Perhaps the first thing that will surprise some readers upon picking up An Alphabet of Embers, edited by Rose Lemberg, is that it is a collection of short prose fiction instead of poetry. Lemberg is a well known poet, a founding editor of poetry zine Stone Telling, and recently put out a debut collection of poetry Marginalia to Stone Bird, which I reviewed here with Sofia Samatar. However, Lemberg brings their poetic sensibility to one of the most brilliantly arranged TOCs that I've yet read, lending an air of beauty and lightness to the entire experience of reading this combined reprint/original anthology.
The fiction in Embers starts off with "Outfitting the Restless Heart, or How the Sky was Made" by Emily Stoddard, a relative newcomer. It is an excellent choice for a lead story, as it sets a positive tone for the book that usefully counterbalances the many darker stories to come. It is, above all, lyrical, which Lemberg identifies as key in their introduction. The introduction states that they were looking for stories that are "unusual, lyrical, odd, surreal, gripping" (p. 3). "Short" would be another criterion, as Lemberg fits twenty-seven stories in a mere 184 pages. As such, these pieces are necessarily impressionistic and often dreamlike, sacrificing character and plot in favor of style and feeling. In this way the title An Alphabet of Embers is also aptly chosen, as each story is like a spark that glows as the reader breathes with it—but then fades quickly away.
Thus Stoddard's story places the reader in the dreamlike second person position of "you," sailing a ship on the moon-current as a "textile traveler" pulls alongside and comes aboard to make you a cloak that allows you to stride upwards towards the moon. In the realm of dreams all boundaries are fluid, and synesthesia is common in the poetic language in this anthology, e.g. "[a] pile of fabrics lives inside in a shouting match of colors" (p. 6). This fluidity extends to gender identity, which is first seen in the second story, "Transfers to Connecting Flights" by JY Yang. In this story the narrator has the power to transfer peoples' consciousnesses into different objects (anything from a single book to a whole city) while the narrator takes occupancy of their original body in trade. In this way the magician stays immortal, waiting for a very specific outcome. The markers of the body are negligible compared to the continuity of the soul within. That remains true for the stories throughout the anthology, with fluid identities proliferating at the speed of imagination.
Here's where the genius for arranging the stories comes in. The first three stories, these two along with "The City Beneath the Sea" by Sara Norja, all have this dreamlike quality that hearkens to fairy tales (in Norja's beautiful tale a grandmother and her two grandchildren experience the rare appearance of a fae city rising up from the sea, and emerge transformed themselves). This continues into "Moult" by Nin Harris, but the rhythm of Harris's language is flexible enough to segue completely into Malay and back into English at times, just as the narrator moves between skins (identities) in the eponymous moulting. There is no translation for the reader—as with any story, sometimes there are layers that are not accessible to every reader. Stories this short must be pared of the redundancies that allow an author to coax along the beginning reader.
Which makes the next story choice particularly brilliant because the rhythms of Greer Gilman's "Hieros Gamos," being closer to Chaucer's English, may be just as strange to the reader as Harris's Malay. In most ways the reader is significantly closer to a modern day Malaysian shape changer than to a young boy from a non-idealized, non-romanticized European Middle Ages setting. After Greer's move back to historical/mythical Europe, we get Kari Sperring's fiercely feminist take on various mythologies in "Some Silver Wheel," which ties together the Odysseus and Odin stories through their female characters who in many ways deserve better mates. This is another story that refuses to talk down to or translate its allusions for the unwary reader.
Sperring's entry marks a turn down darker roads, as it is followed by Mari Ness's "Mistletoe and Copper, Water and Herbs," a fairy tale that does not fulfill all its heroine's wishes, and Nisi Shawl's heartrending tale of dying in "An Awfully Big Adventure." After Shawl's incredibly powerful story, in which the reader viscerally feels the power of water covering and constricting, Zen Cho's "Everything Under One Roof" is a blessed balm—a story of a magical restaurant that actively aids in the comforting of grief, in which the passage through the fantastic (beginning and ending in our own world) can be healing.
This sense of empowerment (which can at times be missing in very dreamlike stories, where characters sometimes have little agency) continues as the anthology brings in its first SF story, Yoon Ha Lee's "Calendrical Rot." No less weird and wonderful, this story is about power and control, even through something as seemingly abstract and "neutral" as timekeeping. Lee's space opera grounds the following story, "Absinthe Fish" by M. David Blake, as it uses the language and tropes of science (particularly Schrödinger's Cat, which may be its own subgenre now) in a particularly surreal way. That surreal quality overlaid on real physics is taken up and infused with pure joy in Celeste Rita Baker's "Single Entry" where a suspiciously accurate planet Earth is entered as a costume in a Carnival parade, growing with the energy of the crowds. In my humble opinion it is the best story from Baker's debut collection last year Back, Belly, & Side: True Lies and False Tales.
The momentum of that joy and energy, even as they fade at the end of the story, are desperately needed as we head into Alvaro Zinos-Amaro's severely antiseptic tale of tortured criminal ZHR-arKadia-γ, "And Now You Are Alone Among the Stars," whose (unspecified) crimes are interpreted and reinterpreted as ages and cultures come and go. That anguish flows into "The Swing, or How to Ricochet According to Sylvia Plath" by Nolan Liebert, in which any existing genre elements are subordinated to the narrator's mental landscape—which is as dark as the title would lead you to assume.
