Agony Column Letters from the Editor


Letters to ––house
Paperback Writers:
Buckner, Butcher, Turtledove & Caine
Raise the Stakes
The Agony Column for July 21, 2004
Commentary by Rick Kleffel

Dear Readers,

I really didn't intend to write this letter.

I was just going to mind my own business, write up a brief bit about some recent paperback books.



You won't believe the novel I met last night at the grocery store. There I was, minding my own business, when I picked up the latest book by a certain writer, expecting just another dose of fangs, guns and easily solved crimes. But when I opened her up, well, she opened up, and I was just flabbergasted at what was beneath those prim little book covers.

Paperback cheese.
Thoe are rose petals, not undergarments.

Ever since Laurell K. Hamilton hit paydirt with her 'Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter' series, the number of writers prospecting in that territory has grown and grown. It's not surprising. Hamilton's first novel in this series, 'Guilty Pleasures' has a few things to recommend it. The first-person narration of Anita Blake was sassy and fun, the plot kept up a brisk pace, and the world of vampires, werewolves and whatnots was intriguing if indistinct. 'Guilty Pleasures' lived up to the title and promised more of the same. For those who liked their mysteries with a nice dollop of the supernatural and those who like their horror novels leavened with the plot-strengths of mysteries, this looked to be the start of a long and entertaining series.

As the series grew in size (it now includes eleven novels, the latest being 'Cerulean Sins' and is waiting for the twelfth, 'Incubus Dreams',this fall) and popularity, the content changed as well, and not, many thought, for the better. Hamilton is actually a better writer now than she was back then, which is great news. But she chooses to focus on the sex, the kinky sex, the naughty bits and the sex rather than to significantly expand on the histories and mysteries that intrigued me in the first novel. Yes, the books are still told from Anita Blake's point-of-view, but they're more like bedroom diaries than the supernatural mysteries that opened up the series. They still aim low to entertain, an admirable goal. But in aiming low one need not focus solely below the belt. Hamilton's work of late has fallen victim to repetition, and not the kind of repetition one would expect, of recycled plots and re-named characters. Instead, her recent novels offer one sex scene after another. She can do this quite effectively, as she did in 'Kiss of Shadows', a new series featuring a crime-solving faerie queen. But as with the Blake stories, the crime and supernatural aspects act as a backdrop for sex, sex, sex, and frankly, it gets a bit old.

But in abandoning her original audience, that group of readers looking for lightweight serial novels that offer a combination of mystery and the supernatural and come out as mass-market paperback originals, Hamilton has left room for new writers to move in on her territory. Those who have show every bit as much promise as she did and thus far, no inclination to slide into a 'Letters to Penthouse' style of writing.

I've already extensively covered the work of Simon R. Green; his series of 'Tales from the NightSide' are light as a feather and entertaining as the hell raised in each installment. If you've not read 'Something from the NightSide' or 'Angels of Light and Darkness', you can look up the reviews we have of them and decide for yourself, but in my mind they’re good, clean fun. Green's latest is 'Nightingale's Lament' and it's creeping towards the top of the queue.

Three by Jim Butcher.
Early on the supernatural sleuth scene was Jim Butcher, with his series, 'The Dresden Files'. Now, while I'm pretty sure I have them all, they're kind of scattered about the house. These are, after all, the kind of books I save for a rainy day. Damn that Global Warming! Where's our Super-storm?

Harry Dresden is Chicago's only practicing Wizard, introduced in 'Storm Front'. Since the novels are ostensibly set in our world, Harry's not getting a lot of business. Of course, all it takes is one murder by black magic to get things rolling and keep them rolling for by now, six novels. Butcher pursues just the kind of course that readers tend to hope for, as his supernatural sleuth tracks werewolves, ghosts, monsters, one menace after another, and, in his latest novel, vampires.

Oversexed vampires.

One hopes that this is not a Bad Sign. But Butcher seems more intent on full frontal fun than full-frontal nudity.

Butcher has really hit the big time here, and not yet even left paperback. A recent announcement from suggests that his novels might show up as a mini-series or perhaps a series.

I hope they treat it nicer than they did the 'News From the Edge' series based on the novels by Mark Sumner. I enjoyed the TV version of these books, and like most TV I enjoy, it was quickly yanked from the schedule. Of course, Butcher's wizard has been renamed Eric (can't have too many wizards named Harry).

Still, for Butcher the author, this is great news. If he approaches this deal with the usual "toss it over the state line, take the money and run", well, the money can be, I'm told, pretty substantial, enough to see one through.

I spent a bit of time looking at his web site, and while it’s not the most updated site in the world, that's probably because he's busy writing his books as opposed to a blog, which a) is good news for his fans and b) is good news for his landlord, since books are more likely to pay the rent than blogging. But you can find out enough about the series to determine if it might be to your liking. You can also learn how Butcher managed to get himself published, which involves none other than Laurell K. Hamilton.

