Elise Bunter (2007)
Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce (this review was first published in July 2007)
Shadow Plays is a fairly eclectic mix of Australian speculative fiction. There are some great stories, and some average stories, but none that are dreadful – so the editor, Bunter, is to be congratulated on her wise selection.
Opening an anthology must be a hard task, and I have no idea how an editor makes the decision as to who gets that (often thankless) task. In this case, it goes to Brendan D Carson’s “The Omensetter and the Hu Lijing”. In essence a love story, the scene is a semi-mythical Orient, where Liao Chen is an apprentice in the art of reading and interpreting signs and omens. He is the one to discover a hu lijing, a fox spirit … and really, things just go from there. It’s nicely written, easy to read, and doesn’t overdo the poignancy.
The next story is “When the Black Crow Flies”, by Nigel Stones. This was my least favourite story of the anthology, mostly because of the narrative style: it swung confusingly between first and third person, and the language was sometimes too obtuse for me to follow. I did like the relationship between the two main characters, but for me it wasn’t enough to outweigh the stylistic issues.
EJ Hayes’ “Crystal and Iron”, on the other hand, is very entertaining. Set in a weird world where 1866 London has lizard-like critters doing business with ordinary humans, and where there is a connection with New London that is, if anything, weirder. It’s a fairly standard thieving story, but I enjoyed the description and the characters.
“Nigela and the Clockwork Man”, by George Ivanoff, is horrifying in the good sense of the word. Clearly a play on Frankenstein, in this case a young woman of independent means determines to create a suitable companion for herself. I liked it.
On the hilarious side of life falls “Musgrave”, by Richard Harland. It reminded me of Gulliver’s Travels and other, medieval, stories of Europeans having adventures in far-off lands, which is exactly what Musgrave is doing. His outlandishness, and the treatment he and his man receive, are well worth a read.
D H Duperouzel’s “Of Wind and City” is one of my favourite stories of the whole collection. It’s unclear exactly what is going on until right at the end, but Duperouzel manages this in a masterful, tantalising way – it reeled me in and led me along, all willingly. She manages the present tense of the story well – always hard, in my opinion – and the shifting narrator, too, also works in this instance. It’s a fascinating thing, to imagine how a city would feel and act.
My other favourite from this collection is the very next story: “Calliope”, by Andrew J McKiernan. Set in an alternate Sydney where steam’s the thing (and the Bridge never got built), it’s a romance of two completely unsuitable people, and the lengths one will go to for the other. There are some very clever allusions in there, as well, to historical figures – I’m not sure if I was reading too much into the whole thing, but let’s just say the main character is a patents clerk. This world is well-realised, and I can easily imagine more stories set there.
I don’t know when “Bab and Anusha”, by Ren Holton, is meant to be set – not that it matters. The story of a girl working for a trickster, an illusionist and racketeer, it centres on the decisions of said girl (Anusha) and what she does in order to survive. While I enjoyed the twists of the story, the characters weren’t quite well-developed enough for me – considering the story is character, not plot, driven.
Robert J Santa takes the story of knight-fighting-dragon in an interesting direction in “A Jury of Peers”. It’s a fascinating insight into how a dragon might view such an encounter – and how his or her peers might, too.
In a time of drought, Ashley Arnold’s “The River Man’s Spirits” is provocatively titled. Again, I am unsure when and exactly where this story is set, which in this case did make a difference – I’m not entirely sure what to make of the superstition surrounding the metal lid and the concrete around it. Karena is a strong character, but this doesn’t entirely make up for deficiencies in explanation. I know there is a strong case to be made for being tantalising (as I have praised above), but still I think authors need to give readers enough to go on to make ‘tantalising’ enjoyable, not frustrating or confusing. Arnold, for me, just slid to the frustrating side.
Penultimately is “The Red Curtains”, by Sarah Drummond. A selky story, it’s not very original, although lovingly told. There’s not much more to say about it than that, since most selky stories revolve around the same issues – loving and/or being loved by a human, and what they do about that.
As with opening an anthology, closing it must be ridiculously hard. The last story here is “Whitey”, by Penelope Love. It’s a very, very strange story, but enjoyable nonetheless. There’s weird alien or supernatural phenomena; love problems; familial issues; crazed law enforcers … all the fun stuff, basically. I liked that there was a character called Xerxes; an under-used name, I think. It’s a good story to end on, in that it fulfills the promise of the back cover – darkness and light, fear and wonder, intrigue and adventure.
This anthology can only be good for the Australian specfic scene. Giving Australian authors more opportunities – good opportunities – to get into print is a positive thing.