Category Archives: Reviews (Anthologies)

Welcome to Bordertown

Welcome to BordertownI missed my exit to Bordertown.

I recall it clearly — I was standing in the musty confines of the SFF section in Zelda Books in Montgomery, Alabama. Many important moments began this way for me, as many a well-travelled book fell into my hands and helped build me into the woman I am today. I would spend every minute my mother let me, running my fingers along the spines of so very many inviting books, pulling those out that caught my fancy.Wolfwalker by Tara K. Harper. The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge. Beldan’s Fire by Midori Snyder.1

Life on the Border, edited by Terri Windling.

Honestly, it was the allusion to borders that caught my eye, along with the mind-expanding moment of being confronted with a collection of stories described right on the cover as “where Elfland meets rock and roll.” I needed borders at that time in my life: borders to cross, borders to run to. A way to escape into a place filled with magic, no matter the cost. I lingered over it, but my mother was calling from the register and I’d already met my quota of allowed books for the day with other choices. I reluctantly left Life on the Border on the shelf, determined to come back for it the next week.

I never found it again, as a kid. Tickets to Bordertown aren’t easy to come by, nor do they hang around if you make the mistake of not running off with them immediately. The collection was gone when I went looking the next week, and I let it fade from memory. I found my way to similar places — Newford under the wing of Charles de Lint, particularly. I found my way to the nexus of Bordertown authors and their kin by discovering The Endicott Studio almost as soon as I first logged onto the Internet, becoming an ardent fan of the site.

Yet it wasn’t until very recently that I found my missing ticket to Bordertown, and claimed the collections I didn’t quite manage to find when I was a perfect candidate for emigration. Funnily enough, my mother was the one who found them for me and sent them to my doorstep: a calling card from years gone by. (Thanks, mom!)

Here’s what you need to know about Bordertown: [keep reading this review on Cabinet des Fées].

The Homeless Moon

The Homeless Moon, The Homeless Moon (2008)

(Featuring writing by Michael J. DeLuca, Jason S. Ridler, Scott H. Andrews, Erin Hoffman, and Jusin Howe.)


The Homeless Moon the chapbook is described by its contributors thusly: “Five Odyssey grads join together like a piecemeal mutant Voltron to bring you a cache of eclectic genre fiction.” I couldn’t imagine a more perfect or descriptive blurb for the collection. There’s no clear and unified theme among these works– just an assemblage of sample fiction from a group of talented writers. Tangentially, it helps to invoke Voltron in your cover copy: it provokes a grin and nostalgia! (At least in me it does. My generation is potentially showing.)

“Construction-Paper Moon” by Michael J. DeLuca.

I have not yet met a Michael J. DeLuca story I didn’t like, which is an impressive feat considering how wildly different each story I’ve read has been. The first I encountered in Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writings: an intoxicating bit of magical realism of a ruined town fecund with God. The second was in Clockwork Phoenix: a searing piece of purification by angel and bicycle in the crucible of the desert. And this, the third, about a child in our moonless future trying to get into astronaut academy and breaking her father’s heart. DeLuca’s writing is about moments, about emotion; he casts out this net of words and gathers them — grief, impatience, love. He lays them at our feet, and they lap at the cuffs of our pants in a soft susurrus of “look, listen, feel.” I do. And I will continue to do so, as long as there are DeLuca stories to read.

“Impracticable Dreams” by Jason S. Ridler.

This story had quite an effective horrifying atmosphere: the horror of what one can become in pursuit of success and of the things one must do to get there. Specifically, this is a tale of a stand-up comedian and all the gross indignities he must submit himself to in order to find material that works and to carry it off. There’s a sinister magic hat involved and — I know what you’re thinking. Before you say “wait! wrong story!” just check your expectations and prepare to have them subverted.

For all that, I just couldn’t get into this story. The author is fond of choppy sentences and awkward imagery along the lines of “He lit a smoke and held it between his giant, yellow chompers.” and “Above him, a single bulb shot a cone of lemon light like a UFO tractor beam unable to carry his old fat ass up for a solid probing.” Definitely jarring.

“Colonized” by Scott H. Andrews.

“Colonized” is a thought-provoking piece of prose, deserving of the appellation “interstitial.” There’s a story in the text, but the entire piece is a news broadcast — the dialogue only — covering a shooting at a local college and the interviews with witnesses and experts that would naturally result. The conceit, however, is that the western coast of North America where this shooting takes place was primarily colonized by the Chinese rather than Europeans and the shooter belongs to a working class minority group — the British. The inversion is too straightforward and the story too subjugated to news reporting for it to be meritorious as a narrative in itself, but it certainly has the power to provoke discussion.

“The Recurrence of Orpheus” by Erin Hoffman.

Wow. It did not take me long to figure out the conceit of this story– yes, it is about a descent into the Underworld, and yes, it mixes a bit of Sumerian with its Greco-Roman which is completely fine, but it’s so much more complicated than that. To tell you how would be to ruin the surprise, and this is definitely a tweak that you want to let tickle your mind. It’s about stealing the moon and creating worlds and formalizing language to create reality. It’s about the fate of gods and those who would be gods. It’s something that I never thought would work while I was deep in its dark caverns, but when I emerged– well, it’s haunted me, a ghostly light slipping through my dreams. Well played, Erin Hoffman.

“Welcome to Foreign Lands” by Justin Howe.

This surprisingly enthralling, hot and dirty tale is about Protocosmo: a country at the center of the Earth, where the Earth’s molten core is their sun. It’s a story about getting lost to find one’s way home, which wasn’t quite where one thought they left it. It’s full of compelling details, about the ecology of the earth’s core, the society, the illnesses peculiar to that place (with such names as Conquistador, the Wilting Shivers, or Dewy Ague). A compact, remarkable bit of science fiction, this story has guaranteed that I’ll seek out more of Justin Howe’s work in the future.

You can actually read all of these stories for free by visiting Homeless Moon’s website, or you can send them a $1 to cover the shipping on a physical copy. Either way you do it, I recommend checking The Homeless Moon out.

This review was originally published at my blog on May 8th, 2009. To view the original postings or to discuss it, please visit this entry.

