In the Palace of Repose, by Holly Phillips

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Image"In the Palace of Repose"
"The Other Grace"
"The New Ecology"
"A Woman’s Bones"
"Pen & Ink"
"One of the Hungry Ones"
"By the Light of Tomorrow’s Sun"
"Summer Ice"
"Variations on a Theme"

In the Palace of Repose is the debut collection of Canadian author Holly Phillips and is published by Prime Books. It consists of nine broadly fantasy stories, two or which are reprints.

The collection opens with the title story, "In the Palace of Repose." Trapped in the Palace of the King, a nearly godlike entity slumbers and dreams. An almost forgotten department in the Ministry, consisting of Edmund Stonehouse and his assistant, is charged with maintaining the King’s prison-palace and visiting him for the information that has made their country grow strong. But the Ministry no longer believes in the King, and on his latest visit, Stonehouse discovers that for the first time in history, the King has had a visitor not from the Ministry, a girl. "In the Palace of Repose" is Phillips’ most imaginative and ambitious story, and rightly opens the collection. She builds the feeling of a tragic, sleeping power and fills the reader with dread as the winter deepens on the country, and the Ministry turns away from the Palace. Phillips does not manage to fully carry through the promise of the story, losing her grasp towards the end, but that does not take away from the strengths of the body of the story.

"The Other Grace" is a less speculative story. Indeed, here, as in a couple of the other stories, we might argue that the speculative element is almost entirely absent. One day, while walking along the street, Grace suddenly loses all of her memories. She flees, but is found and returned to the family she does not remember. The strength of "The Other Grace" is its fantastic characterization and the situation Grace is placed in. To Grace’s frustration and increasing alienation, the people she is told are her family continue to try to bring back her memories, a process that threatens Grace, because the person she perceives that they want to bring back is not the her she is now at all, but the other Grace who was there before. Her interactions with her brother are poignant and very believable. I also particularly liked the character of Grace’s friend, Felicia, who manages to make every statement sound like a question—a nice observational detail.

"The New Ecology," by contrast, is a pure, inventive fantasy. Millie flees from town to town, staying as long as she can, until the Ones come to life around her, creatures awakening from metal and concrete, a new ecology for an urban world. She is stalked by a man she thinks of as "the Nerd." The New Ecology has the feeling of an earlier tale by Phillips. It is less convincing and less complete than most of the other stories in the collection. Nonetheless, the central conceit is a vivid and imaginative one.

The archaeologists who populate "A Woman’s Bones" are a delight. Somewhere in the Steppes, against the wishes of the local tribe, Dr. Cahill and his team are about to excavate a burial mound. A westernized woman, orphaned away from her people, acts as translator and go-between for the stunningly arrogant and contemptuous archaeologists and the Alyakshin whose lands they are in. The Alyakshin believe that the burial mound contains the Conqueror Yulima, who if awoken will bring devastation again. Like most of Phillips’ protagonists, this one is an outsider. She is torn between her rationalist, western upbringing, and her cultural inheritance. We are, of course, supposed to walk through the story in her shoes, but to be honest, there’s a whole lot more fun to be had with the archaeologists, who are so appalling in their opinion of the natives that you can’t help but smile. No doubt Phillips is being unfair to modern archaeologists in framing every single one of them in such an unflattering way, but it is entertaining nonetheless.

Perhaps my favorite story of the collection was "Pen & Ink." In this fine story, Cézanne, a young girl, searches for her father, a talented painter, who disappeared years before. Unusually, she searches for him in his paintings which have been sold off or given away by Cézanne’s mother, something she has never forgiven her mother for. Breaking into houses and galleries late at night, Cézanne sees the paintings come magically alive, but her father is not hiding in them. In her search, she is helped by "the curator," a sinister figure who, vampirically, consumes the essence of the paintings and sketches by Cézanne’s father (and the places and people they are of) that she gives to him in exchange for information on the location of her father’s paintings. One of the most powerful scenes of the story occurs when we experience the fading to white of a Japanese garden whose sketch the curator consumes. Only when Cézanne is forced to give one of her own sketches to the curator in partial exchange for information does she fully realize what she is doing.

"One of the Hungry Ones" brushes up against horror. Homeless Sadie is invited to a party by three other street kids who she has admired. When she arrives, she discovers she is at a masked party. She is lent a costume and an imp mask, and as the party progresses, it becomes wilder and more surreal, seeming to evolve into a bear hunt through a forest. The next week, this is repeated, and Sadie finds herself in conflict between her fear of what is happening when she puts on the imp mask and the horrors of the street, represented slightly clumsily by the pimp Raz, and her own wild side. Like The New Ecology, this was a less convincing tale.

