Jonathan Strahan and Jeremy G Byrne (eds.)

Eidolon Books (2006)

ISBN: 0958686475

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce (this review was first published in February 2006)

I had not heard of Eidolon before I read this anthology. When I read the Introduction and the reminiscing about what “the old days” were like, I felt just a little bit cheated that I hadn’t been in on it. And it made me look forward to reading the collection even more.

Tim Pratt’s “The Third-Quarter King” was an excellent start – always a good omen. From the title I expected it to be about football, or some other sport; thankfully, I was wrong. Instead, it’s about Autumn – the personification thereof – and his attitudes towards the other seasons. There’s also a human involved, basically as a pawn paying a price for trying to turn Autumn into her pawn. Silly idea, trying to play with anthropomorphised forces of nature.

I loved Hal Duncan’s “The Angel of Gamblers” (I only realised, as I wrote this, that the narrator’s name is Hal). I know nothing about Texas Hold ‘Em, but this story just about convinced me that I’d like to play (that, and late-night Celebrity Poker; but I know I would be a terrible player). This story takes place during just one game. Guy Fox, one of the players, starts telling a long and convoluted story just as the game is dealt, with the provocative statement that there are no gamblers in Hell. The other players are Fast Puck, Joey Narcosis, Jack Flash, and the narrator. These reprobates listen to the story, interject their own wry comments, and play the game with great skill (I think – as I said, I know nothing about the game). The tale he tells is, of course, the point of this story. Fox describes his experiences meeting a being he calls the Angel of Gamblers – apparently one of a third group of angels, not pro-God nor pro-Devil but neutral, walking the earth. Of course, Fox played the angel at poker – and the stake, of course, was Fox’s soul. Fox is an incredibly frustrating yet consummate storyteller, knowing exactly when to stop talking in order to address the game at hand. At 25 pages, it’s a long short story, but it’s really worthwhile.

I didn’t really like “The Revenant” by Lucy Sussex. It was well written, and I really liked the description of the party – I wanted to know more about that, and the people there. And I loved the idea of the Party Facilitator, who just makes things work at parties, because I know just a few people who can manage it (and have attended a few parties that would have benefited from one…). Yet Cat’s encounter with Mo, who died some three years previously, just seemed a bit pointless. Maybe this was the point – that we have all of these movies about intense encounters with ghosts, but really most dead people will actually have no interest in the living. But if so, why did Mo appear to her? It just didn’t make for that interesting a story.

Holly Phillips’ “Gin” must fit into the “and anything else we really liked” category, as defined in the Introduction, because it isn’t scifi, fantasy, or horror. Well, maybe it’s horror, although not how I usually think about it. Anyway, the narrator is faced with the dreadful task of having to clean out her estranged mother’s house two weeks after her death. The mother – never named – has basically lived in a gin bottle for the daughter’s entire life. The house, as a consequence, is shocking. She spends three days cleaning out the house, reliving her life there as she does so. One thing that I really enjoyed about this story was the poetry interspersed throughout. It’s not quite clear who is speaking through them (I presume it’s the mother, or that it at least reflects her), but the cunning play on gin and djinn is very clever, and it allows a potential insight into the mind of an alcoholic.

“A Fine Magic”, by Margo Lanagan, is a play on the classic courtship story. Gallantine, a magician, is keen to marry one of two young and eligible ladies of the town. He not being their age, they reject him outright. Naturally, revenge follows, in an interesting but ultimately not wholly realised way. I’m not sure precisely what happened; it felt like there was a sentence or two missed out towards the end, which of course detracted from the whole and left me feeling somewhat confused and frustrated.

“The Bridal Bier”, by Carol Ryles, is a re-telling of the Bride of Frankenstein story. I’m not a connoisseur of the Frankenstein oeuvre, so I don’t know how or whether this fits in. This didn’t detract from the story itself, although anyone who doesn’t have a basic understanding of the Frankenstein story (do these people exist? They must, but they probably won’t be reading this review or Eidolon) will struggle a bit. It’s written from the bride’s point of view, and examines her reaction to discovering who and what she is. It is excellent.

