After a long silence (Portraits of his Children, stories, 1987), the author of the cult The Armageddon Rag (1983) returns with the first of a fantasy series entitled, insipidly enough, A Song of Ice and Fire. In the Seven Kingdoms, where the unpredictable seasons may last decades, three powerful families allied themselves in order to smash the ruling Targaryens and depose their Mad King, Aerys II. Robert Baratheon claimed the throne and took to wife Tywin Lannister's daughter, Cersei; Ned Stark returned north to gloomy Winterfell with its massive, ancient Wall farther to the north that keeps wildings and unspeakable creatures from invading. Some years later, Robert, now drunk and grossly fat, asks Ned to come south and help him govern; reluctantly, since he mistrusts the treacherous Lannisters, Ned complies. Honorable Ned soon finds himself caught up in a whirl of plots, espionage, whispers, and double-dealing and learns to his horror that the royal heir, Joffrey, isn't Robert's son at all but, rather, the product of an incestuous union between the Queen and her brother Jaime - who murdered the Mad King and earned the infamous nickname Kingslayer. Ned attempts to bargain with Cersei and steels himself to tell Robert - but too late. Swiftly the Lannisters murder the King, consign Ned to a dungeon, and prepare to seize the throne, opposed only by the remaining Starks and Baratheons. On the mainland, meanwhile, the brutal and stupid Viserys Targaryen sells his sister Dany to a barbarian horse-warrior in return for a promise of armies to help him reconquer the Seven Kingdoms. A vast, rich saga, with splendid characters and an intricate plot flawlessly articulated against a backdrop of real depth and texture. Still, after 672 dense pages, were you expecting a satisfying resolution? You won't get it: Be prepared for a lengthy series with an indefinitely deferred conclusion.
Haas (The Silver Bear, 2008, etc.) brings his cold, canny professional hit man back in this cold, canny thriller.
The author opens with his lethally efficient Columbus, aka the Silver Bear, secluded in an Italian seaside village, hoping to retire from his lucrative work as a hired killer. Risina, his lover, who knows how to cook as well as kill, has “shown him what life could be without a Glock.” Of course, in the thriller genre, a killer's retirement means that another bloody junket awaits. And indeed, on a visit to a nearby city, Columbus confronts a man who had been following him. The man, Smoke, hands Columbus a note: “Bring Columbus home,” it demands. “Or you’ll get Grant back in a way you won’t like.” This threat against Grant, the Bear's boss, sends Columbus into a maze of fast kills and treachery. At his side follows Risina, insisting she can learn to kill as ruthlessly and remorselessly as Columbus. Her subsequent trial by blood and terror largely defines her, an aspect some readers will find thin, if not objectionable, characterization. Following a trail that leads to Chicago, Kansas City and Connecticut—and to a man who uses skulls as bargaining chips—Columbus demonstrates his deadly touch, his asides to Risina and to himself constituting a primer on how to excel at the fast kill. He’s particularly masterful at ferreting out wedges that get people to worm on their associates. In one of the book’s more affecting passages, he strong-arms a woman to recall her life with a man she never suspected was a pro killer. When a falling scaffolding takes Smoke’s life, Columbus knows the collapse was not an accident. Connecting clues from the accident and from the woman’s narrative, he realizes he faces “dark men,” a particular kind of foe he’s not used to fighting.
Intricate and fascinating. Heartless Columbus offers cold comfort on dark nights.
