Sense of Wonder: The pen is mightier than the wand
This month, our selections illustrate the triumph in overcoming our prejudices. We meet wizards with learning disabilities, heroes with human weaknesses and fantasy that refuses to be confined and limited to a single genre.
Most readers (myself included) have probably taken for granted that sorcerers are fluent in whichever magical language they speak. Thankfully, there are readers—and writers—like Blake Charleton, who might not have the same assumptions. Charleton is dyslexic, and his debut novel Spellwright features frustrated hero Nicodemus Weal, whose own dyslexia is a serious setback—even dangerous—when performing magic, which is literally bound by the written word. Even the simplest of spells are corrupted by his touch. As if things weren’t tough enough for Nicodemus, a keloid on his back possibly marks him as the Halcyon, a prophesied hero—but then again, its imperfect shape suggests he may be the Storm Petrel, destroyer of language and magic. Believing himself to be neither, and protected by his mentor Agwu Shannon, Nicodemus struggles to earn the right to be a lesser, more ordinary wizard. But when another wizard is murdered by a misspell, Nicodemus and Shannon top the suspect list and find themselves embroiled in banal politics and religious fervor and facing down true evil. Following a fairly traditional plot, the novel is well worth reading for its thorough imagining of the effect of language on magic, as well as its insight into the nature of dyslexia.
A hero’s greatest enemy
Robert McCammon’s Mister Slaughter, the third book in the well-researched Matthew Corbett series set 70 years prior to the American Revolution, finds our hero and his mentor hired to transfer a vicious prisoner named Slaughter from an asylum to a ship bound for England, where Slaughter will be tried for murder. But when a lapse in Matthew’s judgment allows Slaughter to escape, it is up to Matthew to track down the killer. Soon he finds help in the form of a tortured, outcast Indian, but time is running short before Slaughter escapes for good—and continues his violent crimes of rape and murder. In previous novels, Matthew found himself a hero, but in Mister Slaughter, he discovers that he is weak and fallible, allowing him to humbly come into his own as both character and hero. There’s an added bonus for fans of the series: Although this initially appears to be an isolated assignment, by the novel’s end, McCammon has reintroduced the series’ supervillain, Professor Fell. Combining the best elements of detective, historical, horror and conspiracy fiction, this is a book and a series that deserves a wide readership.
Fantasy pick of the month
When you first open Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy, Volume 3, the first thing you need to do is abandon your preconceived notions of fantasy. These stories feature nary a dragon, wizard or orphan-savior found in an obscure inn, but instead insert the fantastic into the ordinary, examining with wild creativity both the mundane world and the very assumptions that define it. Standout story “The Pentecostal Home for Flying Children” takes the wry and amusing concept of a promiscuous superhero, but then turns a very dark corner to question the Christian underpinnings of our society. “Is” examines the psychological explanations for the escapist fantasies of Narnia and its brethren, but when the questioning voice is cynical, can we trust the conclusion? “Couple of Lovers On a Red Background” takes the common notion of an icon transplanted to the present (Bach, in this case) but infuses it with sexuality and love. The brilliant “Pride and Prometheus” posits that Jane Austen’s Mary Bennett will assume the pseudonym Mary Shelley and write Frankenstein after meeting the eponymous doctor. This is not typical fantasy; instead it is full-bodied storytelling, making up a collection of writing that repeatedly demonstrates that fantasy and reality are not strictly separate. If that is not enough to convince a reader to pick up the book, then consider that half the stories are from sources not typically associated with the genre. This is fantasy, yes, but more importantly, this is literature.