AUGUST SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY RELEASES

Reviewed by Michael Berry

Ancient ruins and immortal entities figure prominently in four recent science fiction and fantasy releases.

Dan Simmons, author of "Carrion Comfort" and "Fires of Eden," concludes the saga begun in "Hyperion" with a fourth volume, "The Rise of Endymion" (Bantam Spectra; 480 pages; $23.95).

After a four-year respite, shepherd-turned-convicted-murderer Raul Endymion, his android friend A. Bettick and teenaged messiah Aenea embark on a new set of adventures. They are pursued from planet to planet by the Pax Fleet, the military wing of a Church that has become nearly all-powerful, thanks to a parasitic organism that bestows virtual immortality to all true believers. The Church and the collection of artificial intelligences known as the TechnoCore view Aenea as a monumental threat, literally a walking, talking virus capable of wiping out all traces of humanity throughout the universe.

What began in "Hyperion" as an audaciously clever science fictional gloss on "The Canterbury Tales," devolved into a drawn-out transgalactic chase in the third volume, "Endymion." Simmons is a gifted builder of futuristic worlds, and now "The Rise of Endymion" offers plenty of locales and situations rife with that longed-for "sense of wonder." This time, however, the helter-skelter narrative reaches a genuinely affecting and satisfying resoultion. Simmons delights in the complications he has piled atop the foundation laid in "Hyperion" and "The Fall of Hyperion," and readers who see this epic through to the end will not be disappointed by his efforts.

In "Neverwhere" (Avon; 352 pages; $24), Neil Gaiman's first solo novel, a young businessman named Richard Mayhew discovers the fantastical world that exists beneath the streets of London.

After he rescues a young girl named Door, found bleeding and lying on the sidewalk, Mayhew discovers that his own comfortable-but-dull life is unraveling. He becomes inexplicably invisible to the "normal" world and must eventually give up his job, fiancee and apartment, only to wander the sewer canals and abandoned subway stations that run beneath the city. There he finds vampires and angels, a gigantic, blood-thirsty boar and men who speak with rats.

Meanwhile, poor Door is being pursued by Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, a pair of otherworldly assassins. She and Mayhew eventually hook up again. With a strange assortment of compatriots, and they begin a perilous mission through the underground kingdom. Mayhew finds himself tested in ways he could never have imagined only a few days before.

Originally commissioned as a teleplay for the BBC, "Neverwhere" displays the kind of wit, mythological invention and attention to the odd detail that will be familiar to anyone who has read either Gaiman's groundbreaking comic series, "The Sandman," or "Good Omens," his apocalyptic satire co-written with Terry Pratchett. There's something predictable about the trajectory of Richard Mayhew's story, but Gaiman adds enough charming weirdness to make it seem more unconventional that it actually is. With "The Sandman" comics no longer available on a monthly basis, "Neverwhere" marks a welcome return by one of fantasy's most intriguing voices.

"My Soul to Keep" (HarperCollins; 348 pages; $24), the second novel by Miami Herald columnist by Tananarive Due, puts an African spin on the old theme of immortality.

David and Jessica Jacobs-Wolde seem to have a perfect marriage. He's a well-respected teacher and jazz critic, she's a journalist on a fast-track to a Pulitzer and they're the proud parents of Kira, a bright, beautiful kindergartener. What Jessica doesn't realize, however, is that David is a four-hundred-year-old Ethiopian immortal and that he has sworn to kill anyone who discovers his secret.

After Jessica's colleague and best friend is brutally murdered, her whole life begins to sour. When David falls from a tree and heals his serious wounds within a matter of hours, Jessie puts her whole family at stake as she begins to question her husband's inexplicable powers and convoluted personal history. Even worse, one of David's immortal brethren comes to town, intent upon returning David to Africa and tying up the dangerous loose ends that his wife and daughter represent.

Author of "The Between," Due avoids the sophomore slump that afflicts many new writers, producing a novel charged with taut suspense and strong emotion. African Americans are under-represented as a protagonists in horror fiction, and Due invests "My Soul to Keep" with a solid understanding of black cultural history. She makes David Wolde both ruthless and tormented, dramatizing his conflicted emotions without all the histrionic hand-wringing that afflicts, for example, Anne Rice's vampires. Due cheats a bit by chalking up some unlikely coincidences to the hand of fate, but all in all, "My Soul to Keep" makes for satisfying, hair-raising reading.

"The Encyclopedia of Fantasy," (St. Martin's; 1050 pages; $75), edited by John Clute and John Grant, contains an entry about immortality, as well more that 4,000 others. It covers everything from Aamodt, Donald to "Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain."

Like Clute and Peter Nichol's "The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction," this new volume is perfect for browsing, full of recommendations, idiosyncratic interpretations and stimulating asides. It's also a significant tool of scholarship, containing a new set of terms -- such as "wainscot," "polder," and "thinning" -- created especially to facilitate the discussion of fantastic literature. "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy" will be a standard reference for a long time to come.

(c) 1997 by Michael Berry


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