Ravens in the Library

SatyrPhil Brucato and Sandra Buskirk, Ravens in the Library: Magic in the Bard’s Name (Quiet Thunder, Inc., 2009)
You guys remember Ravens in the Library, right? If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, allow me to sum up: S.J. Tucker, traveling musician and fire-spinner extraordinaire, became terribly ill this past winter and had to undergo several very expensive medical procedures. Unfortunately, she did not have health insurance (which is the lamentable lot of many, many people in this country); what she did have, however, were amazing friends (writers, editors, and artists among them) and fans who created and bought a benefit anthology to assist her in paying off her medical debt.

Ravens in the Library is that anthology. It is a limited edition collection edited by SatyrPhil Brucato and Sandra Buskirk, available only until Tucker’s medical expenses have been covered. This is my review.

THE STORIES:

Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire,” by Neil Gaiman.

From its ridiculously over-wrought title to its amusing inversion of reality, this story by Neil Gaiman leaves me feeling delighted and giggly. It’s not a particularly deep meditation on the nature of writing and self-parody and the relationship of reality to fiction, but it’s thought-provoking enough to leave one in a state of (perhaps slightly giddy, definitely bemused) musing at the close of the tale. However, most fans of Neil Gaiman will have already read this story in the collection Fragile Things.

“Out of the Box,” by Ben Dobyns.

The first tale original to this anthology! Dobyns’ story starts out delightfully whimsical, but quickly deteriorates into repetitive prose and nonsense. Dobyns seems to rely overmuch on personal knowledge of S.J. Tucker to the detriment of his deftness with characterization and the point of his narrative.

“Missing Limb” by Ari Berk.

While the language of this story is beautiful and evocative of fairy tales, the actual narrative lapses into incoherence very quickly. I left this tale unsure of much beyond the basic conceit of a young girl wandering into the woods, becoming lost, and encountering a witch who was not a bane to her life, but a boon. This story was quite disappointing in its failure, for it had much promise coming from the pen of Ari Berk. This is the second tale original to this anthology.

“Ten for the Devil,” by Charles de Lint.

While this piece from Charles de Lint was certainly a welcome diversion, full of evocative scenes of minstrelsy and a truly intriguing twist on the Devil’s bargain tale, it falls a little flat in overall tone. There’s no real tension in the narrative: it reads more like a maundering tale you’d tell or be told while sitting a spell on a hot country day. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and sometimes such stories work well on the page. This one, however, would have benefited more by being read aloud, with musical accompaniment from your fellow porch-lazers. Charles de Lint fans will already be familiar with this story from his Tapping the Dream Tree collection.

“You Go Where It Takes You,” by Nathan Ballingrud.

This story was truly and fundamentally horrible. The narrator, a poor Southern woman down on her life and with a drag of a small kid, has no redeeming values and, in fact, damns herself as the point of the story. A damnation that, while being gruesomely reprehensible, is perhaps suggestively condoned by the story’s weave. This story infuriated and sickened me and not in a potentially thought-provoking way. It’s bad enough that this story was published once, in Ellen Datlow’s SciFiction (Sci Fi Channel’s online magazine). I rather wish it had not been collected in this benefit anthology as well.

“Mercury,” by Elizabeth Jordan Leggett.

“Mercury” might have been better if the author could have decided from which perspective she wanted to tell the story. As it is, we’re given a confusing mish-mash of animism and classic cars, the blues and old-fashioned heists, poisonous snakes and hitchhiking ghosts. Which sounds cool, until you try to read it in a mixture of focus-hopping third person omniscient and italicized near stream-of-consciousness. This is the third tale original to this anthology.

1977,” by Carrie Vaughn.

A satisfactory science fiction story about the endurance of music (some genres will live forever! Disco never dies!) and the potential for redemption in every life. Also, its opening scenes have some nicely evocative descriptions of dancing. This piece doesn’t stand out, but it’s the first solid story original to this anthology.

“Ice,” by Francesca Lia Block.

I’ve never read any of Francesca Lia Block’s work before, although I keep meaning to, and so I was excited to get to this story. I am also very fond of Hans Christian Andersen; retellings of The Snow Queen are always a potential treat. I found this to be nothing less than a compelling and modern recasting of that beloved fairy tale. If I had any complaints, it would be that it slips out of an early sense of realism into less realistic and derivative scenes toward the end of the story. However, the effectiveness of her voluptuous prose helps mitigate the narrative shift. Fans of Francesca Lia Block will have already read this story in her collection The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold.

“Kinderkochen,” by Alexandra Duncan.

Another fairy tale retelling, this time of “Hansel and Gretel.” In case the original story was not gritty enough, Duncan here makes it, well, earthier. It’s a worthwhile, compelling read with quite a satisfying conclusion concerning the rise of a new witch. The earthwise cleverness the heroine is imbued with, along with the uncomfortable decisions she makes, propelled this story into my top five of the anthology. Originally published in Rosebud #41, I am not surprised at all that “Kinderkochen” was nominated for the 2008 Mary Shelley award.

“Heartless,” by Holly Black.

Holly Black turns in a serviceable fantasy story concerning the sacrifices people must make for power and the ultimate worth of those decisions. While the tale does not shy away from the rapine of war (both in battlefield looting and the traffick of flesh), Black simplifies the human interaction in a way that robs the narrative of potential pathos and depth. It is, at least, an empowering story with some fascinating spiritual entities. I imagine the slightly crippling simplicity of the tale results from it being originally published in Young Warriors: Stories of Strength, an anthology edited by Tamora Pierce and Josepha Sherman meant for younger readers.

“King of Crows,” by Midori Snyder.

Falling in love with a crow is just a bad idea, but many a wandering bard isn’t known for avoiding bad ideas. Snyder turns in an entertaining, slightly wistful tale about crow court succession, interspecies love, and the transformative nature of music. I’d love to see someone turn this into a graphic novel, perhaps with an accompanying album of instrumental arrangements… the story calls out for further treatment. This is definitely a reprint gem, as well, considering Xanadu 3 is long out of print.

“The Ballad of the Sinister Mr. Mouth,” by Catherynne M. Valente.

In this tale, we find tropical birdmen, the congress of pirates, bizarre and ravished “musical instruments,” and human-on-bird sexual violence. Elsewhere, Valente’s work has been described as “hallucinatory hothouse prose.” All of that applies here, but not in a good way, resulting in an uncomfortably odd but forgettable story. Fantastic title, though! This piece originally appeared at Lone Star Stories (#22).

