As regular readers know, I’m a big fan of Patricia McKillip. It wasn’t instant, and I haven’t liked everything she’s written, but overall, she’s near the top of my list of favorite authors. Not only that, but her short stories have been a pleasant surprise, and a break from her usual high fantasy realm. So, I snapped up this latest collection with enthusiasm.
Mostly, the enthusiasm was repaid. The book is thin, but then who wants to wait for more McKillip when you can have some now? Plus, some of the stories are set in Oregon. The stories here are occasionally whimsical, but all touched with McKillip’s fey magic – except one. I’m sorry to say it, but the idol has feet of clay, and McKillip has done the unexpected by including one story that’s actually bad, or the next thing to it.
The rest of the collection is more promising, though it’s not quite as polished as her prior collection, Wonders of the Invisible World. Since the collection is short, I’ve included comments on all stories.
- Weird – two people locked safely in a bathroom. The story certainly lives up to its title, but it’s an example where McKillip doesn’t entirely pull off the ‘unexplained, but effective’ trick. There’s a good story in here, but there’s too much scenery for it to get out.
- Mer – a witch turned mermaid. Unlike “Alien” later, on, the humor here never quite works. The story is quirky, and the characters are fun, but the world never really gels.
- The Gorgon in the Cupboard – Wonders of the Invisible World included two strong stories about art, “The Kelpie” and “Jack O’Lantern”. “Gorgon” feels a bit like a remake of “Kelpie” – it uses some of the same elements and archetypes. However, it’s also one of the strongest stories in this new collection, and does find its own path, so perhaps the three are best seen as a trio out to explore a theme together.
- Which Witch – this is the one true weakling of the bunch, and the only bad short story by McKillip I’ve ever read. It aims for cool, funny YA, and misses its target almost entirely, landing instead in that uncomfortable zone where parents try out teen slang and look foolish.
- Edith and Henry Go Motoring – just what it says. This is pretty far along the magic realism continuum, and is an excellent example of McKillip’s ability to make a satisfying story out of pieces that separately make little sense.
- Alien – Grandma was abducted by aliens. Humor and longing, deftly explored.
- Something Rich and Strange – a couple on the Oregon coast meet the sea. This feels like a story that wanted to be a novel. It’s long, moody, and romantic. Stripped of the otherworld fantasy setting of most of McKillip’s novels, the story at times feels like a master class in magical realism. All the McKillip elements are here – deep characters, strange happenings, unexpected metaphors, powerful beings that are neither evil nor good – and yet the story doesn’t quite work. It feels at times like McKillip has gotten so caught up in playing with her tools that she forgets to craft a good story with them. It’s sometimes hard to follow what’s happening, and not in a good, mysterious way. More than anything, this feels like a really strong draft that needed editorial direction but didn’t get it. It also has a positive, but fairly heavy-handed environmental message.
There’s also a brief and quite interesting essay on how to write high fantasy, and a less interesting afterword by Peter Beagle, who notably checks in on every story except “Which Witch”, the collection’s one stinker.
All in all, a collection of weird and wonderful, with a few false notes.