"The Urchins, While Swimming" by Catherynne M. Valente
"The Other Amazon" by Jenny Davidson
Issue #3 of Clarkesworld Magazine provides two very different stories; one mythical and the other hyper-real.
Catherynne M. Valente‘s "Urchins, While Swimming" begins with an excerpt from "The Water-Nymph" by Aleksandr Pushkin. What follows is Valente’s own version of the journey of a rusalka, a water sprite of Slavic mythology, from innocent child to adult. As a child, Kseniya is awakened every night by her mother for a hair-wetting ritual, for their hair must always be moist. But one morning, the young girl discovers that her mother has forgotten to wake her. The story skips ahead to Kseniya’s time at university where she meets Artyom, the man of her dreams. When she asks him to wet her hair in the night she also reveals her past, describing her mother’s ritual and weaving the tale of her parents’ meeting. When she and Artyom consummate their love, she discovers the true nature of her existence. In the final segment of the story, Kseniya’s journey cycles with the birth of her own daughter.
Valente’s mixture of Slavic poetry and modern-day plot blend into a heartwarming and complex soup of lyrical timelessness. Her descriptions of the elements of the ritual, from the color and temperature of the water to the size and quality of the basin, breathe life into the words on paper. The mother-daughter bond is mesmerizing in its beauty and strength. Readers who love classic fairy tales will savor this tale like a fine wine.
Changing gears, "The Other Amazon" by Jenny Davidson is such a true to life piece that the opening paragraphs read like a typical blog entry. The protagonist, who is never named, loves to buy books. She’s an Amazon junkie with a regular habit that can only be satiated "in the hours after midnight when you can’t sleep and you’re bouncing off the walls just desperate for something good to read." She orders a copy of Michael Chabon’s "The Yiddish Policemen’s Union" which a real-life Wikipedia search will reveal is slated to be released in May 2007. But the protagonist manages to have a copy delivered to her home. She promptly reads it and loves it. She remembers hearing somewhere that the novel release date had been pushed back and discovers that her copy is, in fact, published in 2007 despite the calendar date being January of 2006. To her glee, she has access to a special version of Amazon where she alone can order novels that don’t exist, yet. From copies of Jane Austen’s never-before released books to the winner of the Booker Prize for 2009, she manages to order books from authors dead and living, that no one else has ever seen. Following the mantra that "All good things must come to an end," Leif, an overnight guest, arrives and stumbles upon one of the special books. His ideas about the usefulness of this "other" Amazon twist the story in a different direction towards an unusual ending.
Davidson’s style is honest and comedic with a solid flare for characterization. The unnamed protagonist is a fully developed bookworm-come-magician of sorts. Though the plot unfolds naturally at first, with Leif’s entrance it devolves into a less realistic tale with an unsatisfying conclusion. At the feast of modern speculative fiction stories, "The Other Amazon" is a refreshingly crisp salad with a bit too much dressing left at the bottom of the bowl.