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On Books

by Paul Di Filippo


The Wonder from Down Under

The title of Aussie author Anna Tambour’s previous story collection, The Finest Ass in the Universe (2015), exhibited the signature wit, irreverence, duplicity, enigmaticness, and sass that her fiction revels in. While her new collection bears a more sedate and even classical cognomen—The Road to Neozon (Obsidian Sky Books, trade paper, $14.95, 208 pages, ISBN 978-1732298002)—you may rest assured that the tales therein continue to baffle, astound, provoke, and drop their trousers at the slightest provocation—as I will endeavor to demonstrate. And by the way: Obsidian Sky Books is so new that Tambour’s volume is only their sixth offering, with the other five titles at their website looking equally weird and intriguing. I predict that if you snatch up a first edition, you’ll have a future valuable collectible in hand.

The first thing to note about this volume of eleven tales is that six appear here for the first time, making this a must-have for Tambour fans.

And although the subject matter of Tambour’s stories is generally gonzo, offbeat, non-predictable, and just plain weird, much of the punch of her fiction derives from its skewed telling, its range of oddball, initially puzzling voices. So when I give you a brief synopsis of each story, please realize that I can’t convey the brilliant, sly manner in which the reader is led into these dark forests and abysses. James Tiptree’s famous advice to start the reader off “in the dark and a mile underground” is enacted here beautifully.

“A Drop in the Ocean” recounts the tale of a murder by seduction—but the seducer is our planet’s own seas. A melancholy end, alas. “The boy’s shoe might be found some day.” Like Gaiman’s American Gods passed through an Adventure Time filter, “The Godchildren” charts an outing among mortals by twenty-two wacked-out demiurges, eager to learn about ice cream and other carnal pleasures. I think Avram Davidson would have been proud to write “The Slime: A Love Story,” wherein a mass of protoplasm studies romance books for self-fulfillment. In the perfectly compressed “Care and Sensibility,” a daughter objects to the replacement model seeking her mother’s affections.

If you liked Gork, the Teenage Dragon, “Cardoons!” will provide double the pleasure. Ride the scaly back of young Roariferex Glak, who has to learn how to properly consume young milkmaids and “salties” (sailors) and meet other dragonly standards, including relishing the titular thistle. Like Robert Coover in his best metafictional mode, Tambour gives the noir genre a hilarious yet ultimately poignant workover in “I Killed for a Lucky Strike.” The narrator here? A gat, gun, or rod. Do you know the famous artist Kjell Kvak, contemporary of Edvard Munch? You certainly will be intimate with him and his anguish and anxieties, after reading “None So Seeing As Those Who’ve Seen,” which bops blithely between historical eras and the present, neatly tying up seemingly disparate threads.

The short-short “Code of the New Fourth” examines the benefits of a robot who is “moral-code free.” Another flash fiction, “Nudgulation Now!” eviscerates the Internet of Things. The personifications of story-telling verities populate “The Beginnings, Endings, and the Middles Ball,” with dramatic flare-ups. And finally, perhaps most powerfully, comes “Vedma,” the tale of the foundation of a semi-utopia dubbed Neozon. With the heft and richness of one of Le Guin’s novellas contained in The Found and the Lost, but at half the length, this tale surveys war, work, and women, all through the biography of Vedma—or Vida, as she comes to be known—who learns finally to affirm her potent witchiness.

Sharing some of the writerly attributes of Rhys Hughes, R.A. Lafferty, Steve Aylett, and Jonathan Lethem, Anna Tambour has gifted us with a bevy of fables that remake this old familiar world into a sparkling phantasmagorical place, both dangerous and alluring.

*   *   *

Hollow House is Full

In a dedicatory note to one of his books, John Crowley made a perceptive observation about his own work and the kind of literature he finds enticing. He noted that he writes and likes “books made out of other books.” In other words, bibliocentric fiction, or tales that honor and privilege the world of the printed word, embroiling their protagonists in misty scenarios that, to greater or lesser extent, revolve around ink-on-paper. Often this focus is explicit, as when Crowley writes a story titled “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines,” named after a real book of that title by Mary Cowden-Clarke. Or when he invents the writer Fellowes Kraft in the Aegypt cycle and gives him a bibliography and career that influences the plot. Other times the bookish atmosphere is more of a background hum. I also think of folks like Umberto Eco and James Branch Cabell as proponents of this type of fiction.

