I bought this title impulsively, simply because it caught my eye, and although that’s not the most advisable way to judge a book – as we all know – this time it paid off.
This collection is a real mixed bag. There’s SF and fantasy, gender politics and whimsy, romance and horrors. And while some of the stories are forgettable, plenty are exciting in an almost childlike way, even if the subject matter is adult. There are too many to review individually, so instead I’ll briefly discuss my favourites.
“The Butterfly Assassins” is a colourful tale about an assistant necro-alchemist’s attempts to create a flying human using butterfly ichor. He’s a nervous gentle soul, and his journey into the splendid Dragonswood makes for a pleasant opener.
“The Taste of Snow” presents a future of catastrophic global-warming and tells of a woman and her old, dependent aunt with whom she shares their desert home. It’s an evocative piece, and the taste of dust and grit nicely contrasts with touches of nostalgia.
The book has a couple of enjoyable space westerns starting with “The Clone-Wrangler’s Bride”. The star is Matty Johnson, here found wandering the domed cities of Mars looking for her husband, accompanied by a fussy “mandroid”. The relentless heat of the red planet seems to radiate from the pages, and its follow-up “Droidtown Blues” allows the mandroid’s POV to bring mirth to a gritty scenario.
In “Kingdom at the Edge of Nowhere”, we meet Gil, a lonely space-worker who whiles away the days playing holocards with his dead cryogenic family. But his loneliness is interrupted in a lunar city when he finds himself falling for a moth girl who plays the flute. Almost a fairytale romance, this story has real resonance and fragility.
The cleverly titled “Paperheart” concerns a dragon charged with protecting a rustic community, until one day the villagers decide she’s an unecessary relic and attack her. Terribly wounded, she meets an origami witch, who might be both her saviour and her destruction. This story creates an actual spirituality out of fire, and ponders themes of survival and the essence of true existence. It also has a real upper-cut of a finale.
“Shades of White and Road” is told by somebody travelling a spiralling road who is beset and pestered by inanimate objects. It’s a nice whimsy with some deft linguistic wordplay.
“Flaming Marshmallow and Other Deaths” is a real stayer. We meet Carolyn, a teenaged girl who lives in a world similar to our own, except that they learn how they’ll die on their 16th birthday. Is she destined to die a boring death such as old age or suicide, or be able to join the ranks of the cool kids like a “crasher” or “burner”? A great concept that explores schoolyard politics, it’s ghoulishly intriguing from the off, darkly humorous, and ties up with a truly poignant scene.
Other honourable mentions include “They Shall Be As they Know” – a kind of zombie-twist meets Orwell’s 1984 – and “Observations of a Dimestore Figurine” which is exactly that. An intense version of Toy Story, it managed to be witty but ultimately horrific.
The final almost-title story in the collection is “The Pull of the World and the Push of the Sky”. Following a sensitive misfit of a caveman who has a cunning idea for the use of a pterodactyl’s corpse, it concludes the collection on a pleasing note.
The above is only a fraction of what’s on offer: this book is a cauldron of characters, wild settings, and some interesting concepts of aliens. We meet a blackmailed siren, interplanetary archeologists, a lost astronaut, a woman who sees through an exatraordinary nanotech veil, and some human kudzu. The book is also sprinkled with poetry and much of the prose has a poetic feel too, with deliberate rhythm and style.
This isn’t quite a perfect collection. A few of the stories I felt had more style than substance, and some of them felt inappropriately inconclusive. But overall, this is a strong book: a tour through a very sharp but delightful imagination. There’s comic timing when required, and none of the infodumping often found in fantasy when the author has whole worlds to convey. Camille Alexa trickles in the important parts and lets your subconscious paint the bigger picture itself, switching between sub-genres with ease.
The foreword by Jay Lake concludes with “Spread the word.” It would’ve been impossibly rude not to.