From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Book Review: Norilana Roundup

Norilana Books is a newish small press run by writer Vera Nazarian. They have put out an ambitious list over the past few years, notably including a number of very nice novels by Sherwood Smith (best known these days for her Inda series, and also the author of the delightful YA diptych Crown Duel). But perhaps most notable about Norilana’s list is their support of short fiction. They are putting out no fewer than four annual anthology series: earlier in 2009 we saw the second editions of a science fiction anthology, Warrior Wisewoman; a Sword and Sorcery/Mannerpunk anthology, Lace and Blade; and a more eclectic — even, dare I say, slipstreamish — anthology, Clockwork Phoenix.

They have also revived a venerable anthology series of fantasy stories with women protagonists, Sword and Sorceress, which was started by Marion Zimmer Bradley, who did 20 numbers for DAW. Late in her life Bradley passed the series on to Elisabeth Walters, who helped with Bradley’s last three anthologies and has edited the series since then. The 24th book has just appeared, the third to come out from Norilana.

And Norilana has also done standalone anthologies. Under the Rose is a big book, with a wide variety of stories. Sky Whales and Other Wonders is rather thinner, but it is the best of these three volumes, and it has a notable emphasis on rather colorful, even outré, ideas.

To take the three books in order of release: Under the Rose is the least focused volume. No doubt this is largely by design. It may also result from a longish period from conception to publication, with three publishers involved, a few new stories along the way, and, sadly, the deaths of two contributors. As a result we get comic SF, recalling Keith Laumer’s Retief stories, in William John Watkins’s “Five Hundred Vinnies,” in which a delegation from New Jersey makes a breakthrough in dealing with aliens who communicate by sense of smell, apparently with the help of literally dirty jokes. And we get a transcendent, almost Sturgeonesque, story like Stuart Jaffe’s “Mrs. Donovan,” in which an adolescent is seduced by an experienced older woman — but the seduction turns out to have a very different purpose.

There’s also an effective Russian-set fantasy, combining old Russian dark fairy tales with a contemporary post-Soviet milieu: James Targett’s “Mother Russia’s Egg.” And a quiet contemporary tale of an American-born girl coming to terms with her Faroese ancestry on a visit: “Fool’s Gold,” by Donna Scott. And true dark fantasy, about a couple of long-lived emotional vampires finally meeting an adversary who understands them: Gaie Sebold’s “Eaten Cold.”

Add such fine work as Uncle River’s funny tangling of a yeast disaster, fumbling bureaucrats, and a clever family baker with a suddenly valuable sourdough starter (“Yeast Virus”), and another involving philosophical exploration from John Grant, “The Beach of the Drowned,” and there’s plenty of nice work to go around. Now mind you the book isn’t entirely successful — there are plenty of misfires too. But it’s an expansive book, and an ambitious collection.

Much less successful is Sword and Sorceress XXIV — perhaps because on its own terms it is fairly successful, if we take “its own terms” to mean replicating Marion Zimmer Bradley’s anthologies closely. The problem, for me at any rate, is that my tastes and Bradley’s didn’t necessarily jibe very well. I thought her tastes in short fiction were perhaps too simple — too didactic, in a sense. She also eagerly supported new writers — a good thing — but sometimes too eagerly, in that she published many writers who really weren’t ready yet.

At any rate, my hit rate in the latest Sword and Sorceress wasn’t very high. But not necessarily because of new writers – one story I quite enjoyed here was from a very young writer indeed, still in college: Therese Arkenberg’s “Lord Shashensa,” a nice (though not spectacular) fantasy about a ruler facing a hopeless war and the unexpected help she receives. Other enjoyable work came from Dave Smeds, with “The Vapors of Crocodile Fen,” about the servant of a very long-lived witch who must help her mistress obtain the makings of her immortality serum — unfortunately with the help of a man her mistress can’t stand. And I liked K. D. Wentworth’s dark “Owl Court,” in which a survivor of a brutal raid on her family’s village asks for help from her family’s “totem” court, the Owl Court. But she learns that such help will have a price, and so will revenge. There are a few more decent pieces here, but no real outstanding stories, and too many that seem sort of half-finished, unwilling to quite work through their ideas.

Finally Sky Whales and Other Wonders, as I have noted is thinner than the other two books at hand. But it offers nice variety and lots of color. There are two title stories. “Sky Whales,” by Lisa Silverthorne, doesn’t feature actual sky whales, nor indeed real fantasy or SF — just a wrenching look at a woman attempting to cope with her daughter’s murder. Tanith Lee’s “The Sky Won’t Listen” does feature actual sky whales, on a distant planet. The whales were once hunted by human colonists, but now are herded to safety, away from human cities. The narrator, Maud Ruby, is a sort of psychic investigator, who is hired to deal with a ghost ship that’s been menacing the herding ships — it seems the ghost on the ship is of one of the last “whalers.” But the real problem is what Maud learns about the ghost’s past, and how that affects her.

I also enjoyed “Stone Song,” by Sonya Taaffe, which has a fairly original and resonant central idea: a girl who can sing things to stone. And JoSelle Vanderhooft’s “Death’s Appointment Book; or, The Dance of Death,” which is simple enough, and elegantly done: a depiction of the character Death. And Mary Turzillo’s “The Sugar,” about a substance that causes people to take animal forms for a day. Claudia has been raised to fear the victims of “the Sugar”, and to hunt them for execution, but then she finds one victim only too tempting.

Perhaps more importantly, almost all the other stories are both original in conception, and sharply executed. There is, again, alas, no story that quite blew me away. But it is an enjoyable anthology top to bottom.