Reviewed by Michael Berry

Families, natural and otherwise, take center stage in five recent science fiction and fantasy releases.

In "Darwin's Radio" (DelRey; 448 pages; $24), Greg Bear, author of "Moving Mars" and "City of Angels," posits a frightening new wrinkle in human evolution.

In the near future, the discovery of a mummified prehistoric family, a mass grave in Russia and a virus that causes miscarriages are all harbingers of great shift within the human genome. Virologist Kaye Lang, archaeologist Mitch Rafelson and epidemiologist Christopher Dicken are brought together in the search for the catalyst and come to suspect that it has been lurking within our genetic makeup for millennia. What they learn has far-reaching ramifications, both personal and political, as the world braces for the birth of a generation of extraordinary children.

Bear has explored the theme of biology as a means of transcendence before with "Blood Music," and here he makes another thoroughly plausible extrapolation on recent research. Readers without a solid background in microbiology, however, may find some of the dialogue and exposition slow going, as Lang argues her jargon-laden case with various scientists and bureaucrats.

Eventually the human drama does overtake the technical speculation. As Lang and Rafelson put their lives on the line to protect their unborn offspring, "Darwin's Radio" delivers the kind of narrative kick that distinguished such novels as Arthur C. Clarke's "Childhood's End" or John Wyndham's "The Midwich Cuckoos."

Graham Joyce, author of "The Tooth Fairy," takes a far less benevolent view of family dynamics in "Dark Sister" (Tor; 304 pages; $22.95).

The discovery of a witch's ancient diary hidden in their fireplace drastically alters the lives of Alex and Maggie, a married couple with two young children. Maggie take an active interest in the herb-lore described in the book, much to the chagrin of Alex, an archaeologist supervising a dig at a nearby castle. Long-festering resentments spill over into outright domestic warfare, and Maggie draws upon a source of occult power that she has little hope of controlling.

The marriage depicted in "Dark Sister" is both realistic and frightening in its intensity. Joyce takes pains to distribute the bad behavior evenly between Alex and Maggie, almost to the put of causing the reader to lose sympathy for nearly everyone in the book. He's also careful not to demonize Wiccan traditions but to present them as folklore that can be misused, rather than as something inherently evil.

Joyce made a big splash last year with "The Tooth Fairy," a remarkable meditation on the darker aspects of adolescence. "Dark Sister" isn't half as subtle as that novel. It's smart and involving, but it doesn't push the boundaries of the genre in any new directions. It isn't until one realizes that "Dark Sister" is really one of Joyce's earlier books, heretofore unavailable in the U.S., that the seeming regression makes sense. "Dark Sister" is a cut above formulaic horror fiction, but it doesn't display the author's talents at their fullest potential.

Peter Straub's "Mr. X" (Random House; 512 pages; $25.95) heralds the author's return to out-and-out supernatural fiction, after nearly a decade of devising such psychological thrillers as "Koko" and "The Hellfire Club." The new novel is a dark, disturbing and completely enjoyable riff on both the doppelganger motif and the literary legacy of H.P. Lovecraft.

For Ned Dunstan, birthdays are a literal nightmare. Every year, he is afflicted with a sudden, inexplicable seizure, in which he is forced to view scenes of murder and mayhem. As his thirty-fifth birthday approaches, he finds himself drawn back to his hometown, not only to say good-bye to his dying mother, but also to meet his twin and to confront the psychopath who fathered them both.

It's immense fun to watch Straub to role up his sleeves, dig into his old bag of tricks and pull out the tropes he had put away for so long. He hasn't lost the knack for creating scenes of over-the-top horror and suspense. There's also a self-reflective quality to the tale that affords a good deal of fun for any fan of the genre, without being too hokey.

"Mr. X" is by no means the author's best work -- it's a little too florid in its prose and convoluted in its plotting -- but it's a welcome return to the kind of story that Straub tells as well as anyone in popular fiction.

Our own BART System plays an integral role in "Dark Cities Underground" (Tor; 256 pages; $22.95), the new fantasy novel by Oakland writer Lisa Goldstein, author of "The Red Magician" and "Walking the Labyrinth."

When journalist Ruth Berry begins researching the life of E.A. Jones, the author of a famous series of children's fantasy books, she's not at all prepared for meeting the real-life inspiration for the novels. Jone's middle-aged son, Jerry, seems normal enough, but as he begins to realize that his childhood adventures in fabled Neverwas actually happened, he drags Ruth into a terrifying chase through the world's subways and into the land of the dead and the mythic.

"Dark Cities Underground" may remind some readers of Jonathan Carroll's "Bones of the Moon," another fantasy about childhood fantasies come to life, but Goldstein finds plenty of fresh material with which to work. The connections she finds between children's literature and the history of underground mass transit are especially elegant and wonderful. "Dark Cities Underground" gives new, chilling meaning to the BART operator's announcement of "Your final destination is Colma," a town famous for its cemeteries.

Davis author Peter S. Beagle delivers an eagerly awaited new full-length novel with "Tamsin" (Roc; 276 pages; $21.95), a tale of ghosts and assorted bogeymen, set in the English countryside.

More of a young-adult novel than one might expect, "Tamsin" follows New York teenager Jenny Gluckstein as she's uprooted from her home in New York City to a ramshackle farm in Dorset, the center of Thomas Hardy country. With her mother's re-marriage, she finds herself having to contend the loss of all her friends, the temporary absence of her beloved cat and the sudden acquisition of two moody step-brothers.

Jenny spends most of her time sulking, until she discovers a hidden room on the third floor of the manor and meets its spectral inhabitant, Tamsin Willoughby, the ghost of young woman who died in the sixteenth century. Tamsin has unfinished business before she can rest in peace. In trying to help her, Jenny meets the farm's many nocturnal inhabitants, including a mischievous boggart, a shape-shifting pooka and the specter of the evil Judge Jeffreys, Tamsin's nemesis.

The author of "The Innkeeper's Song" and "A Fine and Private Place," Beagle takes his time in setting the stage for "Tamsin," so much so that readers are likely to become impatient as Jenny spends page after page moping about having to move. The pace picks up once Jenny and Tamsin get acquainted, and the narrative kicks into high gear during last third of the book, as Jenny faces off against a variety of formidable supernatural opponents. "Tamsin" will leave Beagle's many fans well-satisfied.

(c) 1999 by Michael Berry

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