Alternate worlds and retro futures, ancient evils and slapstick space adventures distinguish five recent science fiction and fantasy releases.
Don't be fooled by the fact that it is being marketed as a young-adult novel. Philip Pullman's "The Subtle Knife" (Knopf; 326 pages; $20), the sequel to the award-winning "The Golden Compass," is as rich and complex a fantasy novel as any fully adult reader could wish for.
Running from shadowy enemies and fearing that he has killed a man, young Will Parry stumbles into an alternate world where only children are safe from the Specters, wraith-like entities that steal all volition from their victims. There he meets Lyra Silvertongue, the young heroine who followed her renegade father, Lord Asriel, after he tore asunder the barrier between universes.
Together, the children must find the Subtle Knife, a blade capable of cutting any material, including the very fabric of reality. Arrayed against them in their quest are zombies, government agents and the deadly Mrs. Coulter, Lyra's own mother. Will, Lyra and their allies will be forced to make terrible sacrifices in preparation for the ultimate war, one against the very Creator of the all the various universes.
As the middle book of Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, "The Subtle Knife" necessarily lacks the novelty of its predecessor and leaves the plot dangling with an excruciating cliffhanger. But it nevertheless maintains the high standard set by "The Golden Compass," its plot continuing to be every bit as involving and moving, its prose as supple, its characterizations as deft. "His Dark Materials" has every sign of being a classic in the making, and "The Subtle Knife" will leave readers of all ages aching for the conclusion.
"Douglas Adams's Starship Titanic" (Harmony; 246 pages; $20) may look like a new book by the author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," but it actually is one of those semi-classifiable items spawned by marketing run amok. Mony Python's Flying Circus alumnus Terry Jones has taken a CD-ROM game devised by Adams and rendered it as a novel. Something definitely gets lost in the translation.
On the eve of the launch of "the ship that cannot possibly go wrong," its genius architect, Leovinus, discovers that more than a few corners have been cut by its builders. Nothing works as it should, and the entire project seems to be only an enormous insurance scam. Before he can raise the alarm, however, Leovinus is knocked unconscious. In the morning, the Titanic undergoes SMEF (Spontaneous Massive Existence Failure) and disappears, only to reappear on Earth.
It takes aboard three Earthlings -- Dan, Lucy and Nettie -- who quickly discover that interstellar travel isn't all it's cracked up to be. Aided by a deranged parrot and an alien reporter known only as The Journalist, they must find a way to pilot the Titanic back to its home port before it self-destructs.
Narrated in a relentlessly jokey fashion, "Starship Titanic" never soars to the heights of comic invention one expects from either Jones or Adams. Like many computer games, it contains no real characters and involves a lot of running around without accomplishing much. The novelties of multimedia might make "Starship Titanic" work as software, but as a novel, it is a frustrating and wearying experience.
Bay Area rock musician Greg Kihn follows up his award-winning first novel, "Horror Show," with a second occult thriller, "Shade of Pale" (Forge; 256 pages; $21.95).
When a male patient of Irish descent arrives at his office gibbering about the Banshee, a vengeful female spirit from the Old Country, Manhattan psychiatrist Jukes Wahler figures he's dealing with a paranoid schizophrenic. But after the man is killed in a spectacularly gruesome manner, Wahler has second thoughts, especially because it seems as if he himself is being followed by a pale, mysterious, red-haired woman.
Worse still, Wahler's sister is kidnapped by her psycho boyfriend, and Wahler's best chance of rescuing her lies with Padraic O'Connor, an Irish terrorist bent on destroying the Banshee before it kills the last of his kinsmen. When the three men meet for a final showdown, it may turn out that it is the women who have the last, deadly word.
"Shade of Pale" is a no-nonsense supernatural thriller, lean and low-key. Kihn presents his characters more as interesting types than as fully rounded individuals, but he provides enough color and action to keep the reader distracted from the sketchiness of some of the material. His novel doesn't pretend to be groundbreaking, but it succeeds at providing a satisfying portion of intelligent entertainment.
On the other hand, Susie Moloney's "A Dry Spell" (Delacorte Press; 388 pages; $23.95) strains to transcend its genre and falls short of the mark.
For four years, Goodlands, North Dakota, has gone without rain. Banker Karen Grange has watched helplessly as her friends and neighbors have succumbed to bankcruptcy and despair. As her own act of desperation, she embezzles funds and hires Tom Keatley, a mysterious drifter who claims to be able to pull rain from the sky.
Keatley is no charlatan. He does possess paranormal powers that allow him to manipulate the weather. But there's something lurking in Goodlands, something old and vengeful, that prevents him from doing the job. Unless he and Karen can vanquish it, they and Goodlands are doomed.
Moloney, author of "Bastion Falls," does a creditable job of depicting an isolated community on the verge of folding in one itself. What she can't quite do is reconcile the novel's horrific aspects with the romance brewing at the novel's center. Much of "A Dry Spell" feels predictable, and when the plot does take an unexpected turn, the entire narrative structure suddenly wobbles. "A Dry Spell" has its moments of genuine suspense, but they don't add up to a satisfying whole.
Written by Dean Motter and illustrated by Michael Lark, "Terminal City" (DC/Vertigo; 232 pages; $19.95) takes the reader on a tour of a metropolis both outlandish and familiar, a cityscape manifesting the past's dreams of what the future ought to look like.
Former human fly Cosmo Quinn is washing windows at the Herculean Arms when he sees a man with an attache case handcuffed to his wrist fall through the skylight. The stranger survives but turns out to be an amnesiac, with no idea why he's being chased. His predicament, however, affects a whole host of eccentric characters, including an accident-prone bellhop, a female apprentice window washer, an albino mob boss, a disgraced boxer and a trio of shaved apes.
Motter, author of "Mister X," and Larkin, illustrator of the new comics version of Raymond Chandler's "The Little Sister," have devised a singular setting for their neo-noir adventure. Terminal City is like the 1939 World's Fair gone to seed, a place where the hover cars, robot valets and monorails can't disguise the tawdry depravity of many of its inhabitants. Larkin's gorgeous visuals and Motter's slyly punning wit keep the enterprise from ever getting depressing, and "Terminal City" winds up as one of the years most off-beat, enjoyable and accessible graphic novels.
(c) 1997 by Michael Berry