophecy of The Filoby Testament. Future Indefinite is the story of how he plays the Great Game with greater finesse than any of the "gods" of Nextdoor and thus accomplishes his mission. But it is a story of devious twists and turns, and we, like Edward's friends and followers will often be taken by surprise.

A prophet, or a god, is a difficult figure to characterize from the inside, so it is quite fitting that Edward is seen mostly from a distance, as the narrative is carried by a number of other points of view. These include a number of characters from Present Tense, who end up in the ever-growing crowds that follow the Liberator as he preaches from vale to vale, gathering power, or so it seems, before confronting Death in his greatest temple. These include the badly wounded Julian Smedley, who accompanied Exeter when he returned to Nextdoor, and, eventually, Alice Prescott, his cousin, a woman who has lost two men to the war and whom Exeter has long loved with no hope of return. There's also the gigilo and thief, Dosh, whose continuing involvement with D'Ward is a lovely dramatization of the conversion experience. Duncan does a fine job of suggesting how and why they stick with Exeter and slowly come to believe in his plans. He also wittily shows how religious charisma and the fervor it begets leads inevitably to the founding of churches.

One of the things that demonstrates Duncan's continually maturing craft is his handling of the historical material of England during and after World War One. Another is his increasingly complex representations of women, especially Alice. The various stories of individuals gathered in Future Indefinite combine in a rich and varied vision of cultural shifts and moral and emotional choices. Many of the characters must learn to accept people they have been taught to dispise. All in all, this aspect of the novel is refreshingboth for its perspective and lightness of touch.

The Great Game is a grand fantasy construct, based on a complex understanding of humanity. Each volume is worth reading, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Dave Duncan continues to grow as a writer, and his stories, while remaining thoroughly entertaining, are becoming ever more complex in their compassionate humaneness. Future Indefinite is a terrific finale to his best series yet.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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Sarah B. Franklin Daughter of Troy

Avon Books, 432 pp.

Daughter of Troy, a Novel of History, Valor and Love is all of that, as well as something of a revision of The Iliad, mostly from the point of view of at least one of the women intimately involved in those legendary events. Sarah B. Franklin of Calgary (actually well-known Calgary science fiction and fantasy writer, Dave Duncan) demonstrates a subtle ability to tell a first person narrative in the voice of a fascinating woman, Queen Briseis of Lyrnessos, now an ancient crone remembering her youth as the princess and queen of her city, and slave and lover of Achilles.

Franklin's conceit, and it's a good one, is that a young man comes upon the ruins of Mycenae where he finds an old hag who gives him shelter for the night and, when he asks, reveals that she is fabled Briseis, consort of the heroes of what is already a legendary war with Troy. So she tells him her tale, of growing up a princess in a small, trading town in the Troad, of marrying a warrior who turned out to be a cruel and possessive husband, of watching him fall to the sword of Achilles who claimed her as his slave, and of her love for Achilles and what happened to him and to the rest of the Greeks and Trojans during the famous war (which did not take any ten years).

What makes this novel work is Briseis's ineluctable sense of belonging to the culture that she describes with such unsentimental nostalgia (an oxymoron that seems to fit her narration). Franklin has done 'her' homework; therefore the mores and cultural assumptions of Lyrnessos and the other city-states of the time come to glittering life in Briseis's tale. She is brought up in a land that still follows the Old Ways, where the rule is matriarchal, kings marrying in to such powers. Briseis is a sensual, intelligent, lively youngster, and a witty, sexually alive, passionate young woman (she is widowed at sixteen, and the war, and her narrative, ends when she is still not twenty). But she is also a seer, who can speak for the gods, and this terrible power is both a wonder and a burden, for she knows that her family and city are on the losing side.

Even by the time the aging Briseis tells the tale, the story of a ten years war is in circulation, and she spends some of her time telling the young man how it really was. Moreover, as a slave woman in the Greek camp, albeit one loved by the greatest warrior of them all, she is cut off from the battles by both her gender and her distance. She therefore tells the well-known story from a different perspective, understanding how men must fight but not believing in the glory of it all as they do. Although Achilles conquers her city, killing her brothers in the process, she and he are fated to love one another, and her expression of their passion is itself mythic in tone. Nevertheless, having grown up in a royal family, she understands politics very well indeed, and so can see how the various Greeks play power games against one another more clearly than the single-minded Achilles can. Patroclus, Achilles's companion and her best friend, is, however, a subtle a politician unlike his leader, and often tells her how she must behave, despite her desires.

Daughter of Troy tells one of the great mythic adventures of European history in a vividly chiaroscuro manner, shading the glory of battle with suffering and destruction, brightening the stories of sacking and plundering with a tale of passion and love, and sharpening the sense of loss felt for Achilles and all the other young men who died on the plains of Troy. Making use of recent historical and archeological knowledge, it revises the legend so much the young Greek listener finally refuses to believe Briseis; but readers may feel differently. Striving to make us see a well-known story from a new angle, it tells its version with great élan.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from the Edmonton Jounral]

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James Alan Gardner Vigilant

Avon Books, 374 pp

Vigilant is James Alan Gardner's third novel in as many years, a striking record for a new writer on the sf scene. The Waterloo-based author has begun what could become a long line of tales from a future history, and his first three demonstrate a finely honed knowledge of sf tropes as well as a solid ability to create interesting characters caught up in complex situations that usually turn out to be different than they seem.

Gardner's novels are all set in the 25th century, in a galactic-wide Technocracy, a benevolent association of "sentient species," with "one law that applies to all worlds: the single directive of the League of Peoples, unflinchingly enforced by races so far advanced beyond human intelligence that the directive might as well be a fundamental law of the universe: NO DANGEROUS NON-SENTIENT CREATURE WILL EVER BE ALLOWED TO MOVE FROM ITS HOME STAR SYSTEM TO ANOTHER SYSTEM." And a "dangerous non-sentient" turns out to be anyone ready to kill another sentient creature. This makes a terrific premise for a series of taut, character-driven, interstellar thrillers.

Each of the three novels, Expendable, Commitment Day, and now Vigilant, takes place on a different planet, in entirely different human (and non-human) cultures, and Gardner does a good job of creating believable cultural contexts for his narratives. He has also found individual voices, tied to their background cultures, for the narrator-protagonists of the books.

In Vigilant, that narrator is a young human woman who has seen most of the Ooloms on her planet die during a plague, and eventually become a Proctor for the Vigil, a wonderfully utopian group of government overseers existing only in this bi-species culture. But on her first, minor assignment, she and her Oolom partner are attacked, he is killed, and she begins to uncover a deadly secret conspiracy that might unleash another plague.

But there is much more to what is happening than she at first suspects, and she has more allies than she knows. Before her story reaches its near-apocalyptic conclusion, she will meet the protagonist of Expendable, now an Admiral for the star fleet, fall in love, learn to be utterly honest with herself, and discover a new sentient species, who can help save her world from complete destruction.

Gardner has created a feisty heroine in Faye Smallwood, who can come to understand how little she knew herself as a young woman because she has always wanted truth more than anything else, even when she was most self-destructive in her behavior. Moreover, he has added more layers of possibility to the slow construction of the Technocracy these three novels have begun. Vigilant is a solid, entertaining novel, as are Gardner's first two, and all three whet one's appetite for more in this series from this exciting new voice in sf.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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William Gibson Idoru.

G.P. Putnam's Son's. 304 pp.

William Gibson is back, and he has another winner in Idoru, a novel which both solidifies his reputation as the master of cyberpunk sensibility and demonstrates a slowly increasing maturity of vision. Idoru is fascinating for the ways it continues Gibson's practice of pop culture bricolage, while seeking both to utilize and to undermine the conventions of the subgenre he helped to create. That it's also a great entertainment goes without saying.

The mysteries of Idoru begin with its title, an enigmatic term the novel takes its time unravelling. It is a name, but of who or what? The ambiguity in that question underlies the central explorations of near-future popular culture which the novel undertakes. If cyberpunk began, albeit with the intention of a kind of satiric interrogation, as a celebration of the new information technologies and the invention of cyberspace (itself a cultural concept of increasing power), one of the most interesting aspects of Idoru is the ways in which it seeks to domesticate, and assess the banality of, what our various futurists believe the net (cyberspace-to-be) will become.

Gibson exploded upon the sf world, and then the larger world of bestsellerdom, with the publication of his first novel, Neuromancer, in 1984 (it has never been out of print). A subtle, vital, witty, and exhilarating mixture of noir romanticism, technological extrapolation, genuine sf transcendence, and gritty Chandleresque descriptions of futuristic cityscapes in both the 'real' and the 'virtual' worlds, it caught the strangely contorted technological idealism of the time, sending the futurists at such places as MIT into paroxysms of extrapolative joy (Gibson has said he created cyberspace as a dystopian image, but they read it as basically utopian).

