Vintage Caviar

The 10th volume in the historically illuminating and vastly entertaining reprinting of The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, The Man Who Lost the Sea (North Atlantic, $35) covers the years 1957 to 1961. These years saw Sturgeon writing mystery, western, science fiction and fantasy stories, all of which were imbued with his distinctive "touch of strange."

Sturgeon stood out from his genre contemporaries both for the refinement of his prose and the heavy-hitting emotional punch of his tales. His poetic, closely observed descriptions of both natural and manmade environments -- sample the title story for beautiful, tactile evocations of such varied milieus as the waters of the Caribbean and the sands of Mars -- reveal a writer who truly used his eyes and other senses to ingest the world, before recreating it on the page. Sturgeon was a sensualist, a rarity in the cerebral sf genre. (Not that he couldn't also juggle speculative ideas with the best of them.) Along with this, his deep insights into the human psyche and his concern with extreme emotional states led him to build his best stories around unforgettable and pivotal moments of despair, revelation and redemption.

In a tale such as "Need," Sturgeon depicts a gallery of glitchy characters whose deficiencies combine unpredictably in remedies for several individual problems, in a manner almost reminiscent of screwball comedy. This insistence on the interdependency of all life is a prime theme in Sturgeon's work, and perhaps his most lasting legacy.

His desire for new modes of narration -- he liked to tell his stories aslant, as the enigmatic opener to "Tandy's Story" attests -- means that reading these stories in one go is never boring, especially since Sturgeon resisted the impulse to repeat himself, reinventing his voice continually down his long career.

Admittedly he could descend a few notches to the pulpy and melodramatic, as in the space-opera-ish "It Opens the Sky." (Recall that Kurt Vonnegut supposedly modeled his hack genius Kilgore Trout on Sturgeon -- unfairly, in my estimation.) But even in such commercial forays, his concern for psychological authenticity is palpable.

As always, the indispensable annotations by editor Paul Williams -- and this time around, a foreword by Jonathan Lethem -- will contribute to readers' understanding and appreciation. This ongoing series forms a keystone not only in the edifice of science fiction, but in that of 20th-century literature as a whole. Medieval Conspiracies

With all the prose writers who have been turning to comics these days -- Brad Meltzer, Michael Chabon, Greg Rucka -- it's reassuring to find a comics writer trying her hand at prose. Although Fiona Avery has worked in many media, she's best known for her comics scripting and has only now ventured into the territory of the novel with The Crown Rose (Pyr, $25). Her debut is an impressive one, auguring well for the continuation of a dual career.

The Crown Rose is a rarity in the fantasy field, in that it's a stand-alone volume, completely self-contained, and also mainly a historical novel with a subtle yet integral thread of fantastical content. Both qualities raise it above the herd, as do Avery's pleasant, limpid style, attention to detail, ingenious plotting, deft character development and canny core conceit.

We are in the royal court of France during the years 1234 to 1244. Young Louis IX rules, aided by his domineering mother, Blanche, and his various siblings. Among these is 9-year-old Isabelle, our protagonist. Smart, spiritual, literate, willful, Isabelle is intent on making her own way in the world, rejecting such realpolitik maneuvers as an attempt to marry her off to Conrad, the King of Germany, and in general seeking to forge a meaningful life for herself. We will follow her through various trials and testings until she is in sight of her destiny.

One prime determiner of the fate of France and the royal family is the mysterious Order of the Rose, a small organization consisting of three enigmatic sisters and their brother. Seemingly immortal, possessed of odd powers, Sofia, Neci, Norea and Jean intrude at pivotal moments to aid France and Christendom. From afar, Isabelle has loved the much older Jean from an early age, but in learning his ultimate secret, she finds that her love is both misplaced and grander than she ever could have imagined.

Avery fills her novel with warfare and court intrigue, daily ritual and commonplace instances of medieval Parisian life. One senses that a vast amount of research underpins the tale, yet Avery does not deluge the reader with facts, nor does she rely overmuch on "celebrity" guest-shots, although Thomas Aquinas appears towards the close of the book and plays a minor but significant role. In a similar manner, while the attitudes and speech patterns of her characters are genuinely archaic, Avery takes pains to make her personages sympathetic, casting their dilemmas and heartbreaks in universal terms.

Elegant, understated and moodily atmospheric, this is the kind of book that should inspire a small Crusade of followers.

