Review: “Into the Yellow and Other Stories” by Barbara Davies


“Visit ancient Rome, lunar settlements, and alien worlds. Meet zombies and vampires, mermen, dragons, and demons. Experience nano-technology and watch history happen from a time machine. Barbara Davies explores the spectrum of speculative fiction in this collection of entertaining and thought-provoking stories.”

This collection is a few years old now, but I purchased it on a whim for my Kindle because of this very blurb. I discovered an offbeat and vivid cauldron of fantasy, science fiction and horror with lots of heart, crisp prose and imagination delivered in style.

It opens with the title story “Into the Yellow” which turned out to be one of my favourites. This concerns Kesho, a member of a community of chameleonic lizard-like creatures in a glacial mountain region, fed up with her lot and consumed by the desire to explore. She decides to leave her isolated community and row across the “yellow” – a poisonous and lethal expanse of fog – beyond which lies the possibility of meeting other creatures. Full of creative attention to detail, character investment and feeling, this is a charming adventure, tackling the passion and discontentment of youth, and enhanced by expertly woven moments of jeopardy.

“Lone Wolf” introduces a werewolf hunter called Tarian who also has darkness within herself. Along with Peter, a mild-mannered bookseller, she faces a challenging night in a small village churchyard. A neat tale with plenty of action and scares.

“Morris Dancing” made me smile, in which a medieval pilgrim is attacked by a dragon he believes to be Satan. This humorous short cuts straight to the chase and is elevated by POV switches between the beast and its religious prey, and a perfectly gauged comic tone.

In “Cordie and the Merman”, Cordie is a fishing boat skipper – a woman in a very masculine environment – who accidentally snags a merman and is torn with what to do with the injured creature. It’s unpredictable, twisting and turning like a slippery sea creature itself towards the conclusion.

“Caverns of the Heart” concerns Mira, a girl resigned to working in the dangerous mines on an alien planet. She finds something unusual that inspires a change of heart in an adventure full of inspiration.

“Babalawo’s Drum” transports us to Elizabethan times in which Rob, a young English boy, is forced into serving a new master after the death of his rogue father. But after settling into his new life with an apparently benevolent master, he discovers something both illegal and horrific is going on. It’s an atmospheric period horror with a deft sense of escalating dread.

In “High Flier” we meet Jeff, a young man starting a job with a lunar transport company, who gets his first girlfriend. Of all the pieces in this collection, I thought this had the slowest start and wasn’t immediately easy to engage, but I enjoyed the evocation of the moon colony and how it speculates that workplace dynamics and young relationships in the future are no less awkward or full of pitfalls than those of the present.

“Journey to Niskor” introduces Viro, a somewhat snobby, travelling magical healer, who needs to cross a vast frozen expanse. He hires a local peasant woman named Ajysyt to transport him with her sled and team of huskies. Viro finds his male viewpoint challenged by his expert female guide, and it soon turns into a survivalist journey into the bitter cold. The cruel environment of snow and trees is beautifully evoked, and I enjoyed learning about Ajysyt’s techniques of keeping both themselves and the dogs alive in such extreme conditions. Although Viro can be entitled and sexist, this is all part of his journey and there is hope that he learns a lot from the expedition.

“Time and the Maid” involves a machine that can access the past, and when a drunk student alters Joan of Arc’s timeline by pretending to be an angel, Professor Marcus Williams has to try and fix it. It ignores the true impact of the butterfly effect, as most time-travel fiction tends to do, but it’s neatly crafted and the ending is pleasing and unexpected.

“Throwback” concerns Milos, a young vampire who is struggling with the discovery that he’ll never be able to fly like his friends due to impurities in his ancestral bloodline. But one night, when followed by some vampire-hating human lads, it appears his supposed flaws might be the key to getting them out of trouble. The author has fun with the traditional tropes of the vampire myth, and it’s actually more about teenagers coming of age than monsters.

In “A Question of Gender,” we find a group of scientists studying an alien race who discover that they have unpleasant views regarding the roles of males and females. But when one of the scientists is gifted a female alien from the male warlord, supposedly for his harem, things take a dark turn. This is thoughtful and exciting science fiction with some interesting biological science and clever surprises up its sleeve.

We are transported to a haunted house in ancient Rome for “The House on the Via Aurelia”. It follows Quintus, a household spirit, whose ordered routine is upset by the arrival of a troublesome and deceitful family ghost. Although I found the story somewhat wordy and overly detailed, I enjoyed the dialogue which has been considerably modernised – I suspect deliberately – for entertaining effect.

“Dog and Kat” is a futuristic tale told through two 1st person perspectives: Dog, a genetically-enhanced dog that belongs to a troubled artist called Heather, and Kat, a woman with whom the artist has as an extra-marital affair. The perspectives work well, particularly that of the innocent and empathetic dog and his constant attempts to understand what he is seeing, and things soon descend towards a shocking conclusion. Although thought-provoking and sharp, be warned that the ending is very unpleasant, and it was the only piece that made me feel genuinely cold.

“The Creature in the Cut” follows a group of boatpeople who discover that a murderous monster of some kind is living in one of their canal tunnels. As they plan to burn it or lure it out of hiding, this turns into a creature feature, with solid characterisation and action.

Finally, “Demonsbane” is an erotically charged ride in which Brad, an ordinary student, meets a rock band and their manager – Regan – and is caught up in a supernatural world of shapeshifting and demoncraft. It’s colourful and noisy, and the somewhat vanilla character of Brad perfectly elevates the strong and mysterious Regan, who has dark talents way beyond what he might have imagined.

I enjoyed Into the Yellow. The stories are short, largely well-crafted and easy to fall into, and there’s a distinct sense of originality throughout. Horror, sf and fantasy can be very well beaten paths when it comes to plot and setting, yet with this book, I often had that pleasing feeling that I was wandering into fresh territories of imagination.

Barbara Davies’ storytelling style brings her worlds into very clear focus, the prose generally being vibrant and evocative without intruding on the stories, and she can inject immediate whimsy, humour, threat or darkness as appropriate with just a few concise words. I also like that she includes brief notes with each piece that explain the inspiration.

Whether the setting is a modern, historical, fantasy or alien world, the characters are real and their plights often investable. And although many of the stories have wry humour and warmth, there are plenty of chills to remind us that life isn’t always like that.

Just as the blurb promised, a thought-provoking and entertaining collection. The yellow is waiting for you.

Barbara Davies

Bedazzled Ink – Mindancer Press