“A Tithe for the Piper,” by Erzebet YellowBoy.

Erzebet Yellowboy draws on the old tales of the Pied Piper, on the denizens of Faerie being bound to pay a tithe, and so many more bits of folk and fairy lore in this engrossing story both familiar and strange. I’m most intrigued by the powerful commentary on the relationship between liege and subjects that’s so eloquently packed into this short piece. I’m also completely enchanted by the mixture of nature and fey with mortality and the city. This is the fifth tale original to this anthology, and one of the best.

“Built on Blood,” by Storm Constantine.

The problem with this revised reprint from Interzone Magazine is that it takes a very personal perspective and tries to make a larger comment upon society through an impersonal experience. I dig the future, post-apocalyptic society set-up: Constantine is bang-on in her world-building. However, her choice of stage for re-casting Greco-Roman myth falls flat thanks to the disassociation of her heroine.

“Fortune,” by Shira Lipkin.

This story hits on several of my favorite storytelling devices: Tarot cards and a mythological retelling (here, the Descent of Inanna). However, for some reason, the magical realism aspects didn’t entirely mesh well with the terrifying, yes, but sadly all too typical narrative of the degradation and dissolution of a woman alone. However, in spite of that one complaint, this is a powerful recasting of the Inanna myth and Lipkin couldn’t have picked a better back-drop than Vegas. Knowing that pieces of this story were autobiographical makes it linger all the more. This is the sixth tale original to this anthology.

“Pipsqueak,” by Angel Leigh McCoy.

Considering this tale began as a well-written urban fantasy, I was disappointed when it failed to deliver an appropriate resolution. I also found that naming the heroine’s accompanying pixies after the Endless from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was jarring rather than endearing. In any case, this story believably invokes the life of runaways and subtly comments upon the treatment of “lunatics” when they’re just people who happen to see life a different way. I found the characters to be engaging, and only wish the bit about the dog and his keeper had been better explained. This is the seventh tale original to this anthology.

“Ravenous,” by SatyrPhil Brucato.

If you could take an overwrought, melodramatic hard-rocker in her early 20’s and squeeze all her angst onto the page, the runny mess of acid greens and eye-searing oranges and other such bilious (yet trippy) colors that would compose the resulting painting would invoke the feeling one has upon reading “Ravenous.” Which happens to be about an overwrought, melodramatic hard-rocker and her real-life for-true horny version of the Green Fairy. They destroy things, until they figure out how not to. Originally appearing in Weird Tales, I’m glad Brucato chose to reprint it here.

“In His Own Image,” by Alexandra Elizabeth Honigsberg.

Reading “In His Own Image” left me feeling sad and fascinated: Honigsberg’s depictions of a creator pouring his heart and soul into the instruments he fashions were top-notch, as were here distressingly realistic depictions of a man letting his life and family fall apart in an onslaught of obsession. I also appreciate how she nicely painted the international community of the professional orchestral/soloist scene. This is the eighth tale original to the collection.

“Of Mouse, and Music,” by Kris Millering

What a powerful little piece of whimsical loveliness! I delight in the concept of house as an organic and aware construction, adore the implied dual natures of its inhabitants, dance to the personification of music and teasingly included bits of technology. There’s an ensemble cast in this short story, but they all feel like solid people with fantastic pasts. This story really just leaves me wanting more, so much more, set in the same world. This is the ninth tale original to the collection.

“A Thin Line, Between,” by Jaymi Elford

This story seemed promising at first: an enigmatic figure appears in a nightclub, which soon takes on otherworldly qualities, perhaps a prelude to more important elements manifesting among the dancing crowd and acting out some strange pantomime. Unfortunately, it really was just an enigmatic girl in an enigmatic hat (that too often has to be described, in full, as a “big red velvet crumpled tophat”) wandering around the club and mystifying people, maybe touching some lives. This one didn’t stick with me long after turning the page. This is the tenth tale original to the collection.

“The Color of Angels,” by Terri Windling.

Windling permitted a reprint of this stirring and absorbing piece of The Horns of Elfland. Another of my favorite tools in the artist’s creative chest is color; Windling uses it to full effect here, lovingly describing the colors her arist-heroine thinks, feels, and paints. This is a story of love and loss (of others, of oneself), love for the city, love for the country, and the power traditional tales have in our lives. I drifted intoxicated in this piece, reveling in the emotions (delight, melancholy, hope) and the palette of colors. Another reprint gem.

“A Lust of Cupids,” by Laurell K. Hamilton.

An amusing and quaint rumination on what life would be like were Cupid not only real, but a species of creature that hangs out in packs and can be bribed into plying the famous arrows for sweets (more often using them out of mischief or spite). There’s not much to this story, but what is there provides a pleasant diversion during an afternoon wait (between classes, say, or at the laundromat). Fans of Laurell K. Hamilton will recognize this short piece from her Strange Candy collection.

“The Substance of Things Hoped For,” by Mia Nutick.

“The Substance of Things Hoped For” was horrifying in that most awesome of ways: where you find your skin crawling and guts churning at the world presented to you, and you can’t get enough of it. Because the world is fresh and well-envisioned, the perspective is immediately absorbing, and the new yet old approach to classic fantasy tropes inexorably reels in your mind. This is another story that made my Top 5 from this collection and its world full of magic and terror lingers with me still. This is the eleventh tale original to the collection.

“Lost,” by Seanan McGuire.

McGuire’s “Lost” is, hands down, the best tale in this anthology. From its opening hook of historical revelation, you’re pulled along and deep down into the childlike wonder of moonlight songs and the heart-wrenching loss of a full generation of adults (and almost adults). This piece wrenched tears from me quite unbidden: sudden, surprising sobs bit back with wistful emotion. Powerful and terrible, smile-provoking and tear-inducing: as all the great stories are. This is the twelfth and final tale original to this collection.

MUSICAL ACCOMPANIMENT:

Alongside the stories, several sets of lyrics were presented as well (which most fans of S.J. Tucker will be familiar with and so able to sing along– an interactive anthology!).

“Ravens in the Library,” by S.J. Tucker.

