Night Shade (2009)
Reviewed by Simon Petrie, May 2010
Though they share the same brief – to present an overview of some of the year’s best short speculative fiction, in an anthology without stated limitations of theme – Eclipse Three is a distinctly different beast than Eclipse Two. Probably the most obvious point of variance is in the gender distribution of the authors, with a definite preponderance of female authors in E3, whereas E2 was distinctly male-heavy. It’s difficult to see this as other than a conscious choice by Strahan to redress previous gender imbalances, but if so the strategy receives no acknowledgement in the anthology’s introduction or elsewhere. Nor is it, in the end, a cause for any complaint: whatever one’s personal perspective on affirmative action, the result is an anthology which, for whatever reason, is more cohesive, more fulfilling, stronger than its predecessor.
“The Pelican Bar,” by Karen Joy Fowler has Norah, the archetypal renegade teen, receive a rather unusual gift for her fifteenth birthday: incarceration, in an isolated camp run by mysterious, pitiless adults. Norah’s travails are portrayed unflinchingly, but with compassion. “Pelican Bar” gets the anthology off to an excellent start, with a coming-of-age tale in which the underlying message is left deliberately muddy.
“A Practical Girl,” by Ellen Klages, is another coming-of-age story, though distinctly less brutal, less strident than “Pelican Bar.” Klages’ story of Carolyn’s exploration of a mysterious mansion, and its troubled occupant, combines mathematics and magic to memorable effect.
Pat Cadigan’s “Don’t Mention Madagascar” plays with time travel and anguished choices. It deserves its place here, but it didn’t move me as much as several of its neighbours.
“On the Road,” by Nnedi Okorafor, is an African-flavoured fantasy, memorable for its use of a variety of magic less familiar to first-world readers, and for some incandescent and troubling imagery.
“Swell,” by Elizabeth Bear, gives us a blind temptress, a fading musician, a Faustian bargain. Bear is very good at what she does: this quietly haunting, seductive tale covers a lot of ground in comparatively few pages.
Maureen F. McHugh’s “Useless Things” is brilliant, an optimistically dystopic near-future vision of a marginalised, resourceful, stubborn woman living alone in the New Mexico desert. This is an America that’s very much past its peak, presented all-too-clearly and with disturbing plausibility.
Jeffrey Ford’s “The Coral Heart” is a well-sculpted fantasy, involving a weapon of terrible power: a sword with the ability to turn to coral the flesh of anyone it pierces. Perhaps predictably, the tragedy which unfolds here doesn’t involve its use on the battlefield.
“It Takes Two,” by Nicola Griffiths, is another triumph. Cody is a conference delegate who meets up with Richard, again, and discloses perhaps more than she’d intended in a late-night bull session with him. So when Cody’s forced, though her work, to attend a strip club a few months later (in otherwise all-male corporate company), how much of her reaction is instinctual, and how much engineered? Does it matter? This is an uncomplicated but deeply thoughtful story, with standout characterisation.
“Sleight of Hand,” by Peter S. Beagle suffers slightly by comparison with Beagle’s story in the preceding volume of Eclipse, but it’s perhaps an unfair comparison: by almost any other measure, the story here is a very strong offering.
Daniel Abraham’s “The Pretenders’ Tourney” is more traditional-seeming fantasy, which sets up an unwanted confrontation, in mortal combat, between the man who wants to be King, and the man who doesn’t. There are no real surprises in Abraham’s tale, but a well-told tale doesn’t necessarily need to surprise…
“Yes, We Have No Bananas,” by Paul Di Filippo, is a seriously crazed alternate-universe story in which Tug Gingerella falls on hard times – there just isn’t the demand for ocarinas that once there was – and struggles with girl troubles, money troubles, and existential dread. I’m not sure that the absence of bananas in Di Filippo’s off-key world is entirely sufficient explanation for the zaniness depicted here, but it’s a fun place to explore.
Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple join forces on “Mesopotamian Fire”. This, to me, seemed to be the closest thing within the anthology to a throwaway tale: it’s short, and playful, but it didn’t really fit amongst the surrounding stories.
“The Visited Man,” by Molly Gloss, gets things within the book very much back onto their proper footing. Gloss’s story of the awkward, illuminating relationship between the widower Marie-Lucien and his downstairs neighbour, the painter Henri Rousseau, is vivid and enthralling.
Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Galapagos” is, if you will, First Contact at one remove, as the narrator presents, for the benefit of her various psychiatrists and minders, the details of her encounter with the inhabitants of the Pilgrimage, the doomed vessel which first made contact with a nebulous extraterrestrial intelligence. To those looking for a female voice in space opera, I’d recommend Kiernan’s as a name to watch.
“Dulce Domum,” by Ellen Kushner, sears with sexual tension, and a sense of divided duty. It’s an interesting counterpoint to the anthology’s opening story: where “The Pelican Bar” is full-on, relentless, and unashamedly unpoetic, “Dulce Domum’”brings things to an elliptic, intriguing close.
I haven’t read Eclipse One at this juncture; but Eclipse Two was a decidedly strong anthology. Eclipse Three is distinctly better, with fewer stories that hold themselves back from greatness, and more that is truly memorable. The progression suggests that Strahan may well have his work cut out in assembling Eclipse Four, if it is not to prove anticlimactic by comparison.