Begun by King while at college in 1970; serialized episodically in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1978-1981; printed in limited-editon hardcover, 1982: this King novelty at last achieves mass publication. King fans will find little to celebrate, however, in the derivative portentousness of this first volume in a threatened 3000-page epic western set in a blighted future world. Warmed-over sauce from Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti-western films is splashed all over this doughy tale. There's the gunslinger of the title, tall, strong and silent, and his evil nemesis, "the man in black"; there's the gunslinger's quest to track down and slay that villain; and there are the dust-swept towns he rides through, the lost boy he adopts as a sidekick, and the saloon-keeping wench he beds. The spice in this tired sauce, however, is pure King—fantastic and grandiose. For, as King reveals bit by bit, often in flashbacks, the man in black is a sorceror, able even to raise the dead, and the gunslinger the last of an aristocratic caste, keepers of "the High Speech" and of the few guns left in this nearly machineless, presumably post-nuclear-holocaust world. Moreover, bizarre turns sprout here like weeds—spellbound by the man in black, an entire town turns on the gunslinger, believing him the Antichrist and forcing him to massacre all souls; farther down the road, a band of "Slow Mutants" (irradiated humans?) attacks—and, as is King's wont, the central character is so obsessed as to brook no opposition, eventually sacrificing the little's boy's life to stay on the heels of his quarry. What's all this futuristic neo-Wagnerian posturing about? Something to do with a debt of honor, of course, vengeance for the death of the gunslinger's father and the dishonoring of his mother; and something to do with Tarot-wrapped pseudo-mystical prattle wherein beyond the gunslinger's yearning for the man in black lies his lust for "the Dark Tower"—where, as King concludes, the gunslinger "would some day come at dusk and approach, winding his horn, to do some unimaginable final battle." Heavy, real heavy—as sales undoubtedly will be too.
Historical fantasy set in 1693 at the court of Sun King Louis XIV of France, from the author of Superluminal (1983), etc. In an age when the king's slightest whim has the force of an absolute command and the underclasses stand at the palace gates pleading for bread, Louis orders the natural philosopher and Jesuit priest Yves de la Croix to capture certain sea monsters that, he hopes, will yield the secret of immortality. Yves returns with a male corpse and a live female: She's of human aspect except for her green hair, webbed fingers and toes, and twin tails in place of legs. As the king observes closely, Yves dissects the dead male, seeking the organ of immortality. Yves's sister Marie-Josäphe, convent-raised and nun-educated, sketches the procedure and attempts to train the captive female in her pool. Marie-Josäphe, whose many flourishing talents bring her into conflict with the Pope and with Louis's courtiers, comes to understand the sea woman's eerily beautiful singing language; meantime, she also falls in love with soldier, Arab expert, king's advisor, and atheist Count Lucien the dwarf. Typically, however, despite Marie-Josäphe's pleas, Louis rejects the sea woman's intelligence and humanity, and agrees to free her only after she has paid an enormous ransom; while for defying the king, Marie-Josäphe and Lucien face exile and impoverishment. A dazzling and spirited evocation of the passions, intrigues, and preconceptions of the age, along with a dandy pair of misfit, star-crossed lovers: an enchanting slice of what-if historical speculation.
An ex-convict is the wandering knight-errant who traverses the wasteland of Middle America, in this ambitious, gloriously funny, and oddly heartwarming latest from the popular fantasist (Stardust, 1999, etc.).
Released from prison after serving a three-year term, Shadow is immediately rocked by the news that his beloved wife Laura has been killed in an automobile accident. While en route to Indiana for her funeral, Shadow meets an eccentric businessman who calls himself Wednesday (a dead giveaway if you’re up to speed on your Norse mythology), and passively accepts the latter’s offer of an imprecisely defined job. The story skillfully glides onto and off the plane of reality, as a series of mysterious encounters suggest to Shadow that he may not be in Indiana anymore—or indeed anywhere on Earth he recognizes. In dreams, he’s visited by a grotesque figure with the head of a buffalo and the voice of a prophet—as well as by Laura’s rather alarmingly corporeal ghost. Gaiman layers in a horde of other stories whose relationships to Shadow’s adventures are only gradually made clear, while putting his sturdy protagonist through a succession of tests that echo those of Arthurian hero Sir Gawain bound by honor to surrender his life to the malevolent Green Knight, Orpheus braving the terrors of Hades to find and rescue the woman he loves, and numerous other archetypal figures out of folklore and legend. Only an ogre would reveal much more about this big novel’s agreeably intricate plot. Suffice it to say that this is the book that answers the question: When people emigrate to America, what happens to the gods they leave behind?
