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Clockwork Phoenix 2 by Mike Allen, editor

Published by Norilana Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The theme of this fantasy anthology series is "beauty and strangeness," which covers a great deal of ground, so much so that the blank canvas offered to authors who would contribute to it can be almost overwhelming. Edited by a poet whose background is as much literary as genre fantasy, it hovers along the boundaries where fantasy gives way to slipstream and to magical realism after the South American fashion. In many of these stories we are left wondering whether we are dealing with real magic or metaphor, or merely the imaginative play of the protagonists.

That latter is particularly true in the first story, Claude Lalumiere's "Three Friends." The story of three children whose descriptive names -- The Boy Who Speaks with Walls," "The Girl Who Eats Fire," and "The Kid Whose Laughter Makes Adults Run Away," -- tell us up front what their principal magical powers are, and are likely to in fact be nicknames taking the place of real names never to be revealed. Of course for convenience of storytelling they are subsequently shortened to the Boy, the Girl and the Kid except for those few times when we need to be reminded of the nature of those powers.

It's summer, and they are left to their own devices to play and amuse themselves together in a way that was common when I was that age, but has become suspect if not outright unthinkable in these days of helicopter parents and stranger danger. Parents are mentioned, but never seen, and the only adults we really encounter are a couple of friendly shopkeepers, Cop Carla, and the mysterious grandparents who live in Greytown, that forbidden part of town where the air is so thick with smog that it's like a wall through which only shadows can be glimpsed.

Just to make sure we understand that this isn't quite our own world, all the shops seem to be doing multiple widely variant lines of business -- a single shopkeeper may be simultaneously running a printing press, lumberyard, and school. And it's one of those weird mix-and-match shops that rescue the Boy when his friends become trapped in Greytown, right before it disappears and leaves only an empty lot.

However, he doesn't stay for long, because he knows a secret way in through the house where the Girl lives, a hidden door into the home of an elderly couple whom the Girl has long tried to persuade to leave that hellish world. But they refuse, unwilling to abandon their own child to her folly. For the rulers of Greytown, the ones who have made it a nightmarish horror of tyranny and pollution, are the Girl's own parents. We glimpse them riding upon nightmarish smoke-belching machines out of a steampunk story gone terribly wrong, but are never able to approach them for it is already too late for them and the bonds of familial affection are already sundered and all the Boy, the Girl and the Kid can do is escape from Greytown with their lives.

And than at the end we are left wondering whether Greytown was ever real at all, or was it only all in the imagination of these three friends. But if that were the case, what happened to the friendly, weary grandparents when everything vanished? Were they too naught but a dream, a fantasy made up by an orphan girl living by herself in an abandoned house in a world where there aren't nosy Social Services caseworkers making sure that every child is properly supervised?

The next story, Leah Bobet's "Six," takes place in a setting more familiar to science fiction writers: a post-apocalyptic society in which the survivors are eking out an existence in the ruins of the magnificent buildings of a lost world of technology now rapidly fading into legend. Fragments of working technology may remain here and there, and mysterious "wizards" may claim supernatural powers but we the readers can see evidence of technologies inadequately understood by the viewpoint characters, along the lines of Sir Arthur C. Clarke's famous dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology will appear as magic to the uninitiated.

The motif of the seventh son of the seventh son is woven into folklore and I'm sure I'd already heard of it through such sources as the song by that title, but I first became consciously acquainted with it through Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series, which I discovered almost by accident when an outtake from the first volume was published in Asimov's Science Fiction shortly before the novel's release. And as I followed the series, I became acquainted not only with Alvin and his struggles to use his mysterious powers in the right and proper way, but also with his younger brother Calvin, the not-quite-Maker who shares some of his powers as a result of having been the seventh living son when he was born (their eldest brother Vigor having died moments after Alvin's birth).

In "Six," Bobet gives us another kind of frustrated not-quite-seventh son in the next-elder brother who is forever found wanting, who knows that his uncle and other sixth sons have been driven away as a "bad seed," a source of evil, and who secretly tends all the stunted and unwanted plants in a hidden greenhouse on a floor nobody visits in the ancient, crumbling tower that is their home. He longs to be the chosen Seventh Son and be able to get aboard that mysterious train to go to the wizards' home and learn their mysterious magics -- but that honor belongs to his next-younger brother, whom he has been assigned to watch over. And who desperately does not want to leave home and family, which provides a possibility that unhappy and unwanted Six is eager to grab with both hands.

