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What I Meant to Write

Resolute Crescent Blues reviewer prepares for onslaught of 2003 review books
New Year's resolutions generally strike me as the product of the morning after the night before. Boring. Predictable. Safe. No one ever makes a New Year's resolution to go bungee jumping off the Eiffel Tower or skinny dipping in Greenland, for example. No, they always talk about what they want to give up (usually the hair of the dog that bit them, but just after today…) or some extended, overly complicated self-improvement program they can't begin to describe, much less finish.

I don't care much for self-denial myself. Like Mae West, I never suffer from temptation; I always give in. I accept most of my imperfections. Those I don't seem to respond best to case-by-case management anyway. So I gave up making resolutions a long time ago -- all except one.

Every year I promise myself I will review more books. Although you'd never know from my review contributions to Crescent Blues, I read around two books a week. I just don't get around to writing about them.

Book: mark e rogers, jaguli and lilitu
Fobbing off less than wonderful books doesn't bother me much. The more writing and editing I do, the less compelled I feel to correct other people's mistakes. The pros know when they stumble and, usually, how to avoid making the same error twice. Bad writers don't want your honest opinion, and not only will they tell you so, they will blackmail their friends, fourth cousins and former grammar school teachers into telling you, as well. Fledgling writers might actually profit from advice, but constructive criticism is a moving target. The wrong word can make even the most well-intentioned suggestion sound like damning with faint praise.

As for the great or nearly great books out there, mega-selling favorites like Nora Roberts and Janet Evanovich don't need my extra dollop of praise. Word of mouth sustains their sales quite nicely, thank you. But who plays advocate for the new writer or the mid-list staple striking off in a new direction? What about writers working for the smaller presses -- or those working for publishers who don't invest enough in their promotion?

My conscience tells me I ought to do the job. At the 1999 World Fantasy Convention for example, I promised writer/artist Mark E. Rogers (and myself) a review of his Zancharthus series. This series of illustrated novels, Rogers's third, recounts the lusty, lurid adventures of the warrior priest Mancdaman Zancharthus and the most politic Jagutai, bastard son of the Khan of the Urguz.

Book: mark e rogers, blood and pearls
The first installment, Blood + Pearls, describes how the two unlikely allies team up to foil an evil archimage's plans to desiccate Khymir, the most corrupt city in the world, which just incidentally happens to be Zancharthus's hometown. In Jagutai and Lilitu, Zancharthus finds restoring Khymir to a semblance of normality -- not to mention fiscal solvency -- a lot bigger job than he can handle on his own. The bad god Tchernobog and the new head prostitute of the Temple of Tsa Terrathu want Zancharthus gone, and they're not above possessing a herd of barnyard animals to do it, either.

The jacket copy says possessed harem piggies aren't as funny as they sound. Don't believe it. They're a scream in more ways than one. In fact, the entire series evokes screams, especially among members of Thought Police. Rogers writes the kind of books every 14-year-old boy desperately wants to read. Imagine a 21st century Robert E. Howard who applies the lessons of Machiavelli to the manly art of demon hunting and possesses the artistic skill to depict all the erotic possibilities of a sponge, a statue and a flight of stairs in graphic detail.

Redeeming social value? Faggeddaboudit. But I love it. Let me put it this way: my husband will never look at a rope of pearls the same way ever again. And you take that evil grin of mine any way you want it.

Book: p n elrod, cold streets
At the other end of the fantasy spectrum, P.N. Elrod crafts novels that ask tough questions about the nature of evil and the ethics of power. But as long as you don't tell anyone, they might not notice. Elrod cloaks her meditations on life's great 2 o'clock in the morning questions in some of the snappiest mysteries around -- mysteries that just happen to feature one of the most well-realized vampire characters in current fiction.

In Cold Streets, Elrod's latest Jack Fleming novel, the undead proprietor of 1938 Chicago's hottest night club rescues a kidnapped child and saves the life of a friend, only to learn that no good deed goes unpunished. Playing hero exposes Jack to the machinations of two very different human monsters. Saving the innocent and the honorable may be second nature to Jack, but for a vampire,survival always comes first. How does a man survive the things he must do to stay alive? What turns a human into a monster, and what keeps a monster human?

As always, Elrod's questions spin around a core of vivid characters, rapid-fire dialogue and an incredible command of the mores and manners of Al Capone's Chicago. The pacing never flags, and the plotting never disappoints.

Book: susan sizemore, deceptions
Susan Sizemore also uses the undead to raise issues of power, particularly in Deceptions, the fourth in her Laws of the Blood series, which moves the scene of her vampire action to today's primo power town, Washington, D.C.

Although not a native, Sizemore's vision of D.C. -- from the ersatz funk of Georgetown to the vaguely dotty grandeur of the National Cathedral to the innards of some of my hometown's more unusual think tanks -- accurately captures the spirit of "Dementia Central." Even her made-up details ring true. Then, on this happy hunting ground of status seekers and demagogues, Sizemore unleashes the ultimate alpha bitch: Olympias, former queen of Macedon and mother to Alexander the Great, now the Enforcer of vampire law in the National Capital Region.

Each book in the Laws of the Blood series focuses on a different set of protagonists. This preserves the stand-alone quality of the stories, and affords Sizemore, a first-rate romance writer in her "other life," the opportunity to create a new and entertaining romance for each volume. Unfortunately for Olympias, the best candidate for helpmeet appears to be the man most likely to be elected lunchmeat by the local vampire nests. Meanwhile, in deepest, darkest Alexandria, Va. (and not by chance, you can be sure) a man who might be the reborn Philip of Macedon plots to usurp Olympias' power and settle the score between them once and for all.