“Ravens in the Library,” of course, inaugurates the collection. There is no recording of this song currently available, but I was lucky enough to hear Tucker play it live and so can hum along to its whimsical lines. Having the lyrics, printed, however, throws into sharp relief how little one later (overly didactic) stanza thematically belongs to the song.

“Creature in the Wood,” by Alexander James Adams and “Daughter of the Glade,” by S.J. Tucker.

I’ve never heard “Creature of the Wood” by Alexander James Adams before, though I imagine from the early lyrics that is has kind of a jig-like tune, which is definitely appropriate for a song coming from a satyr. However, as the piece goes on, it seems more melancholy. S.J. Tucker’s “Daughter of the Glade” is presented as a companion piece, and I’ve likewise never heard the song. However, the lyrics are quite provocative and mischievous, as might suit a nymphic faun. “Creature of the Wood” is available on Heather Alexander’s 1996 album Life’s Flame; “Daughter of the Glade” is available on the Tricky Pixie – Live! album.)

“The Wendy Trilogy,” by S.J. Tucker.

The last songs included are those three which compose “The Wendy Trilogy.” This musical triptych is, of course, Tucker’s alternate version of the happenings in the Peter Pan story, where Wendy becomes a pirate and swashbuckles her way across Neverland with a crew of Lost Girls. I’ve always found these rollicking songs to be a great deal of fun. (These songs are available on Tucker’s 2006 album Sirens.)

THE ARTWORK:

As important as the stories to Ravens in the Library is the artwork: visual artists were part of this community that came together and donated their pens and paints and finished art to the cause of rescuing S.J. Tucker from overwhelming medical debt. (Note: Although this anthology only evidenced the participation of editors, writers, and artists in the “Save our s00j !” campaign, you only have to visit the saveours00j community to discover how musicians, Tarot readers, knitters, balm-makers, etc. also bound together in support.)

James A. Owen (of Imaginarium Geographica and Starchild fame) turned out an awesome cover set for the anthology: his image of ravens cavorting in a library while books fly about captures the whimsy of the titular song beautifully. While his brother Jeremy colored the cover set in dark and appropriate hues accentuating James’ penwork, even James’ simple inked drawing is excellent in itself (as you can see paired with Tucker’s song in the opening pages of the collection). Owen also provided an illustration for Valente’s “The Ballad of the Sinister Mr. Mouth,” perfectly capturing the menace and style of that macaw-headed pirate.

Bryan Syme, tattoo artist from Seattle, provided the playful yet macabre illustration “The Ominous Toaster” to accompany Neil Gaiman’s story. A simple push-lever toaster lurks in the foreground, while a scene in stark black and white of dark and stormy night tropes (complete with murdered brother and raven-watching-a-writing-desk) blaze forth from the background. While Syme provides another three pieces for the anthology, this is the best and most evocative of the story it depicts.

He works with the editor, Brucato, to bring us his second illustration “Hind and Seek” accompanying the songs “Creature of the Wood” and “Daughter of the Glade.” A satyr and a nymph play hide and seek around a tree in this very competent illustration full of movement and mischief. His next illustation, for Storm Constatine’s “Built on Blood,” is entirely too busy, especially when squeezed onto a 9×6 page next to the story. (Also, I’m unsure where the upside down blazing car with punk demonic protesters came from. I don’t recall that scene in Constantine’s story.) In some ways, his last illustration (“Best Friends”) for Brucato’s “Ravenous” attempts to convey the most emotion and yet comes across the flattest. The expression in the faery girl’s eyes is almost vacant, while the lounging posture of the angsty hard-rocker belies the sincerity of her tears.

Heather Keith Freeman, on the other hand, captures an amazing amount of mystery with her near cut-out silhouette style of depiction. “Mercury’s Daughter,” with its crooning be-corseted guitar-strummer starkly picked out before a black star-eyed bird soaring in the background goes much farther in capturing the powerful and eccentric spirit of S.J. Tucker than Dobyns’ story “Out of the Box” (which it’s meant to illustrate). Even her “Lifted By The Wind” piece, done in the same sillhouette style, almost perfectly evokes the tone of its piece, which is remarkable considering “Lifted by the Wind” wasn’t actually drawn for Carrie Vaughn’s “1977.” It may be more evocative of a ballet dancer than a disco lover, but the sense of a woman transported by dance and life is undeniable. She also donated “Violissima,” which accompanies Alexandra Elizabeth Honigberg’s haunting piece “In His Own Image.” This is the weakest of her compositions, for while the swirls she patterns into the design evoke and reinforce the viola that is the focal point of the illustration, the naked woman caressing her instrument reflects more the relationship between player and instrument rather than the relationship between maker and instrument which is the focus of the tale it accompanies.

Julia Jeffrey’s contributions to the collection are breathtaking, although only one of the three pieces was specifically drawn for Ravens in the Library. “Willow Wand” accompanies Berk’s “Missing Limb,” and its ethereal, slightly melancholy impression of a nude and fey woman grasping several slender tree limbs lends grace to that somewhat incoherent story. Her “Huntress” — a feral, intense, almost primitive woman — is nearly over-powering to Duncan’s “Kinderkochen” but still entwines with the story well enough to evoke the power of that tale’s ending. It’s her illustration for Seanan McGuire’s “Lost” that is the most powerful, however; the melancholy gaze of the old man accompanied by the wistful clouds and the silhouette of a ship both longed for and feared is nearly without peer in the set of illustrations specifically drawn for the collection’s stories.

Stephanie Pui-Mun Law donated some brilliant work as well: her “Autumn Music” composition inspired by Charles De Lint’s “Ten for the Devil” is gorgeous. Staley in overalls fiddles in the wood, a fall wind swirling from her instrument bringing falling leaves, tinkling in the bottle tree, rustling the garments on the old scarecrow. It’s a powerful and engaging pen and ink drawing. Her depiction of the lust of Cupids in Laurell K. Hamilton’s story of the same name is delightful, a confection of round-cheeked cherubs and fluffy clouds ominously hovering above a fearfully cautious woman. Unfortunately, the delicately rendered lines of Law’s drawings are done a disservice in this anthology, having been printed in a sketchy quality that lightened the line work.