Once again Lemberg finds the perfect tale to bring the reader back towards the light, not in a saccharine or trite way but with genuine wonder and hope in Mina Li's truly beautiful "Dreaming Keys." Here the eponymous keys enable the narrator to shift in and out of different worlds, and again we get the synesthesia of dreams where names have tastes, and the main character's Chinese and Western names taste very different. The keys are a literalized metaphor of existing in multiple worlds, as this character and so many in this anthology do. It is lovely and hopeful and a much needed ray of light after the nadir.
That hope is bounded, though, as it is in "The River's Children" by Shweta Narayan. Theirs is a return to a more traditional fairy tale format ("There once was a prince whose dearest friend was a river" [p. 99]). The river and the prince marry, and their children take on the shape-shifting properties of the water to almost continually change gender, much to the dismay of the court. In the end they make a life for themselves where they can be themselves in all their variety, but it is not one of complete acceptance by society at large—unfortunately realistic in the world we live in today.
Also tempered in its beauty is Ian Muneshwar's tear-jerker "Telomerase," a story in which one partner loses language at the same rate that the other partner's cancer progresses—a moving story of what we say when we have no words. It is then a boon to read Sheree Renée Thomas's story "Treesong" where a woman derives wisdom and comfort from the trees, the land, and the stories her grandmother told about them. That gives a positive lead-in to a story that, read in a different context, might be assumed to be much more negative. "Five Lessons in the Fattening Room" by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali is the story of a young girl taken to a compound and prepared for marriage, a scenario that can be abusive (and the story does not ignore this) but also can be a vehicle for women passing along wisdom and some measure of empowerment.
From these stories that are firmly rooted in worlds we recognize we move to "Sebeteledi Holds the Dead" by Tlotlo Tsamaase. This is the only story that includes a postscript note on the language used, as it is otherwise difficult to parse (which is saying something for a volume unafraid to include, for example, lines of untranslated Chinese characters in stories such as "Dreaming Keys"). The imagery here is SFnal, fantastic, and horrific all stewed together. After a story with "Woody bones. Soggy Grounds. Melted eyes. The Hangman's tower, old, stands and waits for her" (p. 126) the ground is laid to read Sonya Taaffe's "Exorcisms" in a horror mode as it starts "This is the inside of a woman's head. This is looking out through her eyes that are like the eyes of a mask, bone frames and curtains of skin. . ." (p. 127). But here the potential horror of spirit possession turns out to be something more consensual, and this is a story of immigration both universal (in the sense of those who uproot themselves and settle in new places, what they gain and what they lose) and very specifically from the Jewish tradition. The story closes with echoes of the beginning but without the horror: "This is the inside of a woman's head. This is looking out through her eyes, which are nothing more than eyes now; . . . they are filling with tears that she cannot explain: someone is dead and she is weeping for joy" (p. 131).
Emily Jiang's story "Binding of Ming-Tian" takes up the theme of sacrifice and art from "Exorcisms," returning to the fairy tale mode of single-minded obsession. It weaves together the tale of a young woman who loves er-hu music so much that her father's apprentice practices until his fingers are bloody to win her attention, her mother going through the foot-binding process to make sure her daughter is marriageable, and her father searching for the materials to draw the perfect image of a koi. This story helps set the stage for Ching-In Chen's "one testimony (m. Lao)," which is written in very odd diction with unusual formatting—not unexpected for poetry but the only time that technique is used in this anthology. While this story has many layers that elude me, I notice that it is deeply rooted in female bodies, how they are used and abused, in a way that resonates with Jiang's story and also deals with immigration in a way that resonates with many stories here—immigration being another way in which boundaries become fluid and permeable. But that doesn't mean that they are painless to cross.
Starting with Taaffe's story, the anthology becomes more interested in poetry explicitly (unsurprisingly as Taaffe and Lemberg are both poets and poetry editors) and "Ekphrasis" by Arkady Martine picks up this thread, depicting one member of a hive mind becoming a poet (reminiscent of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice trilogy) and how that changes the whole collective. Vajra Chandrasekera's "Rhizomatic Diplomacy" continues the trope of artificially created consciousness, with a particular scientist splitting off a version of herself (which becomes himself) in an effort to create a being that can engage in diplomacy with an alien culture and end a prolonged war. This story is particularly concerned with language and (mis)communication, as are many here.
The penultimate story is Amal El-Mohtar's "Wing" which returns to the logic of dreams, writing vignettes in which a girl with a book around her neck tells stories from the books she is reading (and the shifts in voice between the different paragraphs are brilliantly done) until she finds another person with a book around his neck, finding fulfillment. Finally the anthology closes with a tale of aswangs from the Philippines in M Sereno's "Only revolutions." This multilingual story shows monsters fiercely asserting the survival of their (queer) love in a world determined to destroy them, tying up the whole volume with a bow that delivers exactly the message that the editor (I believe) wishes to leave the reader with.
I would usually never review an anthology by listing every single story (twenty-seven!) in order of appearance, but I have also never seen an anthology so beautifully orchestrated, with tones and themes following each other beautifully like the movements of a symphony, encompassing a huge range of human (and non-human) experience and feeling while always maintaining a coherent sense of the whole. As such, while the individual stories sometimes seem too much like embers (flashing brightly but fading from memory quickly), the anthology as a whole leaves a lasting impression of weight, survival, and beauty.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an electromagnetics engineer and avocationally a science fiction book reviewer and critic. She has worked on various space programs such as the Orion capsule and the Dream Chaser space plane. She reviews for venues such as Locus magazine, SFSignal.com, and Cascadia Subduction Zone, and published a book on the work of Greg Egan with University of Illinois Press in 2014. She lives with her husband and two children near Baltimore, Maryland.