I was able to “sneak” in to the World Fantasy Convention here in San Jose last week in the guise of press. It was great fun to meet some local authors, and I got a post for Metblogs out of it. I also got to sit in on a couple of readings and about half of Gordon Van Gelder’s panel on 60 years of F&SF magazine. To come to the point, though, this collection from Night Shade Books and editor Jonathan Strahan was my take-home from the dealer room.
“The Pelican Bar”, Karen Joy Fowler A willful young woman (as they used to say) is sent away for to a tough-love camp in Mexico, which turns out to be particularly brutal, and from which she dreams of escape. The story’s well-written, and especially strong in exploring the Norah’s psychology and internal dialog, but I never quite caught on to the motivations of the reform camp operators — why they ran the camp as they did, what they were gaining from it, and why they eventually allow Norah her freedom.
“A practical girl”, Ellen Klages A girl growing up in the shadow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton gets an impromptu math lesson from Grace Hopper. The story takes a magical turn when she uses her new knowledge of imaginary numbers to save a friend from an unwanted future. A sweet, nostalgic story.
“Don’t mention Madagascar”, Pat Cadigan This story takes the disorientation of long-distance travel to its ultimate extreme. Clever and entertaining.
“On the road”, Nnedi Okorafor On a visit to relatives in Nigeria, a Chicago policewoman learns that the old country is home to forces that the West has forgotten. The protagonist’s worldly attitude and her fantastic experiences are balanced perfectly.
“Swell”, Elizabeth Bear A strong story about gifts given, but returned.
“Useless things”, Maureen F. McHugh Only just science fictional, this story explores the limits of compassion. It’s a fine story, but maybe could have been tightened up. One scene, in particular, where the protagonist encounters a group of swaggering young men, struck me as only breaking up the story without advancing it.
“The coral heart”, Jeffrey Ford The only (so far as I can recall as I write) pure swords and sorcery fantasy in the collection, from an author who, as far as I can tell from reading his webpage but not being familiar with his work, rarely writes in that subgenre. About a hero so powerful he can’t recall all of his conquests, or, as it turns out, all of his mistakes.
“It takes two”, Nicola Griffith What a Seattle tech industry businesswoman named Cody initially thinks is a one night stand that might have some future to it turns out to be manipulation by someone she thought was her friend. The story takes a couple more turns from there, and finally leaves the reader asking one of the deepest questions of anything in this collection.
“Sleight of hand”, Peter S. Beagle Grieving at the loss of her husband and daughter, our protagonist meets a prestidigitator who can’t, he says, turn back the clock, but maybe he can do some stage magic that can grant her wish. A magical story, even if it explicitly denies its magic.
“The pretender’s tourney”, Daniel Abraham This story is swords without sorcery, so what I said about the Jeffrey Ford piece isn’t all wrong. Young Dafyd has just inherited his father’s Duchy following a devastating plague. With the king also fallen to the plague, and the kingdom in upheaval with the many deaths, he must decide whether to contend for the crown, eventually winning a moral victory over other dukes who scheme for the kingdom. One triviality that bothered me, even though the setting wasn’t strictly England, was the forms of address. As I understand it, in English (the language), as Duke of Westmont, Dafyd might be called “His Grace”, or “Westmont”, or “the Duke of Westmont”, but not “Duke Dafyd”, a form that’s jarringly used for a couple of his adversaries in the story.
“Yes we have no bananas”, Paul Di Filippo The story is a surrealistic riff on the looming (it’s been in all the papers) extinction of the Cavendish banana(Wikipedia link). Somehow the surrealism is something I expect from Di Filippo, though I can’t say I can recall any specific others of his stories I’ve read. It was effective here, amongst other stories that are mostly more straightforward, but I don’t know if I would be able to wade through a whole anthology of only Di Filippo’s stuff.
“The visitted man”, Molly Gloss An old man, newly alone in the world, is saved by the also aging Henri Rousseau (Wikipedia, again), who happens to live downstairs. A charming story about a misunderstood man who is full of understanding.
“Galapagos”, Caitlin R. Kiernan. This story screams to be called Ballardian, with its disjoint sense of time and space in the narration by an astronaut nearly driven insane in a close encounter in Jupiter orbit. I don’t know if J. G. Ballard ever wrote a story with a lesbian couple, both astronauts, as central characters, but the near-future space tech (thought the story date is actually 100 years from now) and the format itself, a series of dated journal entries by the recovering astronaut, also reflect what I infer as Ballard’s influence. And Kiernan’s effort stands up well to the high bar she’s set herself by following one of the acknowledged top literary stylists of the genre. Despite all the story threads in play, and the nonlinear narrative style, the entire thing holds together well, and doesn’t fail to delight.
“Dulce domum”, Ellen Kushner The story mixes up Kenneth Grahame (or some near facsimile), the AIDS epidemic (symbolically), vampires, and young love among the east coast upper crust. I’m not sure I can really assimilate all that to find a message in the story, and I can’t really relate to the aristocratic characters, so this wasn’t really the story for me.
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