John M. Ford,
The Last Hot Time
(Tor, 2000)

There must be something in the water in Minneapolis -- how else could one city produce so many great fantasy writers? The list reads like a who's who of some of the best fantasists working today -- Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, Pamela Dean, Kara Dalkey, Steven Brust, Patricia Wrede, Midori Snyder, Peg Kerr -- and one of whom I was unaware until recently, John M. Ford.

Ford won the World Fantasy Award for his Renaissance-era historical fantasy The Dragon Waiting, published in 1983. But I picked up his most recent novel, The Last Hot Time, more because I liked the cover featuring a young man, a woman in a tight evening dress, and an elf with a leather jacket and a gun, all standing by an old car in front of a movie theater. It reminded me faintly of the Phil Hale covers of the Bordertown series created by Terri Windling and fleshed out by some of Ford's fellow Minneapolis dwellers.

The Last Hot Time is not, in fact, a Bordertown novel, but the world Ford creates bears a striking resemblance to that created by Windling & Co. It features a human world affected by some great disaster, accompanied by the return of elves and magic into contact with the everyday world. Shadowy lands exist where humans and elves meet and magic and technology mingle -- though neither is quite reliable. There are places of danger and opportunity for those who are drawn there. Ford actually makes a couple of references to Bordertown, which fans of that series should recognize immediately, but it's a tribute to his skill that the novel never feels imitative, but distinctly his own and fresh despite the familiarity of the basic concept.

The novel opens with 19-year-old Danny Holman driving down a semi-abandoned interstate towards Chicago. As he nears the city, he witnesses a drive-by shooting -- by elves. Danny, a paramedic, immediately stops to assist the victims. His good deed, which saves the life of a young woman, gains him a new name -- Doc Hallownight -- and a new job working as a medic in the Levee (the district on the outskirts of Chicago where magic has touched the city) for the enigmatic and extremely wealthy Mr. Patrise, one of the car's occupants. In Patrise's mansion and in his nightclub, La Mirada, Danny/Doc meets a motley group of characters, including Lucius Birdsong, a cynical Native American newspaper columnist; Phasia, an extraordinarily beautiful woman who can sing but not speak thanks to an elf curse; Cloudhunter, an elf who risks estrangement from many of his own people by working for the decidedly human Mr. Patrise, and many more. They all -- especially Ginerva Benci, a spirited and attractive bartender -- help Doc adjust to his new life and feel like a full-fledged denizen of the Levee rather than a callow country boy. His lingering questions about his employer's generosity are put to rest by something far more urgent.

Someone is making people disappear, torturing them in hideous ways and using their pain to gather ever-increasing magical power. Mr. Patrise and his people are determined to stop it if it's the last thing they do. And for some of them, it will be.

As the description above suggests, The Last Hot Time probably owes as much to 1940s-era gangster flicks, film noir and writers like Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane as it does to the fantasy genre. This type of genre-melding has been done before, but I would venture to say that it's not often done as well as Ford does it here. Ford's writing style is difficult to categorize. His prose is both compact (the novel is only slightly longer than 200 pages) and expressive; every detail seems essential. The narrative does not unfold in a linear fashion, but in bits and pieces. For instance, the opening image of Danny speeding down the highway reveals nothing of his past or his motives for leaving home, which are gradually revealed throughout the course of the novel. Likewise, very little is explained, much is implied, and the reader, like Danny/Doc himself, is dropped into the story and expected to make sense of things.

The entire cast of characters is vividly drawn, with an emotional depth that, in my opinion, distinguishes the best fantasy. My one quibble about the book is slight -- simply that the major villain seems a bit one-dimensional compared to the rest of the character's. The portions of the novel involving him were more of a subplot, ancillary to the main thrust of the tale -- Danny's transformation in Doc, who finds a home and love in a startling new world.

In short, I recommend The Last Hot Time to anyone who loves high-quality contemporary fantasy; fans of the Scribbles (the infamous writing group of Minneapolis fantasy authors) should be delighted to add another extremely talented author to their "to-read lists" if, like me, they have never been introduced to Ford's work.

[ by Erin Bush ]
Rambles: 28 July 2001

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