Many years ago I remember reading a newspaper article about a young Nepalese woman who had just been returned to her humble home after having spent a number of years in a temple where she was honored as the Kumari, the living incarnation of one of the Hindu goddesses worshipped in that mountain kingdom. The story dealt with her struggles to readjust to ordinary life, including relearning such simple activities as how to walk, since as Kumari she had been carried everywhere she needed to go so that her feet would not be profaned by contact with a polluted floor.

That concept stuck with Marie Brennan too, and in "Once a Goddess" she moves the concept of the Kumari to a land rather like Egypt, a fertile river valley surrounded by harsh desert. On one hand there are no obviously Egyptian elements -- we encounter no mention of such familiar deities as Ra, Horus, Osiris, Isis or Set, and the ruler of the land is never referred to as a Pharaoh, but names such as Nefret and Hathirekhmet have a most decidedly Egyptian flavor to them. And when Nefret finds it intolerable to be trained at the skills of a wife and bargained off to a husband like a cow, she flees out into the desert to become a holy woman, subsisting upon lizards and scorpions and trying to bake out of herself whatever impurity it was that caused the goddess Hathirekhmet to leave her behind so that she might once again be able to enjoy the presence of that powerful goddess of the burning desert sun.

And in doing so, she begins to attain a wisdom to go with her toughness, a reputation as a holy woman which draws a number of devotees. Among them is Sekhaf, a philosopher who wishes to learn more about the nature of the goddess and what it means for her to be present in one's flesh. Rather like the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, he teases out information by means of asking questions that lead Nefret to examine her own memories and her own being, yet it is never clearly suggested that he might be a sort of Socrates of that world, a foreigner travelled to this desert land rather than a native philosopher. And in the end, when Nefret finally grasps the understanding both of them have sought, she must decide whether to share it or to keep it for herself -- or if it even is something that can be shared with one who has not experienced the indwelling presence of the goddess.

In "Angel Dust" Ian McHugh gives us a land full of powerful magics, now lying conquered by a nation that despises those magics and regards those whose bodies have been transformed by them as contemptible, barely worthy of the consideration of personhood. An angel, a winged being of extraordinary beauty whose very touch is redolent of magic and who was once a well-nigh divine protector of the land, has returned grievously wounded to the city under occupation and shut himself up in his tower. But in his passing the dust shed from his wings accidentally brought to life the beautiful statue of a woman which had for so long stood at the gates of the city.

Now she struggles to find the way to give similar life to her mate, the male statue that had stood on the other side of the gate, so that they may go together in this strange and terrible landscape of destruction. But the years she spent standing as lifeless stone overlooking the city has taught her little or nothing of how to live as a person, and as a result she must learn these things the hard way, in a city whose occupying armies would casually slay her simply for offending her sensibilities. She finds shelter and friendship in the form of another outcast, a Minotaur or bull-man whose kind was once used for heavy labor but who now works as an apothecary, and who worships her as the last remaining vestige of the people who created his kind. And even as she's about to approach the Angel in his tower and beseech his aid in giving life to her mate, she watches in horror as the conquerors drag the Angel from his refuge to be tried and executed for the crime of existing in a manner they find to offend their sensibilities.

In dying he gives her a gift more precious than life itself. However, as she returns to the plinth where her mate once stood, she discovers that her plans may not be so wise as she thought. Would she want to give him life only to condemn him to an existence as a cripple? Or does her hope lie instead in following the other exiles in fleeing the city for parts unknown, in hope that there may be some place where their kind are regarded not as monsters, but merely as folk of a different shape and color?

In "The Endangered Camp" Anne Leckle gives us another story that is closer to science fiction than fantasy. Various writers have speculated on the possibility that some of the theropod dinosaurs might have developed intelligence had the Cretaceious not been brought to a sudden and violent end by a gigantic meteor. Leckle suggests that they did, and that they developed their own sort of technology, rather uneven in certain areas, and shaped in accordance with a social structure very different than our own. And that even as they were launching their very first ship to Mars (the names of the planets are all translated into their modern English forms, so there is no question as to the identity of the small red planet they seek), that infamous meteor struck. Now they must decide whether to turn back in hope of helping those who stayed behind, or continue on their people's greatest endeavor and hope that by landing on a new and undamaged world they may preserve a saving remnant whose descendants may someday return to recolonize the Earth.