A magical mystery tour through the mythologies of all cultures, a unique and moving love story—and another winner for the phenomenally gifted, consummately reader-friendly Gaiman.
A journalist’s gripping account of a modern fundamentalist Christian pioneer family and the dark secrets that held it together.
Robert “Papa Pilgrim” Hale, his wife and 15 children came to the remote little town of McCarthy, Alaska, convinced that it was God’s will they settle there. Claiming that he and his family wanted nothing more than “to live our old-time way and be left in peace,” Pilgrim bought privately owned acreage that happened to be surrounded by lands managed by the National Park Service. McCarthy residents fell in love with the idealistic, God-fearing family members and marveled at how they “could light up any space” with their idiosyncratic brand of American roots music. But when Papa Pilgrim decided to clear a road that ran on public land to the property he christened Hillbilly Heaven, residents became enmeshed in a bitter battle that ensued between their neighbors and the Park Service. On assignment from his newspaper, Kizzia (The Wake of the Unseen Object: Travels Through Alaska’s Native Landscapes, 1998) successfully solicited the media-wary Pilgrim for an interview. What he learned—that Pilgrim was the son of a rich Texas family with links to the FBI—was only a small part of the whole story, which came out only after Pilgrim’s eldest children ran away from home. The real Papa Pilgrim was a deluded megalomaniac who physically and emotionally brutalized his wife and children. He was also a sexual deviant who coerced his eldest daughter, Elishaba, “to keep his flesh working” so that he could bring forth the 21 children he believed God wanted him to have with Elishaba’s mother. The horror at the heart of this story about religious extremism on the fringes of the last American frontier is slow to reveal itself, but when that horror fully emerges, it will swallow most readers.
Critically acclaimed in Britain, Scottish writer Fagan’s U.S. debut limns life in a last-resort residence for teen outcasts.
Like everyone else in the Panopticon, 15-year-old Anais Hendricks has been in and out of foster care practically since birth. “[B]orn in a nuthouse to nobody that was ever seen again,” she had her only successful foster placement with a prostitute later stabbed to death (Anais found the body). She’s been sent to this facility, where the inmates are under constant surveillance, because she had a bad history with a policewoman who has been bludgeoned into a coma, and Anais—almost permanently whacked on whatever drug she can lay her hands on—can’t explain why she has blood on her skirt. If the police can prove she did it, she’ll be locked up full-time until she’s 18; meanwhile, she enjoys the relative freedom of the Panopticon and forms intense bonds with other residents. Isla, whose self-cutting has worsened since she learned that she passed HIV to her twins, has a history grimly typical of the kids dumped here by an indifferent society. Anais, as her sympathetic support worker Angus notices, is stronger, smarter and more resilient than her hapless peers. Readers discern Anais’ difference from her first-person narration, a tart rendering in savory Scottish dialect of her bitter perceptions of the world that has no use for her, embodied in what she calls “the experiment,” a mysterious group to which she ascribes vaguely supernatural powers. It’s probably a delusion (remember all those drugs), but we’re never quite sure; an almost unrelievedly grim parade of events reinforces Anais’s perception that some sinister force is arrayed against her and her friends. The tentative happy ending snatched from near-certain disaster might seem like wish fulfillment if Fagan had not painted her battered characters’ fierce loyalty to each other with such conviction and surprising tenderness.
Dark and disturbing but also exciting and moving thanks to a memorable heroine and vividly atmospheric prose.