The narration of “The Conqueror” by Grace Dugan, is complicated: a widow is speaking as her husband, with occasional interpolations. It leads to interesting questions of authenticity and purpose, since how can the reader be sure that she is telling the truth? And why exactly is she telling the story anyway? The story itself, though, is about Anferan, a man from a small village with a big destiny prophesied for him. It looks at his attitude towards this prophecy and how he works towards it. I expected a twist in this story, from Dugan’s pen (keyboard?) as it is, but I did not expect what it would be. Again, an excellent story.

Kim Westwood’s “Cassandra’s Hands” was odd. I had no idea, for a large chunk of the story, what the point of it was. It turns into a detective story, but takes a while to get there. Originally I thought it was basically going to look at people coping with apparently being the only ones left alive after a cataclysm destroyed the city, which would have been fine, but it wasn’t. The first two thirds of the story are essentially vignettes of the people living in the Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows building, following their reactions and interactions – and I really liked this section. The characters were fascinating, with curious and believable quirks, and I love a security guard who thinks she’s Jean-Luc Picard. Then it turned into the detective story, and the two sections didn’t seem to fit together all that well. Maybe this reflects how the inhabitants of the Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows felt about their lives, but the disjointedness made me impatient: I would have liked one story or the other, but not both.

For anyone who has ever worked with a company fanatic, the person who doesn’t fit in and doesn’t get the jokes, an absolute stickler for procedure and a tattle-tale to boot, “My Report on the Secret Life of Shane Hamill” by Jeff VanderMeer is a must. If you are the person previously described, skip this one because it might give you ideas. The narrator, who never identifies himself (except as an assistant manager), is reporting to the Powers That Be on the poison that Shane Hamill has been spreading among his bookshop’s employees. Shane’s crime? Building a boat (a Roman galley, no less) in the back lot of said bookshop. It ends up drawing all of the other employees in, except – needless to say – for the narrator. This is a fairly funny idea to start with, but the format that it’s written in makes this story priceless.

Following the ‘unusual narrator’ vein is Deborah Roggie’s “Thievery”. The narrators here are three magpies, and they are boasting of their stealing skills. Through this one-upmanship, we learn another story, of a child’s defiance and parental revenge. It left me wanting more magpies and more shiny objects to steal just so I could get more of the story.

I have to admit to not entirely getting William Eakin’s “Trimalchio’s Chamber Pot”. It involves possible reincarnation, visions, and a woman who may or may not be some sort of goddess. I’m fine with all of those things, but the structure of the story left me feeling outside of it a few times – I wasn’t being allowed, as the reader, to fully understand things that it seemed to me were necessary for understanding the story as a whole. And the speed with which the main character decided he was, in some way, Trimalchio, was quite startling. It’s a great concept, but for me it didn’t work: it’s disjointed, and I really didn’t understand the Oholibah character, nor connect with her because there didn’t appear to be much to connect to. The latter may be a fault with me, but I just struggled.

The structure of “The Legend of Greatmother June”, Alistair Ong’s contribution, is written with recipes as inspiration, which made for an intriguing beginning. Each section is the explanation for one of the ingredients that the narrator feels is necessary for a story. Along the way, the story is slowly unravelled. It doesn’t have all that much to do with Greatmother June, except that it began with her – with Slowly, an alien of some sort, first communicating with her, and staying with her family for several generations. The story revolves mostly around twins Sean and Molly, and their interaction with Slowly. This is the sort of story that I think could easily become a novel, but the fact that it is a short story and that not all the ends are tied up gives a definite poignancy. It works beautifully.