Gibson's next few novels explored that future further. His radar is pretty good, seeing the slow disappearnce of the nation state, replaced by international corporations so large they have their own armies. Here was a world in which individuals had to find some very small niches to evade the controls imposed from above; it was also a world completely dominated by consumerism. Still, there was room for adventure, at least for those lucky enough to become protagonists in a cyberpunk fiction.

Then, in Virtual Light, Gibson turned to a nearer future, and attempted to present the usual outsiders with a certain degree of freedom of action. In it, he also created one of the great images of recent sf: the human collage of a bridge in San Francisco which has become a city set apart. That ludic structure (based on Kowloon Walled City) existed in the 'real' world, but in Idoru, Gibson has erected another one in the virtual world, and it too is a space where those who continue to evade the system can live, at least part of the time.

Idoru contains the usual doubled narrative of recent Gibson novels: each one inevitably moving towards conjunction with the other. Here the first one concerns Laney, who has been working for Slitscan, an entertainment juggernaut that makes and breaks celebrities. There his talent for finding in a mass of electronic data the nodal points of information that could uncover whatever privacy a person Slitscan was interested might want to preserve, had served him well. Until he realized that one of the people he was monitoring was going to kill herself. Eventually, he gets away to Tokyo where there may be a job for him, as it turns out working for an aging pop star who continues to attract young teenage girls as fans.

The other narrative concerns one such fan, Chia, who is sent by her Seattle club to Tokyo to check out a rumour that the pop star intends to 'marry' a Japanese media construct, a 'star' who exists only as cybernetic data. But on the way over, she is used as a 'mule' by an older woman and soon finds herself in deep trouble with a couple of mafias. All this is good dirty fun, leading to the introduction of some pretty tough characters and some finely honed dialogue.

One of the aspects of Gibson's recent work I am not sure about is his use of teenage protagonists. It occurred in Virtual Light, and continues in Idoru. Chia is a winning and intelligent waif, but both she and Laney tend to act outside the norms of adult human feeling. That many of the usual adult emotions are irrelevant to Idoru may in fact be the point: as one of Alberta's leaders recently suggested, "Normal doesn't live here anymore." Whatever these late-capitalist technopilic futures hold, traditional human relationships seem not to belong there. Fear, hatred, some possibility of love, certain kinds of outlaw honour: these do, and they are the hinges upon which this complicated tale turns.

Idoru has all the Gibson trademarks, and is both fun to read and provocative to consider. If you're already a fan, you'll enjoy it. If you have yet to encounter the special flavour of his futures, you'll find Idoru a stimulating place to begin.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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Phyllis Gotlieb A Judgement of Dragons

Berkley Books, 263pp

Phyllis Gotlieb has been publishing highly polished sf for close to twenty years now, along with her fine poetry. A Judgement of Dragons is a delightful addition to her two novels, a collection of four novellas about Khreng and Prandra, two highly intelligent cats from a far planet who find themselves learning the oddest things as they carry out assignments for GalFed, the Galactic Federation government. Khreng is a good hunter and a born diplomat; his mate Prandru is, like most females on Ungruwarkh, powerfully endowed with ESP. Together they are a formidable team, always seeking peaceful solutions to the problems they're given to solve, whether they are fighting 'demons' in nineteenth century Poland, solving a mystery at GalFed headquarters, helping capture a drug ring which is damaging the ecology of another planet, or helping to organize their society back home.

As is so often the case in Gotlieb's fiction, they learn a great deal and mature as moral beings in the process. Needless to say, they are charming characters and their stories are fast, often funny, and some times powerfully moving.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from NCF Vol 1 #2/3, Summer 1981, and from Torotno Star]

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Phyllis Gotlieb Blue Apes

Tesseract Books, 272 pp.

Phyllis Gotlieb is Canada's grand master of science fiction, yet Blue Apes is her first collection of sf to be published in this country. For this reason alone, it is worth checking out. Blue Apes collects stories from as far back as 1972 and as recently as 1993. They are uniformly good, revealing a fascination with human interaction, psychology, and our difficulties with the alien other. Indeed, her aliens are some of the most human people in her work.

Take the alien therapist (I guess you could call it) of "Among You," the most recent story in the collection. From his point of view, we humans are pretty sad, but oh, how difficult his own life is. Then there are the antisocial workers of "Monkey Wrench," who have to solve a murder, or is it suicide, mystery on a Spacelight station at the edge of the galaxy. Not to mention the woman who takes it upon herself to raise the halfhuman son of an alien emperor. These are people Gotlieb makes us care about, yet they all exist in well wrought future contexts, without which their stories would make little sense. That is how good sf works. And good sf is what Phyllis Gotlieb writes. If you haven't read her before, then Blue Apes is a great place to start.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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Phyllis Gotlieb Flesh and Gold

TOR Books, 288 pp.

Phyllis Gotlieb may be the grande dame of Canadian sf, but she is definitely not resting on her laurels. Flesh and Gold is another installment in her fragmented and ever-expanding 'history' of the Galactic Federation (or GalFed as it is known to those who serve its governing bodies), and it provides one of the darkest glimpses of the undergrounds of various planets and species she has yet offered.

The Galactic Federation is a grand sf trope, not least because it mixes utopian hopes with cynically realistic awareness of how powerful the desires to degrade, use, and abuse others is in even the most civilized cultures. In Flesh and Gold, as the title implies, money and the power it buys interfere with ordinary people in the most basic way, by controlling their bodies. The book begins with the killing of a member of an undersea people later discovered to be cloned from Solthrees (that's humans from Earth). This murder takes place on Khagodis, the home planet of large lizard-like homonids who are among the most powerful ESPers in the galaxy. When one of them, an interstellar judge, later discovers one of these people on display at a licensed bordello on another planet in another system, she begins an inquiry that will eventually involve many different worlds.

Through the interactions of a number of characters from various classes and various species, Gotlieb reveals GalFed as a wonderfully complex, multi-species, civilization, where, as in many sf visions, the only definition of 'human' is: it's brains that matter. Still, although that's the ideal, when some of those brains still want to control the lives of others for their own gain, there will be a need for laws, and for the police and judges who serve them.

The telepathic judge, Skerow, meets the amphibian woman Kobai just after she has sentenced a smuggler who had bought her fellow judge. She arrives back at her quarters to find him murdered, and shortly afterwards is attacked herself. Her sense of the essential probity of her own people is severely tested as she pursues justice for Kobai and others. Meanwhile, a spy working for GalFed and infiltrating the gladiator games of an interstellar agency (that also runs the brothels) discovers other aspects of what turns out to be a huge conspiracy. Elsewhere, an ex-policeman goes to work at the gaming tables in one of the brothels.

All these people pursue their various goals on widely separated worlds, often with the help of other people of other species. Gotlieb is especially good at inventing a wide range of alien beings, but she makes it clear that humans are equally alien to them. There are some fine ironic moments when a character utterly alien to us registers distaste or fear of human traits.

Flesh and Gold is a finely honed thriller, with elements of the police procedural, the spy story, the courtroom drama, and the noir adventure. All of these modes serve Gotlieb's deeply moral sf vision which drives the swiftly swerving narrative from character to character, world to world, story to story. Eventually, all the various threads come together to form a bold and bright, if bloody, tapestry. Flesh and Gold is a fine addition to a major oeuvre.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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Phyllis Gotlieb Violent Stars

TOR Books, 240 pp.

Only a year after her first TOR novel, Flesh and Gold, Phyllis Gotlieb offers a further installment in her fragmented and ever-expanding 'history' of the Galactic Federation (or GalFed as it is known to those who serve its governing bodies). A direct sequel to Flesh and Gold, Violent Stars extends some earlier characters' sometimes subtle, often brutal struggles with a certain interstellar family corporation, and introduces some new and interesting figures.

Most of the action takes place on Khagodis, home planet of the large lizard-like homonids who are among the most powerful ESPers in the galaxy. In Flesh and Gold, Skerow, an interstellar judge, has, with the help of GalFed operatives, brought a galaxy-wide gambling and prostitution ring to trial, but now it is fighting back. Moreover, it turns out to be very old, tracing its beginnings back to Sol Three -- our Earth.

Once again the interactions of a number of characters from various classes and various species both reveal GalFed as a wonderfully complex, multi-species, civilization and demonstrate that no matter how civilized a culture becomes, it can and will be corrupted by various forms of criminality. Using the warlike Ix, who have refused to join GalFed, the Zamos operation tries murder and kidnapping to prevent the trial from taking place. The Ix attack the daughter of a human diplomat whose history is far more mysterious than either her father or she realize.

Meanwhile, Skerow's ex-husband, who was to act as judge in the case, has been killed. This loss is somewhat balanced by her meeting with his son, another important lawyer working on the case. Other figures from Flesh and Gold return to join forces in the fight against the criminal contingent.

