JULY SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY RELEASES

Reviewed by Michael Berry

As rewarding as it can be to seek out work by talented newcomers, sometimes all a reader wants is to grab a stack of books by some favorite writers and settle in for a session of familiar pleasures. Five recent science fiction and fantasy releases by well-known authors attempt to deliver that kind of reading experience.

Long a favorite with younger readers, Diana Wynne Jones, author of "The Tough Guide to Fantasyland" and "The Spellcoats," aims for a more adult audience with "Deep Secret" (Tor; 384 pages; $24.95). Set in a multiverse shaped like an infinity symbol, where myriad worlds operate under varying rules of magic, the novel chronicles the adventures of Rupert Venables, the junior magician, or Magid, in charge of making things run as smoothly as possible here on Earth.

When Rupert's superior dies, it is up to Rupert to select a replacement. The likely candidates are spread across the globe, but Rupert pulls the strands of fate so that they wind up congregating at a science fiction and fantasy convention in England.

Rupert also has obligations on the planets of the Koryfonic Empire, where the assassination of the Emperor has created a power vacuum and a legitimate heir has to be found before more blood is spilled. When the Magid's two obligations intersect, the con is overrun by evil wizards, New Age mystics and handsome centaurs.

Jones deftly juggles the many elements of her complicated story, moving the narrative along with a light touch and a sure hand. She pokes gentle fun at the excesses of science fiction fandom, but she doesn't lose sight of the more serious, even tragic, aspects of Rupert's duties. "Deep Secret" is a smart and involving contemporary fantasy.

Parodist extraordinaire Terry Pratchett revisits his cockeyed Discworld in "The Last Continent" (HarperPrism; 292 pages; $24). This time the primary satirical targets are the people, animals and customs of Australia, with assorted jabs at unwordly academics and cowardly wizards.

The discursive tale begins at Unseen University, where the university librarian, who usually assumes the shape of an ape, suddenly begins manifesting himself as a variety of odd objects, including furniture. The Egregious Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography, who knows the whereabouts of the cowardly wizard Riincewind, the one person who can effect a cure, has disappeared. A group of the geographer's colleagues, including the Dean and the Chancellor, follow him through a mystical bathroom window to a tropical beach, only to end up marooned when somebody absent-mindedly closes the window.

Meanwhile, Rincewind is making his way across the unfinished continent of Fourecks, home of the four-legged duck and even stranger creatures, and trying not to be killed by the locals. It takes quite some time for the various plot strands to intersect, but Rincewind and the professors eventually meet and work things out.

Pratchett's shotgun approach to comedy is similar to that taken by the Monty Python troupe in its glory days. Like the Pythons, however, Pratchett can occasionally lose himself in a bit of schtick that wears out its welcome. That happens a time or two in this book. Perhaps it's just that having a bit of sport at the expense of the Australians might not be as amusing for American audiences as it for Pratchett's core audience back in the UK, but "The Last Continent" doesn't rank among Pratchett's best work.

"Rainbow Mars" (Tor; 316 pages; $24.95) finds Larry Niven, author of "Ringworld" and "Destiny Road," in an antic mood, or at least as antic as Niven ever gets. Not quite a "fix-up" novel and not quite an all-new reading experience, the book brings back one of the author's more obscure heroes while paying homage to a long tradition of Martian fiction.

"Rainbow Mars" collects five previously published stories, but its bulk is comprised of a new short novel about Hanville Svetz, a member of the Institute of Temporal Research, whose job it is to travel into the past and retrieve extinct life forms. Now with a new boss obsessed with travel to the planets, Svetz is recruited for a mission to ancient Mars.

Accompanied by his lover, his dog, and a third crewmate, Svetz discovers a dying Red Planet that still teems with outlandish life, including red-skinned humanoids, six-limbed insect warriors and octopus-like creatures with an interest in astronomy. Even more astounding is the presence of the "Hangtree," a mind-bogglingly immense beanstalk that serves as a kind of elevator to the stars. Svetz and his colleagues hope to retrieve one of the tree's seeds and return with it to the future.

The more familiar readers are with the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury and H.G. Welles, the more they will appreciate "Rainbow Mars." As clever as some of its elements are, however, Niven's exercise in talky, self-referential science fiction begins to grate after a while. (And there's something deeply annoying about characters who insist on using "Futz!" as a vulgar exclamation.)

In "Enchantment" (Del Rey; 400 pages; $25), Orson Scott Card gives the old Sleeping Beauty fairy tale a modern makeover, using Russian folklore as a springboard for a story set in both the present and the distant past.

The tale begins just before the end of the Cold War, when ten-year-old Ivan Smetsky goes for a walk in the Russian woods near his uncle's farm and discover a mysterious clearing. In the center of a lake of leaves lies a beautiful woman sleeping on a pedestal. Within the leaves stalks some kind of terrible, malevolent presence. Young Ivan wisely turns tail and runs home.

Having emigrated to the U.S., Ivan returns to the woods more than a decade later. This time he possesses the wherewithal to climb the pedestal, defeat the creature in the leaves, and kiss the princess awake. Rather than being a happy ending, this is only the beginning of an arduous adventure. By rescuing Princess Katarina, Ivan not only maroons himself on the wrong side of a thousand-year time-warp, but he invokes the wrath of Baba Yaga, the most fearsome witch in all of Russia.

There's nothing really earthshaking about "Enchantment," in that it's the kind of "fish out of water" time-travel story that other authors have brought off with equal panache. Nevertheless, the book makes for a pleasant and intelligent diversion. Card, author of "Ender's Game" and "The Tales of Alvin Maker," holds his tendency toward long-windedness mostly in check, maintaining the plot's forward motion and, more importantly, keeping the story to one reasonably sized volume.

Especially well-done are the scenes between Baba Yaga and her reluctant lover-god Bear, which lend a deliciously mordant sense of humor to the proceedings. "Enchantment" is minor work in Card's canon, but it's a charming and lively one.

There's nothing remotely amusing about "Waiting" (Forge; 304 pages; $23.95), a new paranoid science fiction thriller by Frank M. Robinson. The author of "The Dark between the Stars" and "The Power," Robinson builds his novel around the supposition that a hidden species of hominids, virtually indistinguishable from Homo sapiens, but equipped with psychic powers, has shared the planet with us for millennia.

Robinson begins the book with a chillingly effective chase through the streets of San Francisco, in which a hapless, middle-aged doctor is herded like an animal into an alley and killed by an unseen murderer. One of his friends, television newswriter Artie Banks, investigates the killing and soon believes that he can trust almost no one, that even his best friends might be one of the Old People.

Best-known for "The Gold Crew," "The Tower" and other collaborations with Thomas M. Scortia, Robinson knows the ropes when it comes to constructing an effective thriller. The open chapters of "Waiting" crackle with tension, and the mystery of the Old People is explicated with extreme cleverness and precision. The novel's only major flaw is that some readers will be a step or two ahead of Artie as he puzzles out the full ramifications of his discoveries. Robinson delivers a neat final twist, but the momentum of "Waiting" falters slightly at the end.

(c) 1999 by Michael Berry


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