Category Archives: Reviews (Books)

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].

Santa Olivia

Jacqueline Carey, Santa Olivia (Grand Central Publishing, 2009)

Fans of Jacqueline Carey will be pleasantly surprised, I think, by her latest offering and its inherent divergence from her usual style: there is nothing of the lush language and sensuous worldbuilding of the Kushiel’s Legacy series here, nor any of the tragic melancholia and subverted fantasy tropes of The Sundering duology. No, Santa Olivia is the essence of the desert: sparse, bright, gritty, and full of visions that might mean hope or death.

Santa Olivia is set in an analogue of our world: it’s almost identical to our current time, except a terrible pandemic has devastated the human population (at least in America and Mexico) and led to a military cordon being established along the border of Texas and Mexico. The cordon is a sort of no-man’s-land, with the small town of Santa Olivia and its citizens unwilling to forsake their homes being converted into Outpost No. 12, a settlement serving the soldiers from the nearby United States’ military base established to police the cordon. Life is hard and hopeless for the citizens of Outpost; there is no civilian police, but gangs tolerated by the MP keep things in a grim semblance of order and arrange nightlife for the soldiers. There are barely enough necessities to go around for Outpost’s denizens, much less amenities or distractions. There’s no escape: no one from Outpost is allowed to leave, and its uncertain whether anyone outside of the military base knows they’re still there.

The story opens with Carmen Garron: waitress and soldier’s lady. Her perspective is a bit hard to get into as there’s so little to Carmen’s life beyond work, men, and eventually her children. However, Carmen’s opening does what it’s meant to do: it establishes the simplicity of Outpost and how circumscribed life there is. It demonstrates that there is still value in people, even in this untenable situation of an exploited people (or non-people, as remaining in Outpost stripped them of their rights as citizens). And when a mysterious, genetically-altered man who can feel no fear walks out of the desert, it demonstrates that neither hope nor love can die.

From Carmen and this “wolf-man,” comes Loup Garron. Loup is our main character: a girl who can feel no fear thanks to her father’s genetic contributions. A girl who can throw harder, run faster, and endure much more than anyone else in Outpost. A girl who loves her older brother Tommy, product of Carmen’s earlier tryst with her first soldier love: Tommy, who is a shining beacon of hope for Outpost and their premiere boxer. And Loup is a girl who is eventually orphaned, sent to live in the church under the auspices of the saint on whose day she was born.

What follows is a page-turning, intoxicating tale of human relationships and the sheer power hope has in our lives. There’s a miscreant bunch of Orphans (the Santitos) who define Loup’s life and who lead to mythology-building superhero adventures. There’s a lover too afraid to be with a woman unable to fear for herself and simultaneously too afraid not to. There’s boxing and military intrigue and heartbreaking death and laugh-out-loud-so-you-won’t-cry irreverent clergy.

There is all of this in spare prose and profane language. Indeed, I cannot resist sharing the opening paragraphs with you:

“They said that the statue of Our Lady of the Sorrows wept tears of blood the day the sickness came to Santa Olivia. The people said that God had turned his face away from humankind. They said that saints remember what God forgets about human suffering.

Of course they said that in a lot of places during those years.

For a long time, there was dying. Dying and fucking. A lot of dying and a lot of fucking, and more dying.

There were rumors about El Segundo’s forces staging raids across the wall; Santa Anna el Segundo, the rebel Mexican general. If it was true, they were never seen anywhere near Santa Olivia. But why would they be? There wasn’t a hospital there. After the second wave of sickness, there wasn’t even a proper doctor.

But it must have been true because the soldiers came.

The day the soldiers arrived, Our Lady’s tears dried to rust in her shrine.”

It is a remarkable maiden voyage into urban fantasy for Carey; I can only fervently hope that it will not be her last. For if there’s any flaw within Santa Olivia, it is this: this is just the beginning of Loup Garron’s tale, for I cannot accept it as the last.

