The subtitle of the previous three Clockwork Phoenix anthologies, all edited by series creator Mike Allen, is Tales of Beauty and Strangeness. Although that subtitle has vanished from the fourth and most recent installment, it's still a good guide for what can be found inside: stories in which the tone, the mood, the imagery, and the way of telling are as important, or more so, than a straightforward plot and narrative, and in which the experimental and the resolutely uncommercial are valuable qualities. There are eighteen stories here, and of course not all of them work, but even those that fail do so in ways which indicate significant ambition on the part of the authors.
That said, even though the milieu of the collection is decidedly experimental, one of the interesting things about this anthology is how thoroughly the pieces by widely-published authors fit in with their larger bodies of work. The venue, and its air of non-commercialism, seems to have encouraged writers to work with themes which mean a great deal to them, which means that in the case of writers with a substantial oeuvre those themes will of course include ground the writers have previously covered. Tanith Lee's "A Little of the Night," for example, will not come as a surprise in terms of its contents, setting, and general mood to anyone who has read Tanith Lee before. In a dim Ruritanian-Germanic nineteenth century, a young military officer commits a crime, escapes into a dark forest, and finds himself in an obviously haunted house inhabited by aged servitors, shadows, and a giant wolf, all obviously the relicts of a vampire. There is fear, there are dream-states, there are tricks with time—all of this Lee has done before, and will probably do again.
The pleasant thing here, though, is that while Lee sometimes seems to have a story in every fantasy and horror anthology released in any given year, and while most of them can be summarized as more or less Gothic, this particular piece is one of her finer and more memorable. The young man is fully, if not complexly, characterized; the house and its horrors are described in ways which are genuinely creepy and atmospheric; the conceit behind the piece as a whole is original (it is the vampire's absence, not presence, which is much of the problem). Except for a few paragraphs towards the end which are tell-not-show moralizing in a way not used by Lee at her very finest—just-ponder-the-unconquerable-human-spirit stuff—this is Tanith Lee doing what she does best, which happens to be a set of things other writers mostly don't do as well (making the classical Gothic interesting, let alone frightening, is not a common skill). Because the story feels so strongly like a glimpse at its author's obsessions, carried off with reasonable technical proficiency, it feels daring and new, even though these are the same obsessions Lee has had for her entire career. And this is typical of the anthology—it strives not for self-reinvention on the part of its better-known writers, but a distillation of their works into a hyper-concentration, showcasing what they usually do at a very high level of quality.
This is certainly the case with the Marie Brennan, Yves Meynard, and Gemma Files stories. All three of these stories are incredibly characteristic of their authors, and all three do extremely well at showcasing their authors' strengths. All three share a weakness, and one which the Lee story does not have: they all lose hold of their plots by virtue of finding other things more interesting. The Meynard, "Our Lady of the Thylacines," is probably hurt the most by this, since it winds up as more of a travelogue than an actual narrative. A young girl lives in a garden, where her mother-figure occasionally introduces her to various animals, many of them extinct or otherwise odd. The garden itself is lovely, the animals are described at the correct distance between the readers' knowledge of what they are and the girl's lack of it, the mother-thing is convincingly nonhuman and inexplicable—but neither the girl nor her mother take any significant action, or change in any significant way, or indeed do much of anything. Their routine is broken for external reasons, and we don't get to see much of what either of them chooses to do about it. This story would make a reasonable first chapter in a novel, but (and this may be intentional) it's almost a taunt how little resolution we get to its intriguing and well-set-up situation. Meynard's penchant as a writer has been for jewel-bright, confusing images and peculiar, not-very-explained worldbuilding; his tale is very much that in miniature.
