Ant King: And Other Stories
by Benjamin Rosenbaum
Review by Colleen Cahill
Small Beer Press Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781931520539
Date: August 2008 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
There are certain authors who I always read. If Jeffery Ford wrote a soup can label, I would read it; if Lisa Goldstein penned an ad for aspirin, I would seek it out. This is also true for the writing of Benjamin Rosenbaum, and I was delighted to get The Ant King and Other Stories, a compilation of many of his splendid works. Now I can revel in the beautiful words and wonderful weirdness that comes with a Rosenbaum piece.
The book begins with the title story, "The Ant King: a Fairy Tale of California", starting the collection off with a bang. Just as Stan goes to kiss Sheila for the first time, she splits open and "the air was filled with gumballs". Yellow gumballs, to be exact, and this tragedy sends Stan into a bizarre path, beginning with "a group of people whose unrequited love has ended in some kind of surrealist moment" to the lair of the Ant King. It is a love story, but with a different kind of love. Surreal is a hallmark of this author's work and he does it with style, as in "The Valley of Giants" where an old woman with no family seeks the comfort of giants. Some of the works in this collection lean towards fantasy, others are have a science fiction feel, as in "Start the Clock" which looks at a future where a disease prevents some children from aging. After years as a twelve year old, would you choose a cure that would let you age naturally?
Rosenbaum is a master of the short-short story and I was delighted to see this book included several of these, including the entire set of Other Cities tales. These one to two page descriptions of various cities are full of wonder, humor and a wide range of emotions. I am particularly fond of "Ahavah", a hobo paradise and "Stin", a city for those who "tired of other cities, of villages, of houses, tents, roads, trees, anything at all". Another short-short, "The Orange", is a delight piece about how "an orange ruled the world", and like many of his works, it has a surprise ending. The careful construction of these short works is also seen in his longer pieces. The Hugo nominated story "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air Planes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum", explores a world of not only Rajas and zeppelins, but where a "plausible-fabulist" flying home from a "festival of art and inquiry" can find himself in the middle of an assassination which will lead... but that would spoil a incredible story twist you need to read for yourself.
Of the nineteen titles in this collection, all but one, have been previously published. If, like me, you have read many of Rosenbaum's works, you will want to get this book for the first release of "A Seige of Cranes". This dark fantasy follows Marish, a man seeking the thing that crushed his village, taking all the bodies when it left. As in a standard fantasy, Marish meets someone who can help him on this quest, but since this is a Rosenbaum story, the assistance comes "with the head of a Jackel" who is an "embalmer, or a sepulchrist". It is the strangeness in these stories that just makes you want to keep reading, to find out where this could be going. The best point is the endings of these pieces, which Rosenbaum never cheats on; each delivers the promise the author gives of never being boring or predictable, but also giving a satisfying conclusion.
You cannot go wrong with The Ant King and Other Stories and I give it my heartiest recommendation, especially if you have never had the chance to experience the exuberant weirdness of Benjamin Rosenbaum's work.