More news on Jacqueline Carey and excerpts from her work (as well as some excellent body art inspired by her worlds) can be found online at her website.

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on May 17th, 2009.

The Secret History of Giants

Ari Berk, The Secret History of Giants (Candlewick Press, 2008)

Anyone first laying eyes on The Secret History of Giants must surely exclaim as I did: “What a charming little volume!” From its textured cover featuring an intriguing root-bedecked giant face (with a serious reflective gleam in his eye) to its earth-toned tassel, this is a book meant to enchant and captivate.

The marvelous nature of this book continues on its title page, where The Secret History of Giants is given the subtitle Codex Giganticum and author Ari Berk is described as “Magister and Scribe.” Yes, indeed, the book’s conceit is that it reads as if it truly were a secret historical document chronicling the affairs and natures of giants. This is not merely a collection of folklore and fairy tales about giants from around the world. Instead, this is a fully immersive experience: a text woven into a mythological whole cloth from the worldly and diverse fibers of myth, legend, folklore, fairy tale and imagination.

Besides The Secret History of Giants featuring such a marvelous text of giant history and society, the book itself is physically enthralling. Within its pages are smaller books with their own tiny pages to be turned, documents to be rifled through, wide spreads to be folded open: these extras explain the meanings of gems and stones to giants, the game Quoits, recipes for giant cuisine, and so much more. Considering how delighted I am about this book as an adult, I can well imagine I would have been over the moon as an adolescent!

As important to The Secret History of Giants as the authorship and design sense are the illustrations: cavorting or grinning or lazing about every page, the illustrations are weft to the words’ warp. The book features artwork by Wayne Anderson, Douglas Carrel, Gary Chalk, Kevin Levell, and Larry MacDougall. Through their pen and ink drawings, their grey-scale sketches, their watercolors are the Hall of Giants, the lovely giantesses, the giant companion animals, and earthfast kin brought to life.

This is a book that I want to share with children; it’s certainly staying on my shelf until I have children of my own to appreciate it as I do. Such a cleverly designed and captivating volume of fantasy demands nothing less than the inquiring and imaginative minds of children ready to discover tales of hidden folk– and then to imagine their own encounters with those folk with such enthralling new fodder. As an adult studying folklore and fairy tales myself, I have only one semi-complaint about Berk’s work: I want his bibliography!

I’m definitely pleased that Berk takes the time to establish “The Order of the Golden Quills” at the start of the secret history: a secret society (with some very honored members) whose members have been observing the habits of such hidden folk for ages. Not only does it give young readers another in with the history — they can now pretend to be agents of the Order too — but it signifies that Berk has future volumes planned. Indeed, The Secret History of Mermaids and Merfolk is due to be released this September (2009). For my part, I can’t wait to discover what new delights await in what I’m sure is a fantastic underwater realm.

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on May 17th, 2009. It was also awarded an Excellence in Writing Award by the editors of that publication.

Rosemary and Rue

Seanan McGuire, Rosemary and Rue (DAW, 2009)

It’s such a tried-and-true formula in urban fantasy: mythical creature and/or fantastical society live one step to the left of humankind’s mundane existence. There are a million hidden interstices that most of us never notice, and we’d be grateful for this if we knew, for the fantasies lurking beyond our sight are more often fanged and dangerous than sweet and friendly.
Rosemary and Rue
October Daye, a cynical and perpetually caffeinated lapsed PI, is a half-faerie attempting to keep her head down and lead a mundane life in San Francisco. The novel proper begins after some significant torture and personal losses, so she’s pretty dedicated to this drama-free lifestyle. Unfortunately, as a knight still in the service of Sylvester Torquill and a friend to some of the more powerful local faerie denizens, Toby isn’t allowed her wish. The death of Evening Winterrose, hated friend and beloved irritant, and her last, powerful curse drag Toby back into the wonderful nightmare-world existing in tandem with our San Francisco: a world of cat-like rose goblins, doors into the Summerlands, runaway changelings, and an ancient sea witch. It’s a world where one wrong step – political or otherwise – could kill you. Or worse.

