"I HAVE no intention of setting down the disgusting details concerning Sixth Degree Hosteler Tu . . ." So begins Eight Skilled Gentlemen (Doubleday, $21.95), wherein, just in time for the Chinese New Year, Barry Hughart's droll pair of 7-century Chinese detectives return to solve another case. This time the ancient, wine-swilling Master Li and his earnest assistant, Number Ten Ox, match wits with no less a worthy foe than the mandrill-faced demon Envy, who is somehow masterminding the murder of mandarins within the Forbidden City. The plot involves more twists than there are courses in a Chinese banquet, but as is usual with Hughart's work (his previous novels are Bridge of Birds and The Story of the Stone), half the fun lies in the details of medieval Chinese life, both within and outside the walls of the Forbidden City.
A brilliant, scarred puppeteer and his shaman daughter join forces with the discerning duo, along with the odious gourmand par excellence, Hosteler Tu, whose hilariously nauseating digressions upon Chinese culinary history are seemingly unsilenced even by death. Hughart's offbeat characters are never upstaged by the unforced exoticism of their surroundings, and the creatures of Chinese mythology (grave-robbing ghouls, magical cranes, pestilential goddesses) are a refreshing change from the dull and endless parade of Celtic myth that dominates the fantasy marketplace. Hughart's books deserve a place beside those other witty works of orientalia, Ernest Bramah's Kai Lung novels and Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee mysteries. One leaves his literary banquet hungry for more of these delightful adventures.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
DAN SIMMONS has won several genre awards for his science fiction and horror novels, but readers meeting his work for the first time in Summer of Night (Putnam, $22.95) will be hard put to imagine why. This turgid tale reads like ersatz Stephen King, and second-tier King at that: pre-pubescent boy pals meet unspeakable evil in small-town America circa 1960.
Round up the usual suspects -- giant killer lampreys, bogus necromancy, decaying corpses, liquifying corpses, suppurating corpses -- whole lotta putrefying going on, if you take my meaning. King himself once wrote that he was not above going for the gross-out in an effort to scare his readers, if more elegant methods didn't serve his purposes. But Simmons completely eschews such old-fogey literary conventions as suspenseful plotting and original characterization, opting instead for a storyline involving a cursed schoolbell that has made its way from Osiris to Illinois by way of the Borgias. The bell's ringing is supposed to usher in the Apocalypse, here represented by those yucky lampreys (somehow overlooked in the Book of Revelation). There's a mean short boy, a good altar boy (holy water burns lampreys, natch), a fat boy who wants to be a writer, an evil school janitor and an evil school principal and an evil teacher and an evil soldier and . . .
Oh, the heck with it. If your idea of a good time is curling up with a copy of Gray's Anatomy and an air-sickness bag, this might be your cup of, uh, tea. More discriminating readers will probably opt for rereading Carrie or "The Monkey's Paw."
More Puppet Masters
DAMON KNIGHT'S ironically titled A Reasonable World (Tor, $17.95) posits a near-future where alien parasites put an end to murder and other forms of violence, and the idea of a moneyless society becomes so popular that within a few generations shopping malls and credit cards go the way of Marxist hardliners. Knight throws in an off-world luxury hotel, a description of a Standing Wave transportation device and a floating penal colony.
Unfortunately, he forgets to include anything even remotely resembling a plot. The alien parasites, the symbionts, are sort of paranormal Pollyannas. They don't like violence, so any host commiting a violent act drops dead (the symbionts lack a sense of irony); later, as the symbionts get pickier, type-A personalities and rude people meet the same fate. Thank goodness they never run into The Three Stooges or Andrew Dice Clay.
Deciding what to do about these invaders is the usual assortment of cardboard nasties -- a pill-popping, bourbon-swilling president, a sadistic scientist, a 21st-century fat-cat Texan -- but no central protagonist, nothing and no one to propel a narrative that mostly consists of dry discussions of the legal ramifications of the symbiont/host relationship and suggestions as to how the moneyless society might be made feasible. The most interesting of Knight's inventions, the alien symbionts, remain little more than a mildly diverting concept: There's no effort to make them sympathetic or even explicable, and by the end of the book even the author seems to have forgotten them.
