Mary Soon Lee's first book, this collection reprints 16 stories published over the past decade, plus 4 brand new ones. There's plenty of high fantasy, several ghostly tales, some borderline SF/F. But genre is secondary here. In Lee's hands, such standard tropes as curses, time travel and the like provide a backdrop and move the plot, but the focus is on the people. And Lee's effortlessly convincing characterization brings her people to vibrant life. The reader cares about them, often intensely.
Lee (no relation to your humble reviewer, if any care) introduces the book with an insightful essay that reveals, among other things, how she became a writer--almost by accident.
From there it's on to fiction at once fantastic and utterly believable--written with conviction and a steady, subtle hand. Love, sacrifice, betrayal, pain, regret and redemption figure strongly in her universe. Regardless of any supernatural or speculative trappings, Lee's best work is absolutely true in the deepest emotional sense and so many of these strike me as Lee at her best that it's impossible to pick a single favorite--or even 3 or 4.
"Monstrosity" features a cursed woman, the old man who blunders into her life, unhurried but never slow pacing and a kind of quiet, dignified (dare I say mature?) love. Far more than a gender-flipped "Beauty and the Beast," this layered and nuanced piece proves deeply satisfying.
We get Lee's convincingly sad take on the old SF cautionary tale of the time traveler who alters the past in "Cause and Consequence." The book's title story follows--a bittersweet modern-day ghost story of choices and regrets. Another contemporary piece of note is "Roadside Stop," a quietly menacing dark fantasy.
While courage is not lacking in Lee's high fantasies, her clear eye sees no gallantry in battle and little cause to take pride in killing. The ritualized warfare in "The Hollow Dancer" has reduced the battlefield body count, but at a terrible price. And what of the family abandoned by the so-called hero, gone to seek his fortune in the grim business of monster-slaying--or the young girl, beguiled and trapped by a dragon hunter's ambiguous glamour?
Lee can put a sly and even nasty twist on her magical world, as in "Not Another Unicorn." But pain and forgiveness figure more prominently in her work, as in the concluding fantasy, "City of Mercy."
(Full disclosure: Mary is a good friend of mine. So now you know.)
I loved reading this book. One reason I really appreciated it is that I have two very young children, and by the time I climb into bed, I have almost no power of concentration left. The longest of the twenty stories in this collection is ten pages, and most are under eight pages. Which means that even one whose brain has mostly leaked out after a day of sippy cups and poopy diapers can still read at least one satisfyingly-woven tale before bed.
What is surprising about these stories is not how short they are, but how complete. The characters are real, the settings are believable, and the plots are well-crafted. Mary draws from the tremendous variety of worlds that make up the fantasy genre, so that the reader is spun from a contemporary setting in one story to high fantasy in the next. Such short stories do not allow for long descriptions of the setting, but each story contains just enough choice details to give the reader a satisfying sense of place.
Mary's economy of words shines through when it comes to characters and plots as well. As a non-writer, I'm always fascinated by how writers manage to flesh out their characters through patterns of speech, mannerisms, and other subtle details. Every character in Mary's stories is different, and each is truly memorable. When I finished reading the collection, I skimmed the table of contents again and was instantly able to recall the plot line of each story and significant details about the main character involved.
All of these stories are dark to a greater or lesser degree. There are some happy endings, but there are no unearned happy endings (or "easy grace" as we say in the religious field). Fantasy cliches are often turned on their heads in Mary's stories: the dragon slayer may well be ashamed of the work he does, and the handsome prince seeking a beautiful princess may discover that the process is more complex and treacherous than he had imagined. I enjoyed the stories that ended happily (I'm a sucker that way), but I was equally satisfied by some of the blackest tales in the book. My favorite was the dark, sinister "The Winter of the Rats" -- a retelling of the Fable of the Pied Piper of Hamelin with all of its pieces wonderfully brought to life: the rats, the townspeople, and -- most magically -- the piper's music.
Another, very different story, that I enjoyed was "Conversation Pieces", about a woman trying to live a normal life in a rundown Boston apartment as the inanimate objects around her attempt to engage her in conversation. And then, there was the deliciously creepy "Roadside Stop" about a man just looking for a bite to eat in the middle of the night.
There were some stories I didn't care for as much. "Dragonslayer" was perhaps the one story in the collection whose plot and characters did not quite win me over. "Gift" to me lacked the life and excitment of the other stories, and I found the ending unsurprising. However, the vast majority of stories here are truly memorable.
I would love to see what Mary could accomplish in longer stories. If she can achieve this degree of depth in stories of 3000 words or less, just think what she could do in 7000 words, or 10,000, or even 20,000! In the meantime, her anthology of science fiction stories will be published shortly, by Dark Regions as well. I'll look forward to diving in!
Last updated 8 March 2002 by Mary Soon Lee