Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review of Eclipse Three ed. by Jonathan Strahan

In the introduction of Eclipse One, editor Jonathan Strahan stated that the purpose of the Eclipse series is to ignore genre and sub-genre lines and focus simply on collecting quality stories from the best writers of speculative fiction at the beginning of the 21st century.  The mission statement the same for Eclipse Three, Strahan foregoes repeating himself in the intro, but does let slip one important piece of information.  Where Eclipse Two focused mainly on science fiction, Eclipse Three is intended to balance the scales in favor of fantasy.  Nine of the fifteen stories under that banner, Strahan likewise righted the gender imbalance; the overwhelming majority of writers are female in this volume.  The following is a brief of overview of each of the stories in the anthology:

“The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler is the story of Norah, a rebellious fifteen year old sent to a harsh rehabilitation home to mend her ways.  A well written story that effortlessly progresses Norah’s story, it simultaneously holds the other shoe an inch off the floor, letting the reader wait for it to drop.  And when it does, the science fiction conceit is revealed.  While seeming incongruous from the overtones of realism developed to that point, the conclusion nevertheless serves as a symbolic representation of the innate differences between teenagers and adults. Perhaps better left as a work of realism, the corniness partially undermines what is a striking story to that point. All in all, a sharp point on which to open the anthology.

“A Practical Girl” by Ellen Klages is a YA story—the only in the collection.  Set in 1952, it tells of Carolyn, a gifted young girl who, wandering in her backyard one day, comes across a trail of crosshatches inscribed on stones.  Leading her to a house she never knew existed, there she meets Bibber, his giant tortoise, and the mystery of Lo-Shun.  Klages imparting joy in the magic of numbers thereafter, it is an innocent story in The Secret Garden tradition but with a definite sci-fi and fantasy foundation and message.

“Don't Mention Madagascar” by Pat Cadigan is the story of Pearl and Suzette and the paranormal adventure the two find themselves in tracking Suzette’s wheelchair-bound aunt to a Rolling Stones concert in Madagascar.  Cadigan continuing to rely upon classic rock for material, the story moves effortlessly forward, but lacks an underlying purpose save the mystery of the photo Suzette possesses—a fact underlined by the indulgent time spent arriving at what is an uninspired conclusion.

“On the Road” by Nnedi Okorafor is openly a horror story.  It begins with a young boy with a ghastly face injury knocking on the door of the protagonist and tapping her hand, saying ‘Tag, you’re it.’  Stranger and stranger things happening to Chioma the longer she visits her Nigerian home, Okorafor tackles guilt and culture as themes.  The impact reduced by pedestrian prose and the tawdriness of horror, the story pans out average.

“Swell” by Elizabeth Bear is a different take on the Robert Johnson devil-at-the-crossroads legend.  Told in the second person (interesting from a gender perspective), the story is well written and has a nice twist in the last line that makes it all worthwhile.

“Useless Things” by Maureen F. McHugh is a hauntingly beautiful and incredibly realistic vision of near future America set in rural New Mexico.  The story of a real-doll sculptor, McHugh imbues the woman’s day to day life with a sense of quiet desperation as she scrapes by with what talents and materials she has.  Subtly tragic, it is a story that seeps into the mind and fixes itself in empathy for the woman and the dread of just how realistic the near-future economic state of America appears.

“The Coral Heart” by Jeffrey Ford is the tale of the hero Toler and his eponymous sword.  Turning men to coral when their blood touches the heart stone, the sword meets its match when Toler comes to an ancient city whose queen is a most beautiful woman.  Conventional sword and sorcery with mythic dimension, the story nevertheless possesses all of Ford’s descriptive powers.

“It Takes Two” by Nicola Griffith is Philip K. Dick in erotic mode.  It is the story of a young business woman who is sent to Atlanta to secure a new contract who, in the wining and dining, goes with the executive she is attempting to sign to a strip club, and there has an amazing experience.  But the surprise behind it all may be more than she can handle.  The story is effectively personal until the reveal, the denouement a bit fluffy.

“Sleight of Hand” by Peter S. Beagle is the third submission by the author in as many Eclipse anthologies.  Never straying from his style, this is another distinct urban fantasy.  The story of a woman who meets a mysterious magician after her husband and daughter die in a car crash, Beagle continues to utilize his sublime style toward telling of the power the fantastic has to mitigate tragedy. Another quality effort.

“The Pretenders' Tourney” by Daniel Abraham is almost as stereotypical as modern epic fantasy gets.  New blade forged from a meteor, a plague sweeping through the land, a knight’s tourney, civil war on the horizon, and the throne to be decided by a duel, all the standard tropes are present, and, are never anything more.  Though competent style-wise, there is little of note in this rushed affair.

“Yes We Have No Bananas” by Paul Di Filippo is the first entry of alternate history cyberpunk I have ever read.  Full of original imagination that squeaks and sparkles in the telling Tug Gingerella’s plight, what remains in question is whether it’s all just window dressing for the lack of a meaningful story.  The art of writing taking the stage in place of story with purpose, this one is for the connoisseurs of cyberpunk.

“Mesopotamian Fire” by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple, like Nancy Kress’ “Elevator” in Eclipse Two, feels like a homework assignment turned in at the last moment.  The shortest piece in the collection, it possesses zero depth and seems to have been thrown in as an interlude—a comedic intermission—before the show goes on.  Simply put, it is the story of a student’s imagination run wild with the world’s tiniest dragon and his professor’s impression of it.

“The Visited Man” by Molly Gloss is literary fantasy near its best.  The story of a French man who loses his wife one day and his child a few days later, the depression he falls into is mitigated, albeit temporarily, by the painter who lives below him.  The two going on pleasure walks in the animal menagerie near their building, the things they see, the subjects of their conversations, and the paintings which are later produced all roll into a snowball of realization that comes just in time.  Well written, nicely structured, and possessing a smoothness of presentation many a fantasy writer should be envious of, this, along with McHugh’s, are the best pieces in the anthology.

“Galápagos” by Caitlín R. Kiernan is the psychological case study of a woman astronaut suffering from trauma after her space flight doesn’t go as planned. Her psyche partially fractured by the tragic and haunting experiences she had on what was supposed to be a scientific mission to Jupiter and Mars, the story is told in epistolary form to a psychiatrist from the woman’s hospital bed back on Earth.  Emotionally charged, this is a well-written, powerful story of a woman confronting the realities of life in the cosmos and on Earth.

“Dulce Domum” by Ellen Kushner is inspired by chapter five of Kenneth Grahame’s masterpiece The Wind in the Willows.  Kushner’s certainly the adult version, the story is simply two new lovers sharing Christmas Eve together and remembering their upbringings—neither of which are Golden Age American family standard. One interesting aspect is that the majority of the story consists of dialogue between the two lovers, but not one speech tag used.  Not the strongest piece on which to end the collection, but end it, it does.

In the end, Eclipse Three is on par with Eclipse Two for quality, despite that each address the major prongs of speculative fiction, fantasy and sci-fi, respectively.  The former genre well represented, there are standard tales of sword and sorcery and epic fantasy, a couple pieces of literary fantasy, some paranormal work, and even one horror and one YA selection.  On top of this there is dabbling in cyberpunk, psychological space travels, a PKD-esque entry, and a My Parents Are Aliens styled story. Sticking with the standard set by Eclipse One, whether the reader likes or dislikes a story is preference related; but they will at least find the selections stylistically competent, several succeeding in delivering high quality prose and method.  Thus it goes without saying: the anthology will appeal to readers who enjoy a variety of fantasy literature in short form.

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