Of course, excessive privileging of books over “real life” can get too meta and become overdone, causing the narratives to be rarefied and bloodless. Or a book can serve as a mere MacGuffin, as Lovecraft’s Necronomicon too often does in latter-day Mythos fiction. But handled intelligently and deftly, this kind of bibliocentric fiction properly incorporates humanity’s reverence for books as an essential part of the quotidian continuum of life.

Dale Bailey knows all these virtues and traps of the mode very well, as he shows in his newest novel, In the Night Wood (John Joseph Adams Books, hardcover, $23.00, 224 pages, ISBN 978-1328494436). This tale centers on a purported Victorian children’s book that shares Bailey’s own title, written by a man named Caedmon Hollow.

Here’s how the story unfolds, although Bailey does not follow the boring linear explication I employ here, rather teasing us with mysteries that gradually come clear.

As a boy, Charles Hayden encountered the enigmatic fantasy novel In the Night Wood by Caedmon Hollow, and it had a formative effect on his sensibilities, before becoming a forgotten milestone with the press of maturity. He returned to the book in college, when at the same time he took up with a fellow student, Erin, who was to become his wife. Imagine Hayden’s surprise when Erin turned out to be a direct descendant of Hollow! The connection had little practical meaning, however, until Erin was informed, years later, that she was the last member of the Hollow line, and had inherited the Hollow estate in England. This would have been a happy life-altering development, if not for a certain tragedy that occurred close to this ancestral revelation. Lissa, the Haydens’ daughter, had died accidentally at age six, and Charles feels partly to blame.

But despite the devastating loss, Charles and Erin still decide to relocate to Hollow House—in the little town of Yarrow, surrounded by the ancient primeval Eorl Woods—to remake their lives. Charles wants to do a biography of Caedmon Hollow to burnish his academic career. What better place for first-hand research, with a wealth of musty material? And Erin hopes—well, she is in a despairing fugue during which she can only endlessly draw her dead daughter’s portrait. Maybe a change of venue could help. But maritally speaking, the Haydens are coming apart (a domestic drama that Bailey chronicles insightfully).

Hollow House boasts two retainers: Mrs. Ramsden, cook and housekeeper; and Cillian Harris, groundskeeper, estate financial manager, and general factotum. The latter figure has some dark hidden bits in his past. The town itself features several colorful persons, most prominently including Silva North, young antiquarian, and her daughter Lorna—whose father turns out to be Cillian Harris!

Steeped in the local scene and diving deep into the details of Caedmon Hollow’s dark life, Charles gradually begins to suspect that the characters in the Victorian fantasy—especially the menacing Horned King—are actual entities and that they threaten danger for everyone that Charles holds dear. In a race between understanding and ignorance, with good will and sacrifice contending with grudges and selfishness, the lives of the Haydens and others careen toward a deadly conclusion.

Bailey does a large number of smart and esthetically pleasing things in this book, showing a subtle hand and a compassionate mind. First comes the matter of point of view. Although most of the book is seen through Charles’s eyes, Bailey devotes a fair amount to Erin’s perspective, opening up vital information and reactions that Charles is not logically able to show the reader. Secondly, there is an absolute tightrope balancing act between the “mundane” aspects of the Haydens’ lives—the marital troubles, the loss of Lissa, the wreckage of Charles’s career—and the supernatural elements. Neither outweighs the other, and the reader is not bombarded with either boring “marital infidelities of a dentist” (to use a famous dismissive quote about mainstream fiction) or wild-eyed eruptions of extranormal activity. Instead, Bailey doles out his fantastical moments sparingly but potently, relying on synchronicities (note all the shared initials and names of the characters, à la Christopher Priest) and half-seen imagery. But there is ultimately no denying the tangibility of the ancient forces at work. We experience all the confusions, intellectual triumphs, and soulful excruciations that Charles and Erin undergo at this intrusion of the arcane into their already damaged lives.

