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Salon Fantastique, edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling
Posted byAliette de Bodard
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"La Fée Verte" by Delia Sherman
"Dust Devil on a Quiet Street" by Richard Bowes
"To Measure the Earth" by Jedediah Berry
"A Gray and Soundless Tide" by Catherynne M. Valente
"Concealment Shoes" by Marly Youmans
"The Guardian of the Egg" by Christopher Barzak
"My Travels with Al-Qaeda" by Lavie Tidhar
"Chandail" by Peter S. Beagle
"Down the Wall" by Greer Gilman
"Femaville 29" by Paul Di Filippo
"Nottamun Town" by Gregory Maguire
"Yours, Etc." by Gavin J. Grant
"The Mask of ’67" by David Prill
"The Night Whiskey" by Jeffrey Ford
"The Lepidopterist" by Lucius Shepard
Salon Fantastique, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling, is a homage to the French salons in the eighteenth century—where, away from the stifling atmosphere of court, creativity and the arts were encouraged, leading notably to the first contes de fées (fairy tales). Datlow and Windling’s goal is to present new voices in fantasy, without having an overarching theme to the anthology.
The anthology opens with "La Fée Verte" by Delia Sherman, a story that takes place in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century and follows the life of Victorine, a whore who soon becomes the mistress of one wealthy man after another. Through it all trails La Fée Verte, a woman who was once Victorine’s lover and who has a strange gift of prophecy.
Sherman masterfully paints her setting, chronicling the mood of the time as if she had lived through it—and that particular period of history is still rare enough in fantasy to be a treat. But she also skillfully captures the mindset of her main characters: Victorine, although strong-willed and disinclined to let others rule her fate, does not feel like a 20th-century woman—a pitfall a lesser writer might have fallen into. Both La Fée Verte and Victorine are strong, memorable characters, and I was happy to follow them through the vagaries of that time. The conclusion mentions that Sherman is working on a novel with the same setting; I, for one, will be happy to immerse myself in it once more.
In "Dust Devil on a Quiet Street" by Richard Bowes, the narrator has always lived in Greenwich Village and knows many of the writers, artists and critics who frequent the neighborhood. One critic, Robin Saint Just, has just died, and as the narrator remembers Saint Just, he starts wondering how the critic came by his uncanny success as a judge of the arts.
Bowes clearly knows his setting, to the point where it seems like second nature to him. However, I found the story difficult to follow, mainly because of the sheer number of characters that were involved, some of whom had two or three different ways of being referred to. I understand that it’s natural, but when one has little time to get acquainted with the characters, it makes it confusing. The story itself carefully builds a mystery and leads the narrator on a journey of discovery that rings true. However, I found the ending was striving too hard to be convincing: the overt symbolism Bowes injected in the last scene felt too much like authorial intrusion.
"To Measure the Earth" by Jedediah Berry features a couple in a remote farm of the Catskills and a surveyor who stumbles into their small patch of land. Every year, Roel and Netta put out offerings for the spirits—among which is the ghost of their dead son. A girl, Louisa, sits in the attic, trying to forget things. But when Cyrus Makely, a land surveyor, finds the farm, things come to an abrupt change.
I found the story hard to get into because it kept wavering between all four characters, unable to focus on one or the other. In the end, though, Berry managed to tie everything off in a satisfactory manner. Though not unforgettable, this was a well-crafted story, with a few scenes that really stood out—particularly the relationship between Roel and his dead son, which is carefully and lovingly painted.
In "A Gray and Soundless Tide" by Catherynne M. Valente the narrator, a fisherman’s wife, finds a selkie girl who begs her to take her skin. Intrigued, the narrator accepts, and the selkie girl stays for a while with the narrator and her husband, and finally recounts the tale of how she got there.
This is a short story that packs a punch. I have read many stories on the selkies, but Valente has found a twist on the myth that is both original and poignant. The tragedy of the selkie girl is heartbreaking, and Valente’s delicate prose helps carry this tale to its inevitable end. Recommended.
