Strange Horizons, April 2011
“Pataki” parts 1 & 2 by Nisi Shawl (April 4 &11)
“Items Found in a Box Belonging to Jonas Connolly” by Laura E. Price (April 18)
Reviewed by Indrapramit Das
April’s Strange Horizons features a long short split into two parts, in addition to another story, making the month’s offerings essentially two stories.
“Pataki,” the two-parter by Nisi Shawl, follows Rianne, an orisha diviner who takes up a young girl who wants answers about her missing father (who might be in jail) as her latest client, despite having only just fled from Detroit to Oakland because of what we surmise to be wrongful allegations of child abuse. The story is more about Rianne trying to get over her past (as detective stories often are; and this is an interesting variation of one) than it is about the particulars of her case. To muddle things further, she finds herself saddled with dream visions of a certain dead singer she has never taken an interest in before (we know him to be Michael Jackson, though Shawl curiously chooses not to name him).
Whether or not she succeeds at leaving her past behind or helping her client find her father are not for me to say, but the journey itself is a rewarding one, giving a fairly insightful look into an esoteric religion and spiritual practice without succumbing to sensationalized exoticism. Shawl is pragmatic in her exploration of Rianne’s culture and spirituality, showing them in tight tandem with the mundanity of contemporary life. She simply observes how an orisha diviner might use her knowledge and skills to try and work through her own personal problems in a modern urban context inflected with her perceptions of magic at work. The fantasy is feather-light, as real as routine; “To further invoke Oshun she added in an amber bead… Then she sewed the mojo shut. For supper she heated up a bowl of chicken soup and ate it with Club crackers.”
The use of Jackson (or his likeness?) as an oneiric psychopomp is thorny, to say the least, and makes the story no less fascinating. A good read.
Laura E. Price’s “Items Found in a Box Belonging to Jonas Connolly” is an elegant steampunk ode to loss; starting with the death of the eponymous Jonas’ mother Colleen and going on to elaborate, through an epistolary narrative of letters, research notes and clippings, on how her life entwined briefly with that of legendary airship captain Trinity Holdstock. Jonas remembers him and his mother being rescued at sea from a Hydra attack by Trinity when he was very young, and the story follows his investigation of the famed captain after she and her airship disappeared—his implicit reason for this being that it will lead to some insight about his dead mother.
The story is disarmingly affecting—hydras and airships aside, this is less about adventure (though there’s that too, and effectively staged) and more about the inescapable melancholy of never being able to really know your parents when they were younger, different people. There is a romance here, of uncovering a different time and place, that peculiar feeling of glimpsing the strange lives of those who raised you, before you had the capacity to relate to them. Ultimately, Trinity and Colleen are an analogous pair; as the latter’s daughter says of Trinity’s disappearance: “[Trinity] spent her life keeping herself to herself, so this is an appropriate end to her legend.” The story is about the myth of the mother you don’t know—and how that myth is crafted by sons and daughters, and preserved upon a mother’s death. Trinity disappears and Colleen dies, but neither of them entirely divulge the mysteries of how they transgressed, as women restrained by history’s image of them. A very good story, and a wonderful example of steampunk being used well, instead of as an easy way to tap into a trendy indulgence in style over substance.
To sum up: two very readable stories for April, both earning their length.