Theo Black’s photographic artwork is an interesting infusion of difference in the anthology’s assemblage of artistic styles; he uses silhouettes to powerful effect in each piece, choosing to represent the moment of crux in each story. For Ballingrud’s “You Go Where It Takes You,” a faceless man and forlorn girl stare down an empty road; in Block’s “Ice,” a cold figure crowned in bare branches stands over the crumpled heap of a human form; for his wife Holly’s story, “Heartless,” a female shape radiating power stands over a fallen soldier while carrion birds wheel in the background. He has a gift for choosing the most important moment in a story to portray, although the photographic melange doesn’t quite pack a powerful enough emotional punch for me.

Echo Chernik contributed two pieces: “Mercury” for the story of the same name (by Elizabeth Jordan Leggett) and “Piper” for Erzebet Yellowboy’s “A Tithe for the Piper.” Knowing the amazing quality of her work, especially in composition, I was disappointed with the simple roughness of her line-drawing for “Mercury” — of Cora-Ann in aviators sexily posing against the hood of a classic car. Her rendering of Piper with its more complicated composition is much better: the lush and sensual form of the fey woman whose wild-blown locks help define the Piper’s face amid all the blown leaves, insects, and butterflies of the background is magically evocative. I would have loved to have seen it fully clothed, so to speak, treated to Echo’s amazing color sense.

Jenny Anckorn is an artist looking to break into full-time illustration and she’s definitely one to keep an eye on: her depiction of the Court of Crows in their human guises cleverly captures the cruelty and self-absorption of those feathered fiends through facial expression, sweeping blacks, and wild lines. The small white patches in the flying tresses of the daughter in Midori Snyder’s “King of Crows” is a subtle touch. Her piece for Windling’s “The Color of Angels” reflects the ascendancy of angels infused with stars, the wild joy of night and the dancing of does, all primarily in white with a night sky backdrop. Her best piece, however, is “Lady Loss” accompanying Lipkin’s “Fortune” — the Tarot card style, the stark lines, the promise and threat of those empty showgirl eyes piercing the viewer, and the well-placed drug paraphernalia are perfect.

Amy Brown’sBelieve Faery II” adequately syncs up with McCoy’s “Pipsqueak” and the delirious, whimsical pixies of that story. Her illustration of Red-Handed Jill and Green-Eyed Sue from Tucker’s “The Wendy Trilogy” captures the mischievous adolescence of those two Neverland pirates, but loses something with its loss of color. In fact, Amy Brown’s art in general does not reproduce in grey tones very well. Her “Cloak of Stars” serves as the background image in a two-page spread for the Dedications, but is a jarring inclusion. Apart from the illustrations directly facing each story, the anthology is raven-themed and the sudden faery there is a surprising departure from that motif.

Chelsea Wright contributes one illustration to the collection: her inaugural publication, as it turns out. She manages to imbue the slender girl in “Thin Line” with a mystery matching that of Jaymi Elford’s story, and her shading technique and framing pattern for the image are excellent. Unfortunately, there’s a vacuous expression on the girl’s face that not even the ridiculously over-sized hat can disguise. I look forward to seeing more of Wright’s work, though.

W. Lyon Martin’s single illustration is the most disappointing piece of art in Ravens in the Library. I am familiar with and fond of Martin’s art through the whimsical and playful illustrations she did for Tucker’s Rabbit’s Song. The piece she delivered on Nutick’s “The Substance of Things Hoped For” suggests that she neither closely read the story nor lingered overlong on her drawing. Considering the depth of pathos and intricacy of the depicted world she had for material, it would have been nice to see a piece more evocative of the whole.

GRAPHICAL DESIGN:

That’s it for the artists! Before we leave the graphical arts behind, however, I’d like to take a moment and address the anthology’s overall design:

Sadly, the design of this book left much to be desired. The reproduction of the artwork varied, with pieces like Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s delicate penwork looking rough. The pictures that fared the best were the ones that were stark blacks and whites, although Julia Jeffrey’s charcoal-like drawings and Theo Black’s photographs also reproduced pretty well. The worst design flaw regarding the illustrations, however, lay in the fact that the majority of the images took up the entire page rather than being scaled down and appropriately framed. This potentially results in people having to break the spines of their books to lay the picture flat in order to appreciate the whole piece.

I found the practice of having a full page for each story’s title to be poor design, preferring the title of the story to head the page upon which said story begins. The use of a second font for Neil Gaiman’s story was annoying, and thankfully something not perpetrated on the rest of the book. (Having Leggett’s “Mercury” in alternate fonts, for example, would have made the tale more maddening than it already is.)

The faded crow-prints crossing various pages was a cute conceit in parts of the collection, but over-used (especially on the title page, rendering it entirely too busy). The faded close-up details of Owen’s cover-work on some of the end-papers was an excellent choice, though, as were the little trios of flying ravens that served to denote story divisions throughout. The covers as well were brilliantly designed, with fantastic font use.

INTRODUCTION:

We are finally coming to the end of my surprisingly-thorough review of Ravens in the Library; I honestly had no idea it was going to be this long when I began composing the first part several days ago. There is only one section now that I wish to comment upon, and that is editor SatyrPhil Brucato’s Introduction, “Voices, Magic, and Change.”

This is a truly excellent introduction. It seeks to introduce you to S.J. Tucker, the brilliant musician and amazing person, and situate her in a generous and loving social context. It succeeds at this, but then goes beyond to address a truly heinous problem: the lack of affordable healthcare for so many across the United States, who don’t necessarily have the same far-reaching and supportive community by which S.J. Tucker is blessed to be surrounded. Brucato illuminates this problem for us, then shouts forth a call to action: to be aware of each other, to be generous to each other, to take care of each other. Each other is all we have. I thank Brucato for his stirring words and I hope they warm the souls of those who read them… so that they, in turn, can spread that fire into the greater community, spreading love.

This review was originally published at my blog in three parts from April 30th – May 3rd, 2009. To view the original postings or any extant discussions, please visit this entry.