Weather channel devotees rejoice!
Last year saw the release of the first novel by "Rachel Caine". The colophon page will tell you that the books are copyrighted to one Roxanne Longstreet Conrad, and I hope the two are more than close friends, or lawyer and client. Caine's first novel, 'Ill Wind' offered a refreshingly original take on the old supernatural mystery. Instead of the magic detective, the heroine is a Weather Warden. Joanne Baldwin has an unusual aptitude for controlling wind and water, and she's about to find herself on the run from a bevy of antagonists. In the manner of Laurell K. Hamilton, we apparently have a world where all this supernatural stuff is pretty much out in the open; the Weather Wardens do their training at Princeton University. How much us non-wardens know about what's going on is open to question, but Caine is only two books in to the series thus far.

Bad news from the storm front.
Still, it looks as if she'll be willing to push things pretty far and pretty fast. Her new novel, 'Heat Stroke', ups the ante and the action significantly, in ways I won't reveal so as to not spoil the first novel. Both novels feature the artwork of Dave Seeley. He's done a bezillion book covers, and these are particularly evocative, with a light touch that really enhances the reader's appreciation of the novel. His website is well worth browsing.

Rachel Caine also has a website, and it's a nice place to spend a few minutes to get to know the author and the novels. Caine is a former musician who tells us on her website that she has at least four more novels in the series. If she can maintain the sense of fun and keep the invention at the level demonstrated in the first two, she may get asked for a few more.

Returning to the mists of time, in the years BH -- before Hamilton, readers may remember a paperback original that made a little spash back in 1884 titled 'Neuromancer'. Paperback original cyberpunk has not yet died a graceful death, and it doesn't appear posed to do so anytime in the near future.

My brain hurts! It hurts!
'Neurolink', the second mass-market paperback original by M. M. Buckner to claim the genre of "cyberpunk" hits the shelves this month. The back of the book tells us:

"In the 23rd century, the Earth's surface is a toxic wasteland and corporations called Coms have replaced nations, exploiting billions of poverty-stricken "protes" whose lives they own..."

And that's different from the present, how?

Well, yes, to my mind, dating SF is a dangerous business. But getting over it, we find a an executive who, in the process of trying to quietly off a couple thousand protes bungles the task and then has to clean up. In cleaning up he discovers that he might have a soul after all. If only his dear dead Dad didn't live on in his brain via a...wait for it...'Neurolink'! This sequel to 'Hyperthought' follows on a hundred or so years later, and with those damn Coms still in power, there's plenty to rail against. If you like your paperback science fiction with a heavy dose of 80's nostalgia and 21st century angst, well, it's there to be had.

I bought a very expensive-to-me poster of this painting back in the day.
But let's really wind back that damn clock. Remember when you were about 15? And no, I don't mean 19-goddamned- 95! Back further you old coot! Further! You had hair back then! That's right, 1975, or perhaps even earlier, when you were rolling in Conan and the barbaric movies based on the appealing creation of the crazy-as-a-loon Robert E. Howard were still on a blood-tainted horizon. Back then, many a writer made a few spare samolians cobbling together Conan pastiches. True Fans disdained them, but Conan withstood the ravages of many a writer, aided greatly by artist Frank Frazetta, who practically wrote the books for those who put the words between the covers.

The jacket for Breath of the Bear the new single from Spinal Tap.
These days the relationship has apparently been reversed. Harry Turtledove is a top-notch author, though not perfectly consistent in the quality of his output. But here his name is, on a book you'd better be embarrassed to own. This is young Conan, and while I think it's probably fairly entertaining in the manner of all Conan-related material, I've got to say that the cover really leaves me cold. The Conan of this cover is a Conan who would not have survived in the world of Conan. He's not even looking at the huge wolf that he's shooting. It's photo-op Conan, ready to join Spinal Tap in their latest hit 'Breath of the Bear'. Still, if you want new Conan, here is new Conan, same as the old Conan. We Won't get Fooled Again!

But we will continue to buy paperbacks, cheesy and important, meaningful and inconsequential. Because for every paperback writer -- and there are a stadium full of them -- there is a stadium full of paperback readers. And on the backs of all those paperbacks, some pretty substantial careers are built. We're as happy to help build them as we are to sit in the sun and read them, or loan them to our pals. Hey, you wanna read a hot paperback? The first five people to email me after this column goes up get a free paperback mentioned in this column. State your preferences and be ready to shell out for what you missed at the grocery store, that last bastion of great book-buying. Oh how I miss my grocery store shelves. Now, they serve only to demonstrate the capitalist form of evolution at its most ruthless. Extinction in a week. Sell or die; sell and die.

You know, readers, I was at the grocery store the other day, and you won't believe what I found on the bookshelves. Or maybe you would.