Book: lynn kurland, tapestry
2002 also marked the year I discovered of a pair of marvelous new (to me) writers, romance writer Lynn Kurland and fantasy writer Patricia Briggs, the subjects of this month's lead interviews. I read Kurland's "To Kiss in the Shadows" in the anthology Tapestry, and my jaw dropped in awe. Like most romance readers, I plodded through my share of "maimed heroine" Cinderella stories. But I never before read one equal to the task of transforming a smallpox survivor into a believable heroine without resorting to cheap tricks or transparent plot devices. Kurland tells the story of Lianna of Grasleigh -- and the stories of all her sometimes unlikely heroes and heroines -- with grace and humor. No matter how peculiar the circumstances, she never makes the kind of historical or logical misstep that could shatter the reader's sense of disbelief.

Book: patricia briggs, dragon bones
I stumbled onto Briggs's Dragon Bones and The Hob's Bargain while researching Illumina: The Art of Jean Pierre Targete. I just wish I found her sooner, before the prices for her out-of-print titles shot through the roof. Briggs never met a stereotype she couldn't turn upside down and inside out, and she possesses the all too rare ability to make you fall hopelessly in love with her characters, including the utterly, delightfully, inhuman ones.

Wardwick of Hurog, the very human hero of Dragon Bones and its sequel Dragon Blood, puts the hammerlock on your affections on the very first page of his story and never lets go, even after you finally persuade yourself not to reread both books three times in the same month. I still can't figure out how Briggs managed it. Briggs opens Dragon Bones with a simple, first person description of a young man climbing a hillside. A less capable writer would lose you right there. Instead the words transform themselves into the voice of a young Book: patricia briggs, the hobs bargain
man the world dismisses as stupid, his inborn magic crippled by the abusiveness of his father, who miraculously retains his wit, his honor and a heart bigger than the kingdom he calls home.

Not only that, despite the potential horrors of the back-story, not one page of either book rates as a downer. It's good stuff all the way. Even before Ward (no relation, alas) meets the family ghost and embarks on his odyssey to redeem his heritage, you find yourself carried away by the charm of the story and the way Briggs tells it. The slyly shifting realities of Ward's narrative and other characters' perceptions of the same events alone more than justify the cover price.

Mary Jo Putney certainly doesn't need another gushing review, but I can't let this chance to praise The Spiral Path escape. Putney rose to the top of the historical romance class with her engrossing tales of secret shame and intimate salvation. Her novels set on the fringes of 19th century society combine the exoticism of H. Rider Haggard, impeccable historicity and 21st century insight into epic romances that swallow the reader whole.

Book: mary jo putney, the spiral path
The Spiral Path, however, tells the contemporary story of an imploding Hollywood marriage revitalized by a grueling movie shoot only to be brought to the brink of disaster by a vengeful tabloid reporter. The plot summary reads like Ted Casablanca. The book reads like heaven, plunging you into the psyche of heroine Kenzie Scott and carrying you along with her as she struggles to save her movie and her man. In the process, Putney tackles mainstream issues of personal identity, professional security, sexual predation and revenge without losing the scope and grandeur of her historical romances. Putney makes you want to be her characters, who despite their flaws, weaknesses and psychological scars remain noble to the core.

Book: anne stuart, still lake
I don't know what more I could say about Anne Stuart's fabulous modern gothics. But dang, I'd really like to review Still Lake, if only to ask her in print whether she modeled Thomas Ingram Griffin on the tall, New England-born actor I think she used. But this round-up of the books I should've reviewed in 2002 already grows too long, and one more book needs to be added to the list.

The best non-fiction books boast the same richness of subject and language as their fictional counterparts. In The Shaman's Coat (a Native History of Siberia), journalist Anna Reid takes readers on a modern caravan ride across the largest country in the world. Traversing Siberia from west to east, she weaves a composition of shamans and Stone Age warriors, corrupt Cossacks and stultifying apparatchiks, as complex and rhythmic as a nomad rug.

Book: anna reid, the shamans coat
Reid introduces Western readers to the larger-than-life Yermak Timofeyevich, who parlayed an inherited talent for brigandage into command of the first major Russian expedition into the lands of Khan Kuchum of Sibur, the descendent of Genghiz Khan. Yermak and his successors sought the valuable pelts of Siberian sable (possibly the original version of Jason's Golden Fleece) instead of the yellow gold of El Dorado. But the outcome for the native peoples from Urals to the Bering Strait was the same as that of their American counterparts, compounded by feudalism, revolution, invasion and Stalin.

In the steppes, phantasmagoric cities like Kyakhta, the "sandy Venice" of the Buryat, rise and fall. The eccentric and often tragic histories of scholars and celebrities who bridge the Siberian/Russian divide contrast with stuffy celebrations of "national unity." As a reader, I can find only two flaws with Reid's tale. I want more pictures, particularly the historic photographs and antique illustrations cited in the text. And I want more, period -- more stories, more legends, more history.

Maybe next year.

Jean Marie Ward

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To read more of the year in books, click one of the following links:
Dawn Goldsmith: The Ghosts of Books Unreviewed
John Grant: Guilt-Trip Round-Up
Moira Richards: Beyond the Mainstream