In "Concealment Shoes" by Marly Youmans, a family has just moved into a new house. While the children are busy exploring the nooks and crannies of the place, they discover an old chimney in which are hidden some shoes. Needless to say, the shoes turn out to be quite important by the end.
I was set to dislike this for two reasons: first, the opening paragraph features a cat named "Princess Owl" for no reason I could discern (save possibly to confuse the reader), and second, the story seems to take forever to get started. Youmans’s characters take their time exploring the house, and there are a couple pages of an ordinary game of hide-and-seek (not exactly fascinating no matter how well-written). But the story picked up when they found the shoes; Youmans effectively ramped up the tension at that point, and the ending, while utterly predictable, was nevertheless carried off well and with a breathless sense of suspense that was missing from the beginning.
"The Guardian of the Egg" by Christopher Barzak features a girl with a tree growing out of her head. One day, the narrator’s sister, Heather, comes home with a tree in her hair, steadily growing bigger and bigger. It gradually becomes clear that Heather has been chosen for a special purpose and that the narrator has to help her.
What might have been absurd in another writer’s hands is treated very seriously by Barzak, and that is what makes the story so effective. Barzak does not flinch from the consequences of Heather’s unusual affliction. He portrays the reaction of everyone around her in a way that’s consistent and believable—most notably her parents, who still try to do what’s right by her, and of course her brother, the narrator, who grows up as the story progresses, and whose relationship to Heather also matures. The ending is satisfying, but what sets this apart are the main characters.
Lavie Tidhar‘s "My Travels with Al-Qaeda" tackles the difficult subject of terrorism through the eyes of two travelers: a man and a woman who were in Nairobi in 1988, when the US embassy was bombed by Al-Qaeda, and who find themselves in London when the bombs go off on the Tube.
The prose is fluid, and despite the non-linear narrative, this is a very smooth read. It also left me very, very confused on the role of the main characters. I was never clear on whether they were linked with Al-Qaeda or not—and if they were, why, because there’s no mention of anything except a list of terrorist attacks. Perhaps this is deliberate, but if it is, there is little evidence for the reader to make up their mind one way or the other. I admire Tidhar’s willingness to grapple with a very difficult subject, but in the end, the story seems to barely skim the surface.
In "Chandail" by Peter S. Beagle,the narrator, Lal, has been many things in her life—sold as a girl to a slave-dealer, she later escaped and became a fisherman. Now she is a storyteller and starts telling tales of the chandails, sea animals who have the power to conjure illusions, and who take a malicious pleasure in taunting humans with images taken from their minds. A younger Lal, newly arrived onboard a fishing ship, hates the chandails at first, until one day an encounter changes her mind.
"Chandail" is one of the longest stories of the anthology, but it doesn’t feel long at all. It took me a while to get into this, mostly because I also speak French, and it happens that in French "Chandail" means a pullover, which conjured a rather incongruous picture in my mind for the first few pages. That minor quibble aside, the story is stellar. Lal is a believable and very likeable character who has clearly been through hell, and the chandail she encounters is both alien and terribly familiar. Beagle’s worldbuilding is unobtrusive but adds up to a fantasy setting that clearly feels larger and deeper than what we see during the story. I will not spoil the ending, but it came as a pleasant, if melancholy surprise. Thoroughly recommended.
"Down the Wall" by Greer Gilman features a boy, a girl, and a dancing class. Unfortunately, I still have no idea what the story is about. Gilman uses a choppy, disjointed style that makes "Down the Wall" hard to follow, and even after several reads I am unsure of what the goal of the piece was. There is a running metaphor of ballet dancers as birds, and birds seem to feature heavily as the boy and his sister run through the streets, but the story as a whole still fails to make sense to me.
In "Femaville 29" by Paul Di Filippo, a tidal wave has swept across the East Coast of the United States, leaving the narrator and countless others as homeless refugees, gathering in temporary camps like Femaville 29. The narrator, once a policeman who made a tragic mistake, must now accustom himself to his new life. He makes new friends such as Nia Horsley, whose daughter, Izzy, is engaged in a strange game of building a city.
