Sime~Gen Inc. Presents

Recommended Books

September, 1995

"Heros With A `tude "


Dagger Magic, A Novel of The Adept by Katherine Kurtz and Deborah Turner Harris (Ace Fantasy hc, May '95).

Gate of Darkness/ Circle of Light by Tanya Huff (DAW fantasy pb, November 1989).

Child of the Grove and The Last Wizard by Tanya Huff (DAW fantasy pb, 1988).

Sing the Four Quarters by Tanya Huff (DAW fantasy pb, December '94).

Profiteer - Hostile Takeover #1 by S. Andrew Swann (DAW science fiction pb, April '95).

The Night Inside: a Vampire Thriller by Nancy Baker (Fawcett Columbine hc, Jan '94).

Vampire Detectives edited by Martin H. Greenberg (DAW pb, April '95).

When I was in grammar school, I used to get bad marks for attitude. I never could figure out what in the world my teachers were complaining about, but it sure upset my parents. At that time, attitude was a technical educational term. Today it's a street jargon catch-all devoid of true meaning. To say that someone has an attitude is simply to say you disapprove of the way they are functioning. I suspect that's all my teachers were saying to my parents, who were raised to court a teacher's approval at all costs.

In seventh grade, after I started reading sf/f (which my mother, of blessed memory, introduced me to), I stopped getting complaints. I still don't know why that happened, but I do know I learned how to think from reading sf/f. All I got out of school was what to think about, and something to think with. Fiction taught me how to think.

Now I've got two children who are college graduates in different fields. As far as I know, even to this day there is no academic course in how to think. And I have discovered that the most socially unacceptable activity of all time is to think about emotion. Only psychiatrists are allowed to do that.

Since I've done that all my life, and I've always considered it the most virtuous of all my activities, I suspect now that my teachers were complaining about that habit. In classroom discussions, I would respond to "Are there any questions?" with "Yes. How do you know that's true?" People who only know what they've been taught and subsequently know it's true because they feel it's true, tend to respond to that perfectly virtuous question with blind fury. Since it's unacceptable for a grammar school teacher to display blind fury before a class, they tell the parents of this intractable child that the child has a bad attitude.

Not all grammar school teachers are like that. I had a few really good ones. They were the ones the whole student body hated with a vengeance. They gave homework. And they knew the answers to my questions and respected my opinion. (This did not make me popular with my contemporaries.)

Three of these exemplary teachers were fiction readers. When the class merited a reward, they'd read adult novels, one chapter at a time, to the class and explain. One read poetry — very well, too.

The other habit that drives grammar school teachers nuts is for a student to read ahead in the text and to read outside (non-approved) sources. My seventh grade science teacher gave extra credit for doing that.

From all this I conclude there are two kinds of people in this world: those who think for themselves, and those who only know what they've been taught. Students of the occult dare not allow themselves to slump into the latter posture.

As I discussed several columns ago, when one first ventures into occult studies, one inevitably becomes vulnerable to gurus and cult leaders who are selling quick, easy ways to join the elite and gain power, do good for all humanity, and unload karma. The most dangerous cults gain control of your thinking by getting a judo-hold on your emotions. They gain control of your attitude.

The one kind of attitude they can't accept is the heroic attitude, the attitude of personal responsibility that can be attained only by someone who thinks for him/herself. Reading sf/f in the manner I have been demonstrating in this column, as an active consumer of the artform, can help you learn to spot the heroic attitude and even adopt it as part of your magical image. But first you have to build it in your imagination. Most of the novels recommended in this column contribute to that effort. Here are a few more to think about.

Possibly the most important attitude is "Don't judge a book by its cover."

Take, for example, the jacket copy for Dagger Magic by Katherine Kurtz and Deborah Turner Harris. "Only an Adept can prevent this evil from taking root. Only he can prevent the spawning of a new demonic Third Reich. And only he can prevent the deadly daggers of the phurba from piercing his own brave heart...."

This is the "pitch" that typically sells heroic fiction with a young adult slant. This book is far from young adult, and the "Only he can..." nonsense does an incredible disservice to Katherine Kurtz's adept hero.

The earlier books in the Adept series, The Adept, The Lodge of the Lynx, and The Templar Treasure, have all been recommended in this column. This new one is very similar.

The authentic contemporary Scottish countryside and cultural background is a big feature of these novels, using up a good deal of the space. The book tells you right up front that it's more about Scotland than about the people by starting with a weather forecast, not a relationship.

But for me, the important part of this series is the attitudes that the members of the magickal society called The Hunting Lodge (that enforces law and order among Practitioners) cultivate. It is the exact opposite of what the jacket copy suggests: "I am the only one who can do this heroic task, so I must throw myself into the breach." Or even, "It's all up to me now. But can I really do it?"

Rather, these folks have voluntarily taken on a grave (and sometimes dangerous) responsibility. There are many, many others who could do it. The attitude is not "I am the only one" but "This is the only job for me. This is what I'm for in this world." They accept the responsibility knowing they're not the only ones who can do it, and that there are others who can (and have) done it better. That's an adult attitude toward vocation, not a juvenile attitude toward proving yourself.

This novel actually belongs in last month's discussion about magickal tools and tool users. Katherine gives us a perfect example of how a writer uses this technique and still manages to portray a legitimate example of a magickal tool and the reciprocal, two-way bond between tool and user.