Gemma Files's story, "Trap-Weed," does resolve, and uses her interests well (magic as a problematic and dangerous tool, the intersections of the human and the never-human, homoeroticism). It tells a story about a selkie who finds himself bound to a Flying Dutchman-like magician who has also magically enslaved a great white shark. Male selkies are unusual in fiction, and this one's first-person narrative voice, which does not emphasize the things a human would, is pleasantly disquieting—he takes his human name at random, because it doesn't matter to him. He is so thoroughly focused on fishing and on planning to return to the sea that he has failed to notice that all of his fellow crewmembers, the humans as well as the shark-thing, are just as trapped as he is by the magician-captain's madness. But the issue with this piece is that Files is clearly fascinated by whatever went on between the captain and one of his old enemies, before this story began. She dwells on that to the detriment of the tale of the selkie's capture and escape, without including enough of the previous events to make them interesting for themselves. The backstory here either needed to be woven farther into the main material or else removed entirely.
Marie Brennan's piece, "What Still Abides," deserves praise for its careful and unforced use of English which contains only Germanically-derived words, which in practice makes it a modernized form of Old English. Brennan also slips into the rhythmic patterns of Old English alliterative poetry on occasion, and this is done well enough to be unobtrusive, which must have been difficult. A passage such as "Dim were the days and dead the fields, and the men with white hands walked about with empty eyes, stopping for neither food nor sleep. Dread they woke in those who saw them, and in fear some sought to fight them" (p. 114) could pass as a fairly conventional descriptive paragraph in an older high fantasy style, but it can be laid out in distichs with the traditional caesura in the line-center, at which point it becomes a decent poetic pastiche. (It would have been interesting to see the whole story in stanzas, though I am not certain it all scans, and fairly certain that space limitations would not have allowed this.) The story's fusion of saga-lore about barrow-ghosts with later attributes of other cultures' vampires is haunting, but the twist ending is insufficiently foreshadowed and reads less as an end than as a stopping place. Still, this story is hurt less by its plot issues than the previous two I mentioned—and is a good example of the way in which Brennan, at her best, works with pieces of history which are not often used in recent genre literature, as well as the way in which she combines familiar tropes to produce an unfamiliar effect.
The standout works in the anthology are the ones which balance an affecting narrative and a propulsive plot with their evocative language and esoteric approaches to storytelling methodology and to style, a difficult balance which is struck on several occasions. By far the most impressive is Nicole Kornher-Stace's "On the Leitmotif of the Trickster Constellation in Northern Hemispheric Star Charts, Post-Apocalypse," which uses academic descriptions of the star charts in question and speculation on the cultural meanings and folklore surrounding the constellations they depict to weave a rich and emotionally deep world. The protagonist is trapped in a job in which she has to catch and interrogate ghosts from before the apocalypse in order to provide her people with an oral history of themselves, and the intertwining of her relatively straightforward third-person narrative with academic texts obviously written at a later date lends fascinating ambiguities to both strands of the story. The academic writing is also a dead ringer for the sort of quarreling texts common to real mythography, and the mythology and folktales, while created for this work, make the same kinds of sense, or lack of it, that such tales do in reality. It was not a surprise to learn that Kornher-Stace has revisited this world in a forthcoming novel, which I now await eagerly.
Kenneth Schneyer's "Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer" uses a similar format of unreliable academic prose. The story is, in fact, composed entirely of art gallery program notes, describing the works of the titular painter and offering discussion questions for the museum-goer. By paying close attention to the physical descriptions of the paintings, the reader can piece together a narrative of Latimer's life and the reasons behind her work, which go entirely unnoticed by the program-writer. Effective as this is, the lack of ways to communicate the future changes in the world during Latimer's lifetime (she lives until 2025) leave the story unmoored from the possibilities of its own worldbuilding. The program notes purportedly written in the future feel as though they were written in the present, as they in fact were. But this is a minor flaw in a story which is very technically ambitious.