As you can see, this debut novel from Seanan McGuire plays to type; yet I can say, without a doubt, that this is the best urban fantasy novel I’ve read in five years. I make this assertion drawing from a pool of novels by Charlaine Harris, Tanya Huff, Emma Bull, Patricia Briggs, and others.

One important element to any urban fantasy is the urban aspect: it’s not enough for the narrative to take place in any city, where the urban center is poorly described and becomes passive background. The city must become as much a character as any changeling investigator, with clearly described locales and an affecting atmosphere. McGuire succeeds in spades here: I have never been to San Francisco, but the city came to life for me in this novel and the immediacy of that understanding heightened my immersion in the story. Rosemary and Rue was clearly written by someone who has walked many miles in that city and is intimately acquainted with its heart.

McGuire’s main character, October Daye, is as strongly and uniquely portrayed as San Francisco. Toby, as a halfblood and a PI, could so easily have become a bland cipher; instead, she is a believable, strong, and yet flawed heroine with a nuanced voice. Toby is almost perpetually annoyed and sleep-deprived, spends most of the novel subsisting on caffeine and sheer stubbornness, and yet her perspective never devolves into tiresome whinging. She is a deeply-hurt woman who is stumbling toward a measure of recovery while trying to do right by a friend and, incidentally, save her own life. The resulting journey is fascinating: the perspective is truly first person limited, so Toby sometimes does seemingly stupid things and is blind to things the reader may think are apparent – but things aren’t always so blazingly clear, are they, when you’re the one experiencing some serious and real drama?

Beyond developing a compellingly dynamic protagonist and portraying San Francisco in an absorbingly realistic manner, McGuire succeeded in creating a three-dimensional fabric of reality: the other characters in the narrative aren’t just background for Toby to interact with. They are people who have lives and backgrounds that are clearly important both to the current story and whatever is to come. The King of Cats has a long history with October, the moonstruck-mad Queen wasn’t always so, and the kitsune duchess seems to tend secrets as much as roses in her underhill home. They are all worlds unto themselves. This is the best sort of debut novel: a window into a reality ready-made for exploration, where causality is as much a force as it is in our real lives.

Further, McGuire’s depiction of Faerie and its denizens reveals that an incredible amount of accrued knowledge went into the world of Rosemary and Rue. She delves beyond kitsune and selkies, beyond even Daoin Sidhe and Cait Sidhe, into coblynau and Tylwyth Tegs: while the specifics of her society and much of these faeries’ interactions may be all McGuire, each of these creatures exists in folklore. Anyone interested in faerie lore and folklore, especially of the United Kingdom (in this novel), will be incredibly delighted by the breadth
and depth of the author’s research.

Rosemary and Rue isn’t without its flaws – at times, the exposition overbalances from stage-setting to distracting, and the mystery does seem to wander a bit aimlessly in the middle – but the exhilaration of getting to know this particular San Francisco and this particular Faerie more than compensate for any of those drawbacks. Moreover, these are flaws that I don’t expect will continue past this debut: the occasional over-exposition was due to initial worldbuilding, and any issues with plot pacing are overcome with experience. Considering that DAW is poised to release two more titles in the October Daye series and that the author’s blog indicates she is currently working on the fourth and fifth titles, McGuire is daily gaining more experience as a storyteller. I look forward to each Toby novel being better than the last, and can’t wait to get my hands on them. Honestly: if you’re an appreciator of urban fantasy and you’re looking for some new blood that’s actually vital, it’s imperative that you pick up Rosemary and Rue.

This review was originally published at my blog on May 8th, 2009.

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.

Palimpsest

Catherynne M. Valente, Palimpsest (Bantam Spectra, 2009)

Palimpsest runs the risk that all hotly desired lovers do — it fetches you in with a dream, teases you into a taut state of wanting, and leaves you desolate in the face of reality. Or — here, have another analogy, for this work seems to throw itself at them — like its namesake, you may fall in love with the gorgeous purity of its surface text, but flinch in horror from what lurks beneath, barely scraped away.