To decide, they sing songs of their people's history -- and one of them is a song that is frequently altered by its singers to leave out the awkward revelation at the end that all is not so simple, that sometimes a victory can cost more than its worth. As a historian who has often been fascinated by the way in which history can become a political football, being distorted if not by outright falsification then by a little judicious omission and soft-pedaling, in order to support a particular agenda, I found that element particularly fascinating and satisfying.

In "At the Edge of Dying" Mary Robinette Kowal takes us to a magical Hawaii where sorcerers bring themselves to the very brink of death in order to gain powers from the goddess of the dead, then heal themselves of their hurts in order to do it again the next time their people need their services. Now the Ouvallese invaders are threatening their fair island nation, but the sorcerer Kahe is growing old, and a traitor has already drained him of much of his strength.

But his wife Mehahui has a terrible secret -- a cancer is gnawing within her, and she has hidden it from him so that he not be tempted to use his own strength to heal her. That very peril may be their salvation -- but Kahe struggles with the idea of allowing his wife to willingly sacrifice herself, even for the sake of their entire land.

In "Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela," Saladin Ahmed takes us to the early days of Islam, of a time when the boundaries between the natural and supernatural worlds were not so thick or strong, and it was possible to have contact with the djinn, those wise and willful beings which Allah made not of clay, but of smokeless fire. It was such a being that the outcast Abdel Jameela took to wife, although she sought to hide it with veils far heavier that modesty requires, and as such she drew suspicion upon both herself and her husband.

But all is not well, for her kind cannot be indefinitely removed from their own place -- but neither can her beloved husband join her kindred. Thus does Abdel Jameela make a most peculiar appeal to the exiled physician of the Caliph, who despises the villagers for their ignorance even as they despise him for his learning. A transformation that may just barely be possible with his wife's strange abilities, but has a very good possibility of killing both of them if it goes wrong.

"The Pain of Glass" takes place in Tanith Lee's famous Flat Earth, in a desert land reminiscent of Arabia but not precisely corresponding to any place in the Middle East. It had its beginning when she and some friends were dealing with a broken window and she misheard the expression "a pane of glass." Thus her mind was set to wondering how glass could possibly feel pain, and the result was this delicate little story of family grief, of a beautiful woman who enraptured a man only to meet a tragic fate while on her way to rejoin him, of his jealous wife who could not abide the thought of her husband's exercising his rights to make their marriage a polygamous one, and their son who in his wanderings in the marketplace comes upon the mysterious and beautiful goblet that sings at the touch.

The story is written like an onion, with one layer after another that the reader unwraps in order to get at the tragic heart within. Yet even in the revelation of all that grief there is a promise of final release of the broken-hearted old king and his beautiful, doomed beloved.

Joanna Galbraith takes us to the modern Middle East in "The Fish of Al-Kawthar's Fountain," in which a young Syrian man tends a fountain that seems to have magical properties over the region's weather, as well as the most definitely magical fish within. For these beautiful goldfish, unlike their more typical cousins, are capable of thinking and observing, and of noticing the strange malaise that seems to have overtaken him of late. In hoping to raise his spirits, they teach themselves to do a most extraordinary dance, and thus attract to themselves a considerable amount of attention. But whether it will be helpful for their master's condition is not so easy to determine.

In "The Secret History of Mirrors" Catherynne M. Valente gives us three different myths of the origin of the mirror, one primeval and tied to the creation of the world as we know it from a magical mirror-world destroyed by two star-crossed lovers, a second romantic of an orphan boy who transforms himself in his desire to be loved and becomes the weapon to save his city, and the final one science-fictional, of a distant world whose people become culture-bearers. All these myths are set within an intricate frame of a Queen and her daughter, and a mysterious order of mirror making nuns, with discursions into the stories of Snow White and of Alice in Wonderland.

That last is an element with which I'm not entirely comfortable, since it seems to jar. This is a story with a fairy-tale feel, of a timeless magical place where myth and legend are still taken seriously as explanations of phenomena for which people do not possess a rational, scientific explanation -- yet Alice in Wonderland is of the modern era, specifically of Victorian England, a time when the physics of reflectivity had been known for some time and the author was very deliberately playing for literary effect with older, magical, worldviews to create an a fiction with elements of the absurd, the deliberately contra-factual.

