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If you like dark fantasy with lots of magic, make sure you read , by N. K. Jemisin, which is the best fantasy book I’ve read in a long long time.

I learned about Jemisin last year as part of Erin M. Hartshorn’s excellent introduction to women in SF and Fantasy. Erin pointed me to Jemisin’s wonderful story, “On the Banks of the River Lex,” which appeared in Clarkesworld‘s November 2010 issue. I enjoyed that so much that when I saw a promo for The Killing Moon, I went to Amazon and downloaded it right away.

And stayed up half the night last night reading it, which is a mistake at my age. I’m paying the price today. But it was worth it. Tremendous story, with a plot that rises out of the needs, desires, and beliefs of the characters. Interesting, deeply rounded, believable characters who are utterly alien and yet completely human. Detailed and complex world, wonderfully executed. Magic that is both internally consistent and wildly unpredictable. A believable ending that satisfies emotionally. And on top of all that, it’s beautifully written.

It is dark, bordering on psychological horror, butit’s not blood and guts. I suspect that parts of it might be heavy going for someone not used to orienting themselves in a fantasy world — in a couple of places, such as the beginning of Chapter 4, where Jemisin introduces the fourth character and setting in four chapters, even I had a bit of trouble with all the names and concepts and things I’d never heard of before. But that’s only a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent book.

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Tristram Shandy

I read Tristram Shandy back in grad school, in an English department that was divided down the middle between the deconstructionists and the Robertsonians (oh, and the last living new critic). Those few of us who didn’t find any school satisfying spent a lot of time staring in bewilderment and drinking in dark corners. It seemed clear to us that some works are metafiction, and some are allegory, and some are meant to be interpreted religiously, and some are written on another scale altogether. It didn’t seem necessary to shoehorn everything ever written into one theory or another.

But that’s what the school was, and most of the classes were about learning how to shoehorn appropriately. The most important deconstructionist professor had made his entire career from noticing that Tristram Shandy is a modern novel in eighteenth-century grammar. He was so busy deconstructing that he overlooked all the dirty jokes, sly innuendo, and general hilarity. I could tell that there was a rousing good tale under all that criticism, but it took 30 years before I felt like I could tackle it with an open mind.

So earlier this summer I tackled it again.

I found it needed to be read in small doses. Eighteenth century usage and construction require detailed attention. It thrives on witty repartee, double and triple entendre (and if there’s a meaning that can be supplied by a dirty mind, rest assured Sterne intended to supply it.) And it’s so all over the place, it’s hard to remember where you are, much less what happened before. Not to mention that “before” is a completely relative concept. Sterne has no problem going from Tristram’s childhood to his adult travels and even, quite seamlessly and without accounting for how he knows, back to the night of his own conception.

It’s not really a tale at all. It’s more like an extended stand-up comedy routine. “An Evening with Lawrence Sterne,” with drinks served at your table and the jokes getting rowdier as the night progresses.

Or, as Tristram concludes, a very fine story about a cock and a bull.

Highly recommended for those who have the patience to work through the language.

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For anybody who likes modern romance, I highly recommend Snowbound, by Janice Johnson (Harlequin Superromance line).

Iraqi war vet John Fallon, injured in a suicide bombing, comes home to lick his wounds. Distancing himself from his worried family, he retreats to an isolated country inn. Just his luck that an early blizzard strands high school teacher Fiona MacPherson and a vanful of students in his driveway. It’s immediately apparent that they’re made for each other, but his war experiences and injury are a real obstacle to a relationship. He blames himself for what happened in Iraq and has shut himself off from all emotional contact.

Ms. Johnson does a good job portraying the hero’s pain and the distress it causes the heroine. It’s not a situation where the author can wave a wand to make everything right. She makes the characters really work through the issues. When Fiona tells him they can’t make a relationship if he’s not willing to open up and talk to her, you know she’s not just saying it and you know that he really is not able to give her what she needs. It seems their perfect love is doomed.

It’s romance. Of course they work through it. The ending is all the more satisfying for having been so difficult to reach.

Anyway, if you’re into romance, this is a good one. I’ll be looking for Janice Johnson’s name the next time I’m looking for a good read.

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