Featuring some of the ambiance of Robert Holdstock’s pagan fantasies, a bit of the flavor of Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time, and a simpatico resonance with the similarly understated and involving fantasies of Graham Joyce, Bailey’s book proves that the shelves of libraries are truly congruent with the hidden chambers of the human heart.

*   *   *

What Hath Gernsback Wrought?

When I reviewed Jo Walton’s collection of essays on genre literature, What Makes This Book So Great (WMTBSG), I said:

*   *   *

The reader is being cordially invited to listen in to some fireside ruminations by a well-versed aficionado that do not pretend to be Big Thinking. Walton in fact uses her final essay to distinguish between what she does here and “real” criticism. (Although once again, such humility does not stop Walton from offering en passant, in a deceptively offhand fashion, some truly useful and perceptive critical insights into literature, both mimetic and fantastical.) The whole book is, for lack of a correspondingly gender-specific adjective, avuncular, rather like spending a delightful night by the hearth in Bilbo’s hobbit hole, or with Mole and Badger. Appearing originally as blog posts at the website of Tor Books, these mostly short forays reflect that medium’s nicely informal voice.

*   *   *

Her newest, An Informal History of the Hugos (Tor Books, hardcover, $31.99, 576 pages, ISBN 978-0765379085) is, by the publisher’s direct admission, an exact follow-on, in source, tone, and intentions, and delivers precisely the same joys within the stipulated compass. But the new book does have a slightly larger remit and a more formal structure, and also attempts to replicate some of the online experience of the original columns by reproducing savvy commentary from such smart luminaries as Gardner Dozois, Rich Horton, and David Hartwell (proffering a sense of melancholy as well to go with those two vanished figures).

First, unlike WMTBSG, the book has a strict chronological order, stepping through the Hugo Awards from their inception to the year 2000, a cutoff date chosen both to omit Walton’s own eventual partisan contender status and to allow for sufficient historical perspective. Next, each chapter has a template: the nominees and winner for each category are laid out as in a statistical record book, with some small interpolations, including Walton’s assessment of the state of the field and the validity of the contenders’ stature. Then comes the transcribed posts from others. Then, the meat of most chapters (except in those years where she decides not to expand her general remarks), Walton delivers a sizable essay on either the novel-length winner, or one of the other nominees, or both.

The apparatus up front in each chapter is interesting and useful. The reader gets a true sense of the genre, both prodom and fandom, and of the prevailing zeitgeist. All of the commentators have extremely perceptive things to say, offering many alternate ballot choices (I’m humbled and proud to have several of my own stories put forth as Hugo-worthy), and together with Walton they continue to build up interesting portraits of what the genre was like during each year, its slow evolutions, flash fads, and new trends. But the heart of this book are Walton’s charming and passionate longer essays, much in line with those in WMTBSG.

Walton’s critical voice combines three distinct phases of her life: her adolescent self, first enthusiastically discovering SF; her young adult self, when her tastes matured and she became immersed in fandom; and her pro-writer self. Each aspect of her personality offers different insights that blend together into an organic portrait of each title. When she dislikes something, she’s frank but open-minded: “[Neuromancer] is a huge, important book and I hated it. I haven’t reread it since 1985, so I’m probably not being fair to blame it for everything I hated about cyberpunk as a movement. But even though I don’t like it at all and would never read it again, I think it absolutely deserved to win the Hugo.” Her love for other books is not unalloyed: for instance, she winkles out the failures in such classics as Dune and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress while still affirming their worth. And she is often hilarious. Here is a bit from her review of Have Spacesuit—Will Travel:

*   *   *

Kip’s also working as a soda jerk in a drugstore—this actually does mean he was serving soft drinks to people in a pharmacy, which, well, again with the science fiction, astonishing-future stuff. What an imagination I thought Heinlein had! Instead of cafés or restaurants, people are drinking cold Horlicks in chemist shops and calling it a “fountain”— what could be more futuristic? And Heinlein makes us feel Kip’s pride in his work—his shakes are the thickest. And this is an actual pharmacy, the owner makes up prescriptions while Kip serves the drinks! It’s up there with food pills. . . . When I found out this was a real American thing, I was extremely taken aback.

