First up this month is a treat for those who like their fantasy soaked in intrigue, history and romance. Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner's new book, The Fall of the Kings is one of the bawdiest and most intellectually stimulating novels of the year. Set 60 years after Kushner's earlier alternate historical fantasy, Swordspoint, The Fall of the Kings is a fantasy novel in which kings are just that a fantasy and the ruling lords don't want anyone disturbing the status quo.

The lords are very much aware that if anyone disturbs their rule, it will probably be the northerners. Five hundred years before, the northern kings and their wizards invaded and took over the unnamed city. Their peaceful and prosperous rule degenerated, and eventually the lords killed the last king and banned magic. Since the northerners interbred with the city dwellers, their bloodline survives, and the land itself seems to be calling out for the rebirth of the wizards and the rise of a new king.

Kushner and Sherman's novel is a virtual treat for all the senses: The people of this city do not live on bread and cheese, they feast on pickled cherries and roasted goose livers, they drink hot chocolate to keep away the cold, and they frequent dockside bars where anything can happen and usually does. The Fall of the Kings will please readers of fantasies and historical novels, as well as southerners, northerners, farmers and urbanites.

Dark doings in Discworld

American fans of best-selling author Terry Pratchett will be pleased that Night Watch, unlike his earlier books, is being published simultaneously in the U.S. and the U.K. The latest Discworld adventure not only updates the story of Ankh-Morpork City Watch Commander Sam Vines, it also fills in a little of the history of this flat world carried by four elephants standing on a giant turtle that swims through space.

Called to join a manhunt, Commander Vimes is abruptly thrown 30 years back in time where he encounters Carcer a psychotic murderer. When Carcer escapes, Vimes must forget about trying to get back to the present and concentrate on catching him. With Vimes' knowledge of the past, he realizes he must prepare the City Watch for the death of the ruler of Ankh-Morpork and the riots that will accompany it.

Night Watch is a good introduction to Pratchett's Discworld for new readers, and long-time fans will enjoy discovering more about such long-running characters as Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, and Reginald Shoe, lawyer and defendant of zombie rights. The humor here is dark, and the book's sometimes emotionally wrenching tone owes as much to The Dirty Dozen as to P.G. Wodehouse.

Over the course of the 27 previous books in the series, the Discworld has become an increasingly complex place. Printing presses and semaphores were recently introduced, which increased the speed of life from the slow pace of standard pastoral-medieval fantasies to something more like that of the average 21st-century city dweller. Pratchett's characters have grown from single-note jokes to become deeper, more interesting people who lead readers on appealing journeys, whether to a distant land to deal with vampires (such as in Carpe Jugulum) or into the past to deal with psychotic murders.

Doors to other realms

Lastly, this month sees World Fantasy Award-nominee Paul De Filippo's new collection of stories, Little Doors, published a year after his last collection, Strange Trades.

Di Filippo can't resist making a joke or basing a story on a one-liner ("Stealing Happy Hours") or a what-if question: What if people from the future lived in your attic and people from the past in your basement? What if your best male friend was a werewoman? What would happen to a baby born with no brain?

One of the highpoints of this collection is "Return to Cockaigne," in which Di Filippo shows his flair for original and energetic writing. Four teens are called to the aid of an alternate world, Cockaigne. Once they travel (via drugs delivered by the mysterious Dr. Iatros) to Cockaigne, Di Filippo lets go all restraint and revels in the language of high fantasy. For example, one of the teens celebrates their arrival with this proclamation: "Let all evil crawlers crawl, all ghastly ghaunts gibber, all starostas shamble. Our function is to exult!"

In this story (as well as the title story and "Slumberland") Di Filippo explores one of his favorite and most fascinating ideas that for those who know how, alternate worlds are just a step (or a dream) away.

Gavin J. Grant reads, writes and publishes speculative fiction in Brooklyn.


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