Clockwork Phoenix

Mike Allen, Clockwork Phoenix (Norilana Books, 2008)

The subtitle featured on the cover of Clockwork Phoenix is “tales of beauty and strangeness” and, with Mike Allen’s introduction, he immediately attempts to deliver on this promise. Readers are treated to an extended metaphor — a brief sketch of a literal clockwork phoenix and its searing flight through a strange and moving train — meant to prepare us for the contents and the journey this collection represents. This introduction comes across with mixed results: I prefer my introductions to be less abstract and with more relevant introspection. However, if you prefer to look at the anthology as a structure, I’m not sure what more appropriate foyer the architect could have afforded visitors.

The mixed results of the introduction are, in a way, perfectly representative of a collection of stories that is mixed in quality. Some of the worst stories seemed promised front-runners — witness Catherynne M. Valente’s “The City of Blind Delight” and John Grant’s “All the Little Gods We Are” — while some of the best stories turned out to be by relative unknowns, such as Erin Hoffman’s “Root and Vein” and Michael J. DeLuca’s “The Tarrying Messenger.” Instead of trying to group these into sections according to their perceived quality, however, the best way to examine this anthology is surely to follow it through in its arranged order.

Catherynne M. Valente’s “The City of Blind Delight” opens up the anthology, chronicling the surreal tale of a man who catches a train perhaps not meant for him and stumbles into a city of mounting bizarreness. In that city, he finds a train station made of living acrobats, streets of bread and a river of brandy, and a guide who may take something from him rather than show him the way out. The premise of exploring this strange city that occupies the interstices of reality has promise, but ultimately misses its mark with the author’s reliance on overblown prose and painfully contorted metaphors.

“Old Foss is the Name of His Cat,” by David Sandner, is an improvement over the first story of the collection. Inspired by “The Jumblies,” a classic nursery rhyme by Edward Lear, Sandner treats us to the story of a man who has lost his Jumbly love as told through the perspective of his exasperated cat. It sounds surreal and is, but it also succeeds as a meditation on forms of consciousness, the acknowledgement of the unreal, and the ignoring of painful truths.

Unfortunately, the next up is another step back in quality: “All the Little Gods We Are” by John Grant is, to tell it simply, about a phone call to a different universe and a lot of emotional baggage for which we are treated to extensive back story (although that back story has a deception of its own). It begins as a curiosity, but doesn’t offer enough to carry it through its length and closes as a bore.

Cat Rambo’s “The Dew Drop Coffee Lounge” is compellingly written and very cute, telling the story of an avatar of mercy and consolation to victims of broken blind dates. While it may end up dated due to some pop culture references, it is a charming and entertaining story.

“Bell, Book, and Candle,” by Leah Bobet, is a brutally absorbing depiction of the anthropomorphic personifications of the title instruments. What would you imagine their lives to be like, if these key instruments of excommunication were flesh and blood? I’m terribly fond of stories that humanize archetypes well, and this story succeeds painfully and delightfully. (This story is available online at this site.)

“The Tarrying Messenger,” the story of a young woman biking across the United States, didn’t grab me as easily as the one other story I’ve read by Michael J. DeLuca — “The Utter Proximity of God,” a beautiful piece from Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing. Less lyrical than his Interfictions piece, this story reveals its own rhythm and proves as affecting a story in the end: it manifests as an act of burning muddied ideas away to reveal clarity in the bright crucible of the desert.

I’m not entirely sure that Laird Barron’s “The Occultation” made sense, but it had an amazing way with atmosphere. In fact, the atmosphere in this story of a couple creeping themselves out over the nothing in the dark that might actually just be something in the dark is so skillfully handled that it actually resulted in me being creeped out. In a nicely lit room.

Ekaterina Sedia’s “There Is a Monster Under Helen’s Bed” is a bleak little story that can’t seem to make up its mind whether its a cross-cultural examination and harsh meditation on adoption or a story of real monsters and deathly wonders. Due to this narrative confusion, I can’t say whether the story succeeds . . . unless it was meant to inspire mild depression, in which case it did just fine.

“Palisade” by Cat Sparks grabs you from the start, sketching out a decadent planet and the humanmaintained palisade that can stand against it. Of course, a name like “Palisade” begs the question of what can bring said wall down. The demented, encroaching natural fauna of the surrounding jungle? Or the morally-bankrupt corruption within the walls? While the story provides a fun ride, reflecting on that question reveals some holes in the story I rather wish I hadn’t noticed.

In Tanith Lee’s “The Woman,” the premise of human civilization dwindling thanks to a lack of women, and hence the ability to propagate, provides an intriguing framework on which to build a story of the desperate aging of humanity — of men who have but one woman left to them. The story Lee spins is intriguing and vital and sad, but ultimately not as engaging as it could have been with more action and less exposition.

“A Mask of Flesh” is a slow tale, relying on its mystery — something it does very well. My lasting impressions of this piece by Marie Brennan are of a tight, fascinating, and gloriously straightforward revenge tale.

“Seven Scenes from Harrai’s Sacred Mountain,” by Jennifer Crow, is remarkable in its unremarkableness. Each vignette obviously captures flashes from a single life, all promintently featuring the mountain as provider, destroyer, inspiration, and fear. Although the piece is overly mysterious, with no plot, it works and invokes a powerful atmosphere.

Vandana Singh’s “Oblivion: A Journey” is just incredibly amazing. It’s a fully immersive experience without being awkward, which can be a feat in a short story such as this one that relies on a fully developed alternate universe. Old myths inform new lives in this crazy and compelling narrative, and Singh’s visual storytelling means I can easily imagine this story as a breathtaking graphic novel.

I found “Choosers of the Slain,” by John C. Wright, to be an interesting little philosophical debate on the cusp of a major action. The power of the narrative is achieved through Wright’s invocation of repetition.

“Akhila, Divided,” by C. S. MacCath, suffers from uneven quality in prose and story details. I found some questions nagging at me regarding the setting that detracted from my suspension of disbelief and had a hard time buying some of the characterization. However, the core character Akhila just swept me away and her final resolution erased my reservations.

Joanna Galbraith’s “The Moon-Keeper’s Friend” suffers from an identity crisis, veering from fairy tale to social commentary to magical realism to parodic ludicrousness. While some of her language is lovely and the premise intriguing, this story ultimately falls flat.