The plot of Palimpsest is rather straightforward. Four strangers find themselves the newest hosts of a sexually transmitted city. Each of them have slept with an individual bearing an intensely black mark that looks like nothing so much as a small part of a strange city map. Afterward, they experience a bizarre dream in which the four characters, still unknown to each other, find themselves ritually tied together in a frog-headed fortuneteller’s shop before being released to wander separately and divided in a truly bizarre otherworldly city. In this city, the vermin are manufactured clockwork creatures of dizzying perplexity and stunning beauty; canals are filled with clothes above rivers of cream; lion-headed priests silently cry aching sermons in breathtaking cathedrals; trains are wild beasts and contain rice paddies, forests, the dead, and the rabbit of the moon. The city offers amazing wonders and staggering horrors. The city is still seeping pus from infected wounds left by war. An alien and glittering tyrant wants to open doors, the city wants to be known, and the four — Sei, November, Oleg, and Ludovico — don’t want to leave this place they seem only able to enter in dreams.

The story, of course, is a thing of layers and very much complicated by the fifth main character — perhaps the only main character — of Palimpsest itself. While the novel teases us with the much larger stories of this city’s origins, its history, and its desires for the future, Valente chooses to make this an intimate, restricted tale of how four blessed and cursed individuals get to live forever in a subverted amalgamation of Never Never Land, Wonderland, and an adult BDSM convention.

In spite of the amazing images to be found in the city of Palimpsest, I found myself alienated and repulsed by the full weave of the tale. Like a certain character encountered by one of our Quartet, I find only disconnection, horror, sadness, and ruination in the city of Palimpsest. It’s a place that encourages you to abandon a world of connection for an intensely private experience in a bizarre city. Also, for much of the narrative, the only door available to those inducted who wish to travel to Palimpsest is by having sex with another bearer of the map. But instead of taking the opportunity to write a sex-positive work and examine the full range of true connection among human beings, sexual intercourse in this novel is most often relegated to something distasteful that must be done to get a ticket. The person doesn’t matter; only the map matters. Only the city and one’s private relationship with the city matters. There are very few examples of real and loving relationships between map-bearers in the story: just enough to keep me from feeling broken by the desolate disconnection everywhere else prevalent in the novel. Not enough to make me feel comforted or delighted by the work except in very rare flashes.

However, to be fair, the devaluation of sex in the novel may simply be a function of the main plot conceit. Considering Palimpsest is an invasive city that rapes your consciousness and immediately starts learning how to manipulate you into coming back, and also considering that the only method of returning is through sex . . . well, in the throes of a full addiction to the city, sex would stop being a meaningful connection itself and start being only a means to an end. While I can understand that and respect Valente being true to her conceit, this fundamental choice in execution still leaves me cold.

While I may not have enjoyed reading this novel, I must admit that it keeps you actively thinking throughout. I was writing pages of notes and engaging with the ideas behind the text even as I was feeling more and more alienated by the story that unfolded. Upon immediately finishing it, I discovered that I wanted to discuss it with others and take apart this terrifying city and its motivations. That feeling comes and goes now, almost like memories of a dream. And like memories of a dream, the compulsion to discuss Palimpsest is inspired by random life moments — seeing a painting on the cover of a magazine (Maggie Taylor’s Girl in a Bee Dress) or in the compiling of lists.

I scrawled this line out in a paroxysm of response when I was but half-way through this quick yet lingering read: reading Palimpsest is like looking at a lush and densely-rendered painting that arrests the eye but does not touch the soul.

It stands as my last warning to you, next to this: upon entering the city, upon the moment of separation in the fortuneteller’s shop, you are shown red words on yellow card, “You have been quartered.” A fitting line, for this novel can leave you feeling divided into so many disconnected and horrified pieces. If you look for a beautiful story or true connection or positive human relationships, do not look for it here. Beware all who enter the pages of Palimpsest.

