Soaring on flights of fantasy While science fiction and fantasy often examine strange worlds, they do so in an attempt to better understand our own. A trio of new books out this month shows how three different authors blend fantasy and reality to reveal truths about real-world conflicts and characters.

In Darkness Descending (Tor Books, $27.95, 0312869150) Harry Turtledove brings us a portrait of world war in the fantastic world of Derlavai. Although Derlavai is filled with magic and strange beasts, it is clearly an allegory for our own world earlier in this century. By setting his story in this fantasy world, Turtledove is able to portray global conflict without confronting preconceived and prejudicial notions readers would bring to a subject like World War II, for example.

The world war on Derlavai began in Into the Darkness, which established the basic analogs between our world and Derlavai. The military conflict has subsided since the first book in the series, which allows Turtledove to spend more time examining how the war has affected the various characters in his enormous cast. By shifting from one viewpoint to another, Turtledove is able to achieve a balanced and human view of the war and the destruction it is causing. The characters in Darkness Descending come alive as Turtledove spends time in each of their lives and paints complex relationships between them.

John Marco's Tyrants and Kings series is about another fantastic world at war. The Grand Design picks up shortly after the end of Marco's debut novel, The Jackal of Nar, but continues the story in a very different mode. While The Jackal of Nar examined the broader political underpinnings of the war between Nar and Lucel-lor, The Grand Design gives a more human face to the characters.

Particularly strong is Marco's ability to portray all of his characters, heroes and villains alike, as more than two-dimensional beings. Archbishop Herrith, who could easily have appeared as a mockery of powerful clerics, has a firm and unyielding belief in his god and believes he is doing god's will, even if it is not what he personally would like to do.

Although it is part of a series, The Grand Design stands on its own. Marco presents enough of a recap that readers who missed the first novel will understand what has happened. Instead of merely being a continuation of an ongoing saga, The Grand Design presents a clear beginning, middle, and end, a device too often missing from fantasy series.

In Venus (Tor Books, $24.95, 031287216X, Dove Entertainment Inc., cassette, $25, 0787125288), Ben Bova describes a world more inhospitable to human existence than either of the war-torn fantasy worlds portrayed by Turtledove and Marco. Bova tells the story of Van Humphries, a do-nothing socialite who travels to Venus to recover the body of his brother and claim a ten billion dollar prize. His crew includes a mother-daughter clone pair with radically different personalities, a former astronaut who commands the mission, and a variety of technicians and scientists. On the way to Venus, Van discovers he has competition for the prize money from Lars Fuchs, Bova's answer to Jules Verne's Captain Nemo.

Bova clearly demonstrates he has done his homework on the current theories concerning Venus and its atmosphere. Although he includes some unscientific speculation, he does so to heighten the drama of the novel, which pits man against nature in one of the most hostile environments imaginable. Many of the plot twists are telegraphed long before they occur, but the real focal point of the novel is the planet Venus. Bova manages to bring the planet alive as a force of nature indifferent to the struggles, hopes, or presence of the humans who are attempting to make the first successful landing on its surface.

Steven Silver writes from Northbrook, Illinois.

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