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Sky Whales and Other Wonders by Vera Nazarian, editor

Cover art by Ahyicodae

Published by Norilana Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The best anthologies have some unifying element that tie together all the stories within it into a cohesive whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes it's obvious, such as the proliferation of theme anthologies about specific subjects or places or eras. But sometimes it's more subtle, more difficult to define -- but we know it when we see it, just as we know when it's absent and an anthology is nothing more than a gathering of random stories the editor happened to like.

This particular anthology began when its editor was sent a new short story by Tanith Lee, a story that left her so totally in awe that she knew she had to bring it to the readership it deserved. Since Norilana Press is a book publisher, that meant creating an anthology for which it would be the centerpiece. An anthology of stories that stick with the reader long after they are finished, that touch our sense of wonder, of something that takes us out of ourselves and our ordinary lives to touch something greater and more lasting -- a concept she develops in richly poetic language in her introduction.

Tanith Lee's story, "The Sky Won't Listen," takes us to a distant alien world whose native inhabitants are gigantic creatures that swim through the sky in a way that reminds the human settlers of the whales of Old Earth's oceans. And like the whales of old, their bodies are found useful in ways that lead people to hunt and kill them in order to harvest those useful body parts. However, the xenobiology is only a setting for a haunting story of the power of love and sexual jealousy, of regret and of the struggle of a soul for redemption. A story that may have additional levels of resonance to a person familiar with Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick, but which can be enjoyed in its own right if you have not. To say more would be to spoil it.

The elements of wonder in Anna Tambour's "The Tin and the Damask Rose" are more subtle, dealing with the different scales of human and plant lifetimes and the power of life to overcome neglect and mistreatment. Although there is some anthropomorphization in the portrayal of the tin and the rose, it is poetic in its nature and this story could easily be considered literary rather than fantastic.

The next story, Erzebet YellowBoy's "What a Queen Does with Her Hands," belongs in the fantasy tradition of the kingdom in which the ruler is subject to some picaresque taboo -- in this case, the ruling queen is not permitted to touch anything with her hands until such time as she chooses a husband from among the princes of the various lands. She is surrounded by servants who attend her every need, even feeding her, and ensure that her hands neither touch nor are touched by any surface. When three noble princes compete to win her heart, each bringing riches chosen specifically to tantalize and overwhelm a woman filled with the searing urgency of need for tactile contact, she is drawn to each of them for different reasons. Yet in the end she makes a surprising yet not completely unanticipated decision of her own that reveals that she is no mere pawn of the political process, but a human being with agency of her own.

It's often said that living well is the best revenge, and in "The Gifting of Nyla's Son" Linda Dunn gives her own answer to the rape-revenge story that was once one of the staples of fantasy fiction about strong woman protagonists (the first several volumes of the long-running Sword and Sorceress anthology got so many rape-revenge submissions in its slush pile that Marion Zimmer Bradley finally had to specifically state that she did not want any more stories on the theme of a woman avenging herself upon her rapist). In the society in which Nyla lives, each infant is offered to the lake as a rite of passage that binds it with the tribe. If the lake accepts the offering, it returns the child marked with colors that will indicate its fate, and the father then claims it. But when the young man who forced himself upon Nyla refuses, unwilling to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions, Nyla breaks all custom and wades in herself to retrieve her son.

As a result, she is driven from the tribe's village in the valley, an act everyone else assumes to be a death sentence. However, she finds refuge in the caves which once were home to her people, and there she finds knowledge and wisdom that set her on a journey that will ultimately change not only her own life, but that of her entire people.

Although Nyla's people live in technologically primitive conditions and there is indeed magic in their world with which she interacts, this is not a story of stereotypical Noble Savages. Nyla's people are first and foremost people, with a full range of strengths and weaknesses that drive the story.

in "Stone Song" Sonya Taafe gives us the story of a girl who has grown up in a temple, her entire existence bent to the training of the power within her by which she can sing any creature into stone. A power that her Master intends to forge into a terrible weapon. But all his careful manipulating of her upbringing from the moment he took her from her parents as an infant have not been able to extinguish her agency and make her into a mindless tool, as she proves in the stunning conclusion in which she is pushed too far.

