Having wrapped up the 90's with such indefensible misfires asSiege of Shadows and Jerlayne, it seemed as if the only thing that was "out of time" where Lynn Abbey was concerned was her career. But lo and behold, Abbey's first novel of the new century (depending on how you count) is one of the nicest and most unexpected surprises I've come across. It reads almost as if Abbey herself is a new person. Her prose heretofore pretentious, obtuse, dreary, not unlike wading through four feet of Mississippi river mud while carrying a knapsack full of bowling balls is in this book clean, brisk, and accessible. Characterizations are warm, sympathetic, very real. And though it might seem a disservice to Abbey to suggest that after 20-odd years of trying she's finally gotten it right, it might be more diplomatic to suggest that maybe she's finally found the right type of story to let her talents bloom.
In the past, with some exceptions, Abbey has directed her creative attentions towards high mythic fantasy in most cases with stupefyingly disastrous results. Out of Time, on the other hand, is a contemporary fantasy reminiscent of 1982's The Guardians, and it's in a modern day setting that Abbey seems to feel most at home (the bizarreness of Jerlayne notwithstanding). So it's no surprise that this is Abbey's best book since The Guardians, and I welcome her return to fables set in the here-and-now.
Granted, it's not exactly filled to the brim with lightning-paced action and edge of your seat suspense. It's a subdued, nuanced little tale, not hurriedly paced but not boring either. It all begins when 50-year-old Emma Merrigan, who works at a university library in Michigan and lives an otherwise drearily ordinary life with her two cats, discovers a frightened and apparently battered young girl sleeping deep within the labyrinthine library stacks. Jennifer Hodden's situation seems all too typical; in denial about an abusive boyfriend and indecisive about what to do with herself. Yet Jennifer's arrival seems to have triggered a return of the "night terrors," strange and inexplicable recurring nightmares that occasionally haunted Emma's childhood following the equally inexplicable disappearance of Emma's mother. As Emma gets more and more caught up in the turmoil of Jennifer and her boyfriend Bran's odd dilemma, she discovers and old box in her house that she's never seen before, though it has clearly been bequeathed her by her long lost and enigmatic mother.
An examination of the box reveals that Emma's mom was either certifiably nuts or dealt in honest-to-goodness witchcraft, with a predisposition for curses and how to stop them. Soon Emma finds herself drawn into the realm of her night terrors more and more frequently, and an increasing series of frightening encounters leads her to the conclusion that what must be plaguing Jennifer and Bran is an actual curse, though where it originated and how to erase it are other problems entirely.
An interesting touch of Abbey's is her concept of curses: malevolent sources of power brought about by tragic events, that can then become "persistent," travelling through time affecting new hosts like a virus or parasite, unless someone with the paranormal abilities of Emma's mother (or now, as it seems, Emma herself) can trace the curse to its temporal root and squash it before it has a chance to be freed. Nice. Other aspects of Out of Time are more mundane. Anyone who's even a slight veteran of stories of magic and what-have-you will easily predict that the mere mention of a long-lost, mysterious parent means that the story's finale will see that parent pop back up in our herione's life to help her solve the problem. (And so I don't feel guilty of a spoiler by revealing it here.) But though Abbey cannot avoid resorting to the obvious in that instance, her story thankfully isn't robbed of its intrigue because of it. When Emma finally does root out the source of the curse, it's both compelling and sad in classic tragic tradition.
But Abbey's biggest coup here is the character of Emma herself, the most real heroine Abbey has ever created, and one whom it is easy to surmise may be something of an alter-ego. Even the most intricately conceived plot and sumptuous prose cannot save a story if you don't have a protagonist who transcends the status of "character on a page" to become a real person the readers feel they truly know at the end. Emma is Abbey's triumph (particularly compared to such gratingly loathsome characters as Jerlayne or Berika of The Wooden Sword), and I hope to see this kind of heart in future Abbey stories now that she's getting this good at it.
Out of Time is no fantasy masterpiece, and it would be unrealistic to expect Abbey to produce one all at once after a decade's worth of clunkers. The tale loses steam as it wraps up, with all loose ends sort of falling together too neatly, culminating in an ending that is much too abrupt even while managing to leave room open for the sequel. Yet it is a good book to curl up with on a wintry night with a fire blazing and your cat on your lap. And it bodes well that this decade might be considerably less accursed than the last one was, where Lynn Abbey's novels are concerned.