I should add here that, while I can’t recommend the book, I am a great lover of the short story upon which this novel expands. You can read it online at Senses Five Press.

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on March 8th, 2009. It was also awarded an Excellence in Writing Award by the editors of that publication.

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.

The Bell at Sealey Head

Patricia A. McKillip, The Bell at Sealey Head (Ace Books, 2008)

You look at the book: a woman, golden and wind-blown, spins your perception around her, a dizzying path into a sky the deep blue of the sea and down onto a wall white as bone, writhing with crows. Kinuko Y. Craft’s dream-like cover art, so inextricable from McKillip’s writings today, has your hands reaching for the book and your mind already partially intoxicated.

You open the book, flip past the title page, and read:

“Judd Cauley stood in his father’s rooms in the Inn at Sealey Head, looking out the back window at the magnificent struggle between dark and light as the sun fought its way into the sea. Dugold Cauley seemed to be watching, too, his gray head cocked toward the battle in the sky as though he could see the great, billowing purple clouds swelled to overwhelm the sun striving against them, sending sudden shafts of light out of every ragged tear in the cloud to spill across the tide and turn the spindrift gold.”

Ah, there it is. What? A domestic hook into a picturesque town? An intimation of a quiet struggle between light and dark, blindness and clarity, the true shape of things alternatively hidden and shining forth? Yes. To all of this, yes.

Patricia A. McKillip has succeeded in weaving a lovely novel, part mystery, part fairy tale, all flavored by a Jane Austen sensibility. Concerning itself with an invisible bell of unknown origin that tolls with a supernatural clarity of sound across all of Sealey Head at the precise moment of sunset, her narrative is perhaps best characterized as an enchanting waltz through the building of stories, set among this particular sleepy little fishing village with its attendant deep people and deeper mysteries.

As usual for a waltz, the pace of the novel is slow and measured. Although the resolution of the mystery is surprising and satisfying, there are no shockingly breathless moments in the tale. This is comfort reading at its best: consistent, multi-faceted, and layered, all wrapped up in McKillip’s typically intoxicating and evocative language. It’s also peopled by convincingly genuine characters, from the bookish innkeeper’s son to the deceptively shallow Lady’s daughter to the princess of a castle that exists only between the walls of a great house overlooking Sealey Head.

Perhaps, as a writer, this story was even more engrossing for me due to the interwoven commentary on the nature of storytelling and storytellers. One of the main characters, Gwyneth Blair, is a young woman writer, struggling to find time to write in the face of her family’s and society’s expectations of her: her struggle recalls the challenges faced by early female writers in our own world’s history (particularly the history of Western women’s writing). Meanwhile, the story she labors to write subtly comments upon the creation of history and fable. Deeper still in the story, there is another book and another writer, and the relationship between that book and writer tells a very differet story, a violent story, on the nature of control.

While I recommend this book whole-heartedly for reading any time of day or night, on a plane, on a train, or simply on the couch at home, here is my specific prescription for The Bell at Sealey Head: buy it, place it upon your bookshelf, and wait. Wait until a day when you feel blue, or when the world is blue around you, with stormy heavens and endless rain. Make a cup of tea, settle yourself among soft pillows and fabrics, and then enter The Bell at Sealey Head. Savor it. You’ll feel better immediately.

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on October 19th, 2008. It was also rewarded an Excellence in Writing Award by the editors of that publication.

Fairy Tale Review: The Violet Issue

Kate Bernheimer, The Fairy Tale Review: The Violet Issue (The University of Alabama Press, 2007)

The fairy tale is not dead.

This has been proven by many authors across several genres, especially the mythic art movement until lately spearheaded by the Endicott Studio. And here, once more, the fairy tale is shown to be still a vital and formative part of many people’s lives, thanks to Kate Bernheimer (well-known for Mirror Mirror on the Wall, wherein women writers explore their favorite fairy tales in essay form).