Gotlieb remains a master at inventing a wide range of alien beings and showing them in various modes of interaction, but she makes it clear that humans are equally alien to them. There are some fine ironic moments when a character utterly alien to us registers distaste or fear of human traits, and highly moving ones when they show concern and compassion for someone of another species.

Like Flesh and Gold, Violent Stars is a finely honed thriller, containing elements of the police procedural, the spy story, the courtroom drama, and the noir adventure all wrapped up in solid sf speculation. Even readers who haven't yet read Flesh and Gold will find Violent Stars a striking and exciting read. It is another fine addition to a major oeuvre.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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Terence M Green Shadow of Ashland

Forge Books, 224 pp.

Like many sf authors, Canadian writer Terence M Green has built some of his novels out of earlier short stories; and one of his most moving stories, "Ashland, Kentucky," is the basis of his latest novel, Shadow of Ashland.Where his earlier Barking Dogs, a police thriller set in a darkly futuristic Toronto, added more events to the original short story, here the expansion is almost completely one of deepening the characters and their relations, rather than pushing conventional plot devices into the narrative. In the story, the narrator, Leo Nolan, discovers that "Things have to be settled, or they never go away." His father tells him this when his dying mother asks to see her brother, Jack, who disappeared somewhere in the US in the thirties. After she dies, saying Jack did visit her, letters from him begin to arrive, but they are dated 1934.

In the story, Leo follows the letters to Ashland, Kentucky, where he somehow gains a brief meeting with his uncle fifty years ago. In Shadow of Ashland, he still goes to Ashland, but there he not only meets people who remember Jack, he first glimpses his uncle on the streets, then meets him, and finally travels back in time with him and stays long enough to understand the life of thirties migrant workers; this way he learns how Jack probably died. Through Leo's empathic perceptions of Jack's and his friends' attempts to fight their exploitation by the rich owners of the time, Green richly evokes the historical background of 1934 Kentucky. These chapters are perhaps the most poignant and glowing. But there is more to the novel than a simple discovery of the past, for in contemporary Ashland, a city still bearing the scars of the Depression, he also meets his uncle's daughter as well as a contemporary woman with whom he falls in love. The theoretical explanation is minimal, for what's important is the emotional encounters between intriguing characters, as well as the exploration of personal loss.

Green's characterization of the essentially innocent young Canadian who eventually becomes a kind of revolutionary in Ashland is complex and charged with compassion. The difference between the letters that eventually arrived in 1984 and the life Jack actually had to live is central to Leo's slowly growing understanding of his uncle. But Green also creates present day Ashland and the old folk who remember (yet want to forget) that past, and the younger people who desperately want to live now. The novel wonderfully evokes the delicate dance of lust and love between Leo and the woman he meets in Ashland, as well as his growing love for her son. Although Leo thinks he is telling a story about others, Green slowly implies his own complex feelings and thoughts. Indeed, it is the subtle tact of all the novel's characterizations that sets it apart from so much sf.

Shadow of Ashland is Green's finest novel yet, not least because it so carefully articulates a world the reader can believe in. It is, perhaps, closer to 'magic realism' than to traditional science fiction, yet it is also a story of alternate worlds, even if those worlds are the ones people make up to keep themselves going in hard times. A powerfully evocative study of complex personal relations, it should gain Green the wider audience he so richly deserves.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from The Edmonton Journal]

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Terence M. Green A Witness to Life

TOR Books, 192 pp.

A few years ago, Toronto's Terence M. Green published a moving and empathetic time-travel novel, Shadow of Ashland, in which his contemporary protagonist tracked down his uncle, Jack Radey, who had disappeared in the United States in the 1930s. Eventually his quest brings him face to face with his uncle in an Ashland, Kentucky of fifty years ago. It was a quietly beautiful meditation on family, honour, and love. Now, in A Witness to Life, Green tells the story of Martin Radey, Jack's father, and the fantastical twist in this narrative is that Martin tells his own story, from the wide-ranging perspective of death.

"Death has not been what I expected," says Martin, a wonderfully equivocal invitation to join him in his meditative remembering of his life. It has been a long and complicated one, full of personal losses and a failure of understanding that he only comes to comprehend in his strange afterlife: the actual narrating of the events that made him what he was.

Martin's story is more complex than his life because he is able to tell it with all the wisdom that hindsight provides. Green's major twist on the mode of autobiographical fiction A Witness to Life belongs to is to allow Martin the transcendently altered perspective of thirty-four years of post-life meditation. Martin not only recounts but he also finally accounts for all the losses he experienced and observed.

The man who emerges from these pages is truly a witness to life in ways much more negative than the phrase meant to the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, whom Martin meets late in his life. For most of his life, Martin reacts to others and what they do, making very few decisions himself. It is precisely this lack of active striving that allows his first small family to drift apart after the death of his first wife. He sees what is happening but seems unable to do anything about it.

Martin's rather quick re-marriage to a much younger woman doesn't help matters, especially as she fights to keep him close to his new family. His son Jack is especially resistant, and eventually just disappears without him even knowing till his oldest daughter tells him much later. Jack's disappearance forces him to recognize how his passivity before events has damaged his relations. So when his second wife dies suddenly, he does make a commitment to be there for his new daughter.

Toward the end of his life, his journey to Kentucky to try to track his son's earlier travels, and his encounters with Merton at the Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky, allow him to come to some kind of terms with his life, but it is really only in his afterlife that he achieves any kind of forgiveness. Martin is working class, and his life is special only in that it has been told. Green's single sleight of magic, his compassionate and understated narration, and his ability to capture the texture of earlier times - going to Simpson's to buy a hat; having a beer and a cigar with a friend at one of the small hotels that dotted the Toronto cityscape in the first years of the century - are what raise this novel above the ordinary. A Witness to Life is a moving vision of the way life used to be lived, and the stark and ordinary sufferings so many people accepted as just their lot in life then. Along with Shadow of Ashland, it indicates the magic of the everyday, and the necessity of recognizing that magic while we can.

[Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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Tom Henighan Tourists From Algol

The Golden Dog Press; 80 pp.

Tom Henighan is a Canadian writer whose first book, Tourists From Algol, shows him pulling out all the stops as he struts his stuff. And, boy does he have stuff to strut!

Henighan is not really a pure sf writer, yet many of his nine stories play with sf themes or tropes, and all of them refuse to take the conventions of realism seriously. The title story reads like an example of historical journalism, documenting the changes a rural community goes through when an expensive and income-generating tourist facility is built there. No one ever sees the toursits: so are they aliens? Or simply examples of late-twentieth century alienation?

A similarly subversive intellectual wit informs all the stories, whether they be sardonic pastiches of H. Rider Haggard ("The Explorers"), sexual phantasias ("Captain Flynn"), bitter fables of alienation ("Sargon and the Fabulous Guests," "At Approximately Three P.M."), or Borges-like inventions ("Massanet and the Disappearing Sopranos," "The Borges Transfer"). Henighan writes with wit, intensity, and stylistic flair. His short book is worth many five times its size. Tourists From Algol is a shockingly good introduction to an imagination both wierdly lit and extraordinarly expansive.

[Reviewed by Doug Barbour, Reprinted from NCF Vol 1 #8, October 1985, and the Toronto Star]

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Monica Hughes

See Crisis on Conshelf Ten Earthdark Keeper of the Isis Light Guardian of Isis
  • The Isis Pedlar Ring-Rise Ring-Set

    Don Hutchison (editor) Northern Frights 4

    Mosaic Press, 267 pp,

    Many readers and critics consider the Northern Frights series to be the best anthology series in Canada. Certainly, Northern Frights 4 has much to offer readers of Dark Fantasy, from some of the better known writers in Canada as well as some fine new voices. The range is wide, the chills authentic, and the writing generally sharp.

    A vividly evoked Canadian north, the wintry vastness of which is central to their impact, is featured in a number of stories.These include Dale Sproule's "At Fort Assumption," a moving tale of broken father-son relations, David Nickle's "The Pit-Heads," a tidy fable of artistic desire, Edo van Belkom's "Ice Bridge," a mean little story of the bottom line, and Michael Rowe's "Red Mischief," a definitive example of youthful blood brotherhood getting out of hand.

    Although most of us who live outside the city might find it hard to believe, Toronto is a haunted or terrifying site of a number of the stories: Stephanie Bedwell-Grimes's "Transfer," which might keep a reader off the subway, Michael Skeat's "Tin House," which should subdue undue curiosity about strange houses in the old downtwon, and Robert Boyczuk's "Horror Story," in which writing and murder get all too completely mixed up in one homicide detective's life and work. A wonderfully new and strangely complex map of a lost and spiritually estranged Toronto brings angst and breakdown to the protagonist of Robert Charles Wilson's "The Inner Inner City," one of the most powerful stories in the book.

