Part of the appeal of science fiction and fantasy lies in its ability to transport readers to exotic environments and times. Four new releases are set in worlds distinctive in the ways they differ from our own.
Master parodist Terry Pratchett spins another tale of the Discworld in "The Fifth Elephant" (HarperCollins; 322 pages; $24).
Police work and diplomacy are the main targets for satire in this installment. Commander Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork constabulary receives an unwelcome break from his duties when he is called upon to travel to neighboring Uberwald as an ambassador. The occasion is the coronation of the dwarfs' Low King, and there are numerous plots afoot to disrupt the ceremony. At stake are the region's rich veins of underground fat, said to have been deposited by the mysterious fifth elephant, the one that didn't join its four brothers in holding the world on their backs but which plummeted from the sky soon after the Discworld was created.
Used to dealing with simple street crime, Vimes is not in his element as an emissary. He must contend with scheming vampires, a feuding family of werewolves and the attempted theft of the dwarf's sacred relic, the Scone of Stone. Meanwhile, back in Ankh-Morpork, Vimes's second-in-command has resigned, his successor has proved to be both paranoid and incompetent, and chaos reigns.
Depending on what he chooses as his target, Pratchett's brand of scattershot humor can be either hilarious or tiresome. "The Fifth Elephant," however, finds him in good form, contriving a plot that manages to balance outlandish schtick with solid plotting.
Vimes is an appealingly level-headed character, and the bizarre action that swirls around him is all the more enjoyable thanks to his matter-of-factness. For those who have not yet discovered the giddy pleasures of Discworld, "The Fifth Elephant" is a fine entry point into the series.
First-novelist Jan Siegel begins an ambitious trilogy with "Prospero's Children" (Del Rey; 368 pages; $24). Like many fantasies, the novel features a young woman who discovers hidden powers within herself as she contends with ancient mysteries.
After their widowed father inherits a run-down farm in Yorkshire, sixteen-year-old Fern Capel and her younger brother William find themselves on a quest to locate a long-missing key, one capable of opening a doorway to another place and time. Assisting them are an old hermit known as Ragginbone and Lougarry, a wolf who may have once been human. Working against them are their father's creepy girlfriend, Alison Redmond, and a strange art dealer named Javier Holt.
It is Fern who summons untapped powers within herself to battle the villains. Her victory is anything but complete; Fern ends up in Atlantis in the days before it sank beneath the waves. There she must battle a sorceress crazy enough to let the entire universe come unraveled while she pursues her mastery over death itself.
Although Siegel has a tendency to overwrite, she does a fine job of creating likeable characters, setting the stage and generating suspense. The book weakens in its second half, though, when Fern goes to Atlantis. Siegel's depiction of ancient exotica doesn't have the solidity of her depiction of the modern-day world. All told, however, "Prospero's Children" is an intriguing debut from a distinctive new voice.
Set in on a timeline slightly different from our own, Brenda W. Clough's "Doors of Death and Life" (Tor; 268 pages; $23.95) is a direct sequel to her last book, "How Like a God." She returns to the adventures of Rob Lewis, an ordinary carpenter with an extraordinary talent, the ability to alter the minds of anyone around him.
Clough uses the legend of Gilgamesh as a springboard for a thriller that combines tropes from science fiction, spy novels and family drama. Lewis's best friend, biologist Edwin Barbarossa, holds one of Gilgamesh's talismans of power, the Pearl of Immortality. For the past year, he has been a colonist on the moon, and during his shuttle trip back to Earth, something goes disastrously wrong. Everyone aboard except Edwin is killed.
Alive when he obviously should be dead, Edwin has some explaining to do. Rob must break him out of house arrest and convince his bosses that Edwin isn't a murderer. When a megalomanic billionaire gets wind of their combined powers, Rob and Ed must find a way of stopping him without compromising their beliefs about free will and the sanctity of human life.
Clough takes a premise that might seem better suited for an "X-Men"comic book and gives it enough emotional heft and moral complexity to make a satisfying novel for adults. If the book's plotting is a bit choppy and the villain seems overly cartoonish, Clough makes up for those shortcomings by delivering a spot-on portrayal of modern marriage and family life. Because Edwin Barbarossa is both so likeable and immortal, it's likely that Clough will bring him back for further adventures.
Kathleen Ann Goonan adds another volume to her "Nanotech Cycle," following "Queen City Jazz" and "Mississippi Blues." Her latest recounts the turmoil that occurs after a mysterious series of electromagnetic pulses makes global communications increasingly precarious.
The book follows the exploits of two major characters. Zeb Aberly, an astronomer, gets the first hint that the pulses may be the handiwork of intelligent extraterrestrial forces. Before he can make his hypothesis public, he is forced from his home and goes on the run. Without his medication, he is subject to wild mood swings and winds up living on the streets.
For New Orleans mob boss Marie Laveau, the Silence is a secondary inconvenience on her path to revenge and transcendence. Shot to death by hired assassins, Laveau finds herself resurrected thanks to the wizardry of nanotechnology. All her money and power, however, cannot save her husband and young daughter, killed in a Paris soon after her death. As the rest of the country falls into turmoil, Laveau works to turn New Orleans into a sanctuary for the nation's best scientists and free-thinkers.
The large supporting cast of "Crescent City Rhapsody" includes a new generation of children with increased sensitivity to electromagnetism. As the years roll by, they manifest a wide range of talents and pursue new artistic and scientific disciplines. Nanotechnology is used to alter the environment, and even the nature of humanity itself, to the point where the world is nearly unrecognizable from the present day.
Goonan does a commendable job of weaving the numerous narrative threads throughout "Crescent City Rhapsody." But the novel almost suffers from a surfeit of storytelling riches. By the time most of the characters wind up in the eponymous floating metropolis, some readers may be exhausted.
Jazz music, particularly that of Duke Ellington, permeates "Crescent City Rhapsody"and informs its narrative structure. Just as jazz doesn't speak to all listeners, so may Goonan's book not appeal to everyone. However, those readers interested in well-conceived extrapolations on how biology might transform humanity will find plenty of food for thought in it.
(c) 2000 by Michael Berry