A late summer sandcastle. A cup of tea with a friend. A painting of a tropical shore. The violin sound of extinguished birthday candles. The power of words, of the natural world, of dreams, of Death Itself, or at least Charon, his boatman. To a select few is given the ability to see the universe in a grain of sand. Even fewer have the ability to convey their experience in such a way as to evoke it in others.
The Empire of Ice Cream is a collection of fourteen short stories by Jeffrey Ford, a companion volume to the author’s previous collection, The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant. In spite of a wide range of characters and settings, from the most mundane to the wildly fantastic, the stories all deal with the sense of wonder. They all, even the most unusual and bizarre, help us to recapture that a feeling that most of us knew only in childhood: a sense of wonder in the everyday. They help us to see again.
A few of my favorites: “The Annals of Eelin-Ok” recounts the life of a Twilmish, a particular sort of fairy who takes up residence in the sand castle abandoned by a human child and whose life depends on the existence of the sand castle. “The Empire of Ice Cream” (from which the collection derives its name) is a fascinating treatment of synesthesia, the phenomenon where the senses flow into each other. “Boatman’s Holiday” stars one of my favorite characters of Greek mythology, Charon. “Botch Town” captures all the mystery and fantasy that can be found in suburbia, if we but have the eyes to see.
This was my first time reading Jeffrey Ford, and I must say that I found myself very impressed by his talent as a writer. The stories remind me very much of Ray Bradbury, though not at all in a derivative way. As Bradbury’s stories evoke the world of 1930’s Wisconsin, so Ford’s stories are saturated with 1980’s New Jersey, even those set in other worlds. There is more than a hint of nostalgia in all of the stories, nostalgia and lost innocence.
If I were to claim any fault in the collection, it would be the way that this theme dominates. Reading the collection straight through is a bit like trying to make a seven-course meal out of ice cream. So much richness dulls the palate after a while. Pausing between stories, dipping into the collection occasionally, makes the impact of the individual stories much stronger.
All but one of the stories in the collection were previously published, and three are award-winners. “The Empire of Ice Cream” won the 2003 Nebula for Best Novelette (as well as being a finalist for the Hugo, the World Fantasy Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award). “The Annals of Eelin-Ok” won the Speculative Literature Foundation’s 2005 Fountain Award for “exceptional literary quality.” And “Botch Town” won the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Novella.
But the real winners are all readers of fantasy, and anyone whose sense of wonder needs refocusing. The Empire of Ice Cream is a stellar collection, and I look forward to reading much more from Jeffery Ford in the future.
The Empire of Ice Cream
Golden Gryphon Press, 2006 (Softcover, 2009)