    Ethnic, family, and mythical history affects the present of a number of characters in stories by Nancy Kilpatrick and Benoit Bisson, Mary E. Choo, and Thomas S. Roche. Serial murderers, biker werewolves, hungry ghosts, and many other supernatural figures parade through these pages. Colleen Anderson finds a piercing scientific metaphor for abuse in "Consuming Fear," and Sally McBride explores another form of abuse and desire that goes terribly wrong for a surgeon who always gets a bit more from her patients that she gives, in "Hello, Jane, Goodbye."

    Edmonton's David Annandale has written a witty and moving little fable of artistic hubris gone terribly wrong in "Via Influenza," an apt and appalling title for another vision of the past's continuing ability to wreak havoc on our supposedly self-sufficient lives. The first story in the anthology, it sets the tone for a series of well-written, sharply observed stories, most of which manage to rise above the standard conventions of the genre. I can't say as much for the poems; mostly narrative in nature, mostly conventional in form, they tend to be a bit obvious. I think this is a problem with genre verse, generally.

    Generally speaking, Northern Lights 4 lives up to the good press its predecessors have achieved, and a few stories, especially, Annandale's, Wilson's, and Anderson's, are superb. For fans of Dark Fantasy, this is definitely a good buy. And a good gift for those friends who enjoy the kind of thrill such stories provide.

    [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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    Dennis Jones The Stone and the Maiden

    HarperCollins, 421 pp.

    Already well known as the author of a number of best-selling thrillers, Canadian author Dennis Jones has turned his hand to fantasy, and obviously made the jump to the big time with a sale to Avon Eos in the US and HarperCollins in Canada. As the first volume of the projected The House of the Pandragore trilogy, The Stone and the Maiden looks to gain a large audience.

    Jones has clearly studied the genre, and he has created an interesting variation of the generic fantasyland in the world of The Stone and the Maiden. The central country, known as 'the Ascendancy,' is analogous to China during the Mongol invasions. But this isn't simply a variation on history, and the country, while ruled by a corrupt and cowardly 'danasteon,' also has a long history of good rule, and of ancient battles against evil sorcery.

    The heir to the throne is in fact a pure, courageous, and surprisingly tough young woman, despite her upbringing in the palace. She is also a devoted follower of the Two, the god and goddess of her world. Indeed, the theology of The Stone and the Maiden is one of its most intriguing aspects. Finding her to be true in her faith and strong in her desire to serve both her world and her country, the Two set her on a quest with a young soldier from another country who is more than he seems or knows. As the Tathars, led by their king and a sorcerer seeking vengeance on the ruling house of the Ascendancy, savage the country killing all in their way, these two must seek a spiritual token that may save their world from this newly risen thanaturge, a necromancer thoroughly corrupted by the Black Arts.

    There is a strong quest narrative, the usual unexpected helpers, and a sweet addition of true love. Meanwhile, in a subplot full of political betrayals and hugger-mugger, the heroine's younger sister gains control of the army and takes the crown by assassinating her father. Jones moves back and forth between the narratives with ease, and keeps the tension high throughout. The Stone and the Maiden reaches a satisfying conclusion, yet it clearly points toward an ongoing multi-generational story of the Ascendancy. The whole trilogy looks to become a solid example of the genre.

    [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, from Edmonton Journal (in press)]

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    Guy Gavriel Kay The Lions of Al-Rassan

    Viking: Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 579 pp,

    Canada's master of high fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay, has returned with another powerful novel of people, races, religions, and countries caught up in change and conflict. The Lions of Al-Rassan has all the qualities of adventure, passion, political skullduggery, complex representation of cultural and early technological practices, and psychological insight that readers have come to expect of Kay's fiction. Yet it is perhaps most fascinating for the ways in which it utterly resists the narrative temptations of most fantasies today, replacing them with what I can only call an epic vision rooted firmly in a realist sense of character.

    The Lions of Al-Rassan is an historical epic set in another world. It is a world strangely analogical to yet distanced from that of eleventh century Spain, when the Moors were slowly losing their hold over the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula. In his usual fashion, Kay has taken elements from history and translated them into an invented world, whose major sign of difference is its two moons, one white, one blue, which play such a subtle part in the imaginations and emotions of all who live beneath them. Thus, without having to introduce any special "magic," Kay has created a world with a history of its own, out of which the conflicts that rage across this narrative 'naturally' emerge. It is a sign of the quality of Kay's invention that he can create such a rich cultural schema as that of The Lions of Al-Rassan.

    Sometime in the past, during a centuries-long jihad, the Asharites, worshippers of the god of the stars above their original desert home, had swept into the peninsula. There they created a Khalifate of many glittering cities. To the north, the Jaddites, worshippers of the single god of the Sun, await their chance to reclaim these lands. They are, however, undermined by internecine warfare among the many principalities. Moving among both peoples, never fully at home anywhere and always first to be scapegoated, are the Kindath, famous for their scientific knowledge, especially of medicine. As the Khalifate begins to wane, a number of figures from each 'race' come together in love and war; and in their interactions the epic and sometimes tragic dance of change plays itself out in this intricate and moving novel.

    Although Kay's interest in the relations between personal (sexual) politics and cultural, economic and religious politics continues from novel to novel, he does not repeat himself. Tigana was the story of a group of revolutionaries and the powerful emperor against whom they plotted. A Song for Arbonne was a narrative of violent war between two different religious states, as well as a study of the growth of a young man destined to lead them both in peace. The Lions of Al-Rassan has its own dynamic, as it explores the complex interactions of disparate people caught up in the battles for supremacy among the Jaddite princes and the last Asharite kings in Al-Rassan.

    Kay has never written conventional fantasies, and has followed what looks like a deliberate strategy of development in the religious sphere from Tigana to A Song for Arbonne, and then to The Lions of Al-Rassan. If Tigana is still a high fantasy in which magic and the gods can play a role in the narrative, is an historical fantasy where god and goddess no longer directly interfere in the historical narrative of battles between their believers, and what may appear as magic to the credulous can nevertheless be explained away as psychological manipulation. The Lions of Al-Rassan moves even further away from conventional fantasy: there are worshippers in all three religions, but while they may have faith they can never see the works of those they worship. There are priesthoods, but they seek worldly power, and there are most certainly zealots--these are represented as the most dangerous, even evil, people of all in their righteous disregard for the humanity of those who do not believe as they do--but the world in which they act is a mundane one in which realpolitik reigns supreme.

    Kay's heroes are those whose integrity lets them not only see the humanity of those who are different, but even come to love them. Jehane, the Kindrath doctor who enters into complex relationships with both a Jaddite and an Asharite; young Alvar, who begins as a true believing Jaddite, but through his travels, often with Jehane and others, widens his mental and emotional horizons until he can eventually even change faiths; the two striking men whom Jehane cares so much for, both superior warriors, but also men of cultural wealth and understanding: these clearly represent the best human possibilities in a world torn apart by racial warfare and religious turmoil.

    Guy Gavriel Kay has a terrific sense of fictional architecture: the overarching plan of the whole narrative is grand but not grandiose, complex but not needlessly complicated; yet individual scenes have a brilliant life of their own. There are any number of dramatic moments in this story, which readers will return to for renewed pleasure. Some are highly intimate, some epic in their fierceness. One of Kay's great talents--and it is one that sets him apart from so many genre fantasists--is his ability to settle the sexual lives of his characters in their cultural, political, and religious contexts. But, in fact, he creates interestingly rounded characters precisely by implying all the social, as well as psychological, baggage they carry into every situation. That he has a fine sense of how social comedy occurs at different social levels also lends credibility to many scenes of both high and low society.

    The Lions of Al-Rassan is an entertaining, sensitive and dramatic, epic novel. It should appeal to an audience far wider than just fantasy fans. Except for the, not unimportant, fact that the world in which these characters live out their tangled lives during a period of traumatic political and social change is specifically invented, it could be considered a fine historical novel. I think it is the more interesting for its invention of another world, for that allows for the creation of a narrative true unto itself alone. That such a narrative can be profoundly moving, and speak to our common humanity in the starkest terms, is testament to the generosity of spirit that moves through The Lions of Al-Rassan.

    [Reviewed by Doug Barbour, Reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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    Guy Gavriel Kay Sailing to Sarantium

    Viking, 464 pp.

    For some time now, Canada's Guy Gavriel Kay has been recognized as one of the finest writers of high fantasy in the world. He first achieved fame with one of the finest post-Tolkien fantasy trilogies, The Fionavar Tapestry. Since then, careful readers of his work have watched him slowly build up a complex and complete world, with its two moons, one blue one white, and its vast and various history. As he has constructed not only another world but the historical circumstances of its various countries and peoples, in Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, and The Lions of Al-Rassan, he has quietly but consistently moved his narratives ever further away from the easy magic and simple narratives of its power that sign the conventions of so many banal copy-cat fantasies today. Now, in Sailing to Sarantium, Book 1 of The Sarantine Mosaic, he has achieved one of the finest works of historical fantasy I have read in years.

