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Science Fiction and Fantasy

From the turmoil of adolescent sexuality to the global village of the near future.

By Bill Sheehan
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page BW13

Jack and Jilly

Paul Witcover may not be a household name, but he is a gifted, fiercely original writer whose genre-bending fiction deserves the widest possible attention. Tumbling After (EOS, $24.95) is only his second novel (after 1997's Waking Beauty). A dark, often troubling account of metaphysical mysteries and multiple realities, it is as good as anything that has crossed my desk in months.

The story proceeds along two narrative tracks that echo and illuminate each other in countless ways. The first takes place in the summer of 1977 and concerns Jack and Jilly Doone, 12-year-old twins whose lifelong psychic bond contains a powerful, if nascent, sexual component. The two are spending the summer at the family beach house under the extremely loose supervision of their Uncle Jimmy, creator of "Mutes and Norms," a role-playing game set in a post-apocalyptic future populated by five mutant species representing the powers of the elements (earth, air, water and fire) and of the mind itself.

The second track tales place in the supposedly imaginary universe that "Mutes and Norms" describes. The central figure is a Mute named Kestrel, a winged "Aerie" who embarks on a traditional coming-of-age pilgrimage across a trackless desert known as The Waste. He is accompanied by the four randomly chosen members of his "pentad," one of whom, he is told, is a spy in the employ of the once dominant Norms, who have been at war with the Mutes for generations.

Back in the "real" world, Jack survives a near drowning and awakens with what he believes to be a mutant power of his own: the power to alter the very stuff of reality, initiating crucial changes that fit seamlessly -- and retroactively -- into their surroundings. This "gift" brings with it a sense of increasing foreboding, as Jack comes to believe that a nameless entity has marked him out for destruction. Jack's ensuing paranoia, together with his attempts to understand the nature and source of his wild new power, alter him in fundamental ways, leading to a series of tragic confrontations that are both shocking and inevitable.

Echoes of other writers -- John Crowley, Philip K. Dick and Theodore Sturgeon, to name a few -- reverberate throughout the novel. But Tumbling After is no mere pastiche of free-floating science fiction tropes. On the contrary, Witcover has made something powerful and strange out of familiar materials. The story is dauntingly dense, though satisfying. The prose is clean and precise, lending an aura of understated authority to the entire enterprise. And the disparate narratives, which glance continuously, if elliptically, off each other throughout the book, snap sharply together at the end, lending a sudden, startling coherence to all that has gone before.

On one level, Tumbling After is a thoroughgoing work of the imagination. On another, it is an affecting meditation on the vicissitudes of family life, on the bonds of twinship, on the nature of adolescent sexuality and on the random forces that can alter or destroy our fragile hold on reality. It is a fully realized novel by a significant new voice. I hope it finds the audience it deserves.

Legends of the Fall

The Mysteries (Bantam, $21) is Lisa Tuttle's first full-length novel since The Pillow Friend (1996), and it is a remarkable piece of work. The narrative examines a number of interrelated mysteries, some commonplace, some strange and inexplicable. Together, they illuminate the point of intersection between ancient Celtic mythology and the modern world.

Tuttle's narrator is Ian Kennedy, a London-based American detective who specializes in missing persons' cases. Ian, whose own father disappeared when he was a child, is uniquely suited to this peculiar profession, which he treats as a vocation and not simply a job. The story begins when Laura Lensky hires him to track down her daughter Peri, who disappeared from their London apartment two years ago. Ian begins by reviewing documents and diary entries that Peri left behind, and by interviewing those closest to her, particularly Hugh Bell-Rivers, her filmmaker boyfriend. As the investigation proceeds, Ian uncovers startling parallels between Peri's disappearance and an obscure Celtic legend called "The Wooing of Etain," in which a mortal woman is seduced into "The Otherworld" ruled by Mider, king of the fairies. Convinced that Peri has been spirited away to a magical realm, Ian travels to Scotland to search for a door that will lead to the world where Peri, a modern incarnation of the Celtic heroine Etain, lies hidden.

