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Book Review: Death and Resurrection

Death and Resurrection

by R. A. MacAvoy

Prime Books, 2011

Fans of science fiction and fantasy are grimly accustomed to the neglect of their pantheon. Their broad-smiling gods of the marketplace – Isaac Asimov hailing a cab, Robert Jordan typing without revising for ten hours a day – are not their true gods, and the intersections of sacred and profane are warily rare. For every commemorative edition of The Lord of the Rings or Dune sitting unread on a shelf in some young accountant’s tool shed, there are hundreds of copies of Silverlock or Slan or Norstrilia trundling even now to some pulp landfill outside of Urbandale. City commuters can list their Harry Potter books in order and debates their merits in contrast with the “Twilight” novels, but they’ve never heard of Spinrad, or Leiber, or Dunsany. Little wonder the genre’s fans are often so crabby in their midriff-exposing black “Doctor Who” T-shirts.

Sci-fi/fantasy author R. A. MacAvoy is a perfect case in point. In the 1980s she did truly wonderful work: the winsome Tea with the Black Dragon and the magnificent Damiano, Damiano’s Lute, and Raphael, collected in a volume called A Trio for Lute. She was equally adept at Celtic-tinged fantasy (1985’s The Book of Kells) and elegantly-conceived science fiction (1989’s The Third Eagle), and she had no problem writing in the trilogy-format fans tend to gobble up (as in her badly underrated “Lens of the World” books from the early 1990s). And yet, no movie deals, no household names, no mountains of cash big enough to toboggan upon. In fact, barely any recognition at all, while page-fillers like Robert Asprin and Terry Pratchett continued to flourish.

2009 saw the stuttering, almost-abortive return of this unsung titan to the world of public storytelling, with an odd volume called In Between, which had been expanded and cobbled together from an e-novella called The Go-Between (not to be confused – not that it’s likely – with another great novel you’ve never heard of by the same title, written by another great author you’ve never heard of, L. P. Hartley). These writings featured handsome, virtuous young Chinese-American painter and martial artist Ewen Young and a typically engaging cast of supporting characters, but it hardly mattered, since the whole rag-tag flea circus of it all evaporated as fast as Arizona dew.

In 2011, things were wonderfully rectified. Prime Books brought out Death and Resurrection (in a very sturdy, lovely trade paperback), which features new, improved, enhanced, and above all available tale of Ewen Young, who’s confronted one night after a gallery showing of his work by a trio of Chinese thugs who intend to rough him up in order to send a message to his uncle about some unpaid gambling debts. This plan is foiled by one of MacAvoy’s signatures: her young male protagonists might appear peaceful, but they know how to take care of themselves. In the Damiano, the frail-seeming young sorcerer Damiano inflicts a truly horrific punishment on an entire regiment of soldiers near his Renaissance hamlet, and in this present work, Ewen is calmly proficient in unarmed combat and easily overcomes his opponents.

Not that it does him any good. He goes to see his uncle the next day and finds him dead on the floor of his own dojo – and while Ewen is still hunched over the body, in shock, the killer steps from hiding and shoots him in the heart. Since this is a fantasy novel, the mortal wound turns out to be a beginning rather than an ending. Ewen is rushed to the hospital, where he gradually realizes he has the ability to go in between, to physically leave the everyday world and travel to an alternate dimension that’s only a degree or two shy of Heaven:

Ewen had been here before. He had been here always. The luminosity, undifferentiated, complete, was before him, and he could step into it because that was simply his nature. But as he regarded it, he remembered the shape of his life so far, and it did not seem to be finished – also, he saw another shape beside him. This shape was everything the light was not. It was fear, it was anger, and it was ugly. It emitted a fog of desire to push away – to push away from everything. In this strange space it seemed to recede in all directions. Ewen looked at it with his artist’s eyes and saw a flower withered in bud, the sepals gone hard, and the petals thick and frozen. He recognized it as the man who had shot him, John Chow. He could have drawn Chow in either form: the angry man or the hardened bud. His immaterial fingers twitched to do so.

Readers of MacAvoy’s fiction will find other familiar elements here besides her capable, likeable hero: there’s also a strong-willed and well-drawn woman to meet him, teach him, and love him, and there’s a memorably-characterized dog to provide alien insight, and there’s of course malevolence, darkness to be vanquished (and as in the case of Jim Burns’ work on The Third Eagle, there’s a certain indefinable appeal to the cover illustration, this one done by Maurizio Manzieri). Ewen gradually grows into his role as a protector of Earth, and he develops in power and skill without losing any of his humility – another MacAvoy signature, re-affirming decency whenever possible. There’s decency aplenty in this long-awaited book, and plenty of dogs, and some expertly-done action-sequences, and a well-developed fantasy-cosmology gently fleshed out. MacAvoy is an even wiser writer than she was a decade ago, more confident than ever in a simple style and an understated humor.

It’s deeply satisfying, to have her back in bookstores.

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