    Kay's real magic lies in the way he has created analogues for countries and periods of our own history, yet managed to make these analogous worlds live in their own highly particular ways, under their own highly particular gods and historical inheritances. We see our own world as in a mirror in these narratives, but as Samuel R. Delany has one of the geniuses of his own unusual sword and sorcery tales point out, what we see in a mirror is always a distortion, not an exact replica of reality. To read these fictions only as if they were odd commentaries on our own histories would be to do them a great disservice. The countries, their histories, and the people who inherit and make them, achieve their own integrity and individuality in these finely wrought novels.

    Certainly, in Sailing to Sarantium, Kay has created a rich and highly engaging collection of characters, from the bottom of the Sarantine empire's society to the very top, for the emperor and empress are among the major characters as well as active directors of the plot. The history Sailing to Sarantium carefully constructs has to do with the emperor's decision to build the greatest of cathedrals to the god of his people, and of the broken Rhodian Empire, whose capital city in the far west was burned by pagans and is only a ruined citadel now. Although the empire now ruled from Sarantium, greatest and most holy of cities, is always in a state of crisis, and Valerius II must balance war, empire building, the feuds among the faithful and much else, he and his empress will build the Great Sanctuary at whatever cost to the empire and themselves.

    To them they call the greatest artisans of the empire, one of whom, an older mosaicist, insists his younger colleague, Caius Crispis, accept the invitation. Crispin, as he is known to his friends, must travel from the west, through an often terrifying wilderness to Sarantium, where he may or may not be killed for his presumption. A man who has suffered profound personal loss, he discovers new friends and a reason to live en route. He also, most dangerously, meets, if ambiguously, what might be one of the older gods. But then, as so many figures remind us, the phrase "Sailing to Sarantium" has long meant changing one's life, and the Rilkean overtones are deliberate here, I believe.

    If many writers of high fantasy depend upon a banal and conventional representation of magic, Kay is after bigger game. His characters, with their complex personal histories and quirky intelligence, come face to face with something deeper and darker - mystery, the numinous, what overwhelms both sense and language, yet cries out to be known in the heart. Kay catches the edges of the tremendum they confront with grace and understanding in a couple of scenes that are themselves worth many other whole novels.

    But, as I have suggested, he can also, again unlike too many fantasists, create characters whose rich inner lives give them an appeal that keeps a reader interested in every encounter they have with one another. Crispin is the central figure here, for he must deal with everyone from the emperor and empress and their courtiers down through soldiers and various craftsmen to ordinary people of the serving classes. Many of these people are women, and although women are generally represented as somewhat confined in such a culture, these too are represented as complex and evocative figures. Kay has become very adept at catching the nuances of his various characters in a pertinent phrase or description, but he also represents the ways many of them think as they act. This is narration of a high quality, indeed.

    Indeed, in a novel whose central character is an artist, a maker of great mosaics, Kay has constructed his novel as a literary mosaic of great intricacy and delicacy, for all its adventures, its courtly intrigues, its confrontations with death and various powers, some of them beyond human understanding. There are some wonderful moments when a scene erupts in the reader's mind as images planted hundreds of pages earlier come together to achieve a particular effect. And there are whole chapters which shift back and forth from night to day, from past to present, the intercutting full of sharp emotional contrasts fulfilling the core mosaic idea of sharply contrasted colours, as opposed to painterly blendings. Thus the novel itself exemplifies the mosaicist's art, as carefully explained in Crispen's meditations at different points throughout the narrative.

    I have, really, only one complaint about Sailing to Sarantium, and that is that this wonderfully complex and engaging novel is only one half of the whole, and that we have to wait at least a year for the rest. If you like historical fantasy at all, you will find in Sailing to Sarantium a masterful example of the genre, one which perhaps redefines its possibilities. Most other such works pale in its light.

    [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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    Guy Gavriel Kay The Summer Tree

    McClelland & Stewart, 323 pp.; $19.95

    I must admit that I wasn't expecting much of Guy Gavriel Kay's first novel--a fantasy which promised to be just another rip-off of the Tolkien cosmos. Well, Kay surprised me, for The Summer Tree caught me up and held me entranced throughout. Oh, this first volume of a projected trilogy--The Fionavar Tapestry--borrows liberally from earlier classics all right, but Kay has woven these disparate strands into a fine cloth of his own.

    Five University of Toronto students are 'chosen' by a mage from Fionavar to cross over and be present at the fiftieth anniversary of the present High King of Brennin. But neither Silvercloak, the mage, nor they can guess that they will become the central figures in the latest battle between the newly escaped renegade god, Rakoth the Unraveller, and the various peoples of the Light.

    All this is familiar, but what raises Kay's novel above many other such works is his characterizations, both of the five students, and of the princes, mages, dwarfs, warriors, priesteses, and other people of Fionavar. With a generally well-wrought style and a thoroughly adult sense of personality and life, Kay creates characters whose stories we want to know more of, and whose future we care about.

    The Summer Tree is a superior example of high fantasy, and about the only complaint I can finally register is my disappointment at having to wait at least two years before I can find out how the story ends.

    [Reviewed by Doug Barbour, Reprinted from NCF Vol 1 #8 (October, 1985) and Toronto Star]

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    Eileen Kernaghan
    Journey to Aprilioth

    Ace Books, 439pp

    Eileen Kernaghan's Journey to Aprilioth is a pretty fair example of a well wrought sword (or in this case, axe)-and-sorcery tale set in the ancient past in what is recognizably Europe and the Middle East. Young Nhiall, a novice priest in old Britain, is given a jewel carved in runes he can't read and asked to deliver it to the priests at Aprilioth. It's a very long journey, with many detours. Nhiall is enslaved, trained as a horsemaster, falls in love many times, trains a prince and saves his life, fights in some great battles, and learns some spiritual mysteries before he finally reaches his goal.

    Kernaghan handles Nhiall's physical travels and maturing with verve and a good feel for the conventions of the genre. When she tries to suggest Nhiall's spiritual growth, however, she stumbles somewhat, and so the ending lacks the power and sense of finality she seeks. Still, the trip is an entertaining one, an enjoyable escape for a few hours.

    [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from NCF Vol 1 #2/3, Summer 1981, and Toronto Star]

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    Dance of Snow Dragon cover

    Eileen Kernaghan
    Dance of the Snow Dragon

    Thistledown Press, 325 pp

    Eileen Kernaghan has been writing solid historical fantasies for some years now, but in Dance of the Snow Dragon she turns from Celtic myth to Tibetan Buddhist mythic accounts of the journey to Shambhala, the great city state hidden far beyond the furthest highest snow-covered peaks. In a deceptively simple style the novel tells the story of a young boy chosen to be a monk who discoveres he is meant for even greater things.

    Sanjay has a hard time learning to empty himself of ego, but after failure and meditation in a mountain hermitage, he learns that he must take a great journey. Along the way he gains a companion, a tough and sarcastic sorceress, and slowly he learns to believe that all is illusion. Eventually, he gains Shambhala and helps to save it, only to realize that life is a continual journey and he can't stop here, even in this marvelous place. Kernaghan tells his story like an ancient fable, and the magic of his travels is subtly underlined by the understated quality of her prose. Dance of the Snow Dragon is a quietly moving quest story, full of lovely descriptions of another world.

    [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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    Edward Llewellyn See Bright Companionand Douglas Convolution

    Scott Mackay Outpost

    TOR Books, 352 pp.

    Outpost, Torontonian Scott Mackay's first sf novel, takes on a whole bunch of well-worn sf conventions, obviously trying to renew them, but mostly being defeated by their incredibly strong resistance to change. Set on what can only be a different kind of prison planet at the edge of the galaxy, it tells the story of a group who escape, among whom is the one person who might be able to change the future (and the past, and the present). Time travel is the epic's central trope, changing history the characters' stark necessity.

    In a prison where all the guards are machines and the prisoners are in fact the children and grandchildren of those who were first brought there, a few people have wakened from the machine-enforced apathy that has kept them from even wishing to be free. In fact, the machines are breaking down, the New Ones who control the prison have not visited it for years, maybe a century, and one young woman is having very strange dreams indeed.

    Of course, she is the one hope for humanity and for the Old Ones of the uominilupi, the aliens who have been travelling through time trying to find a way to prevent humans from committing genocide upon them. The uominilupi have decided that they must find the historical event that eventually caused a future human general to destroy them; but first they try to change things too crudely, then they create New Ones who determine they must kill everything, including themselves, to stop this man. Only Felicitas can save them all.

    The good part of this novel is its representation of the hopelessness of the prisoners and their revolt. Once it turns to the stories of their attempts to escape, the terrible things they undergo during their escape, the losses they suffer, it tends to fall into clich╚ too easily. Nevertheless, Mackay does well at setting the unrelenting mood of their struggle.

