Welcome to the very first month of #shortsff, a diverse short fiction online reading club. Read more about the concept here. Read today’s story on Tor.com, then come back for a chat in the comments of this post and on twitter via #shortsff whenever or live this Thursday. I wrote this review as I read, which was a fun experiment.
Now. To the reading. *bites off chunk of story* *chews thoughtfully*
“The land of Tikanu spread from Dinah’s garden along with the wild mint. Neighbors on either side kept it in check with their pesticides, but it crept up the back porch and into the kitchen. After work, she would come home and bake bread, leaving crumbs by the anthill in exchange for tiny jewels.”
First sentences and paragraphs are supremely important, the moreso in short because of the forced economy of length. Though my instinct still wants me to resist short fiction, the mint and the anthill and the tiny jewels have instantly won more than half of the battle.
Not to mention the fact that Tor.com commissions original art to accompany its stories, and this story begins with a colorful illustration with a dragon, dolphins, and people reading books that I briefly imagine hanging on the wall in my daughter’s room.
“Dinah warned her three times, as the law required, then instructed her in the ways of magic.”
By the third paragraph I am already so deeply entwined in this world I almost want to break the spell to give the author an imagined high five. Imagine if every sentence and paragraph in a novel did this much work! I wish more novels were as concise, each word as important, as loaded. Strange footprints and the appearance of books that must be given to the waiting dolphins, defeating leviathan?!…the atmosphere that has descended upon the page as I read it is twinkly with magic.
And I am sad when part one ends at the end of the following paragraph. What about the mint and the ants and fucking leviathan? Will there be more? *shakes story* I need more! This is exactly my problem with short fiction. It’s like eating at one of those fancy restaurants where the food is really delicious and really gorgeous, but the portoin sizes are so small that you still go home hungry. But I must continue. Onward to part two!
Initially, I am disappointed because I want to return to part one and am still mad at being expelled from that magical place. Then: “The wood golems who tend the library’s collection type swiftly with their gnarled hands, more at ease answering patrons’ questions by e-mail than with their own grating voices.” And I forgive the author a little.
The image of the mother, an artist clutching a pen in her hand and summoning health to her child with patterns, is beautiful. There is a metaphor there that I want to think about when I am falling asleep tonight.
Enter part three. We’re back in the world I loved! *resents being back because I was so upset at leaving for part two* *gets the fuck over it and, happily, keeps reading*
“Tobacco and marijuana and grill smoke insinuated themselves into her contemplation. But she never saw anyone else looking at the moon, and presumed that no one outside her private scrap of nation could see it.”
It is at that point that I become completely convinced of this writer’s skill.
It is also at this point that I stop to gaze in wonder at how much I am enjoying this story. Even though “I don’t like short fiction.” Haha, the joke’s on me except it’s more beautiful than funny.
I think I can already say with certainty that I have found my favorite sentence, right at this spot:
“In a strange city, surrounded by strangers, it was a comfort simply to find someone else who could see the moon.”
No, no, the writing is too good and thus too likely to prove me wrong. But the amount of meaning packed into that short sentence! The implications about city dwellers and city transplants and the meaning of the moon! Love. The magic has descended onto the page again, and I don’t think even an interlude will be able to disperse it.
Then this: “They wandered among forests of shelves and pools of ink. They found there strange creatures, born as descriptions in the cryptozoology section…” Oh, the flavor of Borges, magical books, magical libraries, fictional creatures crossing the lines. Yeeees. More!
Though the story is interesting, I can’t say I really understand what is going on. What I do understand is that it is beautiful, that I keep falling in love with individual images and sentences. It is a different experience than that I seek out in long-form prose, and it is an experience long-form prose might not be able to offer. After all, I would be annoyed at a book that left so much out. But of course therein lies the obvious advantage in short fiction, the ability to do things long-form could not sustain.
Halfway through the fifth part of the text, a story does begin to slowly emerge. A character, suddenly very present and full and alive, appears and for several paragraphs I feel like that might be a more traditional plot here after all.
For totally different reasons, this sentence jumped out of part six and almost stole the crown for story’s best sentence: “After a moment of shock, Amber admitted to being from Cincinnati.” The context is what makes it so wonderful. From magic to Cincinnati in just a few words, the rhythm of it interacting with the surrounding paragraphs to perfect effect.
I am still in awe of Emrys’ ability to use words so purposefully, efficiently (though “efficient” is far too cold a word to describe it), aestetically, meaningfully.
At the end of part six, the story’s relationship to Narnia surfaces, just after a few references to fantasy books read as a child.
At last, as a celebration ensues in part seven, I begin to understand what this might be about: “Even in Tikanu, everyone has heard a different version of the story. With every conflicting detail, it seems to grow richer. It is a story of wanderers and rulers tied to their kingdoms, of bold sacrifice and quiet obligation, of boundless childhood and adults who grow into their strength.”
And then it is over, and I find myself conflicted. It was a beautiful story with so much detail leading to so many images off of the page. But I would have followed those characters on the journey only hinted at, maybe even preferred to do so, and some part of me is angry because part of me is sad that we had to leave each other so soon.
What did you think?