Deborah Biancotti’s story “The Tailor of Time” is one of the better stories in the collection. The narrative is straightforward, the prose well-written, and it resolves as a delightful fairy tale with emotionally affecting depths. Here there be ruminations on the quality of time, the nature of creation, and the meaning of death. (This is the second story from Clockwork Phoenix available online: the first part is available here and the second part here.)

Finally, we come to Erin Hoffman’s “Root and Vein,” a story about which I can say almost nothing without my hands waving about in awe and delight. This fable of a dryad and her heart is pefect, beautiful, and glorious. The glory of this one tale lends one a feeling of satisfaction and grace upon closing Clockwork Phoenix.

It seems that Mike Allen started with the worst stories and built this edifice into a dizzying and satisfying end. It was definitely an anthology that necessarily folded out over time, best consumed slowly and intermittently rather than quickly. There were enough excellent stories here that I’m sure to check out the second collection, due out in Summer 2009.

Clockwork Phoenix and news about the upcoming sequel anthology can be found online here.

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on February 22, 2009.

Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fantasy

Ekaterina Sedia, Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fantasy (Senses Five Press, 2008)

Paper Cities is a collection of urban fantasy in the truest sense of the term: stories of the fantastic from or about the city and all the wonderment and horror that entails. I imagine most people would prefer to think of cities as dumb beasts, mere collections of brick and mortar, marble and steel, men and women, children and the dead. Yet people who think of society not as a collective organism but as a loose gathering of people only peripherally affected by each other would be under a mistaken impression. Cities are alive: they breathe, they think, and they dream. They are the loom that knits together past and present and future, weaving the living and the dead, the animate and the inanimate into a sum much bigger than the total of its parts.

The writers here collected by Senses Five Press and Ekaterina Sedia understand that. Not only have they channeled intoxicating and surprising places into these paper-and-ink windows, but some of the stories will put the feet of anyone who reads them on the road to understanding that cities are alive.

This is a fairly eclectic collection, bringing together semi-historical fantasy, mythpunk, cyberpunk, science fiction, YA fantasy, and even a hunting adventure about the one that got away. Of course, not all stories were created equal. While the quality of the writing in this collection is pretty consistent, the ideas and execution are not always as engaging.

To wit, I’ll get the slow runners out of the way: “The Tower of Morning’s Bones” by Hal Duncan, “The Title of This Story” by Stephanie Campisi, “Courting the Lady Scythe” by Richard Parks, and “Painting Haiti” by Michael Jasper slightly encumber the sleek lines of this anthology. As I said, there’s no fault to be found in the quality of the writing. It’s just that these particular stories carry within them either an element of confusion (the former two) or plot mediocrity (in the case of the latter). Duncan’s story is built dizzyingly with his usual shtick, albeit slightly more accessible than his novels, and the only thing that can be said about his confused morass of a mythpunk story is that it suits the subject matter and there are some lovely individual phrases. “The Title of This Story” seems to hit a few feet shy of its mark, and the remaining two stories are simply transparent and too restrained, respectively.

There’s also a solid middle-class packed into this anthology. Forrest Aguirre’s “Andretto Walks the King’s Way” breaks down the Black Death into bite-sized chunks of horrific whimsy and phantasmagoric realism, while “The Bumblety’s Marble” by Cat Rambo gives us a pleasurable jaunt through a city where the dead and undead live and work (sometimes begrudgingly) together. “The One That Got Away” by Mark Teppo is definitely a bitter brew quaffed after a long, strange day and, while predictable, is awash in unpredictable emotions. “Alex and the Toyceivers” is too episodic to be completely engaging, but this is understandable given that it’s the continuation of a tale broken into short stories and scattered across publications. I hope Paul Meloy is planning to collect his stories soon, however, for although this short piece is absorbingly bizarre and fraught with danger, it’s too little to feel complete. Darin C. Bradley’s cyberpunk story, “They Would Only Be Roads,” is mainly intriguing due to the use of sympathetic magic and computer programs to create and control magical rituals and the tracing of a city through its veins of cable and circuitry. “Taser” by Jenn Reese engages us in a boys-on-the-street story where certain canines are in control and the street justice (and injustice) that ensues. David Schwartz’s “Somnambulist” rounds out the middle class, giving us an old soul who likes piggyback rides and hates death but makes the mistake of loving a fiery and powerful woman.

Before we get to the royalty of this collection, I’d like to also touch base with the high rollers. “Ghost Market” by Greg van Eekhout is well executed, shocking us into a reality where the essence of your life is collected at your death and sealed up in a little bottle for clientèle with the right cash. Steve Berman’s “Tearjerker” seals us off in a city gone weird, where tears are drugs and ink-bled words writhe on flesh, and everyone just tries to get by. Ben Peek’s “The Funeral, Ruined” chokes our throat with ashes and chills our skin with horror against the backdrop of a city built around a giant crematorium in a world where people need not die. “Down to the Silver Spirits” by Kaaron Warren sets that horror to quivering in our insides, climbing up our spines like the tiny hands of drowned children. At last, “The Age of Fish, Post-flowers” (Anna Tambour) and “The Last Escape” (Barth Anderson) give us back some distance, allowing us to engage our intellects in social science fiction: the dissolution of our cities in the face of monster onslaught, for one, and our head-in-the-sand herd mentality for the other. Any of these stories will leave you contemplative and replete with satisfaction.

Then, there are the crown jewels: those stories of the collection that blew me away, either with brutal majesty, sorrowful beauty, surprising whimsy, or sheer genius. Jay Lake’s “Promises: A Tale of the City Imperishable” is simply brilliant: the decadence of his city is intoxicating and the matter-of-fact plunge he takes into the depths of a brutal-to-be-compassionate Sisterhood is wholly absorbing. These words sting and sober. “Sammarynda Deep” by Cat Sparks is a uniquely told love tragedy, a bold interweaving of philosophy and culture that end in the creation of something forbidden and new. Vylar Kaftan’s “Godivy” is laugh-out-loud enjoyable satire and there’s nothing else I’ll tell you! “Palimpsest,” now. Catherynne M. Valente’s “Palimpsest” is sheer intoxication: a city both viral and literal that infects and changes the bodies of its inhabitants even as its inhabitants affect it. It is full of the whimsically delightful and blood-deep wonder and fascinating curiosity. “Palimpsest” leaves you hungry and satiated all at once.