    Moreover, the concept that everything revolves around the Italian Renaissance, especially Machiavelli's The Prince, is a neat one. Nevertheless, having set up such an interesting conceptual structure, Mackay runs out of steam when it comes time to resolve the huge conflict he has created. Everything is fixed up much too easily and quickly; after all her sufferings and setbacks, Felicitas arranges everything using the powers the Old One, Lungo Muso, has slowly revealed to her. It's the old sf dream of superpower, in this case benevolent; what's missing is the kind of questioning of such power that the most interesting sf has explored in recent years. Outpost is a good fast read, but it's finally much slighter than it seems. Mackay has a nice touch with sentiment, and his time-travel paradoxes are niftily worked out. Still, this reader felt somewhat cheated by the speed with which the many problems of the first 320 pages are solved in the last 32. It seems Mackay tried to do too much here. While the ambition shown in Outpost bodes well for his future, the actual writing doesn't measure up. Maybe next time.

    [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, appears here for the first time]

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    Ann Marston Kingmaker's Sword

    HarperPrism, 320 pp.

    Ann Marston is a new fantasy writer, living in Edmonton, whose first trilogy obviously made an impression on the editors at HarperPrism, since they have managed to get all three volumes out within a year. It's easy to see why. Marston has learned well the central lessons of high fantasy, and has added her own special touches, especially the Celtic mythic tone and colours of her major characters' culture. She has created a big multi-generational narrative set in an interesting world where the masters of one country have decided that they deserve to rule all the rest. Moreover, she has created epic and tragic characters whose choices affect whole cultures where dark and light magics compete.

    Marston's well-crafted first novel demonstrates she had a good idea of what makes these things work from the very beginning. No copy of run-of-the-mill of high fantasies, it's something of a character study, although there's plenty of swordplay and sorcery, not to mention the country of Maedun's dark design to conquer the world with the aid of black and murderous magic.

    In an intriguing change from most such works, much of Kingmaker's Sword is narrated by its protagonist, an escaped slave who is actually a young lord from the northern mountainous country of Tyra. Having taken a sword from a bounty hunter, he is freed by a Tyran nobleman who turns out to be his uncle, and eventually adopts him and names him Kian. But the sword is so special he knows it's involved in his fate, or he in its. His special dreams where he fights a man in black also suggest this.

    Eventually a young swordswoman from the island country of Celi finds the two and hires them to search for her lost prince. During their quest, they have to deal with the slave holders who want to torture and kill Kian, a general from Maedun who has learned to increase his magic through blood sacrifice, not to mention the usual scuffles any good swordsman must deal with. Then there's Kerri, the swordswoman, with whom Kian seems to have forged a special bond, even if she wants nothing to do with such a 'barbarian.'.

    Marston has created an intriguing world, especially the Celtic clans of Tyra and Celi, with their pride and honour. Kingmaker's Sword is filled with adventure, some good social comedy, and the grand old battle between the light and the dark. The conclusion, in which Kian must do battle with the Maedun sorcerer-general, sets the stage for an epic continuation.

    Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from the Edmonton Journal]

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    Ann Marston The Western King

    HarperPrism, 384 pp.

    At the beginning of The Western King, Kian and Kerri have married and moved to Celi, an island of separate and contentious provinces. There his oldest son is named prince of Skai, and his twin younger sons begin to grow into their destinies, one to unite the island, the other to protect it with its own life-giving magic.

    This is large, political, novel, full of many different and often competing figures. First the various princes and dukes must be convinced that only by joining forces under a high king can they protect Celi from the Saesnesi who originally came from the continent but have lived and fought on Celi for five generations, and then from the Maedun, who will eventually come to try to conquer them, led by the son of the man Kian had defeated so many years before.

    Tiernyn, the High King, and Donaugh, his magic-filled brother, must find a way to unite even the Saesnesi under Celi's banner; only so might Celi's army do battle with a Maedun army led by sorcerers. How they get to that moment, and what happens to change them on the way, make up the complex narrative of this second novel.

    There are also tangled threads of love and loyalty, not to mention some savage examples of hatred and betrayal. Donaugh meets his eternal love only when captured by his enemy, but that meeting makes possible the eventual unification of Celi. Against the possibilities of cooperation and fealty, Marston provides occasional glimpses of Hakkar, the sorcerer of Maedun, whose perverted loyalty to his own blood exists alongside a delight in shedding others' to increase his power. The final confrontation is both a huge battle and a single fight in a magic place. In this world, that is how the powers work things out.

    [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from the Edmonton Journal]

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    Ann Marston Broken Blade

    HarperPrism, 319 pp.

    As told by the warrior woman dedicated to protecting the Prince of Celi, Broken Blade is a tale of loss and defeat, yet also of love and the possibility of renewal. At the beginning of his rise to King, Tiernyn had committed two sins against honour, although he believed he was doing what was right for Celi; these had stained the sword, Kingmaker, although only Donaugh could see the stain. Nevertheless, Donaugh knows of the prophecy that the blade will fail his king in Celi's greatest need. In this novel, that prophecy, tangled with other complicating ones, works itself out.

    Brynda, the narrator, daughter of the Prince of Skai and bheancoran to the Prince of Celi, begins her narrative on the continent, where her prince is trying to forge an alliance with the one kingdom yet unconquered by the Maedun. Captured by one of her family's enemies, she eventually escapes and finds help from an exiled Tyanan. Their long trek, trailed by a Maedun sorcerer, eventually ends with her return to Celi and his being taken by Tyanan soldiers.

    Eventually, Donaugh's son by a sorcerous woman from Maedun finds a way to break through the defences of Celi magic, which can only defend not offer harm, and the Maedun army is able to attack the island. The Maedun win the battle, but Brynda lives to help the wife of her prince, pregnant with his son, escape toward the high mountains of Celi. Here Marston lives up to the savage integrity of Celtic myth as many of our favorite characters lose both battles and lives. But she also provides the necessary hope that someday the people of the land will be able to fight back against the oppression of the Maedun.

    This trilogy is full and seemingly complete, following one tale through three generations from early beginnings to success and then a tragic fall. Yet, although it reaches a satisfying conclusion, Marston has left the door open for another whole trilogy, that might tell the tale of how Celi will win its freedom back. If she writes it, many, I predict, will come to read it.

    [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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    Yves Meynard The Book of Knights

    TOR Books, 224 pp.

    Québecois sf writer Yves Meynard offers as his first novel written in English The Book of Knights, and a delightful, intelligent, and witty fable it is. Young Adelrune, a foster child in the "dour and austere house" of followers of "the Rule and its twelve accompanying volumes of Commentaries," discovers a strange Book of Knights in the attic. This beautiful book, perhaps the only aesthetically pleasing thing in Adelrune's environment, leads him away from the Rule into a world of imaginative possibility, far larger than anyone in his small village wants to believe. In it, there are tales of all kinds of knights and their wonderful, often terrible adventures. These tales awake in Adelrune a great desire to someday become a knight.

    At the age of twelve, knowing he does not believe in the Rule, nor in its hypocritical followers, Adelrune runs away from home, seeking the residence of Riander, who the Book says is a great trainer of knights. In fact, the Book tells him Riander's place is just three days away in the hills. This odd direction proves to be true, and Riander, an ageless man, does take Adelrune on as a knight-apprentice, although he warns the youth that there will be a high personal cost for his training.

    The magic of this text lies in the stories of Adelrune's apprenticeship, both those Riander tells him and those he actually lives through. This is especially true of his lengthy quest to become a true knight, which Riander sets as his final test. In these adventures, Adelrune behaves well, badly, with courage, with love, with fear, and with a sometimes appallingly naive lack of understanding, although his understanding does grow.

    In the end, in a lovely twist of the traditional tale, Adelrune returns to Riander convinced he has failed, and only Riander can convince him otherwise and send him on his way as a knight. As he leaves, another youth arrives to apprentice with Riander, amazed to have met the famous Adelrune, about whom he has read in his Book of Knights. Such delightful self-referentiality, slyly implied throughout, provides an extra fillip of wit to The Book of Knights, which proves in the end to be as much a book about books and the imagination as a book about knightly adventures.

    In The Book of Knights, Yves Meynard has written a fairy tale for all ages. As Robert Sawyer says, his is a "refreshingly different" new voice in fantasy.

    [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, appears here for the first time]

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    Graham Petrie

    See Spider and Jeanne RobinsonStarmind Ace Books, 292 pp.

    Spider and Jeanne Robinson won science fiction's highest awards for the first volume of what must now be called 'the Stardance trilogy'; and Starmind is the final turn of that literary dance. The Robinsons represent the technophilic stream of modern science fiction, and in Starmind they push their essential optimism into the realm of the transcendent in the best sf manner.

