JANUARY SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY RELEASES

Reviewed by Michael Berry

In their recent science fiction and fantasy releases, six authors send their characters to a wide variety of locales, from ancient worlds to parallel universes, from old hometowns to distant planets.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman's "A Red Heart of Memories" (Ace; 330 pages; $21.95) is her first full-length novel about Matilda "Matt" Black, the protagonist of two World Fantasy Award-nominated stories. Matt can "talk" with inanimate objects, everything from sidewalks to chairs to cars. Her talent and her history of abuse at the hands of her father set her apart from the bulk of society, but her generous spirit makes her secretly yearn for meaningful contact.

At the start of this novel, she meets Edmund Reynolds, a witch who has been aimlessly traveling the country for years, helping others but refusing to deal with an unresolved trauma from his boyhood. At Matt's urging, Edmund takes her back to his hometown and to the haunted house where he and three friends encountered the ghost of a young child. After reuniting with his sister and discovering the legacy of magical powers he unwittingly bestowed upon her, Edmund must then seek out the first of his three missing friends and try to put right what went wrong years ago.

Hoffman, the author of "The Thread That Binds the Bone," is an expert at creating battered, yet resilient, characters who confront the world with odd powers and off-beat perspectives. Her empathy for the underdog is deeply felt, without ever stooping to sticky sentimentality, and her latest book displays her narrative strengths to full advantage.

Best known for his mind-bending hard science fiction, Stephen Baxter, author of "Moonseed" and "The Time Ships," tries his hand at hard-edged talking animal fantasy with "Silverhair" (HarperPrism; 214 pages; $24). The articulate animals in question, however, aren't bunnies, cats or dogs, but the last surviving woolly mammoths.

A young female close to breeding age, Silverhair lives with her family on a tundra-covered island. One day, she encounters the mysterious, bi-pedal creatures known as the Lost, who carry "thundersticks" and wear strange skins. From that point on, everyone Silverhair loves is in mortal jeopardy, from her mate Lop-Ear to Sunfire, her sister's new-born calf.

Even as his mammoths converse, use tools and relate their elaborate creation myths, Baxter takes great pains to give the story as much scientific plausibility as possible, delivering a detailed account of arctic life in general and mammoth behavior in particular. He also makes the reader care deeply about his elephantine characters as they face near-impossible odds "Silverhair" is an exceedingly dark tale for much of its length, but the volume concludes with a twist that literally rockets the narrative into a new realm of possibilities.

Having moved more towards the mainstream with his recent books, Jonathan Carroll returns to unequivocal fantasy with "The Marriage of Sticks" (Tor; 270 pages; $23.95).

When Miranda Romanac, a successful but lonely rare book dealer in her mid-thirties, attends her high school reunion, she learns of the death of her first true love. The news knocks her for a loop, but soon after she finds happiness with an older man, Hugh Oakley.

Hugh happens to be married, but he and Miranda forge a rich, deeply committed relationship. But when Hugh is abruptly taken away from her, Miranda finds herself literally haunted by the choices she has made in her life.

The author of "The Bones of the Moon" and "Kissing the Beehive," Carroll excels finding the menace in the most mundane aspects of life. "The Marriage of Sticks" blends richly drawn characters with a disturbing system of metaphysics. It is his strongest book since 1993's marvelous "After Silence."

In "Bios" (Tor; 208 pages; $22.95), Robert Charles Wilson presents a remarkable setting, a planet virulently toxic to all Earth life, and chronicles the exploits of the one woman potentially capable of taming it.

Humankind has settled the solar system but never found another sentient life form in all that space. With its rich, parallel biology, the relatively nearby planet Isis represents the last good shot at achieving that goal.

Raised in an orphanage with her clonal sisters and genetically engineered to withstand the harshest environment imaginable, Zoe Fisher is a pawn in a game devised by politcal factions back on Earth. As her colleagues meet disaster and tragedy, Zoe prepares to step out and explore Isis on foot. She is unaware of the secrets she carries within her own body, ones which will might ultimately allow her to solve some of the essential riddles of existence itself.

Like Wilson's last book, "Darwinia," "Bios" starts out seeming to be one kind of story and winds up being another, moving from a straight-forward adventure to a more interior meditation on transcendence. Wilson handles both aspects of the tale with equal skill. It doesn't achieve the kinds of breakthroughs that its predecessor accomplished, but "Bios" is a solid, enjoyable novel nevertheless.

With "The Silk Code" (Tor; 320 pages; $23.95), Paul Levinson attempts that dangerous cross-genre hybrid, the science fiction police procedural.

After a friend dies from a sudden allergic reaction, NYPD forensic detective Phil D'Amato begins an investigation that involves a sect of Amish terrorists who dispatch their enemies with deadly crenshaw melons and incendiary lightning bugs. From there, the trail leads to a set of mysterious Neanderthal mummies popping up in New York, London and Toronto and a recipe for near-immortality. Though the scenario may sound like an abandoned Monty Python sketch, Levinson invests it with sufficient scientific detail to render it plausible enough for the requisite suspension of disbelief.

"The Silk Code" is clearly a fix-up novel, betraying its origins as a series of shorter works. Stitched together, the narrative sometimes takes abrupt and jarring turns, jumping from modern-day Amish country to Africa circa 750 A.D. and back to contemporary Manhattan. Phil D'Amato is an appealingly savvy character and Levinson brings a great deal of invention to the endeavor, but the overly convoluted plot wobbles out of control by the end. This extremely off-beat thriller is probably more a harbinger of better things to come than a full-fledged success in itself.

The author of such classic novels as "Behold the Man"" and "A Cure for Cancer" turns his hand to comics with "Michael Moorcock's Multiverse" (DC Comics/Vertigo; 286 pages; $19.95). Illustrated by Walter Simonson, Mark Reeve and John Ridgeway, Moorcock's graphic novel manages to be more than the sum of its original, serialized parts.

For much of his career, Moorcock has been chronicling the adventures of the so-called Eternal Champion, a hero who appears in infinite incarnations across multiple planes of reality. "Multiverse" weaves three very disparate strands about the Eternal Champion into a single narrative.

With trippy artwork by Simonson, "Moonbeams and Roses" follows a mysterious woman named Rose as she navigates the reality streams in search of an entity known as "the Silverskin." "The Metatemporal Detective" recounts the adventures of Sir Seaton Begg, who investigates mysteries in both the early days of the Third Reich and modern-day Scotland. "Duke Elric" features perhaps Moorcock's most famous creation, the haunted albino swordsman, Elric of Melnibone' .

As a monthly comic, the whacked-out saga of "Michael Moorcock's Multiverse" was impossible to follow. With its sequences reordered and collected into a single volume, though, the tale may not make perfect sense, but it's at least fairly comprehensible, slyly amusing and often highly enjoyable.

(c) 2000 by Michael Berry


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