I definitely recommend this collection: besides being full of so many solid and some brilliant works, it also acts as a good taster collection since several of the stories within open the door to larger works. Jay Lake’s City Imperishable can be visited again in Trial of Flowers and his forthcoming Madness of Flowers. Catherynne M. Valente’s “Palimpsest” will, of course, be the topic of her forthcoming novel Palimpsest. Paul Meloy’s story is a continuation of several others which you can seek out in the publications The Third Alternative and Interzone. Also, if you like Hal Duncan’s style here, you’ll likely enjoy his two published volumes: Vellum and Ink.

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on March 23rd, 2008.

Imaginings: An Anthology of Visionary Literature

Stefan Rudnicki, editor, Imaginings: An Anthology of Visionary Literature; Volume One: After the Myths Went Home (Frog, Ltd., 2004)

There’s nothing I enjoy so much as a good story replete with fantastical and mythological elements. Therefore, when I heard about Stefan Rudnicki’s latest venture, an anthology entitled Imaginings: An Anthology of Visionary Literature, I was beside myself with anticipation. As the name suggested, I expected a collection of bizarre and forward-thinking stories. This is the first volume of three, with this particular volume entitled After The Myths Went Home. This conjured in me anticipation for stories of myth and nihilism, meaning and void.

I cracked open the book, devouring Harlan Ellison’s brilliant foreword before turning to the contents page. I have read no few terribly dry and unappetizing forewords, and Ellison’s endeavor here was definitely not one of them. It spoke lushly and alluringly of the work Stefan Rudnicki had accomplished in this collection. It pulled me in, revved me up for a great anthological experience.

A quick scan of the contents revealed this anthology to be composed of two poems and fourteen prose selections (an assortment of stories, excerpts, and plays). The anthology is divided equally into two sections: “The Myths We Live By” and “Other Myths.” Excited by Ellison’s introduction, I hurriedly flipped the pages back to begin the anthology proper. Unfortunately, as I read on, I was ever more disappointed by this anthology.

The opening prose piece, “After the Myths Went Home” by Robert Silverberg, is a very well characterized story about what happens when we no longer breathe life into the heroes we create through stories constantly told, preferring instead to conjure our mythological figures from the past for the sake of mere spectacle. Then we pack them away once more when they no longer amuse. The narrative voice is rather distant in this story leaving the reader chilled, albeit minimally impacted. This story, though mediocre, did fit in with the purported theme of this anthology: visionary literature.

However, the main purpose of John Crowley’s “Novelty” in this anthology seems to be to take up space, as it does very little else. The concept of the piece is engaging enough: the story is meant to map out the process of creativity itself through close examination of one writer’s daily mental acrobatics, memory indulgences, and minimal social interaction. However, the execution of this idea leaves much to be desired. The story starts on an engaging note, only to maunder on into a lack of focus. Sadly, this meandering thoughtlessness is a recurring theme of this anthology. “Murderer, the Hope of All Women” by Oskar Kokoschka is the crowning example of what doesn’t belong. I do not fault it as a play — when acted out upon the stage, this piece may make actual sense where it makes so little flat upon the page. This play has something to do with men, women, and the relationship between the two sexes. If chaotic and visionary were synonymous, I could see how this translation from the German by Mr. Rudnicki would work here. However, that is not the case and this selection is one to be hurried past.

Algernon Blackwood’s “The Touch of Pan” is a well-written period piece, but again doesn’t seem to fit in well with the supposed theme of visionary literature. Admittedly, it does feature a wild young woman who does not mesh well with societal norms and who entices a socially acceptable young man to a woods-based Bacchanalian orgy. Yet it doesn’t reach much further, remaining at most a story of romance. (It is worth noting here that this is but one of four stories in the first section that feature either Bacchus or Pan and reserved order’s struggle against mad passion. While this is a worthy subject, it does seem overly represented.)

It’s no wonder, then, that I proceeded into the next section with some trepidation. If all the stories that had come before were supposedly representative of the “myths we live by,” what hope could possibly be found in a section off-handedly dubbed “Other Myths”? “Mystery Train” by Lewis Shiner helped knock that hesitance down a few notches. This story about Elvis’ fictional wartime experience regarding a future-telling television set and a dead movie star is just bizarre, culminating in a laughable, yet somehow chilling, inclusion of Elvis in a secret entertainment cabal. This sort of story is more what I expected from this anthology: extremely odd, out there, visionary.

The following story, “Continued on Next Rock” by R.A. Lafferty, was absolutely brilliant. This story contained everything I expect when I hear the term “visionary literature”: it didn’t explain itself (yet was accessible), it engaged archetypal figures, and it tripped the reader into a bizarre other world that was similar enough to our usual world that it just might be our own world seen by truly open eyes. I highly recommend this story about an archeological dig gone inexplicably awry, involving a curmudgeonly Magdalen and impossible artifacts.

“Diary of a God” by Barry Pain was a highly intriguing look at the birth of a new race of gods. Using both third person omniscient and diary entries, the author manages to depict a tale at once wonderingly mad and wholly sane. This story was definitely visionary both in thought and technical construction, but Rudnicki lessens its impact by following it with several other similarly formatted stories. Robert W. Chambers’ “The Yellow Sign” is yet another disappointment. It’s actually an excerpt from a novel entitled The King in Yellow, and therein lay one of the selection’s problems: there is too much plot outside the story to ensure satisfaction from just reading this one chapter. In brief, this story addresses the foreshadowed darkening days of a painter and his model. The source of their woe is a book about a fictional place: Carcosa (that is also addressed in two other selections of this anthology). Though this story is weird and strange, the reader is left worrying too much about what’s in that fictional book rather than the function of the book in relation to the rest of the story.

My main complaint regarding this anthology is that it is full of selections that don’t fit the “visionary literature” theme. Most of these stories are mediocre examples of a rich body of literature that spans the science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction genres. Reading through this anthology and looking at it as a cohesive whole was rather like listening to a discordant piece of music: the stories are ill-fitting and not well representative of their discrete genres. Therefore, as good as “Continued on Next Rock” is, I still don’t think I can suggest purchasing this book to the general public. However, if you happen across Imaginings at the public library, I would suggest picking it up to indulge in Lafferty’s story alone.

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on April 18th, 2004.