    Briefly, it's 2065 and art is flourishing, not least out in space. Humanity has never been better off, mostly due to the gifts of the godlike Fireflies who came and went in Stardance. But some people want to return to the bad old days of wars and violence. Starmind is the story of a family and of the human family as a whole, as they move, inevitably but unknowingly, toward the next step in evolution. Narrated by a novelist who loves both the earth and her spacebound artist husband, it tells of a wide group of people who work toward or try to prevent what the Fireflies started. Naturally, the good guys -- humanity -- win, but not without some difficulty.

    The Robinsons' future is technologically like that of such cyberpunks as William Gibson except for one thing: everything works for the best, and people are happy. Strangely it's a capitalist utopia, although this is not explained, really. Intriguingly, the Fireflies "came to us the moment that a human being came to space for the express purpose of creating art." In making this the core of their long narrative, the Robinsons do seem to be staking big claims for art (even if they also seem to imply that it should be able to pay its way), and this is a charmingly abberrant aspect of their science fictional vision.

    Needless to say, despite personal and international conflicts, the desired transcendence does occur. It does so at the end of an easily read story, in both senses of that phrase: the Robinsons write entertaining prose that keeps a reader turning the pages; and yet, all the problems, especially the personal ones are solved a bit too easily, even if the gift of Starmind is precisely to cure such problems (there's a darker yet far more wonderful novel, The Child Garden, by Geoff Ryman, which definitely earns its transcendent conclusion, by the greater complexity of its story, its characters, and its prose). Still, Starmind will certainly satisfy readers already won over to the Robinsons' earlier books in the trilogy; it's good entertainment on its own terms.

    [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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    Sean Russell The Compass of the Soul

    DAW Books, 388 pp.

    Vancouver's Sean Russell first made a name for himself with a pair of books, the Moontide and Magic Rise sequence, where a young man on a voyage much like Darwin's discovers his world was once filled with magic. Now, in a second duo, The River of Darkness, he has set out to tell the story of how that world lost its knowledge of magic.

    In the first volume, Beneath the Vaulted Hills, he introduced a society at the beginning of a scientific enlightenment, with a fast rising scientist who is reminiscent of Newton introducing new technological wonders to his culture. But there is still one mage in the world, who is striving to wipe out all knowledge of the Art, as well as a group of long hidden rebels who desire to save and use them.

    Caught up in the battle between these two forces are a number of people, of the educated and upper classes, including another scientist, a dwarf with an eidetic memory, a novelist, two young students, a priest who knows far too much about magic, and a preternaturally attractive countess. At the end of the first book, some of them had escaped almost certain death in a cave-in, the countess had been brought to the mage, and his plans seemed in disarray.

    In The Compass of the Soul, the young scientist and the last of the rebels try to escape the mage by faking their own deaths; the hypocritical priest and others are sent after them; the countess begins to study magic and her own soul; the students learn more than they had ever bargained for; some are offered an escape from their own sad pasts; and the mage, with little concern for the humans he hurts along the way, battles against time and his enemies to preserve his world from the holocaust that might come if he fails. Russell's characters are interesting, not least for their sharp self-consciousness. As well, he has shown some real imagination in creating an invented history in which his magic tale occurs in a post-medieval period (so many such fantasies are stuck in a highly conventionalized fake middle ages). The Compass of the Soul is an entertaining conclusion to a sequence that offers more than most contemporary fantasy, in both its characterizations and in its complex confrontation between magic and science.

    [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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    Robert J. Sawyer Factoring Humanity coverFactoring Humanity.

    TOR Books, 350 pp.

    Robert J. Sawyer is one of the most respected hard science sf writers around today. His books and stories have won numerous awards, and are popular around the world, allowing him to become Canada's only native-born full time science fiction writer. He has achieved this success by presenting science, the processes of scientific investigation, as the central narrative facts of his novels. A nineties version of the young Robert Heinlein, he writes novels that hook the reader into an adventure in which scientific speculation plays a central role.

    Factoring Humanity is the latest of his novels, and it is chockfull of intriguing scientific concepts, from Quantum Theory and multiple universes, SETI, and artificial intelligence, to the debate raging around false memory syndrome. Set in the near future, it tells the story of two scientists in entirely different fields whose marriage seems to be falling apart following the suicide of their oldest daughter a year previously. When their other daughter accuses her father of sexually molesting her, both Heather Davis and Kyle Graves must dig deep into their reserves of trust and love even as their separate investigations begin to get results.

    Sawyer makes his future just enough different to be interesting (for example, Iran is a world power), while allowing his middle-aged protagonists nostalgically to recall their university years and early marriage during the late eighties and the nineties. But the really exciting aspects of Factoring Humanity are Heather and Kyle's experiments. A psychologist, Heather is one of the scientists still trying to decipher a series of messages from Alpha Centauri, which began ten years previously in 2007. When she sees a print of Dali's "Christus Hypercubus" in Kyle's office, and the APE computer there (Approximate Psychological Experience) explains what a hypercube is, she makes an intuitive breakthrough to interpret the alien message as a set of instructions.

    With the help of an engineer at the University of Toronto where both she and Kyle teach, she builds a hypercube construct. When she enters it, she is able to access the human overmind, the sum total of all human minds past and present, something she is prepared to recognize as she has studied Jung's collective unconscious. Once she gets the hang of it, she is able to enter the minds of specific people, which eventually leads her to Kyle, where she discovers that he is indeed innocent of their daughter's charges, and much else about him as well. The usual didactic lesson, that we simply cannot know another person from the inside, is overturned by this machine that will allow everyone in the world to do so, once it's made public.

    Kyle, meanwhile, is working on artificial intelligence and the possibility of creating an entirely new level of computing power by somehow accessing potential alternate universes while a particular computer is working on a massive problem. Although he hasn╠t solved the practical problems, he is close enough that various powerful forces, a conglomerate, the banks (which might find their various cryptographic programs too easily broken by such a computer), seek to buy him off. And, there's another message from the stars, a message that was destroyed by a young man who committed suicide, and with whom Heather had once had an affair. When she discovers what that message said by accessing the young man's memories, it turns out that it was a warning that artificial intelligence would not supplement organic but supplant it.

    Sawyer draws all these heady speculative narratives together by tying them intimately to the family problems of his two protagonists. What he does best is to make their intellectual experiments adventures, as full of mystery and suspense as any spy thriller. In the end, with one of sf's signal moments of mystic transcendence, the scientific breakthroughs make possible the human and familial reconciliation the novel desires. The alien gift is finally its communication, the inescapable fact that we are not alone, which suddenly changes the meaning of human life. Factoring Humanity will surely add to Sawyer's reputation as a hard science writer whose explorations of scientific possibilities try to see the human possibilities accompanying them.

    Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from the Edmonton Journal

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    Robert J. Sawyer Frameshift

    TOR Books, 352 pp.

    Like The Terminal Experiment, his Nebula Award winning thriller, Robert Sawyer's Frameshift is set in the world of medical technology and deals with possibilities that could change from science fiction to science fact within the next few years. Pierre Tardivel, a Québecker now working for the Human Genome Project at University of California - Berkeley (thus does Sawyer indicate his Canadian roots), is a driven man, for he has a fifty-fifty chance of coming down with Huntington's disease. Knowing he may have very few years, he is determined to discover something that will make him famous, like all the Nobel Prize winning scientists whose lives he has studied.

    That's one part of the puzzle Sawyer slowly constructs in this novel. The young psychologist with whom Pierre falls in love, and her small but true ESP (she can read another person's linguistic thoughts from a few paces away), is another. Pierre's boss, the scientist running the project, whose past hides a lie, and whose present involves another, all for the the glory of science, of course, is a third. And then there's the old man who founded Condor Health Insurance, a company that seems to be finding new and criminal ways to avoid big payouts: just who was he during World War Two?

    Sawyer does a good job of weaving all these stories and themes together; and has clearly done a good deal of research in order to arrange this multiple narrative. Eventually, Pierre's researches, the discovery of neanderthal DNA, the deaths of a number of people who have been insured against Huntington's, and the involvement of Israeli and American Nazi-hunters lead to a thriller climax that ties up all the loose ends, and allows for a warm-hearted paen to ethical scientific research in the Epilogue.

    When writing about the actual science, Sawyer captures the obsessive and passionate personal force of characters-in-the-action-of-thinking; but with the other aspects of his characters' lives, he does tend to fall into more conventional modes, which takes some of the glow off the book as a whole. Nevertheless, Frameshift is one of those novels that can remind us of just how exciting science can be; and that is one of the real achievements of the best science fiction.

    [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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    Wind Shifter cover

    Linda Smith Wind Shifter

    Thistledown Press, 310 pp.

    Wind Shifter, Linda Smith's first novel, is an intriguing attempt at refurbishing the traditional high fantasy tale of a young person growing up by learning to use her magic powers. A young adult novel, its story is interesting enough to engage any reader fond of the genre, especially one with a slight case of humanist sentimentalism. The style is straightforward, the story well thought out and plotted, and the theme intriguingly complex.

