literary fantasy

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Date read: 1.10.11
Book from: University library
Reviewer: Emera

Snow White meets haunted-house melodrama meets quasi-vampire story with a decided hint of “Carmilla,” by the author of The Icarus Girl? Count me in. White is for Witching is the story of a family, and a house, distorted by the loss of a mother and a hidden history of trauma, xenophobia, and insanity. Miranda Silver blames herself for her mother’s death, and struggles with pica, a disorder that compels her to eat chalk and plastic. (I thought it might well be a pun on the “consumptive” heroine, in addition to hinting at Miri’s eventual realization of even worse appetites, and reflecting the novel’s motifs of misdirected desire and destruction from the inside out.) Her twin brother Eliot and bottled-up father Luc are too paralyzed by their own obsessions and griefs to do more than watch Miri on her slow course to destruction. In short, every character is an emotional closed circuit, furiously retracing the same neuroses without outlet or resolution. This includes, of course, the possessive and apparently sentient house, which has born witness to several generations of tortured Silver women.

For the first half of the book, I read with mostly detached fascination. Everyone is so icily clever and dysfunctional that I couldn’t really care about them, and as in The Icarus Girl, Oyeyemi’s prose sometimes verges on mannered. Paragraphs drift into prose-poetic fragments, and overlapping phrases signal transitions between narrating characters; I found the latter a particularly heavy-handed stylistic device. Similarly, many of the haunted-house tableaux – Miri’s waking dreams of streets lined with “pale people,” for example – are presented with an arranged, glassy nightmarishness, an alienating hyper-aestheticization. What saved the book for me from feeling (if you’ll forgive the pun) too lifeless was Oyeyemi’s dense layering of Gothic and folkloric tropes.

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Date read: 4.4.08
Read from: Fantasy Magazine
Reviewer: Emera

… The Mumbaki came, as did the elder warriors, and they sang of Bugan the sky goddess who descended to earth to marry the warrior Kinggawan. They sang of how the lovers lost each other and how Kinggawan seeks his Bugan to this day. When the Mumbaki poured the wine over your head you did not cry.

It was a good sign, the village people said. But no one could explain why. It just was so.

After this, there was more dancing and feasting, but your mother took you away to the quiet of her hut where she stared into your face and tried to read your future while you suckled at her breast.

“Hi Bugan ya Hi Kinggawan” is inspired by the mythology of the mountainous Ifugao region of the Philippines, where the author was raised. It’s both thematically and aesthetically satisfying, playing on personal and cultural anxieties through parallel narrative threads: the emotional and sexual coming-of-age of a young woman named Bugan, after the Ifugao sky goddess, and the upheaval in her small village as contact is made with Western colonizers.

Loenen-Ruiz’s language is vibrant and wonderfully rhythmical (I’d love to hear the story read aloud), and she skillfully conveys the turbulence of the forces working on the protagonist and her culture. Against the themes of loss and disruption, Loenen-Ruiz sets the heady sensuality of the story’s resolution. Renewal of tradition is coupled with the building of new unities; an act of sexual transgression becomes an act of cultural resistance.

Also, the love interest is hot. Just sayin’.

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Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
Fantasy Magazine Author Spotlight with Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

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Date read: 11.6.09
Read from: Clarkesworld #23
Reviewer: Emera

Theodora Goss’ “Her Mother’s Ghosts,” recommended to me an age ago by Maureen, is a brief, achingly beautiful meditation on family and heritage. The language is simple, rhythmical, and carefully chosen, and the strength and purity of the emotion that it evokes hit me particularly hard since… okay, for personal reasons that I don’t feel like talking about in detail (massive backpedaling there). Suffice it to say that this was one of those stories that I had to read twice for it to really click, but when it did – ow. hurty (but in a good and thoughtful-making way).

I love the feel of the descriptions, too – they feel like late-afternoon sunlight on a chilly day, or one of the story’s faded watercolors.

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Theodora Goss

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Date read: 8?.09
Read from: Clarkesworld #20
Reviewer: Emera

I had previously mentioned “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica” as being one of my favorite short stories read in 2009, yet had never gotten around to posting a review.

I don’t want to spoil a single bit of it, so I’ll just say that it’s like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell except with Antarctican cartography (yes, duh – seriously, I refuse to reveal any of it, please just go read it if you’ve got the chance), and that it’s funny, delightfully imagined, and ravishingly beautiful. I rather wish it had won the 2009 World Fantasy Award that it was nominated for, but clearly that’s not up to me. So instead I’ll just flail about it here.

