The line is not always explicit, but it's always there -- the line, that is, between craft and art.

By "craft" I mean the ability to tell a story that draws in readers with character, plot and some substance. "Art," even in its most esoteric form, can delight without such bourgeois affectations, though the most successful forms of art, at least to me, are solidly based in a mastery of craft.

The books reviewed here fall largely into the category of craft. Primarily I am more consistently entertained by a well-constructed work of fiction than by attempts at art -- and "attempts" is the right word, because art is much more difficult and elusive than craft, and I find the written word reaches the level of art only intermittently, even in the strongest works.

Which brings us to "Sorry Please Thank You: Stories" by Charles Yu (Pantheon, $24.95, 222 pages), an attempt at art by the highly regarded (in critical circles at least) Yu. This story collection tends to focus on the relationship of character to author in a variety of ways, from imagining that a video game hero is a real person to characters talking back to authors.

Sometimes, as in "Hero Absorbs Major Damage" and "Inventory," Yu manages to merge art with craft, but at other times his labored attempts to lift his work into exalted realms simply fall flat. (One of those attempts, "Yeoman," is basically a shorter version of "Redshirts," a novel by John Scalzi, a master craftsman who gives the reader his money's worth more consistently than Yu.)


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Of course, some readers are more patient with authors whose reach exceeds their grasp than I am, and they will likely be happy with "Sorry Please Thank You: Stories." I, on other hand, can't wait for George R. R. Martin's next installment in the Song of Ice and Fire series.

One next installment I won't be waiting for, or reading, is the sequel to "Touchstone" by Melanie Rawn (Tor, $25.99, 363 pages). First, there is no hint on the book jacket that "Touchstone" is first in a series, and that annoys me. A reader who plunks down her hard-earned cash for a book has every right to know that this is only the beginning of her investment if she wants the whole story arc. It looks as if Rawn will carry this through at least three books. So to me, Tor (or any other publisher) seems greedy when not letting prospective readers know up front they're about to buy just one part of a story.

Moreover, "Touchstone" just isn't that good. Rawn does employ a nice conceit -- that the magic of the theater is, in great part, actual magic. And her narrative about the rise of a magic-based theater troupe is adequate, though a bit heavy on gloom and doom even when things are going well. In fact, the gloom and doom never really let up, which is explained in part by the fact that this is the first in a series.

Lastly, there's a nice glossary, but it's placed at the end of the book; I had no idea it was there until I'd finished. Wouldn't it make sense to let readers know at the beginning?

While we're on the theme of series, the Solar System space opera concludes with "The Unincorporated Future" by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin (Tor, $27.99, 348 pages).

It's hard to pull off many surprises after three previous books, so it's no surprise that this segment doesn't break much new ground. The basic plot involves a battle between the evil dictator of Earth, Mars and Luna and the plucky colonists of the asteroids and beyond. Though the series began with an economic twist about how each individual was a corporation with stock values and shares, that theme has faded into the background, and the narrative now focuses on struggles in both the real and virtual worlds.

I wouldn't recommend buying all four of these books unless you really enjoy large-scale space battles in a basically good-vs.-evil setting. But this tetralogy was fun to read, and it delivers a reasonable bang for the bucks. Call my evaluation "maybe" on this one.

Clay Kallam's Worlds Beyond column is published here monthly. Contact him at clayk@fullcourt.com.