"Another Chart of the Silences," the very first story in Chaz Brenchley's new short story collection focused on speculative fiction featuring gay characters, opens with the line "Some people think that a breathless hush is the natural state of the universe, as darkness is" (p. 3). The narrator thinks those people are mistaken, but I suspect that Brenchley thinks they are correct. While most of the stories in this collection focus on the bitter waters of the title (rivers and oceans, tears and blood), they all start with or hinge upon that moment, that breathless hush of characters making a decision. "Any man, every man, can find himself pinned by a moment, heartstolen, abruptly turned around" (p. 33), another story starts. Small moments lead to life changes for most of the characters we meet throughout these seventeen stories.
In addition to the titular theme of water and the secondary theme of that breathless moment of decision, the collection is further divided by smaller themes: mentorship, illness and death, and timeless adventure. These themes overlap throughout the book, but the stories are unofficially organized into these three sections.
The first four stories in the collection all deal with mentorship as a major plot component, often tying the bitter waters to the breathless moment. In "Another Chart of the Silences," the fateful moment of decision comes early, when the narrator decides to break his familiar but lonely habit of studying sea-charts in the library and takes on an apprentice of sorts, teaching a teen boy the mysteries of sailing and legends of the sea. The relationship between the two is revealed subtly as the story goes on and turned out to be different than I'd supposed from the narrator's voice. In "Junk Male," the proprietor of a ship full of rent-boys comes across a murder scene. The mentorship here is less palatable and also less a part of the plot, the exact nature of the ship's business tucked into the background of the murder mystery (which is handled as a fair-play mystery with clues for the reader all along). "The Pillow-Boy of General Shu" also hinges on the decision of an adult to go outside his comfort zone in taking in a teen, and the details of the relationship may make some readers uncomfortable. But ultimately those details are necessary as they lead to the story's almost inevitable conclusion. "In the Night Street Baths" is a straightforward piece of high fantasy, in which a teen eunuch boy follows the lead of a fellow eunuch (an older man of dwarven stature) in exploring the low town outside the walls of the harem house in which they serve. The breathless moment comes when the sheltered boy encounters a deformed woman and babe in the baths.
The center batch of stories largely deal with illness and death and balance the speculative horror elements with more realistic depictions of the ravages of terminal illness. AIDS, cancer, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's . . . these diseases are never specifically mentioned by any of the characters in "The Insolence of Candles Against the Night's Dying," "Parting Shots," "Up The Airy Mountain," "The Light of Other Eyes," "Septicemia," and "The Cupboard of Cold Things," but then again they don't have to be: Brenchley leaves it up to the reader to assign whichever illness most disturbs the reader. The end result of all of those diseases is the loss of ability: the loss of sociability, mobility, cognitive ability. All of these stories navigate the storms and calms of watching a loved one deteriorate before your eyes. The stories, collectively, are difficult to read but hauntingly beautiful at the same time.
The final grouping of stories features Brenchley's immortal protagonist Sailor Martin. The stories vary in tone as much as time: from mythical pirate days to the haunted present, from somber meditations on love and loss to straight-up thriller-horror. Whether he's perched on the high point of a remote island trying to break free of the control of a pirate queen or perched on the upper floors of a modern high-rise hotel trying not to lose personal control to a typhoon of epic proportions, Sailor Martin navigates each encounter with skill and by drawing on what seems to be centuries of experience. The Sailor Martin stories touch on all of the main and secondary themes of the collection. There's water, of course, since most of the stories are ocean- or island-based. There are breathless moments where small decisions (opening a hotel door, revealing an island's secret) turn Martin's life in a new direction. "Keep The Aspidocheleone Afloat" reintroduces the mentorship theme, complimented by the final story in the collection, "The Boat of Not Belonging." Tragic illness features in "One For Every Year He's Away, She Said" and "'Tis Pity He's Ashore." I don't think Martin can be called a hero, as many of the decisions he makes are for personal survival more than any greater good. But hero or not, I enjoy the character and hope to see a lot more of him.
There are three stories in the collection that don't fall neatly into any of the three themes identified, and to me they are the exceptions that prove the rule. "True North" is an almost cozy little ghost story about unexpected love and the toll of grief on a relationship; "Hothouse Flowers: or the Discreet Boys of Doctor Barnabas" is a gothic/pulp adventure story introducing two characters (world traveler and erstwhile monster hunter John Furnival and his young business manager Sylvester Alshott) that I'd love to see more of; and "Villainelle" is another piece of haunted high fantasy hinging on a character's circumstances returning him to the past he'd hoped to leave forever behind.
The characters in Brenchley's collection navigate the rough waters and sudden calms of past, present and futures cut short with varying degrees of success, and the reader drawn along on these voyages with varying degrees of peace and discomfort.
Anthony R. Cardno's reviews have also appeared in Icarus and Chelsea Station. His short fiction can be found upcoming in Beyond the Sun (Fairwood Press) and Oomph (Crossed Genres). He interviews creative types at www.anthonycardno.com and can be found on Twitter as @talekyn.