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Catherynne M. Valente
“Urchins, While Swimming,” by Catherynne M. Valente (2006) [E]

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Date read: 1.7.09
Read from: The Journal of Mythic Arts
Reviewer: Emera

More fairy tales, finally! I’m backed up on reviews to the point of – well, I’m always backed up on reviews, but I’m feeling particularly guilty about not getting to reviews of all the nifty short stories, fairy-tale-inspired and otherwise, that I’ve been reading this winter.

Shweta Narayan’s “Half Flight” is an odd little retelling of one of my absolute favorite fairy tales, also featuring a brief cameo by a visitor from one of my absolute favorite folk tales. (Glancing at her website bio, we share an interest in liminal characters – “shapeshifters and halfbreeds,” as she puts it – so there you go.)  I hate to describe something as “odd” because it seems like a cop-out, but “Half Flight” is, somehow and pleasingly, a little off-kilter. I think it might in fact come from that little folkloric intrusion, although again, intrusion is the wrong word. The meeting of the two strands of story feels organic and intuitive, and enrichens both of the characters in question, as well as the particular psychological narrative that Narayan pursues. When I reached that bit, I almost skimmed over it, did a double-take, read it again more closely, and then thought, “of course.”

Although her imagery could use sharpening and intensifying, since the language occasionally falls flat, the tale as a whole succeeds in being thoughtful and tender without excessive sentimentality. The last line did raise my hackles a little; last-line clunkers are terribly hard to avoid when you’re going for “tender.”  Regardless, Narayan is successful in conveying an unsettling desperation and psychological fragility under the measured, dispassionate narration, and I was deeply satisfied by the new sense that her telling brings to the archetypes and narratives that it plays with.

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Shweta Narayan
“An Old-Fashioned Unicorn’s Guide to Courtship,” by Sarah Rees Brennan (2008) [E]
Winter is for fairy tales

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Date read: 10.31.09 (unintentional, but awesome)
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

It’s raining, my socks are wet, and for these reasons I think I’d rather finish up my long-overdue review of Caitlín R. Kiernan‘s The Red Tree than do anything else.  And as there’s a red oak outside my window, I took a picture of it looking appropriately old, red, and potentially carnivorous at about the same time that I finished the book:

The review is spoiler-free, by the way.

The Red Tree is one of the best books I’ve read all year, and I’ve already been itching to go back to it and let it screw with my head some more. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I started it (probably something more lushly Gothic, like Alabaster), but what I read wasn’t what I was expecting, and then it was better than what I expected. It’s a jagged, rattling, hurtful book, and incredibly atmospheric. The horror is creeping and primal, almost inarticulable. People and paintings and animal bones appear and disappear; proportions and distances are warped; the brittle, chain-smoking protagonists labor under constant, sapping heat and suffer from surreal nightmares. At the same time, the emotions underlying it are so real: reading the book feels like holding an artifact of life, a snarled-up package of fury and self-hatred and despair. Yeah, it’s not the happiest book to read, but its painful authenticity is a large part of what makes it so compelling. There are no pretensions to darkness or the Gothic here, just a lifetime’s worth of the real thing.

After all, protagonist Sarah Crowe is a clear analogue of Kiernan herself: she’s a snarly, black-tempered writer of commercially unsuccessful dark fantasy who lives in Rhode Island, and she struggles with writer’s block and a seizure disorder. In Sarah’s case, she leaves the South to escape the memories of her failed relationship with an artist named Amanda, who committed suicide. Once in New England, she settles into an ancient farm house whose property is marked by a red oak of incredible age and size. Unsurprisingly, she develops a morbid fascination with the mythology surrounding the tree – in particular a half-finished manuscript left by the house’s last tenant in the basement – at the same time that a painter named Constance moves in upstairs. Cue much petty sniping, frustrated desire, and poorly concealed, creeping obsession.

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Reviewer: Emera

Actually, every season is for fairy tales, but fairy tales are particularly wonderful when the weather is miserable, I find. Below, quick reviews of two stories that I read within the past few months, both spun from fairy tales. With any luck, I should be able to post a few more later in the week.

Nicole Kornher-Stace’s “Notes Toward a Comparative Mythology” (Fantasy Magazine, read 08.08.09) – Kornher-Stace has an edgy, almost jazzy voice that makes me think she’s probably also an adroit poet – she does have some poetry published with Goblin Fruit, I remember, but I have yet to read it. Make that a note to self.

“Two [babies] with webbing in the gaps between their fingers, toes. Supple and resilient stuff, and when the doctors sliced at it with scalpels, it grew back tough as bootsoles, lettuce-edged, and the very devil to excise.”