“Big Green Mama Falls in Love”, by Eleanor Arnason, is the only story that made me actually laugh in this anthology. It is absurd, in the best sense of the word. And apparently it’s one of a series about Big Mama, which is a very exciting thing. Big Mamas (and Big Poppas – Large Parents in general, in fact) are some sort of Ur-beings: there seems to be at least one Large Parent for every type of critter out there, down to and including viruses. In this tale, Big Green Mama is walking through the universe and decides to visit a nice-looking planet she happens to pass. Nasty things happen, there’s a bit of existential angst and the occasional philosophical discussion, some sex and a couple of adventures. There’s also a short discussion on the scope and limitations of DNA at the end, which rather bizarrely fits in nicely. I’m definitely looking out for the rest of this series. There would have to be endless possibilities for what an author could do with Big Mamas capable of wandering the universe at will.

Originally I didn’t get the title of “Gone to Flowers”, Elizabeth Bear’s story, but that doesn’t detract from the story itself (I googled it: finding out it is from a Pete Seeger song of the late 70s made a lot of sense). It has a RoboCop feel to it: Jenny Casey (or Maker), having been hurt badly in combat, is recovering from serious prosthetic work – her entire left arm, in fact, is now metal. This story is partly about someone coping with a traumatic change to their very body; partly about the insidious nature of the military machine; and partly a romance. There is little context given, except that Canada is involved in some military way in South Africa; the detail is so sparse, and yet so effective, that it made me wonder if Bear has other stories set in the same time – she certainly knows it well enough. I don’t know whether I liked Maker by the end or not, and I’m not actually sure if I’m meant to; she is certainly not a straight-forward hero. She definitely deserves more story, though, in my opinion.

I am not a fan of the art of Hieronymus Boche. I am a fan of the story of that name by Chris Lawson. In his bio, he says this is a horror story and possibly fantasy. I’m not too sure either, but I think it probably does fall into fantasy. It’s set in No Man’s Land in WWI, and it’s hell – fog, rats, no food, little water… Then an aircraft crashes nearby, or seems to (crash, that is – it’s definitely there), and Mo, the narrator, is forced to reconsider what he thinks he knows about his situation. The form of this piece, written as a letter home to his parents, allowed Lawson to include emotion that otherwise might have been hard to get across. The nightmarish nature of war is delicately captured, along with the troop camaraderie (almost stereotypically – perhaps because it really does happen). This is one hell of a story.

Deborah Biancotti’s “The Dying Light” has a distinctly Indigenous Australian feel, to me. I am guessing this was deliberate; it worked really well, and it makes me wonder why there isn’t more use of Indigenous Australian ideas in scifi and fantasy – at least, not that I’ve read or heard of (I’d be happy to be enlightened if there is lots out there!). Living at some time in the future, after the time of machines, the tribe lives the “found” way – only eating what they can forage – and the children have lessons about life at night, because the focus of their lives, it seems, is to “find their dying” in the stars. They believe that everyone can find out how and when they will die by looking at the night sky. This, naturally enough, has lots of interesting implications for how they live their lives, since you know exactly how long you have to get things done in your life. As well, what about someone who is blind and therefore can’t see the sky?

Either starting or finishing an anthology is hard work for a story. Too often, I think, compilers work really hard on the beginning, since they know it will suck people in, and then just … let the collection trail off into the sunset with no particular purpose. That is emphatically not the case here. The last story is “Leviathan” by Simon Brown, and it is a winner. Told through two versions of the same little boy, Gerard is simultaneously having an adventure with Leviathan (“bigger than any whale”) and dealing with sickness. It’s exquisitely written, with great compassion for Gerard and his parents (not so much for Leviathan, who – given he eats ships whole – doesn’t really need nor deserve it). There is an understanding of how a young boy would cope with illness, as well as with the attitudes of the people around him, that just worked. I loved it. I’m just glad that they didn’t decide to start the collection with it, since I may not have read the rest if I had read this first.

Overall, this is an exceptionally strong collection of stories, with only a few that I personally would have left out. There is a good mix of way-out and closer-to-home stories that improves both. There is a variety of character-driven and plot-driven stories, and an enormous range of places and times. If they can get this quality of stuff again, I really hope to see a second Eidolon.