Neither the premise nor the ending of Di Filippo’s story are groundbreaking—the ending in particular was predictable from a long way off. But the story works because Di Filippo excels at making the characters and the situation real. You feel both for the narrator and for Nia, and understand the children’s desire to start anew in the wake of such devastation. "Femaville 29" is a quiet, thoughtful story which resonates for a long time after you finish it.
"Nottamun Town" by Gregory Maguire is another confused story, told as a stream-of-consciousness as the protagonist, Edward Haile, a soldier on the front, is dying. As he wanders through the grey landscape, he experiences flashes to his life before the war and to the strained relationship he had with his mother.
It is difficult for me to review this story because I personally have little taste for stream-of-consciousness. I found it well done, if a little hard to follow at times. Edward’s inner torment came through sharply, as did his relationship with his mother and with Ma Clare, the woman who raised him.
In "Yours, etc." by Gavin J. Grant, the narrator wanders around his house while his wife writes obsessive letters to dead girls. He is trying to guard his territory from the dead girls, but finds it increasingly difficult as the years pass and the dead girls in his and his wife’s life become more numerous. There is his wife’s friend, dead in a car accident, an intern the husband once knew and liked, and numerous others trying to crowd the couple out.
The story was, at first, hard to get into, because of Grant’s deliberate choice of not naming anyone within. While this gave the tale a more general scope, it also made it harder to empathize with either of the two main characters. But, as the story progressed, I found myself warming to the narrator, who sees the dead and is terrified that they will take over. Grant uses the images of dead girls to great effect: they are people who have died too young, and their haunting is the grief that we cannot put behind us. The ending of the story feels just right.
"The Mask of ’67" by David Prill sees Betty Lynn, a Hollywood star, return to the town where she grew up. Everyone has gathered to offer her a great welcome—except that when Betty Lynn gets down from the train, she is wearing a strange metal mask and will not explain where it came from. Big Jim, once her boyfriend, is the only one ready to welcome her into his house. But, as time passes, it is clear that Betty Lynn is changing—become less and less human.
I found this story very compelling. Prill has a masterful command of suspense, and ratchets up the tension quite effectively. We follow Big Jim’s growing horror, first as Betty Lynn appears, and then as it becomes clear that every part of her body is turning to metal. But this is no horror story, but rather a reflection on the past and on the necessity of changing—sometimes radically—to move forward. The final note is sad but also hopeful.
In "The Night Whiskey" by Jeffrey Ford, the inhabitants of a nameless town brew a peculiar type of whiskey from the deathberries (so called because they grow out of corpses), so intoxicating that only a lucky few, chosen by lottery, are allowed to taste of it. Those few then become thoroughly drunk and wander off into the branches of some nearby trees. The narrator is an apprentice on the Drunk Harvest; his job is to get the drunks back to earth, with the help of some prods.
The idea behind this tale is very original and recounted to great effect by the narrator. Ford effectively creates a whole mythos behind the Night Whiskey and effortlessly sketches the main protagonists of the drama that unfolds. I found the story a bit unbalanced, though. After a lengthy exposition, the actual night of drinking and the Drunk Harvest felt a bit short, and the resolution of the story, though compelling, was a bit rushed for my taste. Still, an interesting take on local customs and the mystic powers of alcohol.
The anthology concludes with "The Lepidopterist" by Lucius Shepard, a chilling story narrated by John Anderson McCrae. As a child, the narrator and his father lived on the coast. One night, they go to a recently wrecked ship, hoping to salvage what they can to sell. What they find instead is a man who seems to have strange powers and who is looking for a place where his butterfly cocoons might hatch.
Shepard captures the vernacular of the narrator and tells the story mostly from the point of view of a young, terrified child unable to make much sense of what is happening—though the adult John, looking back, has some sharp insights into the events of the past. What is inside the cocoons is both unexpected and frightening, and the ending adds to the chillingness of the whole. Very effective.
Overall, Salon Fantastique certainly accomplishes its goal of showcasing new fantasy, displaying a great variety of voices over its fifteen tales. Though some of the stories fell short, the majority were great reads, and I look forward to seeing more by these authors.