She has to be; she’s representing her District, number 12, in the 74th Hunger Games in the Capitol, the heart of Panem, a new land that rose from the ruins of a post-apocalyptic North America. To punish citizens for an early rebellion, the rulers require each district to provide one girl and one boy, 24 in all, to fight like gladiators in a futuristic arena. The event is broadcast like reality TV, and the winner returns with wealth for his or her district. With clear inspiration from Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and the Greek tale of Theseus, Collins has created a brilliantly imagined dystopia, where the Capitol is rich and the rest of the country is kept in abject poverty, where the poor battle to the death for the amusement of the rich. However, poor copyediting in the first printing will distract careful readers—a crying shame. [Note: Errors have been corrected in subsequent printings, so we are now pleased to apply the Kirkus star.]
Impressive world-building, breathtaking action and clear philosophical concerns make this volume, the beginning of a planned trilogy, as good as The Giver and more exciting.
(Science fiction. 11 & up)
A stoical Appalachian girl strives to rescue her family from her father’s criminal legacy in Woodrell’s bleak, mean, gripping eighth novel.
In Missouri’s Rathlin Valley near the Arkansas border, “crank” cooker and dealer Jessup Dolly has jumped bail, leaving his 16-year-old daughter Ree to look after her younger brothers and their helpless Mom, once a spirited beauty, now a passive recluse sunk in the dreamy recesses of her “broken” mind. If Jessup doesn’t return for trial, his family will be evicted, their land sold for timber, and they’ll find shelter only among the hillside caves where generations of itinerant ancestors weathered their passage to settlement, led by their hardbitten patriarch Haslam. An Old Testament harshness and spareness indeed shadow this grim tale, as Ree seeks her father, dead or alive, aided by her childhood friend (and sometime lover), unhappily married Gail Langan. It’s an odyssey rich with echoes of Inman’s journey in Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, the homicidal poetry of Cormac McCarthy’s tense narratives (with random bits and snatches of Elmore Leonard and Harry Crews), as Ree doggedly perseveres, querying her sullen and inscrutable Uncle Teardrop, her wrathful kinsman Thump Milton and his menacing passel of gun-toting cronies and combative womenfolk—considering the increasingly likely possibility that Jessup had “turned snitch” and met his fate at the hands of his former accomplices. The truth both endangers Ree’s life and sets her free, in a coiled-spring narrative whose precisely honed prose vibrates with arresting descriptive phrases (“Houses above look caught on the scraggly hillsides like combs in a beard and apt to fall as suddenly”) and unsparing doom-laden pronouncements (“Either he stole or he told. Those are the things they kill you for”). And the unforgettable Ree is a heroine like no other.
Every bit as good as Woodrell’s icy The Death of Sweet Mister (2001)—in other words, about as good as it gets.
An action-packed, admiring portrait of the James-Younger gang that robbed people, banks and trains for a decade before retiring, dying or stewing in prison.
Western historian Gardner (To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West, 2010) has done impressive research in the Old West’s abundant but relentlessly unreliable sources (lurid newspaper articles, jailhouse interviews, self-serving memoirs by elderly gang members) to deliver a colorful portrait of men who do not deserve his admiration. Jesse James (1847–1882), Frank James (1843–1915) and the Younger brothers grew up in the Midwest. Confederate sympathizers, most participated as “bushwackers” in the nasty partisan insurgency that wracked Missouri during the Civil War. Inured to violence, they later coalesced into a criminal band that traveled widely and became national news. Gardner summarizes their lives and early depredations before settling in to describe their last, spectacularly bungled 1876 robbery of a Northfield, Minn., bank. The clerk refused to open the safe. By the time the gang lost patience and killed him, the citizenry had gathered whatever weapons they could find, killed two gang members and wounded the rest before the robbers fled. There followed a massive, disorganized manhunt from which only Jesse and Frank escaped. Jesse later recruited another gang and committed several robberies before one member killed him for the reward.
Written in the breathless prose that seems obligatory for this genre and with more sympathy to the subjects than seems necessary, the book is still a gripping read and probably tells all there is to tell about a legendary group of psychopaths.