Lisa Silverthorne's "Sky Whales" is a story of every parent's worst nightmare -- a child gone missing, and after months of steadily dwindling hopes a call from the police with the bad news. There is neither magic nor super-science here -- no cloning technology will restore the slain girl to life from a bit of intact DNA, nor will any spell of summons draw her spirit back from beyond the veil. This is a story firmly grounded in the Primary World, and the resolution keeps firmly within the bounds of that which is medically and legally possible in the here and now -- the sky whales of the title are metaphorical, an evocation of the hope of a hereafter for which we can never have indubitable conformation. Yet while this is a story that would be perfectly welcome in The New Yorker or any other lit'ry magazine that sniffily looks down its nose at science fiction and fantasy as escapist trash worthy only of the juvenile, the ending has a lasting satisfaction that suggests that maybe sympathetic magic isn't entirely superstition, and that justice can be more than just the bureaucratic operation of the corrections system, which takes it beyond those perfect little gems of despair that are the mainstay of the literary magazines.

In "Death's Appointment Book, or the Dance of Death" JoSelle Vanderhooft gives us an intricate and somewhat surrealistic take on the old notion of Death as bureaucratic functionary who must operate by rules. Rules which suggest that a sufficiently clever human may outwit him -- yet somehow the would-be immortal always ends up outwitting himself instead.

Mary Turzillo takes us to an unnamed South American country for "The Sugar," a story of strange transformations and the struggle to maintain order. For the sugar of the title is no ordinary carbohydrate. Rather it is a powerful drug that enables people to shapeshift into forms which reflect their deepest desires. Such changelings recall nothing of their human lives, and thus are apt to wreak havoc upon ordinary mortals -- and when the effect of the drug wears off and they return to human form, they remember nothing of their activities as changelings, yet the hunger for the experience remains, so potent that their souls can only be cleansed of the vile power of the sugar by their deaths.

Or so teaches the Purity, the organization which Claudia serves as an elutriatrix, a huntress who marks changelings with a magical jewel which can be detected after the changeling returns to human form in order to facilitate their arrest and sentencing. But when she bungles what should've been a relatively simple mission and her punishment is so severe it results in her losing what is near and dear to her, she undertakes a mission which will take her into a secret world of lies and terrible accusations of double-dealing. While all the other stories felt not just complete but sufficient unto themselves, such that I was satisfied that there were no further stories possible in that setting, this one left me with an abiding longing to read more about the world and the implications of magical transhumanism.

In "She Who Runs" Mike Allen takes us to a fantasy world in which a girl is ensorcelled into an incarnation of the titular goddess, a living weapon against an ancient dragon. Yet that wyrm of the world may not be the terrible menace all believe it to be, and perhaps even if the spell cannot be escaped, at least it can be altered enough that the protagonist can bend time itself (shades of Lorentz contraction and Relativity) to achieve something that the priests who bespelled her could never have anticipated.

After stories of magical worlds, John Grant brings us back to Earth, to a a very gritty New York City in "Breaking Laws." It's said that this city has a beating heart, but in this story we see that poetic concept actualized in a way so fitting to a city that seems at once larger than life and yet somehow frightening, even corrupt. A fear that leads inexorably to the poignant ending.

Along the lines of the culinary theory that one should follow a course in which the predominant flavor is sour with a sweet one, it is good to see a very dark story followed by a lighter one, Robert Brandt's "Only One Story but He Told It Well," which reminds us that all enduring stories ultimately have their roots in the lived experience of their tellers. Curiously enough, the title character made me think of Forrest Gump, although superficially there would appear to be no obvious similarities between the characters -- but at another level, both of them embody the paradoxical wisdom of the Fool.

On the whole, this is a very impressive collection, particularly considering that this is Ms. Nazarian's first as an editor. I hate to use the words "hauntingly beautiful," since they've become so wretchedly overused to the point of becoming a cliche, yet in each of them there's a beauty that will linger with the reader long after the story itself has been finished. Sometimes it's bright and sweet, other times it's dark and poignant, yet in each of them is an acknowledgment of the indomitibility of the human spirit, of the power of goodness to overcome evil and light to shine into the darkness. I really hope that Ms. Nazarian will be editing further anthologies in the near future.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Vera Nazarian
  • "The Sky Won't Listen" by Tanith Lee
  • "The Tin and the Damask Rose" by Anna Tambour
  • "What a Queen Does with Her Hands" by Erzebet YellowBoy
  • "The Gifting of Nyla's Son" by Linda J. Dunn
  • "Stone Song" by Sonya Taafe
  • "Sky Whales" by Lisa Silverthorne
  • "Death's Appointment Book, or the Dance of Death" by JoSelle Vanderhooft
  • "The Sugar" by Mary A. Turzillo
  • "She Who Runs" by Mike Allen
  • "Breaking Laws" by John Grant
  • "Only One Story but He Told It Well" by Robert Brandt

Review posted January 7, 2010

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