*   *   *

The ultimate value of this project is brought out by Walton in her small “Conclusion.” To examine fannish tastes, assess their power and probity and perceptiveness, and to reaffirm the whole enterprise of readers choosing favorites in order to assemble some kind of canon. In this era when the Hugo Award and other prizes are beset by controversy and infighting and factions, affirmation of the whole enterprise is much needed, and Walton’s book is a monumental step toward that valuable goal.

*   *   *

Scriver’s Row

Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside (Crown, hardcover, $27.00, 512 pages, ISBN 978-1524760366), the beginning of The Founder’s Trilogy, is much less complex and morally fraught than his previous Divine Cities sequence. Whereas the predecessor saga featured many perspectives, a convoluted backstory, intricate theologies, and Machiavellian machinations galore, the current novel is linear and unambiguous, its plot propelled by primal emotions and motives. Bennett appears to be pulling a Springsteen here: following several high-tensioned and brooding albums (Darkness on the Edge of Town; The River; Nebraska) with a down-and-dirty propulsive and freewheeling one: Born in the U.S.A. That’s always a smart career move, liberating and refreshing.

All of which is not to say that the new novel is not inventive, smart, joyful, gripping, and well-constructed. Far from it. It’s just that this book is not The Ring Cycle, it’s West Side Story.

Before diving into the tale, allow me to compliment the gorgeous cover art and design by Will Staehle. Very elegant, distinctive, and different from the common run of fantasy novels. Lamentably, we reviewers hardly ever mention the artwork on a book, even though it’s of vital importance to most purchasers.

Our setting is the city-state of Tevanne, a place dominated by four merchant houses or “campos.” Dandolo, Candiano, Morsini, Michiel. These concerns employ many, but are basically run by family dynasties. They occupy vast plots of land safely enclosed behind impenetrable walls. Life inside is pampered and good. Outside the walls is the Commons, a lawless place where dwell all the myriad struggling poor, in vile conditions.

The dominant contouring magical force in both places is “scriving.” This is the practice of engraving or drawing esoteric sigils onto inanimate objects, after which the dumb objects can do amazing things, such as warp gravity or change their molecular makeup. The merchant houses employ whole teams and production lines of scrivers, with an R&D department, whereas the sigil-workers in the Commons are slapdash amateurs—although they sometimes achieve ingenious results.

This scriving technology, powerful as it is, is a mere remnant of the wonders that the ancient, vanished Occidentals once deployed. But all their productions have been lost with their extinction.

We will become embroiled in this scene via two main characters. The first, and primary, is Sancia Grado, a young female thief from the Commons. She was once subjected to illegal experimentation—scriving applied to the human brain—and now can apprehend the limited “thoughts” of scrived objects—a unique skill that helps her in her life of desperate survivalist crimes, but which also inflicts psychic and physical trauma. The other figure is Gregor Dandolo. A tough and principled ex-soldier, heir to the Dandolo house, Gregor is seeking to institute law and order across both the Commons and the campos, rendering justice to all. But it’s a tough and so-far unproductive campaign.

When Sancia steals something from the Dandolos’ compound, her life becomes entangled with Gregor’s. And the nature of her prize is earth-shattering. To outward appearances, her booty is a simple household key. But it proves to be a sentient tool/weapon left over from the Occidental days. Calling itself Clef, the key is the treasure that half a dozen factions are fighting over. Before Sancia and Gregor can barely say to each other, “Who the hell are you?” they are spun into a dozen life-or-death encounters across societal strata high and low. Having to plot and ponder on the fly, they prove equal to the challenges.

Bennett excels in this book on two levels. The first is the sheer storytelling, and the second is the uniquely stefnal task of worldbuilding.

By yoking together two such disparate folks as Sancia and Gregor, Bennett achieves a maximum of sparks and tensions, with a fair amount of comedy as well. Gregor’s upright simplicity vies with Sancia’s down-and-dirty duplicity, diverting the action down unpredictable paths. The subsidiary characters—especially the head of Dandolo’s R&D department, Orso, and his assistant, Berenice—are all excellent, too. Not to mention the wisecracking personality of Clef himself. (I am reminded of the similar character of the “Prize” in Sheckley’s Dimension of Miracles.) Also, Bennett is a master of action, and there are several stunning setpieces herein, such as the battle that Sancia and Gregor wage against a crew of levitating assassins. I raced breathlessly through this narrative, and you will too.