I had to read this selkie story twice for it to really click with me, but on the second read, I found that though Kornher-Stace’s wiry, ambitious language occasionally falls a little short of its aim, she’s a skillful, authoritative storyteller, and beautifully conveys the main character’s deepening anguish. The story’s emotional movements are spot-on – I found myself wanting to cheer and do a little dance at the end. I think Kornher-Stace is one to watch; I look forward to investigating her other works, especially her novel Desideria, which sounds right up my and Kakaner’s alleys.

Erzebet Yellowboy‘s “A Spell for Twelve Brothers” (also Fantasy Magazine, read 12.06.09) is a dark, not-so-successful retelling of the Wild Swans fairy tale. Its premise is interesting but unconvincingly executed, particularly since the author’s language is overly mannered and riddled with portentous, inexact metaphors. (“He stopped, he saw the star on her forehead and fell into its golden points.”) I read the first dozen or so paragraphs, then gave up and skimmed the rest.

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Nicole Kornher-Stace
Erzebet Yellowboy

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Date read: 11.06.09
Read From: Asimov’s, July 2008
Reviewer: Emera

This post originally segued into an extremely long-winded discussion of what makes readers perceive fiction as “genre” versus “non-genre,” but two hours and >1100 words later, I got uncomfortable with some/all of what I had written. So, it’s been hacked back and all that’s left is a thematic discussion/analysis of Kij Johnson’s “26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss,” which, you might have noticed, Kakaner also just reviewed. (Later edit: But here’s the most expeditious compression of what I had been meaning to say about genre: if you like speculative fiction that makes a point of explicating mechanism – how the AI or the FTL drive or the summoning spell works – you’ll probably be disappointed by this story. It’s more of an absurdist fable.)

To make a mildly spoilery summary, the grief-embittered, formerly rootless heroine, Aimee, comes into possession of a strange miracle: a troupe of performing monkeys who, without any visible explanation, can disappear and reappear at will. She wonders endlessly at the miracle, and where it brings her to in life, but she never really does find out how it works.

The monkeys know, obviously, and one even agrees to show her the trick firsthand – but she still can’t see what the trick is. Despite the monkeys’ transparency (PUN) – here’s what we do, here’s us doing it, nothing hidden, just a bunch of monkeys in a bathtub – there’s a veil she can’t penetrate, something she can’t see beyond, can’t participate in. There’s just no way for her to “get it,” to seize the heart of the mystery, no matter how close she is to it and how clearly it’s laid out for her. It’s deliciously slippery and absurd, a mystery that’s all the more impenetrable for its almost banal apparent obviousness.

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Date Read: 11.03.09
Read From: Asimov’s July 2008
Reviewer: Kakaner

Well, after reading “Spar”, I was mighty curious to see what all the fuss with Kij Johnson was about so I searched up her most famous story. “26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss” won the 2009 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction and is currently nominated for the 2009 Hugo and Nebula Short Story awards.

The story is about a girl with little-to-no prospects who buys a traveling monkey act from the current owner. The act makes her rich and famous, but she is never quite satisfied mainly because she isn’t able to figure out how the monkeys perform their disappearing act. I was drawn in by so many aspects of this tale– the circus, monkeys with personalities, magic, and the very bizarre human-human and human-monkey relationships.The implied imagery is actually eerily haunting, from 26 brilliant monkeys pursuing pastimes in their cages to the scene in which they disappear one by one into a suspended bathtub. However, I was very disappointed by the ending. I felt like Johnson did a fantastic job keeping me guessing throughout the entire story but failed to deliver an ending of the same caliber, and I didn’t come away with much food for thought. Once again, one of those “What was the point?” moments for me.

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Kij Johnson
Asimov’s Science Fiction

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Once upon a time, Emera and Kakaner were high school students who shared roughly half their classes and more importantly, were badminton partners in gym.

I am writing to tell you all about a peculiar period of time in our senior year of high school during which we tried to memorize the hulking blaring entirety of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Emera had read this first and strongly impressed upon me that if I did not read it soon, my very existence would dwindle and die away. In no time, we were both completely obsessed with JSMN and literarily worshipped its texts, and for a long time, could speak of nothing else. Reviews of JSMN will be forthcoming– it’s just that our current reviews are rather explosive and incoherent. JSMN also made it to our The Black Letters Top Books list, so you can understand what kind of literary entity we are dealing with here.

We were inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. Although both of us had already read the book before being assigned to read it in AP English, the second time around, the concept of memorizing an entire book in secret really tickled our fancies. So, we conferred, and somehow decided that the 800-page JSMN was the obvious choice.

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