    Kerstin is an apprentice wizard in the land of Freya, whose wizards are celebrated in song for saving it from a savage enemy some five hundred years ago by erecting an impassable barrier between the two countries. But now the enemy has returned, and perhaps enchanted the weather, preventing needed rain from reaching Freyan crops. The King calls on all to help, but when young Kirsten is left out, she seeks to do something on her own. With her father away, her mother dead, and her own sense of self undermined, she ventures out and is captured by the 'vile' Ugliks, only to discover that they are just as human as she is.

    In the end, and this is what makes Wind Shifter an interesting contrast with many other adventure fantasies today, Kirsten comes to realize there is no easy black and white Good versus Evil solution. Moreover, she finds a way to help both sides in the conflict. How she does so is the burden of this novel, along with how doing so helps her to mature into a fine young wizard. While no masterpiece, Wind Shifter is an entertaining and engaging story.

    [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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    Heather Spears The Taming

    Tesseract Books, 260 pp.

    Heather Spears writes sf the way a Governor-General's Award-winning poet would: The Taming is, like the first two volumes of the Moonfall trilogy, is not just a tale of a strange meeting on a strange world but wonderfully strange in its style. The way the characters tell their story of survival on a moon made habitable for humans renders all their incomprehension with extraordinary clarity. The three one-headed children who survive the trip from the World are wholly imbedded in the cultural assumptions of the the two-headed people among whom they were freaks, and Spears has them tell their tales from within those assumptions.

    In the first two novels, Spears created a fully realized future world and its cultures, as well as the few single-headed beings who are out of place there. In The Taming, she takes these outsiders further outside their culture, and lets them discover how to live on their own, in great complexity and with great difficulty. She also renders their quick maturing into adulthood with compassion and insight.

    The Taming is a book of psychological poetry, a series of careful descriptions of technological wonders by people who have no understanding of technology. The mystery of the novel resides in its carefully 'innocent' perceptions, as well as the complex representation of a young man and two young women as they attempt to communicate with their uncle, who had been sent to the moon 22 years before and has not dealt with any person in all that time. In its rendering of their slow coming to mutual understanding, The Taming achieves a fine sense of human possibility and love. It is a triumphant conclusion to a major work of the imagination

    [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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    Sean Stewart Clouds End

    Ace Books, 390 pp.

    With only four novels, Sean Stewart has achieved an enviable artistic and popular reputation as one of the finest young fantasists in the field. Clouds End will only enhance that reputation for is it not only his finest work yet, but one of the most profoundly imaginative acts of world-building to come down the pike in some time (the only comparison I can think of right now is Guy Gavriel Kay, and that's a real compliment). Clouds End is a kind of quest, containing a kind of war, with something like the usual fantasy tropes at work; but Stewart has never done things the ordinary way, and what is so marvelous about this beautifully crafted work is the way it represents different peoples by revealing their backgrounds and beliefs in the warp and woof of the language. Clouds End is an island near the edge of the known world; it is also part of a large island nation. As godlike beings battle, this tiny island nation and a larger forest empire are drawn into war. As it turns out, Brook, a young woman from Clouds End, and her haunt, a doppelganger with mysterious powers, are central to the working out of the knotted destinies of all. With her friends, as they encounter warriors, generals, and even an Emperor, Brook and her haunt enter a great tale and leave it. The usual ingredients of adventure are both celebrated and interrogated in Clouds End, but what makes the novel glow is Stewart's subtle understanding of the folk roots of cultural metaphor. Not just names, but the very turns of thought, of people from different contexts ground them in a sensually perceived world -- yet their language demonstrates just how fully feeling is a matter of culture.

    Stewart provides plenty of thrills, and many moments of high passion, tragic experience, and pure human delight in Clouds End, but finally it is the subtlety and power of the language, with its mythic, legendary, yet wholly human connections, that makes this novel so fine.

    [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from Edmonton Journal]

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    Sean Stewart The Night Watch

    Ace Books, 327 pp.

    With The Night Watch, former Edmontonian Sean Stewart has written a wonderfully magic new novel set in the same strange world as his earlier Resurrection Man, but where that earlier novel was set in small town USA, the new book pays homage to the two Canadian cities he has lived in and loved, Edmonton and Vancouver. I could almost recommend it for that reason alone but, as usual with Stewart, it's a strong and evocative study of character, an intensely perceptive study of cultural conflict and art, and a powerful narrative that crosses the borders between the living and the dead, the natural and the supernatural. In Resurrection Man, Stewart imagined an alternate world in which the traumatic horrors of World War Two caused a break in the grand narrative of scientific progress, and magic, which had faded from the world (or at least the western world) since the beginning of the 16th century, suddenly returned, knocking scientific rationality completely off its pedestal. personal angels (but much more dangerous than those presented in the angel books that abound today), a myriad of gods, people with strange powers, and a lot of frightening ghosts and bogies have become part of the natural world. The Night Watch is set about a century later and the world is a smaller place, where what remains of the human population lives scattered in small towns, the big cities overwhelmed by malevolent supernatural forces.

    Edmonton's Southside, its leader Winter having long ago made a sacrifice that keeps the dead and other supernatural figures on the north side of the river, is one of the largest population centres in Norrth America. In this strange new world, magic has not quite replaced technology but it has infiltrated it in some pretty weird ways. There are aircraft but there is no central heating; there are certain kinds of personal computers but they are also alive in some way. As masters of this magic technology, Southside's soldiers are a crack mercenary force, and they have been invited by the Chinatown enclave in what remains of Vancouver to help protect the people there from incursions of evil supernatural forces.

    Given this situation, and the kinds of political infighting that can occur in both communities, Stewart sets a rich cultural stew boiling. He has created a number of intriguing characters, from Winter and his granddaughter Emily, through the artist Raining, whose family are the only people allowed in the living Forest that has taken over much of Vancouver, and her friend Wire, to the various members of the Mandarinate in Chinatown and their families. As in his last few novels, Stewart gets inside the different cultural assumptions of his characters and lets their speech reveal them. The story involves political intrigue, various kinds of love, battles and spying, and a dawning recognition in both communities that the magic is slowly withdrawing from the world again.

    As with all good stories, The Night Watch is too complex to summarize in a short review. Suffice to say, it satisfies on all levels. After the brilliant fantasy, Clouds End, last year, The Night Watch confirms Sean Stewart's reputation as one of the finest, most unpredictable new writers in the field.

    [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from the Edmonton Journal]

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    Robert Charles Wilson Darwinia

    TOR Books, 320 pp. Darwinia cover

    In Darwinia, Robert Charles Wilson, whose last novel, Mysterium, won the Philip K. Dick Award, offers a science fictional explanation for the kinds of horrors usually found in H. P. Lovecraft's dark fantasies. That in itself is quite an achievement, but Darwinia is also a complex human story of an alternate twentieth century on an Earth that may only be a form of corrupted information in a Galactic Archive.

    The country of the title appeared suddenly in 1912 when "the Miracle" displaced all of Europe and parts of Aftrica, replacing them with an entirely new and different ecology, absolutely empty of humanity. At the time, Guilford Law was only fourteen. Although it is clearly a huge disaster, it is also a wonder, and Guilford wants to find out more about it.

    As a twenty-two year old adventurer, he gets his chance, as official photographer for the Finch expedition to the interior of what was once Europe, now known as Darwinia. Finch is a strange bird, something of what we would call a Creationist, but some other members of his expedition are more agnostic, including Guilford. He is accompanied by his wife, Caroline, and their four year old daughter, Lily, who are going to stay in New London, while he goes on to the continent.

    The expedition is a disaster, first attacked by Partisans, who kill some of them. The rest head further into the interior where they find a kind of abandoned city to shelter in for the winter. This place turns out to be a node where the corruption attacking the Galactic Archive might enter to destroy this Earth. Eventually Guilford discovers that he actually died in the First World War, and that his other self is now an almost godlike part of the Archive. Although it takes most of his life, and the loss of two families (for Caroline believing him dead has taken Lily to Australia), before he believes it, he finally accepts that he is one of those chosen to carry the battle against the corruption in this place and time.

    Wilson moves his narrative forward on three fronts: there is Guilford's story; there is Caroline's, and there is the story of those people lacking a social conscience whom the corruption uses, promising them immortality. All three stories are interesting as social observation, as well as character sketches. Darwinia's twentieth century lacks the wars of ours as well as some of its inventions, but it is fascinating. Guilford is an intriguing figure as he strives to evade his destiny, desiring only to live and love his families and friends. But after his second wife and his son are killed in an attempt on his life, he realizes that he can't sit this battle out.

    Wilson does a bang up job on the final battle, and even grants Guilford something of a purely terrestrial reward. With its mixture of visionary speculation, fantastic science, and E.R. Burroughs-like adventure, Darwinia is a solid and thoughtful entertainment.

    Reviewed by Douglas Barbour, reprinted from the Edmonton Journal

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    This page last updated:June 20, 2000