"By the Light of Tomorrow’s Sun" is a nice mainstream piece, set in a remote Canadian harbor town—End Harbour—where the fog brings lost ships from other worlds. A young man, Daniel, returns here because his hated grandfather is dying. Daniel alone knows the secret of what happened to a young girl who disappeared in End Harbour when he was a boy.

I’ve described this as a mainstream story, despite its obvious fantasy element, because more than any of the other stories in this collection, it exists stylistically and thematically with the mainstream genre. It is perhaps the most successful of the stories in the stride it takes to that genre from fantasy.

"Summer Ice," while having the slowest and least gripping opening, redeems itself by having the most complete ending of the stories. Manon is an artist in a city which is being reclaimed from decay and urban disintegration. Her art is not working and neither are the classes she teaches, and she is lonely far from her family. But a chance encounter with a young man who works in an ice cream bar gives her the chance to reclaim her own life. There is a nice parallel here with her work in reclaiming the city. Although, stylistically, they could scarcely be further apart, the end of Summer Ice has the feeling of the end of a Connie Willis story: a skillful knitting of disparate strands into a coherent and optimistic conclusion that is more than the sum of its parts.

In the Palace of Repose ends with its most touching piece, "Variations on a Theme." Two girls, one in 1916 and one in 2003, attend a music conservatory on scholarships. Berenice, in 1916, is talented but inexperienced and lacking confidence. Brona, in 2003, is fantastically accomplished. There is a link between the girls that is stronger than this, however. In the school, Berenice meets the strange boy, Mr. Green. Brona encounters the dissatisfied Valentine who is in turn secretly meeting with the mysterious Jade, whose voice seems familiar to Brona. As the stories spiral around each other, the links become clearer, and the sadness of Berenice’s and Brona’s stories is intensified. A skillful end to the collection.

A single author collection tends to emphasize the strengths and weaknesses of an author in a way that a single story rarely does. Phillips’ strengths are many and lie equally in her prose and her characterization. She writes with clarity, confidence and conviction. She draws beautiful, sometimes startling, images on the page, ranging from the simple yet imaginative ("the crescent of beach was still tucked at the far end like the web of flesh between a finger and thumb") to the delightful ("a single wave, green and cold with sunlight, curling onto white sand"). Every page is thick with such images. Phillips sees clearly and shares her vision brilliantly with the reader. Her characters, too, are neatly and believably created. These are people you can believe in and see before you. Their voices are clear.

Her weaknesses tend to come more in story than prose or character. There is lack of more than superficial variation in the voice of the nine stories offered here. Each is told with the same slow, almost lethargic (although only rarely less-than-engrossing) pace, the same level of finely observed detail, the same tone. The second major weakness that manifests itself in many of the stories comes in the endings. The end of a story should magnify what has come before it, or illuminate with an unexpected new perspective. Phillips’ stories rarely do that; instead, they tend to subside gently, if elegantly. This problem perhaps comes about because many of these are "choice" stories, with the protagonist at the end having to choose between A and B. This type of story can be predictable, and for this reason it is difficult to maintain tension until the end. Phillips often leaves the story before the main choice has been made, but by that point it is usually clear what the choice will be, and where it is not, there is still not sufficient openness at the end for this technique to redeem the weakness of the structure. The endings of these stories rarely surprise us.

In his introduction to the collection, Sean Stewart comments, "The essential Holly Phillips begins like this: In a world that felt too little, there lived a girl who saw too much." As a result of this, the characters are often tinged with a desperate, sad desolation, a heaviness brought about by their inability to share what they see clearly with those around them. Such stories are best enjoyed in small doses, and this is a book to read a story at a time, over several weeks, rather than in one go.

When Phillips combines her remarkable lyrical ability, her fine, sharp eye for detail, and her believable, rich characters with a powerful story, she produces excellent fiction. When she does not, you may still read the stories for the beauty of the prose, the knife-sharp portrayal of the people who walk in her worlds, and the fiery imagination of the ideas.

The strongest stories in this collection were "In the Palace of Repose," "Pen & Ink," and "Variations on a Theme." There are several other decent stories in the collection, as well as a couple that might have been better omitted. I would have liked to have seen more variety in the stories on offer here. What Holly Phillips does, she does very well, but I would like to see what else she can do.

This is a good collection of stories by a promising new writer. It is not as good as the advance publicity would have you believe, but it is good nonetheless, and worth reading if you can.

Title: In the Palace of Repose
Author: Holly Phillips
Publisher: Prime Books
Pages: 208 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 1-894815-58-0
Price: $29.95