The Mysteries is filled with stories and legends -- all concerned with strange disappearances and uncanny encounters -- that supplement the central narrative, placing it in a vast, overarching mythological context. At the same time, the novel addresses Tuttle's ongoing concern with the crucial choices that ordinary people make -- choices that can bind them to the world of small, everyday accomplishments or send them in search of larger, more elusive alternatives. Successfully balancing the miraculous and the mundane, The Mysteries offers a variety of unexpected pleasures and marks the overdue return of a stylish, distinctive storyteller.

An Alternate History Mystery

A different sort of mystery animates Pashazade: The First Arabesk (Bantam; paperback, $12), the first volume in a projected trilogy by Britain's Jon Courtenay Grimwood. Pashazade is another good example of cross-genre fertilization -- in this case, setting a cleverly constructed whodunit within the larger context of a vivid, thoroughly imagined alternate history.

The novel takes place in a world in which the Ottoman Empire has survived into the 21st century and America's refusal to intervene in World War I resulted in a German victory and the preservation of Kaiser Wilhelm's regime. Against this backdrop, Grimwood creates a colorful account of murder, madness and the collision of cultures that features an appealingly vulnerable hero: Ashraf Bey, a genetically enhanced young man with a checkered past and a fragile sense of his own identity.

The story begins when Ashraf is whisked from an American prison, where he is serving time for a murder he did not commit, to the Arab city-state of El Iskandryia (i.e., Alexandria) in North Africa. Informed by his Aunt Nafisa that he is the son of the emir of Tunis -- and thus a person of consequence -- Ashraf embarks on a bewildering new life that includes an arranged marriage with the fiercely independent daughter of a wealthy industrialist. All of this changes when Nafisa is murdered and Ashraf becomes the primary suspect.

The subsequent investigation is the centerpiece of a complex narrative in which El Iskandryia itself plays an increasingly dominant role. As Ashraf navigates the city's hidden corners, becoming gradually enmeshed in highly charged relationships with Zara (his would-be bride) and Hami (his orphaned young cousin), Pashazade acquires genuine emotional depth. The result is a substantial entertainment that is alternately violent and touching, exotic and strangely familiar. Grimwood's El Iskandryia is a place worth visiting. The next two installments, Effendi and Fellaheen, can't appear too soon.

Business Is War

After making his name with a pair of hyperviolent, far-future SF thrillers (Altered Carbon and Broken Angels), Richard K. Morgan has altered course just slightly with Market Forces (Ballantine; paperback, $14.95), a hyperviolent, near-future thriller that offers a stinging indictment of predatory corporate practices. An angrier, more ambitious book than its predecessors, Morgan's latest is the work of a man whose formidable talents are not yet fully under control.

Market Forces conjures up a mid-21st century world where the poor are walled away in cordoned "zones" and where big business dominates the political and economic landscape. The primary business model in this brave new world is Conflict Investment, or CI. In CI, corporations pick sides in one or another of the wars and revolutions constantly erupting in the largely undeveloped Third World. Investors supply their chosen sides with arms, intelligence, military expertise, food -- whatever the situation requires. In the Darwinian society of this relentlessly brutal novel, global capitalism and war profiteering are virtually indistinguishable.

Market Forces traces the rise and fall of Chris Faulkner, a hungry young newcomer to the world of CI. Chris is a natural predator who has not quite managed to extinguish his conscience, a fatal flaw that sets him at odds with the ruling hierarchy of Shorn Associates, his multinational employer. As Chris responds to the violent requirements of his job -- and participates in the lethal gladiatorial contests that arise from the struggle for corporate supremacy -- his own capacity for violence increases, leading him to many graphic, sometimes stomach-turning encounters. By the end of the novel, it all becomes a bit much, and I found myself wishing for the occasional moment of authorial restraint. But despite his penchant for dramatic excess, Morgan remains a smart, hard-driving storyteller who compels the reader's attention. Market Forces is a flawed, fascinating novel about serious issues and a harbinger of better books to come. •

Bill Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree," a critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, and editor of the recent anthology "Night Visions 11."

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