The Wizards of Od

A school for young magicians accepts a candidate who could become the strongest wizard of all.

Post-Potter, even acknowledging all the successful pre-Rowling antecedents, could any scenario sound more hackneyed or unpromising? It's a testament to the immense talents of Patricia A. McKillip that her newest book, Od Magic (Ace, $22.95), performs the lively miracle of fleshing out such a premise in a fresh and impactful manner.

In the land of Numis, in the city of Kelior, exists a college of magics founded by the demigoddess known as Od. Od manifests one day to young Brenden Vetch, a simple country herbalist shattered by the loss of his parents to a plague. Od directs Brenden to apply at her school to become its gardener and hone his nascent magical talents.

There he will encounter a sympathetic teacher named Yar, who was once a potentially revolutionary student like Brenden but who found his sharp edge dulled by conformity over the years. The newcomer will also meet Princess Sulys, the discontented daughter of imperious King Galin; the king's bloodhound of an adviser, the wizard Valoren; and Mistral, the beautiful daughter of a traveling hedge magician, among many others. As Brenden strives to probe the depths of his fledgling powers, the paths of the others will begin to orbit around him.

McKillip shines in her presentation of the characters, the city of Kelior, and in her depiction of what magic really means. The varied districts of Kelior, including the mysterious Twilight Quarter, are nearly tangible, rich in sensory heft. And in her evocation of magic as a ceaseless pursuit of knowledge and art, not power, McKillip draws subtle parallels with her own mission as a writer.

She accomplishes this with beautifully honed sentences that alternately convey gravitas and sprightliness. The initial description of Od herself, which veers from images of majesty -- "quite tall, almost a giant, barefoot and big-boned as an ox" -- to images of Disney silliness -- "A ferret stuck his head out of her cloak pocket" -- is an example of her range. And McKillip propels her plot with Shakespearean twists, forging a marvelous comedy of errors.

Beyond all this surface attractiveness, there's a final allegorical layer to astound us: A kingdom living in fear and suspicion of what its own "technologies" might do in the hands of malicious outsiders, seeing "terrorists" even in those who would aid them but are of a different mindset. (Does Numis begin to sound like a certain 20th-century hegemonic superpower?)

Laugh Till It Hurts

Those in the mood for fabulist black humor of the kind associated with Scott Bradfield or Robert Coover or Max Barry (not so well-known as his cohorts, but responsible for the snappy Jennifer Government [2003]) need look no further than Bradley Denton's Laughin' Boy (Subterranean, $40).

In a might-have-been year 2000, a terrorist incident results in the slaughter of nearly 100 people in Wichita, Kan. One survivor of the carnage is an innocuous schlub named Daniel Clayton. But Clayton does not emerge totally unscathed. The incident triggers in him a curious psychosis. His very visible reaction to all the death around him is to break out into a kind of Tourette's-syndrome laughter. Unfortunately, Clayton's blood-splattered laughing fit is caught on amateur videotape and disseminated worldwide. He immediately becomes a pariah known as "Laughin' Boy," the poster child for a perceived insensitivity to the suffering of others, when in reality he is a compassionate father and citizen.

Clayton becomes swept up in a firestorm of governmental and mass-media forces. The FBI sequesters him with two other "freaks": Porno Girl, a middle-aged virgin with an inexplicable fixation on hardcore sexual imagery, and the Racist Ranger, a noble Caucasian ex-FBI man who cannot speak in other than Stepin Fetchit patois. Together, these three misfits will attempt to uncover the perps behind the Wichita massacre while staying one step ahead of the angry mobocracy.

Denton has a splendidly savage time dissecting the American national psyche, much in the manner of Lucius Shepard in his recent A Handbook of American Prayer. He skewers bloggers, TV journalists, politicians, psychologists and entertainers, among many other factions. His satisfyingly grim plot drags Clayton ever downward, until a final redemption.

But the pre-Sept. 11 setting and the substitution of stand-ins for certain real celebrities (comedian Larry Lanford is plainly meant to represent David Letterman, for instance) undercut some of the vitriol. I suspect that this book was written in response not to September 11th but to the Oklahoma City bombing, and went homeless till now, as larger publishers shied away from its fierce contrarianism. Its inclusion of certain fading touchstones (Linda Tripp!?!) dissipates Denton's head of righteous steam. Still, this funny, scathing assault on the current booboisie has few peers. *

Paul Di Filippo is currently working on a series of comics involving the character Doc Samson.