Let us now say a prayer to the Gods of Health, Energy, and Fortune that they smile with favor on Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, the hard-working publishers of Small Beer Press. This request is a completely selfish one, mind you, for I adore the books they've been publishing and I want them to continue for a long, long time.
Case in point: Elizabeth Hand's new novel Generation Loss. Best known for her fine dark fantasy novels, such as Waking the Moon and Mortal Love, Hand has crossed genre borders here to produce a sharp, brilliant literary thriller. Her protagonist is Cass Neary, a photographer who once enjoyed fleeting fame chronicling the punk scene in lower Manhattan. Aging, strung out, all-but-forgotten, Cass accepts an assignment to interview a famous photographer (one of her heroes) on a remote island off the coast of Maine -- and stumbles into a dark mystery, mirroring the darkness lodged in her own soul. It is, indeed, a novel about loss -- in art, in life, and through the ravages of time. Hand explores the many meanings of loss, and how it shapes our lives. Her protagonist is a deeply flawed woman, yet her story remains a compelling one even when she herself is at her most trying. I started the novel with scant sympathy for Cass, pulled into the book instead by its vivid milieu and secondary characters. By the novel's end, my compassion for its prickly hero had grown -- along with my deep admiration for Liz Hand's storytelling powers.
"Generation Loss is a crossover novel," wrote Graham Joyce in the Washington Post, difficult to classify, uncomfortable, spiky. Hand is one of those writers who has challenged the restrictions of genre writing. Here, she both fights with and against the conventions of the thriller genre to get at an evil deeper than its mere perpetrator. When the killer is revealed, it's more a confirmation of dread than a surprise. So although Generation Loss moves like a thriller, it detonates with greater resound."
Also from Small Beer Press comes Water Logic, Book 3 in the "Elemental Logic" quartet by Laurie J. Marks. This series belongs, in my opinion, among the modern masterworks of "imaginary world" fantasy by writers like Ursula Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Patricia McKillip. Why, then, are Marks' books not better known? Partly, it's a problem of timing. Le Guin, Wolfe, Kay, and McKillip all appeared on the fantasy scene when the genre was younger and smaller, allowing new books to receive more attention, and more time and space on bookstore shelves. The first two books of the "Elemental Logic" series, by contrast, appeared (from another publisher) at a time when the fantasy genre was flooded with swords-and-sorcery books featuring female heroes. I initially resisted reading them myself, turned off by the generic swordswomen on the covers -- for there was little about the packaging to suggest how literary, complex, and completely fresh Marks' writing is. (I'm indebted to Delia Sherman for persuading me to give the books a try.)
Marks must also (sadly, for this day and age) resist pigeon-holing or marginalization as an openly gay writer. Yes, there are gay characters in her books. There are also straight characters, tall characters, short characters, strong characters, weak characters...in short, the books are peopled with people, not types. If, like me, reading too many mediocre "imaginary world" fantasies has made you grow a little weary of the form, then try the "Elemental Logic" books. They're both muscular and tender, both adventurous and thoughtful, both earthy and utterly magical. They'll restore your faith in the genre.
And one more from Small Beer: Endless Things, the final book of the "Aegypt" quartet by the incomparable John Crowley. I'll try to recommend this one without gushing, but it's hard not to gush where Crowley's concerned. The "Aegypt" quartet is an absolutely splendid work of modern magical fiction, weaving threads of history, alchemy, philosophy, and mythology together into a mystical, mind-bending, multi-layered story that opens further and further with each re-reading. Book #4 is full of all the twists and surprises we've come to expect from this dazzling series, while concluding the over-all story in a highly satisfying fashion. And now that I've finished the book, I'm off to read the whole series once again....