This novel advances the personal stories of these folk by marrying off one of the members of the Hunting Lodge — I won't say who. Read it. It's good stuff.

Next we come to Tanya Huff, a writer whose vampire novels, Blood Price, Blood Trail, Blood Lines and Blood Pact, I've raved about in this column. Here are four fantasy novels totally unrelated to vampires. Sing the Four Quarters is set in a complex fantasy universe with a neatly conceived set of rules for magic and magical talent and its application to such problems as weather control. The story flows nicely along, and most of the trouble the protagonist gets into is the result of her attitude toward her magic, its use, and what it makes her in this world.

Child of the Grove and its sequel is something different. It's set in a universe where the long-lived magical beings are giving way to the shorter-lived mortals. It's about love, eternal and otherwise, and how it affects macro-economics and international politics in that world. This isn't one of my favorite kinds of story, nor is the writing in the lucid style I most cherish, but I include it here because we've been discussing the writer's craft and all the little tricks writers use to seduce readers into a story.

By comparing the starkly disciplined, sparely worded style of Huff's police procedural vampire novels with this wide-open, sprawling fantasy of kingship and love between mortal and near-immortal, you can see clearly how these tricks change from genre to genre and how they also stay the same. Huff is worth studying as a writer and commercial artist, as well as for what she has to say about attitude and self-esteem.

Speaking of self-esteem, Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light, deals with a sensitive and crucially important aspect of magick — innocence. The close reader could almost extract a serious working definition of this most difficult, abstract concept from this novel. The main protagonist is a "simple" girl named Rebecca, whose mental powers aren't up to dealing with some of life's everyday challenges but who can see the magical beings who inhabit modern day Toronto alongside mankind.

This one, too, belongs in last month's column regarding the loss and retrieval of magickal tools. Here again, as last month, we have a being from another dimension who slips through to defend us from the forces of Darkness. And we have fantasy's famous "rag tag band of mismatched heros" — a number of Toronto's unemployed streetpeople and/or underemployed and overworked who band together and rise to the occasion.

This qualifies in my mind as a typical "urban fantasy" — suggested by the somewhat misleading cover which depicts a unicorn being run over by a police car. Actually, that's one flash-scene, less than a paragraph in the book, and doesn't even happen to a main character. Again, don't judge a book by its cover. This is not a juvenile, and it's about heroes with an attitude you might do well to emulate.

Speaking of attitude, what would your attitude be if you had built a successful business empire, and then watched it entirely blasted to rubble leaving you with not even the insurance money to start over again? What would your attitude be if you'd been hired to do the blasting-to-rubble, only to discover your employers were less than honorable?

S. Andrew Swann tackles both of those in this nicely turned dual-viewpoint novel, Profiteer. Like his other novels which I've recommended in this column, this one is filled with running, hiding, shooting, attacking, stealth and strategy — with ignominious defeat and heroic rejoinders and the excruciating cleverness of a Gordon R. Dickson hero whose cleverness avails him nothing. In between the rousing action Swann stuffs little snippets of relationship that almost satisfy. I think this series may have a future.

For stark contrast, take The Night Inside by Nancy Baker. This is another example of a book you can't judge by the cover. I read a library copy that had horror stamped on the spine, but it's not. It is definitely not horror. Nor is it a thriller, by genre (though it's thrilling). It's got some pretty ugly scenes. It's got pure triple-x rated scenes (one of the villains is a porno-movie maker who gets into snuff films using a captive vampire).

But that's not what the novel is about. It's almost as if (and I don't know this for a fact because I don't know Baker at all) these ugly scenes were tacked on by editorial decree so they could market it "as" something that might sell a lot. You lose nothing by skipping those scenes.

The book was originally published in Canada, and part of one chapter was previously published as a short story. And that's the scene where the mortal woman voluntarily feeds the vampire — for strategic reasons. If that was the origin of the idea for this novel, then it seems obvious to me that the ugly scenes were tacked on to make the thing fit a hot selling genre.

But the real core of the matter is the awkward and difficult romance between two people who meet when kidnappers try to force one person to eat the other. That's a very bad way to start a romance.

What would be your attitude if you were thrown into a dungeon and forced to stick your arm into a vampire's cage when he was glowing-eyed ravenous? She knows that if the vampire doesn't kill her, her kidnappers will. So what does she do? She changes her whole attitude, and that allows her to come up with a perfect escape plan. She gets him to make her into a vampire, then when they bury her body in the woods (the vampire influences the human lackey to omit the staking this time), she rises and breaks the vampire out of the dungeon. That's the middle of the book, and from there the plot thickens. The ending is satisfying to romance and sf readers.

Honorable mention this month goes to an anthology of short stories. I mostly avoid reading short stories, and rarely review anthologies. However, this one is about vampire detectives and contains stories by some of my favorite vampire writers, most notably Tanya Huff and P. N. Elrod. They each give us another snippet from the lives of the characters their novels have made our friends. My only complaint with either of these stories is that they're short, but then that's in the nature of short stories, isn't it? Maybe I do have an attitude problem — greed. I like long novels and neverending stories.

Send books for review in this column to: Jacqueline Lichtenberg, POB 290, Monsey, N.Y. 10952.



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