Clockwork Phoenix 2: More Tales of Beauty and Strangeness
Edited by Mike Allen
Review by Terry Weyna
Norilana Books ISBN/ITEM#: 1607620278
Date: 01 July 2009 / Show Official Info /
Clockwork Phoenix 2: More Tales of Beauty and Strangeness is a stronger collection than was Clockwork Phoenix 1, which is good news for those who love original short fiction anthologies. A few of the stories included are very strong indeed, and the weaker stories are stronger than many you'll find in an original anthology.
Mike Allen, the editor of the anthology, begins with an introduction that doesn't really introduce: "Have you ever seen so many beautiful hues of blood? And more beautiful yet when the fluids ignite and the iridescent fires bloom." It may be a weird sort of prose poetry inspired by the short stories, if one wishes to be kind, but it gives no idea about what is to follow. No surprise, then, that you find out rather more about Allen's thinking from the "Pinions" section at the end of the book, which contains a short piece about each author and a rather longer one about Allen. Allen admits that he "prefers to have fun writing confusing and bizarre introductions" and would rather "bury the vague raisons d'etre" for the series in the back "where only the most dedicated bookworms will find them." The series would probably be better served with an early introduction rather than a late one, but it does mean the reader comes upon the stories cold, with no expectations or warnings.
That's certainly one way to make sure that the stories surprise and delight. The strongest stories come in the middle of the book, with Mary Robinette Kowal's "At the Edge of Dying". This is a lovely little story in which magic comes only with the onset of the magician's death - and here, the death must come in the midst of death, as a kingdom fights a war. Tanith Lee soon follows with "The Pain of Glass", a story set in her Flat Earth universe (which may well be her strongest work in a long career). This story of lust, fear and love is written in opulent prose in which a reader can luxuriate; it conjures up pictures so vivid that one can practically feel the sand beneath one's feet. Catherynne M. Valente, a truly remarkable talent, contributes "The Secret History of Mirrors", which will make you think about these reflective devices in a way you never have before.
Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer contribute a scary item called "each thing i show you is a piece of my death", about experimental filmmaking gone awry. Art can be a real killer - a theme that seems to abound in fiction these days. Marie Brennan's "Once a Goddess" is one answer to the question of what a child goddess does when she is no longer a child - and no longer a goddess. Being a god until one is grown is no preparation for adulthood. "When We Moved On", by Steve Rasnic Tem, is the tale of a long and wonderful marriage. It's sentimental, certainly, but it earns its sentimentality with a careful building of images and feelings.
Some of the weaker stories in Clockwork Phoenix 2 are early efforts by newish writers, which makes it easier to appreciate them. Joanna Galbraith's "The Fish of Al-Kawthar's Fountain" is a tale that would be right at home in The Arabian Nights, as fish dance in order to win their master a bride. Ann Leckie, in one of the very few bits of science fiction in this collection, writes of a space-faring race no one has anticipated in "The Endangered Camp". Kelly Barnhill's epistolary story, "Open the Door and the Light Pours Through", is a charming ghost story.
My only complaint about Clockwork Phoenix 2 is that the ordering of the stories detracts from their power. Allen arranges the stories so that they seem to flow one into the other, with stories with similar settings or themes following one another. The effect is to make each story seem much like the next story, especially in the middle of the book - oddly, where the strongest stories seem to be clustered. The reader is likely to have a reaction Allen can't have wanted: "Oh, yes, another story set in Arabia, another exotic setting, ho hum." The problem is magnified if one reads several stories in succession, rather than picking the book up every now and then for a single story. How much better it would have been to intersperse this group of fantasy stories throughout the book, interleaved with science fiction, interstitial fiction and horror!
Still, Clockwork Phoenix 2 is a collection worthy of serious attention. I expect I'll see several of these stories again, in a year's best collection or two. Original anthologies of this strength should be encouraged, particularly as we see the digest-sized magazines cutting back and the market for short fiction ever shrinking. Fortunately, it's no sacrifice to support such an endeavor when the stories are this good.