Ian McHugh's "The Canal Barge Magician's Number Nine Daughter" uses more conventional narrative strategies very well. It is an enjoyable and well-plotted action piece with entertaining characters, taking place in a world which has recently acquired steam technology, but avoiding the conventions of steampunk. The daughter of the title is being drained for magic by her cruel magician father and is chained to the barge by her ankle. She tries, of course, to escape, and complications ensue. The story was pleasantly and unexpectedly reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones's Dalemark Quartet, a particular fusion of the political and the fantastical which is not replicated very often. Shira Lipkin's adorable "Happy Hour at the Tooth and Claw" also uses narrative conventions, and is working with genre tropes, but mostly as a source of entertaining snark. The plot of this one can be described as "a vampire and a werewolf get married because a witch plays matchmaker," but much of the point is how unlike most urban fantasy the whole thing is. Lipkin isn't reaching much higher than witty cheerfulness, but she achieves that very capably.
Nothing in Clockwork Phoenix 4 is actually bad, but on occasion the emphasis on mood pieces results in pieces which are nothing but mood. Sometimes this is a good thing—Richard Parks's "Beach Bum and the Drowned Girl" is such a delicately, satisfyingly, carefully-wrought mood piece that it makes you want to hold your breath until it's over, and then smile in appreciation—but there's not much substance to some of the other stories. Camille Alexa's "Three Times," about an alien intelligence which embodies itself for the love of a human woman, does not do anything which hasn't been done before, and doesn't provide enough insight into any of its characters to enliven them beyond stereotypes. Cat Rambo's "I Come from the Dark Universe" reads like a minor outtake from a longer story, and, even though it is about the collision of universes and an alien brothel owner taking in a stray, nothing in particular happens. Barbara Krasnoff's "The History of Soul 2065" does not justify its time-jumping format, which revisits the same group of characters every ten years or so, because we do not learn enough about them to make them three-dimensional characters, and the most intriguing events in the piece all happen offstage. Still, taken only as mood pieces, all of these are readable and enjoyable, because all of the writers successfully evoke some emotion or worldbuilding detail or piece of wit at least once, even though the stories as wholes are frustratingly flawed.
The most frustratingly flawed piece in the entire book is Benjanun Sriduangkaew's "The Bees Her Heart, The Hive Her Belly," because this tale of a woman on a far future planet who literally has her heart replaced by a hive of bees is full of indelibly odd imagery (another woman has, for a heart, a porpoise, swimming in a torso which is turning to glass), sensually evocative detail, fascinatingly different worldbuilding and interesting characters. It is also paced in a way which makes the emotional climaxes not very climactic, fails to explain its worldbuilding in several crucial directions (why bees? seriously, why bees specifically?), presents important information so confusedly I had to read some sentences twice to parse their grammar, and does not make any of the foreshadowing in the early part of the story work. It is so good that its flaws are distressing, and so flawed that its beauty and enchantment are impressive.
Sriduangkaew's piece, Kornher-Stace's, and several of the others—even the unsatisfying Alexa and Krasnoff pieces—show that this anthology, and this anthology series, are serious about working on the edge of commercially viable fiction. There is room here for the confusing, intentionally or otherwise; for the unexplained; for the extremely different. When it pays off, it pays off spectacularly. The first three Clockwork Phoenix anthologies were published by Norilana Books, but this one was funded by a Kickstarter campaign run by Allen after Norilana ran into financial difficulties. It's good to see that a community can come together and support an original endeavor of this kind, and delightful to see how well the results have turned out. Whether Allen continues this particular anthology series or not, this book is in several distinct ways a look into the future: the future of fantasy and science fiction, diverse, strange, and wonderful; the future of these individual writers, many of whom are at or near the beginning of careers which promise to be interesting; and, additionally, the future of publishing, in which a crowd-sourced publication from a very small press can produce, and can present professionally and beautifully, work which is at the height of what is being written in genre. This particular phoenix has risen from its ashes triumphant.
Lila Garrott has blue hair and brown eyes. Her fiction, poetry, and criticism have appeared in Not One of Us, Mythic Delirium, and other venues. She recently completed a project in which she read a book and wrote a review of it every day for a year; the reviews may be found on Dreamwidth and LiveJournal.