MARCH SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY RELEASES

Reviewed by Michael Berry

With five recent releases, a half-dozen new talents take a shot at establishing their careers in science fiction and fantasy.

In the grand tradition of fairy tales and boy's adventure fiction, the hero of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (Scholastic Press; 310 pages; $16.95) is an orphan, raised in miserable circumstances by his thoroughly loathsome aunt and uncle. It isn't until after his eleventh birthday that Harry learns that his parents didn't die in a car accident, that they were killed by the most evil of all magicians, and that it is his destiny to attend Hogswarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Despite the difficult lessons in Herbology and Defense Against the Dark Arts, Hogswarts proves much to Harry's liking. Although he gets off on the wrong foot with various school bullies and a few sinister teachers, he makes a number of new friends. He becomes a star player on his dorm's Quidditch team, Quidditch being a kind of aerial polo played on flying broomsticks. Eventually, it is up to him and his pals to save the school from a hidden enemy.

Scottish writer Rowling has created something of an international sensation with her debut (known outside the U.S. as "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," sorcerers apparently being of more interest to American readers than philosophers). As cheerfully engaging as the book is, it's difficult to determine exactly why it has hit the adult best-seller lists when other recent young-adult fantasies, such Philip Pullman's remarkable "The Golden Compass," haven't. There's plenty of leeway at the end of the book for a sequel, so it shouldn't be too long before Harry re-enrolls for another schoolyear at Hogswarts.

Michael H. Payne's "The Blood Jaguar" (Tor; 256 pages; $22.95) is one of those books that is nearly impossible to categorize. Is it a fantasy quest, a piece of post-apocalyptic science fiction, an allegory or just a talking animal yarn? Whatever you want to call it, it's highly enjoyable and completely original.

Payne sets his tale in a world that resembles North America, only remade by intelligent members of the animal kingdom. It chronicles the adventures of three very different creatures: Skink, the skittish little reptile whose luck has been stolen; Fisher, a witch of sorts, with a very practical bent; and Bobcat, the catnip fiend who first encounters the Blood Jaguar, a terrifying being whose appearance foretells a great plague. Unless this trio can travel halfway across the continent and defeat the jaguar, nearly everyone they know will die horribly.

Payne displays an excellent grasp of the elements of myth, and he has the good sense to give those elements a twist just before they take on the aspects of cliche'. "The Blood Jaguar" seems as if it's going to be a fairly predictable quest, but the trio's encounters with various allies and antagonists never end quite as one might expect. By the time Bobcat comes face to face with the jaguar, the reader is confident that the author will wrap everything up in a satisfying resolution, and Payne does not disappoint. In a time of over-blown fantasy sagas that comprise half a dozen volumes or more, "The Blood Jaguar" displays exemplary subltety and concision and deserves a wide audience.

In "Skeptic" (St. Martin's Press; 336 pages; $24.95), Holden Scott presents an intriguing, rationale for the existence of ghosts and attempts to build a medical thriller around it.

Scott begins the novel with a literal bang. While riding in a motorcade, virologist Mike Ballantine sees his best friend, Massachusetts Governor Andrew Kyle, instantly vaporized by some kind of super land mine. As if that weren't bad enough, Ballantine later experiences a series of terrifying visions that include Kyle and seem to convey knowledge that only the governor possessed. Is Ballantine cracking under the strain of losing his friend, or has the carelessness of one of his graduate students infected him with a virus that allows him to see beyond the veil of death?

"Skeptic" starts promisingly, offering some nicely orchestrated action scenes and enough technical razzle-dazzle to keep readers turning the pages. But the plot seriously falls apart in the book's last, action-packed third. Once Ballantine starts escaping from police handcuffs with a simple flick of a screwdriver, the story's credibility goes right out the window. By the time he and CIA agent Amber Chen learn the ultimate purpose of the virus, there's no hope of maintaining the pretense of believability. The scientific premise of "Skeptic" is a fascinating one, but Scott pushes it far into absurdity.

With "Wither" (Pocket Books; 304 pages; $23), J.G. Passarella hits the groove that makes TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" such a kick. The tone of the novel isn't as arch, and the villains are witches instead of blood-sucking fiends, but the female characters display a similar degree of intelligence, heroism and quirkiness.

Passarella sets the book in Windale, Massachusetts, a college town with a history of witch hysteria in the late seventeenth century. Wendy Ward, a freshman at Danfield College and the daughter of its current president, dabbles in the occult and practices white magic, even though her dreams are haunted by malevolent visions from the town's past.

These nightmares are shared by at least two others. Professor Karen Glazer teaches Hawthorne's "House of Seven Gables" in her literature class and fears that there is something dreadfully wrong with her unborn child. Eight-year-old Abby MacNeil is drawn from her sickbed to the forgotten graves of three murdered witches and attacks the man who tries to take her to a hospital. By the time Halloween rolls around, Wendy, Karen and Abby will be fighting for their very souls against a coven of a long-dead witches.

Many of the elements of "Wither" will be familiar to any long-time fan of horror fiction. Nevertheless, Passarella re-packages them into an involving tale of the supernatural, keeping the action cranked high and the dialogue sufficiently off-beat, using enough literary sleight-of-hand to make the material seem fresher than it really is. "Wither" is about as nutritious as a bag of candy corn, but it's still a lot of fun.

With the impeachment trial finally behind us, now is a good time to read "Uncle Sam" (DC/Vertigo; 132 pages; $17.95), a graphic novel by writer Steve Darnall and artist Alex Ross that explores the bloody and contradictory history behind one of our nation's most familiar icons.

Employing the kind of photorealistic illustration techniques he pioneered in "Marvels" and "Kingdom Come," Ross paints a depressing cityscape populated by the weak, the brutal and the corrupt. Through it wanders an old man named Sam, destitute and demented, muttering sound bites and political quotations, dressed only in star-spangled rags. Sam witnesses all manner of modern crime and cruelties, while flipping in and out what may be either hallucinations or flashbacks.

Did Sam really comfort dying Union soldiers at Andersonville? Did he ride in Kennedy's limousine in Dallas or see the 1832 massacre of the Blackhawk Indians in Illinois?

Writer Steve Darnall keeps the answers to those questions ambiguous, but he invests the the goateed old man in the red, white and blue suit with a renewed sense of literary weight.

Darnall has other comics to his credit, including "Empty Love Stories" and but "Uncle Sam" is a huge leap forward for him. Ross already has a wide following for his art, but from here on out, Darnall is a comics writer to watch.

(c) 1999 by Michael Berry


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