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By Nick Brown, Blake de Pastino, Tracy L. Cooley, Jessica English and Julie Birnbaum

Wizard of the Winds
by Allan Cole (Del Rey, paper, $12.95)

Sword and sorcery novels are hard to pull off: That's why you always find them in the dumpster after people move. Their self-serious tone and subject matter tend to attract only people with pocket protectors. New Mexico's own Allan Cole, however, has written a novel that both transcends the genre and tightly adheres to it. Two young boys, one a natural sorcerer and the other a born warrior, struggle together to achieve their destiny of ruling the demon race banished to the far side of the desert. Sure, there are plenty of alien cultures and weird names, but underneath it all Cole manages to breathe life and humanity into his characters. The reader neither doubts nor questions the magic and demons, but merely roots for the heroes. It truly is a difficult book to put down.(NB)

The Howling Stones
by Alan Dean Foster (Del Rey, cloth, $22.50)

The Humanx Commonwealth sends a persnickety problem-solver to expedite mineral rights negotiations on the ocean world of Senisran. He quickly finds himself frustrated with the kangaroo-like natives' disdain for Commonwealth technology but also develops a rather sophomoric crush on his blond bombshell companion. To complicate matters, the Evil reptilian AAn are vying for those same mineral rights through somewhat more unscrupulous means. Needless to say, the natives possess magical stones with powers that dwarf all known science, and no one could care less than the reader. It's frustrating that Foster took more than half of his tortuously slow novel before revealing such obvious mysteries, but I suppose it was necessary in order to introduce the wooden, unbelievable characters and soak up several precious hours of my waning life. Beware. (NB)

by Philip Caputo (Knopf, cloth, $25)

Twenty years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Philip Caputo made the bold move of leaving journalism to write novels. Now, Caputo shows similar daring by abandoning the novel to pursue short fiction. In Exiles, he undertakes three novellas about growth and redemption--a young innocent gets mixed up with a couple, an Australian island struggles for its identity, an army squad goes in search of its sergeant in the steamy recesses of Vietnam. Through it all, we are subjected to some pretty dim dialogue and a few characters as thin as onionskin. But the dramas that these people enact, not to mention their fearsome locales, can make for some engaging reading as you sit in the sun. If ambitious only in form, Caputo's first foray into short fiction offers sufficient rewards, providing you know where to find them. (BdeP)

The Thought Gang
by Tibor Fischer (Simon & Schuster, paper, $12)

Little is left unsaid in this story about Eddie Coffin, an alcoholic philosopher, and the one-armed armed robber Hubert. As the odd couple knock off banks from Montpellier to Toulon, they explore crime and philosophy. The diversity of their topics, coupled with Fischer's mastery of language, make this novel original and highly entertaining. Fischer manages poignantly to capture the absurdity of life through humor and ingenious word choice. But the real strength of his story is its glorification of the imperfect. The imperfections of bamboozled bank robbers and conspiratorial tellers validate Coffin's disenchantment with society, and the pair ultimately resolve to commit the perfect bank robbery, the crime no one has yet attempted: an announced bank robbery. Fischer has given a new meaning to oddity and an aesthetic value to crime. (TLC)

Wedding Pictures
by Jacqueline Carey (Chronicle, cloth, $22.95)

Wedding Pictures, a "novel" by Jacqueline Carey and illustrated by Kathy Osborne, is all about the ritual and the lifelong challenge of being wed. The concept of the book is brilliant: The stories of three married couples and a husband and wife to-be are told entirely through dialogue. The young engaged couple is idealistic (and corny), wanting to believe that they'll not have the same problems that their friends and families have had--affairs, insecurity, bickering, boredom and so on. Wedding Pictures succeeds, for the most part, with dialogue that is believable, which is quite often the most difficult component of writing a novel. And the book is truly beautiful; colorful illustrations grace every page and often play an active role in the story. But the characters are ridiculous. Altogether, this is the stuff that Hallmark moments are made of. (JE)

The Agüero Sisters
by Cristina García (Knopf, cloth, $24)

In an emotional, vibrant weave of intertwined perspectives, García's second novel tells the story of two Cuban sisters' slow unraveling of their mysterious past, bringing an unexpected understanding of the ties that bind one generation to the next. The sisters are opposites: Constancia an image-obsessed, naturalized American; Reina a sexy, confident electrician in Cuba. Unexpectedly, their paths cross after 30 years of separation, and suddenly their past becomes an unavoidable part of their lives. One can't use enough thready, webby metaphors to describe The Agüero Sisters--there's a knot of past untruths that creates a delicious suspense, a string of magic, intuition and ritual that link the family members across distance and time. And beneath the layer of plot, the novel reveals the strange web of support and mistrust between sisters, mothers and daughters. (JB)

News of a Kidnapping
by Gabriel García Márquez (Knopf, cloth, $25)

Having become a master of the surreal, Gabriel García Márquez has moved on to decipher reality itself. What could be more absurd, after all, than chronicling a country ruled by criminals? In News of a Kidnapping, Márquez documents the real-life abduction of 10 Colombian journalists at the hands of drug lord Pablo Escobar, creating a radiant crossover between reportage and narrative. Written like fiction, with plenty of action and scant analysis, Kidnapping may lack the lilting signature of the author's dream-like prose, but his account of the 1990 abductions gives rich testament to the traumas that these people endured, as well as the terrifying insanity of a crime-ridden culture. The only thing more gripping than the story is the knowledge that it actually happened, which makes News of a Kidnapping--in the literal sense--stranger than fiction. (BdeP)

Fools, Martyrs, Traitors
by Lacey Baldwin Smith (Knopf, cloth, $30)

Many martyrs who have died for religious and political causes throughout history continue to be credited with modern beliefs and freedoms. In his newest book, history professor Lacey Baldwin Smith examines the fine line between the fool, the traitor and the martyr. The trick, Smith contends, is not only to die for a cause, but to do it in such a way that it ensures that the death makes a lasting impact. Fools, Martyrs, Traitors examines martyrs from Socrates--the first known martyr--to King Charles I and Jesus Christ to John Brown, concluding with 20th century martyrs like the Rosenthals, who were hanged by the U.S. government for giving bomb secrets to Russia. Though at times a bit heavy on the scholarly side, Fools, Martyrs, Traitors is an engaging piece of nonfiction, ultimately examining the possibility that martyrdom itself is now dead. (JE)

--Nick Brown, Blake de Pastino, Tracy L. Cooley, Jessica English and Julie Birnbaum

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