The worldbuilding, as I mentioned earlier, is not quite as intricate as that of Bennett’s previous saga, but it’s solid. By comparison, the technology of scriving is what’s brilliantly exfoliated. It starts with a simple premise, but Bennett wrings out all the unexpected twists that anyone could imagine. I suspect more await us in future volumes. The resemblance of scriving to computer coding gives this book a mixed science-fantasy feel. The world of scrived objects somewhat resembles the Internet of Things.

Coming to a satisfying conclusion, while yet leaving many matters unresolved, Foundryside is a diverting blend of caper novel with science fiction with fantasy with rags-to-riches story. I suspect every copy of this book might be secretly scrived with potent sigils productive of enjoyment.

*   *   *

Half In Love With Easeful Death

Much like Robert Jackson Bennett, Hannu Rajaniemi emerges, after four years, from a highly recomplicated and idea-dense trilogy (the Jean le Flambeur series) with a laterally displaced, somewhat pared-down standalone novel that harks to Charles Stross’s Laundry Files franchise: the supernatural, rationalized and thrillerized. But Summerland (Tor Books, hardcover, $25.99, 304 pages, ISBN 978-1250178923) still exhibits all of Rajaniemi’s vaunted extrapolative rigor and use of startling novums. It’s a potent blast of adventure and estrangement.

The book is a counterfactual spy novel with an arcane substratum. Sometime in the late Victorian era, physicist Oliver Lodge and inventor Guglielmo Marconi proved the existence of a tangible afterlife, established contact with the few extant souls there (most souls experienced “Fading” soon after death, or after a little posthumous interval), then learned how to populate the spectral lands via the newly dearly departed. Now, in 1938, when a lucky citizen dies they are in possession of a “Ticket,” which is a mathematical formula granting afterlife endurance. Consequently, the post-life realm, Summerland, is now equipped with an infrastructure and set of institutions parallel to those of the British Empire. “Like everything permanent in Summerland, the house was made of souls. Each one of its bricks was a luz stone, an adamantine kernel that remained when a soul fully Faded and thought and memory were gone.” It’s the ultimate colonization!

The dead are able to return briefly to Earth by taking psychic possession of a willing spiritualist medium, thus interacting face to face with the living. If they visit as mere ghosts, they can barely see normal matter, but can still manage to do a little spying and eavesdropping.

This matter of espionage is the engine of Rajaniemi’s story. Our viewpoint personages will be one dead spy—Peter Bloom—and one living one—Rachel White. Ostensibly, they are on the same side of the Great Game. But in reality, high-placed and respected Bloom is a double agent for the Soviets. When White discovers this, her life is overturned. Unable to convince her superiors of Bloom’s treachery, she is demoted and assigned to office work. Realizing that she can only recover her good name and old job by exposing Bloom, she embarks on her own private war, with the aid of a few sympathetic friends in the “spook” community. (The pun between ghost and spy is mine, but implicit in the book.) But what Rachel does not realize until late in the game is that Bloom’s treachery conceals a more altruistic plan. Buried deep beneath the foundations of Summerland is an ancient evil, a death beyond death, that threatens to wipe out all the accomplishments of the postlife community. If she stops Bloom, will she doom her dead countrymen to a hideous fate—including her own mother?

As I mentioned above, Rajaniemi has every aspect of his “dead tech” thought out with cleverness and ingenuity, and uses his devices to achieve nice effects. For instance, physical motion in Summerland resembles displacement in the Matrix films. “Their thought-travel blurred the colors of the files into a fuzzy grey which then resolved into a cubical space surrounded by shelves on all sides and illuminated only by amber hyperlight.” Likewise, Rajaniemi has conjured up parallels to sex, eating (consuming a substance dubbed vim), and other mortal rituals. In this sense, his book resembles Will Self’s great afterlife novel How the Dead Live.