Bernheimer, with the assistance of the University of Alabama (where she currently resides, professionally), has initiated a new venue for the exploration of fairy tales old and new. She has founded The Fairy Tale Review, an annual journal currently in its third revolution, forging the way for a new crop of literary fairy tale writers.

Each edition of the Review is named for a color, evoking the Andrew Lang Fairy Books of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since the third edition is The Violet Issue, the cover is understandably a violet shade. Each edition also sports the same illustration of Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother standing upon the gutted body of the wolf, an image entitled “Born,” by Kiki Smith.

When you first open the cover, you are introduced to a charming convention: the first page is emblazoned with the line “This Book Belongs To:” and a space for the owner to write his or her name. This is quite appropriate in a book full of fairy tales, for all that the contents are not directed at children. This convention can appeal to the child in each of us.

The slim volume begins with an annotated table of contents, which serves more to clutter the layout than to whet the reader’s appetite. The volume is compact enough at 129 pages, only 102 of which are actual stories, that a reader doesn’t need an illustrated guide to the contents.

As a complaint, that’s pretty mild; the one other complaint I have is only slightly more severe. Although obviously not a university literary magazine, the publication sometimes read like it was. A few of the poems and stories try too hard with a little too much affectation to be truly good or compulsively readable.

“The Tower” by Don Mee Choi, a poem of marriage and isolation, falls into that category, as do three poems by Lee Upton which bear no unifying theme yet are lumped together. (One or two even feel incomplete.) Two stories also fall into literary mag-land: “A Woman with a Gardener” by Lucy Corin and “Small Animal” by Aurelie Sheehan, which dabble in inverted fairy tale tropes and the intrigue of the quietly vulnerable, respectively. The last in this category is an experimental story by Julie Marie Wade entitled “Maidenhead.” It tries so hard to be clever, but falls just short of its potential. It examines the mentalities of several different fairy tale heroines (Red Riding Hood, Dorothy, Sleeping Beauty, etc.), relying heavily on unique formatting and trying to do too much in too limited a space.

The rest of the collection, however, is solid silver, paving the way for those new voices in fairy tale literature to transform into gold. Although, before I abandon this metaphor, there’s one tale included that’s glittering already.

Chapters 11-20 of Lily Hoang’s Changing: A Novella are amazing. The story relies on its formatting, but the structure is not a forced conceit. The story is told in hexagrams, an interpretation of the Chinese I Ching, and tells the tale of a girl growing up. These chapters are compelling, puzzling, beautiful, and ultimately satisfying. I look forward to the rest of the novella forthcoming from the associated Fairy Tale Review Press in 2008 (according to the contributor’s notes).

Some of the other fascinating and excellent stories include Kim Addonizio’s poem, “Snow White: The Huntsman’s Story,” which is a sobering, pitying look at that poor Huntsman’s story. Tracy Daugherty’s “The Sailor Who Drowned in the Desert” is a short piece of magical realism, examining a certain line from the Bible as folktale. Anna Maria Hong’s “Cin City” is an engaging Cinderella interpretation as well as a fine blank sonnet. Lisa Olstein’s four prose poems invoke Joy Harjo, so tied to the earth and full of myth. Kieran Suckling’s paper, “Frogs.” is a fascinating look at the intersection between fairy tale and real life, as seen through the questionable practice of frog-licking. Let’s stop there, and leave several other surprises in store for you.

The Fairy Tale Review is perhaps best seen as that responsive mirror which gifts us with the knowledge of emerging voices and patterns in modern fairy tale writing. In other words, it’s definitely a worthy endeavor deserving of support and certainly necessary to the shelf of any contemporary fairy tale scholar.

The Fairy Tale Review has a Web site, where you can even read sample storie from The Violet Issue. (I recommend Natania Rosenfeld’s “The Minder,” which is simple and affecting.)

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on July 27th, 2008.