Knight's heart seems to be in the right place, although his arguments for the moneyless society are unconvincing, despite an appendix decrying capitalism and the subjugation of women. It might be that Knight meant this work to be satirical, a vision of the sort of world we might get if all the humorless anti-everything folks have their way. There are some amusing moments, as when military battles are reduced to annual sporting events involving padded poles and ammonia and colored ink. But without any discernible plot or driving narrative, A Reasonable World is a mere oddity, notes and character sketches for a future work.
Back to the Future
WITH THE recent imbroglios involving the space shuttle program and the Hubble Space Telescope, off-world colonies and interplanetary travel can seem as remote and unlikely today as they did back when Hugo Gernsback was penning his first stories. Charles Sheffield's Divergence (Del Rey, $16.95) is a throwback to that simpler era of sf, when readers could dream of spaceships that worked and a last frontier unsullied by the detritus of failed missions.
In the Dobelle system two worlds, Quake and Opal, periodically undergo the planetary upheaval known as Summertide (see Sheffield's previous novel of this name). Their most recent approach to their sun and its binary partner, during a Grand Conjunction that occurs only once every 350,000 years, has resulted in a particularly violent series of quakes and tidal waves.
The Grand Conjunction has also possibly caused activity linked to the Builders, a legendary race that disappeared five million years earlier, but whose mysterious artifacts remain. A number of individuals, human and alien, have been swept up in the aftermath of Summertide and the appearance of a strange sphere, probably a Builder artifact, that gobbled up a spaceship and then disappeared into the heart of the gas giant Gargantua in the Dobelle System. Among those investigating the sphere and the abduction of Louis Nenda's spaceship are Darya Lang, who believes that the entire Dobelle System is itself a Builder artifact, and that the alignment of heavenly bodies resulting in Summertide is a construct whose meaning remains unknown. There's also a rather endearing "embodied computer" named E.C. Tally and a pair of alien slaves obsessed with finding their masters, last seen before that bizarre sphere was swallowed by Gargantua.
If the polyglot exoticism of cyberpunk is sf sushi, Divergence is meatloaf and mashed potatoes, old-fashioned science fiction that includes such genre staples as bug-eyed monsters and a particularly nasty race of cephalopod (read: squidlike) aliens that may not be as extinct as the rest of the universe hopes them to be. Sheffield's prose is solid and serviceable, the literary equivalent of Han Solo's dependable old "Millennium Falcon." Divergence breaks no new ground but is bound to find an audience among stalwart sf fans.
Do You Believe in Magic?
NEIL GAIMAN is the author of the Sandman series of comics, compiled in the graphic novel A Doll's House and currently run in the DC series Dream Country. A Doll's House was an absolutely breathtaking achievement: gorgeous illustrations, prose of a quality not often found in graphic novels (if tending sometimes towards the high end of the spectrum) and a cast of characters that included a motel convention of serial killers and G.K. Chesterton. Gaiman's latest graphic novel (he recently co-authored a "straight" novel, Good Omens, with Terry Pratchett) is The Books of Magic (D.C. Comics, $3.95 each), four volumes chronicling the education of Timothy, a young contemporary English boy who has "the potential to become the most powerful human adept of this age."
Timothy's guides through the eons of magic's history are four mysterious men in trenchcoats who alternately educate the boy and debate whether or not magic would be better served by Timothy's life or his death. John Bolton's beautiful, moody illustrations grace volume one; each of the subsequent books will have a different illustrator. Anyone deploring the lack of innovation in speculative fiction today would be well-advised to seek out Gaiman's work: he's quite simply producing some of the best stuff in the field.
Elizabeth Hand is the author of a recent novel, "Winterlong." She is at work on a sequel, "Aestival Tide."