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.

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