More vitally, he limns how the knowledge of a real afterlife has changed terrestrial society, and how the two interact. (Basically, people have come to undervalue mortal pursuits, knowing that a kind of paradise awaits. Lifting Death’s terror has caused anomie and ennui.) By having dual protagonists from either side of the curtain, the author is able to compare and contrast with great effectiveness.

Of course, the pure plot is solidly manufactured as well, with plenty of twists and turns, deceits and revelations, like any good Le Carré book. Rachel is instantly easy to empathize with, and we root wholeheartedly for her. Bloom’s portrait might be an even greater accomplishment, as Rajaniemi gets us to sympathize with a rather merciless fellow. And the counterfactual stuff is grand. Did I mention that the earthly UK is helmed by H.G. Wells (or rather his analogue, one Herbert Blanco West)? And the sad state of warfare in 1930s Europe persists with sneaky alterations. Faint resonances with Baxter’s Anti-Ice obtain.

If Greg Egan and Hellboy’s Mike Mignola had collaborated on a project with similar goals, they could hardly have equaled Rajaniemi’s eerie and affecting tale.

*   *   *

Driving While Dead

Tim Powers has been writing about ghosts (his first novel was published in 1976, albeit not particularly ghosty) almost since before Hannu Rajaniemi was born (1978; happy fortieth birthday!). Alternate Routes (Baen Books, hardcover, $25.00, 288 pages, ISBN 978-1481483407) continues Powers’s invigorating investigations into spirits from the vasty deep, employing an approach and tone he has not previously offered. As is to be expected, after such a long and vital congress with specters, Powers brings his A-game to the page.

In the past, Powers’s ghosts have always been something like singleton, unorganized intruders—malicious, whimsical, or helpful—on the earthly plane. As I recall their prior uses, they have mostly served as ancillary figures, even if they sometimes functioned as the plot engine of sorts. But here they inhabit a whole ecosystem, and form a malevolent army intent on taking over the planet.

We are dropped into the reality of ghosts without any preamble, and it’s a seductive opening move, hooking the reader with hints of larger mysteries. Our immediate focus is a fellow named Sebastian Vickery, and we come upon him lurking in the bushes with some companions alongside a Los Angeles freeway, monitoring some arcane contraptions. A female “cop” tracks him down and approaches, with both parties wary. This is Ingrid Castine, who works for the ambiguous Transportation Utility Agency, which is headed by a dangerous megalomaniac named Emilio Terracotta (whose obsessive POV the narrative will disclose at intervals to us). Before they can conclude their business, other TUA operatives break in, violence ensues, and Vickery and Castine are on the lam. The pair will basically flee back and forth across a dozen or so LA venues—and one supernatural locus dubbed the Labyrinth—for the next three days, trying to save their own lives and those of everyone else on the planet. Here’s the threat:

The freeways of Los Angeles are generators of supernatural power, modern ley lines. “When the big roads came along, providing endless streams of steadily moving free wills, the supernatural current could be strong enough that a man could open a conduit to a sort of . . . region . . . a situation. Ghosts gather there, and when a conduit is open they can come through to here.” Various entities, governmental and private, have been monitoring and employing these forces for decades, but the current increases in volume are precipitating a crisis—one that only Vickery and Castine might be able to avert.

Powers never lets up with the thrilling action and suspense. But there’s more to his novel than that. First, the depictions of our two heroes are wry and subtle and deep. Vickery and Castine are both damaged souls who simultaneously complement and frustrate each other. Their dialogue is crackling and often laugh-out-loud funny. Every other person in the tale is almost as vibrant—from a young street tough named Santiago; to the empress of a taco-truck empire named Galvan; to a ghost expert named Laquedem; to our villain Terracotta. Second, the science and technology of ghostlife is fecundly multiplex (did you know ghosts can’t do math and are repulsed by “two plus two equals four”?). The gibberish that the departed spout is brilliant. And one particular ghost gets to play a tenderly sentimental role. Lastly, when Powers ports his duo into the Labyrinth, he does not stint with the Boschian surrealism or tactility, but renders it a tangibly alien realm.