And speaking of Alice in Wonderland, the next story, "Never Nor Ever" by Forrest Aguirre, deals specifically with the world of Wonderland, and of what happened after Alice became Queen, and now is no longer a wide-eyed little girl, but rather an aging matron whose time is rapidly running out -- and with her the whole world seems to be dissolving. Quite honestly, this was one of the few that I had real trouble getting into -- the whole "imagined world running down because its creator is growing old and dying" theme just depresses me, and I've got enough things in my life to depress me without reading downer stories. That's why I've always preferred the redacted version of the song "Puff the Magic Dragon" with the additional verse in which another little boy finds him when the first has outgrown such childish things and the magic continues. If a world is so captivating that thousands and millions of people have read and enjoyed it, wouldn't it continue to live through their minds?

The next story, "each thing i show you is a piece of my death" by Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer, is the one and only story that can truly be called horror -- yet even it is done in a subtle and understated way that relies upon slow buildup rather than heavy-handed gross-out. Interesting enough, it is not written in straight narrative, but in epistolary form -- but as it is set in the present day, it is not in the form of letters on paper sent by post, but of e-mails, blog postings, and online news releases, along with at least one police report and a taped conversation. As we work through each piece of documentary evidence, the events unfold with an ever-growing sense of foreboding that the protagonists have just been handed psychological dynamite. At first the mysterious anonymously-submitted film clip of a man committing suicide and his body decaying, and then him reappearing whole and unharmed in front of his own rotting corpse to shut off the camera is simply assumed to be some kind of special-effects trick rather than visual documentation of a particularly macabre sort. But as more and more strange things are associated with it, particularly the sudden and inexplicable appearance of the naked man in the background of other film clips being used for the art project, we the readers share the protagonists' growing sense of apprehension that something truly unnatural and terrifying is going on, that the very fabric of reality is somehow being transformed in a horrific manner.

Alternate history is frequently used primarily as a way to have the sort of adventures in unknown lands that are no longer possible in a world in which every corner has been mapped, studied and photographed from orbit by satellites able to pick out a pop can sitting in a driveway. However, Kelly Barnhill shows us in "Open the Door and the Light Pours Through" that the concept of alternate history can be handled in a very literary treatment, through her very poignant story of the might-have-beens that slowly but inexorably drive apart a young couple who meet and marry in haste during World War II.

"Rosemary, That's for Remembrance" by Barbara Krasnoff is another poignant story, this one about growing old and the memories of youth. It's a very literary one -- I can completely imagine it appearing in The New Yorker or any other very, very respectable literary magazine that would look down at genre fantasy as mere adolescent escapism. Perhaps twenty or thirty years from now, when I too am old and worn and my long, beautiful red hair has grown thin and white, I'll be able to really appreciate this story the way it deserves.

With "When We Moved On," Steve Rasnic Tem gives us a story of growing up, of parents launching their children into adulthood. Except these parents are most definitely not human, for all that they seem to be living among human beings, perhaps even present-day suburban humans. What exactly they may be is not certain, but they give me the feeling of fairy-folk of some sort, particularly from the hints that their home is some kind of organic construct, perhaps a giant pumpkin or orange, and that they are long-lived far beyond the normal human span. But the attention to the precise and tangible details of their domestic arrangements, of the paintings on the wall so tightly that its thinning to near transparency can scarcely be noticed, the delicate spider-web tapestries and other bits of nature, so very fairy-folk, that ornament the furniture, makes their world seem real to the point that we are willing to go along for the ride and not care that we don't know exactly what order of beings these characters belong to.

On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this installment of the Clockwork Phoenix anthology series. Although a few of the stories may not have been completely to my tastes, I also know that people's tastes differ, and the very fact that a story is not to my tastes may well be proof positive that someone with different tastes will enjoy it from beginning to end. Now we begin to look forward to next year's installment of this anthology.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Mike Allen
  • "Three Friends" by Claude Lalumiere
  • "Six" by Leah Bobet
  • "Once a Goddess" by Marie Brennan
  • "Angel Dust" by Ian McHugh
  • "The Endangered Camp" by Ann Leckie
  • "At the Edge of Dying" by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • "Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela" by Saladin Ahmed
  • "The Pain of Glass" by Tanith Lee
  • "The Fish of Al-Kawthar's Fountain" by Joanna Galbraith
  • "The Secret History of Mirrors" by Catherynne M. Valente
  • "Never Nor Ever" by Forrest Aguirre
  • "each thing i show you is a piece of my death" by Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer
  • "Open the Door and the Light Pours Through" by Kelly Barnhill
  • "Rosemary, That's for Remembrance" by Barbara Krasnoff
  • "When We Moved On" by Steve Rasnic Tem
  • Pinions by the Authors

Review posted December 20, 2009

Buy Clockwork Phoenix 2: More Tales of Beauty and Strangeness from Amazon.com

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