NOVEMBER SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY RELEASES

Reviewed by Michael Berry

Sometimes it all comes down to location, location, location. In science fiction and fantasy, from Tolkien's Middle-Earth to Clarke's Rama, Burrough's Barsoom to Bradbury's Mars, it is often the setting that plays as large a role in a story as the characters who populate it. Four recent releases depend heavily upon their sense of place to drive their narratives.

Only the most devoted aficionado of contemporary fantasy will be completely familiar with the work of all the authors represented in "Legends" (Tor; 608 pages; $27.95). Edited by Robert Silverberg, this collection features new short novels by 11 best-selling fantasists famous for their multi-volume epics. Long-time favorites Stephen King, Robert Jordon, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula LeGuin and Silverberg himself are represented, as well as such relative newcomers to the field as Terry Goodkind, Tad Williams and George R. R. Martin.

The big guns are King and Jordan, of course, and their novellas serve as the bookends for the volume. Their contributions highlight the pleasures and problems inherent in an enterprise such as this.

In "The Little Sisters of Eluria," King provides an episode from the early wanderings of Roland the Gunslinger. One need not be familiar with the on-going series, an over-the-top conflation of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and "The Lord of the Rings," to appreciate this tale of a wounded gunman waylaid by a pack of sinister nurses. But as enjoyable as the story is, once the Little Sisters' secret is revealed, the piece feels slight and overly familiar.

Jordan takes another tack, delivering a tale set before the opening of his massive "Wheel of Time" saga. "New Spring" chronicles the first meeting of Lan and Moraine, an exiled king and a young sorceress set with the task of finding the baby who will grow up to be their world's hope of salvation.

Jordon vividly portrays portentous events and monumental battles of will, but he shows no mercy on readers unfamiliar with these characters and this milieu. Already numbering eight thick volumes and with no end in sight, Jordan's epic demands an unwavering loyalty from its audience. If you're not already a fan, "New Spring" is highly unlikely to convert you to the cause.

Most of the other contributors to "Legends" do their best to please neophytes and hard-core fans alike. Orson Scott Card uses his alternate history character Alvin Maker as an excuse to spin an enjoyable tall-tale about Davy Crockett in "Grinning Man." In "Dragonfly," Ursula LeGuin picks up a thematic thread from her Earthsea novels, depicting a young woman's quest for magical knowledge. Anne McCaffery revisits the dragon-world of Pern, and Silverberg delivers a murder mystery set on Majipoor, his fascinating world of science and sorcery.

Perhaps the two writers who succeed most thoroughly in their literary balancing acts are George R. R. Martin and Terry Pratchett. "The Hedge Knight" and "The Sea and Little Fishes," respectively, deliver satisfyingly solid storytelling that works without regard to the reader's previous knowledge of either the Seven Kingdoms orDiscworld.

In the end, "Legends" is an enjoyable sampler of the best high fantasy available today, despite the anthology's occasional frsutrations.

With a series of award-winning short stories and such novels as "Mindplayers" and "Fools," Pat Cadigan proved she could more than hold her own in the cyberpunk sweepstakes with the likes of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson. With her latest, "Tea from an Empty Cup" (Tor; 256 pages; $22.95), however, Cadigan is unable to sustain the energy of a subgenre that has become to feel increasingly tired.

The novel begins inauspiciously with a shop-worn conceit, that on-line gamesplayers who get killed in cyberspace also forfeit their lives in the material world. After visiting the artificial reality of post-Apocalyptic Noo Yawk Sitty, Tomoyuki Iguchi ends up alone in a hotel room with his throat cut. Unaware that he's been killed, his lover Yuki Harame searches for him online and enters into a dangerous bargain with a sex trade bigwig named Joy Flower. Meanwhile, police detective Dore Konstantin attempts to follow Iguchi's virtual footsteps and ends up meeting what might be the ancient gods of Japan.

There's no denying the considerable wit and style Cadigan brings to her version of cyberspace. But that still begs the question of why she still feels the need to cover this familiar territory. Ghosts in the machine? Cybersex? It all feels so, well, 1992. Cadigan's talent deserves to be brought to bear on material fresher than this.

In their collaborations for the award-winning "Sandman" comic and others, writer Neil Gaiman and illustrator Charles Vess have specialized in depicting the landscapes and inhabitants of Faerie. "Stardust" (DC Vertigo; 224 pages; 29.95) is no exception. More a lavishly illustrated novel than a comic, this "fairy tale for grown-ups" begins in the village of Wall, where, once every nine years, the border between the worlds of magic and the mundane is briefly opened, and mortals are allowed to mingle with all manner of strange beings.

As in many fairy tales, "Stardust" involves rash promises, unbridled passion and strange encounters. The hero, Tristran Thorn, promises his young love to go and catch a falling star for her. Once across the border of Faerie, he is nonplussed when he discovers that the star is actually a beautiful and very angy young woman named Yvaine, who does not want to be taken anywhere. What's even worse, he and Yvaine are pursued by an implacable Witch Queen and the seven treacherous Lords of Stormhold, some of whom are already dead.

Gaiman knows how to make this kind of tale look easy. "Stardust" avoids being either too precious or overly knowing, and the prose strikes just the right notes of humor and romance, never feeling forced. Vess's generously detailed paintings perfectly capture the beauty, oddness and terror of Faerie.

In January, "Stardust" will be available from Avon in a revised and slightly less expensive edition. Vess's paintings, however, will not be included. No doubt the otherworldly power of Gaiman's story will still shine through, but readers who appreciate fantasy art at its most accomplished will want to seek out the deluxe edition.

Dave McKean, another long-time collaborator of Gaiman's, goes solo with "Cages" (Kitchen Sink Press; 500 pages; $44.95), a remarkable graphic novel that seems to be set in the real world. Every once in a while, though, its characters step into a stranger plane of existence.

McKean uses "Cages" as an excuse for an extended riff on the nature of creativity.After painter Leo Sabarsky moves into a new apartment, he discovers that he is surrounded by remarkable neighbors, including Jonathan Rush, a reclusive novelist, and a black jazz musician named Angel. When Rush seeks to escape the caged existence he has built for himself, Sabarsky, his new lover, and Angel help him elude the menacing, behatted bullies who lurk in the shadows outside the building.

Working mainly with black, white and gray drawings in a nine panel per page format, but also using color, photography and puppets to good effect, McKean pushes the reader to look beyond the usual expectations of what a graphic novel should be. Sometimes the creation mythology motif feels a little heavy-handed, but McKean's ear for off-beat dialogue is sharp, and he is able to delineate character with a few sure strokes. "Cages" represents almost a decade's work, and the final product represents time well spent.

(c) 1998 by Michael Berry


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