No closer symbolic and metaphorical harmony between place—Los Angeles—and a secret system of arcana—the freeways—could be imagined. Yet so far as I know, no one has ever hit upon the notion before (although Zelazny with his Roadmarks came a little close.) That Powers had the visionary inspiration would mean little without his immense talents and humanity. That combo is an onramp to reading paradise.

*   *   *

Saints and Tibias

Circumstances have dictated that I should remain deprived of reading Kat Howard’s two novels, Roses and Rot (2016) and An Unkindness of Magicians (2017). However I am lucky enough to be able to delve now into her short story collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone (Saga Press, hardcover, $25.99, 368 pages, ISBN 978-1481492157), and experience some of her talents and themes, motivating me to dig out those other books at some moment of leisurely lucubration.

First, a note that these stories date from 2010 to 2016, with two being original to the collection. Also, a shout-out to editor Joe Monti, who tears down the Iron Curtain that proclaims that no Big Five publisher should bother to do a volume of short stories these days.

Howard’s first story, “A Life in Fictions,” immediately illustrates several things about her work. She favors a sturdy, non-flashy prose and syntax that nonetheless conveys intimacy and power. She likes contemporary venues and characters (with a couple of exceptions). And she works at the interface between tragedy and irony. In this opener, a woman serves as semireluctant Muse to a male author by actually being subsumed into his fiction to the point of disappearing from real life. It’s Woody Allen’s “The Kugelmass Episode,” inverted and recast as if by Laird Barron.

“The Saint of the Sidewalks” posits miracle workers in desperate and gritty contemporary times, and shows what happens when a supplicant becomes accidentally holy. The myth of unicorns and virgins gets some filleting in “Maiden, Hunter, Beast.” New to this volume, and the longest piece, “Once, Future” takes a deep dive into the Arthurian mythos and the nature of storytelling as magic. It stands shoulder to shoulder with Lev Grossman’s fantasies.

A woman’s actual living substance is transmuted into a dream city—“You are disappearing, from the inside out.”—in “Translatio Corporis,” which to me has a faint Patrick McGrath vibe about it. Cemeteries and ghosts are a natural pairing. But the relationship between Josh and Tamsin is not as harmonious, and cannot bear up under spectral assaults. So we learn in “Dreaming Like a Ghost.”

An allegory along the lines of “The Masque of the Red Death” or Delany’s “Night and the Loves of Joe DiCostanzo” is the import of “Murdered Sleep,” as our heroine Kora attends a surreal gala. And another stimulating foray into fabulism is found in “The Speaking Bone,” which features an ossuary island and the three demiurges who inhabit it.

One key practice of fantastical writing is “the objectification of a metaphor,” by which a figure of speech takes on actuality. That’s Howard’s clever tactic in “Those Are Pearls,” which illustrates exactly how one “breaks a curse.” Cartography is an underused vehicle for magic, and Howard shows us how it should be done with “All of Our Past Places,” wherein a woman named Aoife vanishes into a map. “When the saint came to the baptism, the entire church went silent.” That opening line to “Saints’ Tide” (the second previously unseen offering) demonstrates Howard’s directness of language and visionary power. The rest of the story, which charts the intersection of theology and the quotidian by the margins of the ocean, delivers the payoff.

“Painted Birds and Shivered Bones” is almost an inverse of the opening tale. Here, a female artist begins to incorporate a feathery man seen by chance into her canvases. But will a “werebird” make a good subject? The eternal doomed victim of many myths and legends, a kind of Universal Eurydice, turns the tables on her destiny in “Returned.” Almost a Leiberesque sword-and-sorcery tale, “The Calendar of Saints” follows Howard’s desires to tinker with the armature and tropes of received genre forms. A reality TV show with one rule for the contestants: “Anything you’re given while you’re here, you give to me.” This produces unanticipated outcomes in “The Green Knight’s Wife.” And finally comes “Breaking the Frame,” a tale of the interlocked spiral paths of photographer and model that fittingly bookends “A Life in Fictions.”

Howard’s assured voice deployed across her chosen range of evocative themes slots her firmly into the modern-day pantheon of writers who boldly make the oldest tropes and practices of the field their own, without losing those ghostly bonds that link the whole field into one evolving organism.


Copyright © 2019 Paul Di Filippo

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