Holly Phillips's In the Palace of Repose (Prime Books, 2005) is a collection of fantasy and slipstream stories, two reprinted, seven original to the collection. Phillips's stories glide between the world of dreams and the bright-dark realms of terror, between the real and the imagined. Often they are the same; often these realms are related in ways that unfold slowly and subtly through the narrative. Sean Stewart's introduction says that Phillips's "characters are stalked by wonder. They've been caught wishing for something more in life, and are still reeling with the shock of having gotten it" (8). Escape is its own prison; prison opens new doors. And sometimes, sometimes, you can go in one direction, but not the other.
Phillips's opening story is one of the strongest in the collection. "In the Palace of Repose" begins with the deceptively ordinary existence of a bureaucrat, although the story is neither about deceit nor the ordinary. Within a palace is "this Prisoner-King," who "even sleeping ... is vast enough to be aware" (12). The palace is a prison for its king and for the people who guard it, for the passing seasons. The prison is not absolute, however, for those willing to reinvent it, and Phillips unwhorls the essential mysteries with a sure hand.
In "The Other Grace," a girl wakes up in her own body and is someone else, like an image stepping out of the mirror, empty of memory. The reactions of those who know her—knew her—wheel about her kaleidoscope-fashion. To what extent is Grace defined by the people around her? Of course, there's another side to the story, waiting to be discovered.
Betrayals, secrets, and the ways in which they shape identity are explored in "By the Light of Tomorrow's Sun," at a place aptly named End's Harbor. This is the weakest story of the collection, the least engaging despite the tragedy of a girl's death at its heart. The narrator's final revelation, while it slots into place like a puzzle-piece, is more exasperating than satisfying.
The best story, "One of the Hungry Ones," deals successfully with shattered selves and secrets. Sadie is a street kid who meets Rayne and Leo and Tom, and is drawn into their strange, heady masquerade: "The room was all masks, on tables, on stands, on hooks on the wall. A crowd of eyeless orbits and breathless mouths awaited life. It was strange, so strange, and then the others' faces were hidden, and she was the only one exposed" (128). This is more true than she realizes.
The masquerade's gilded world and Sadie's desperately threadbare existence are not as separate as she thought they were. Huddling with the other homeless is not so different from seeking solace in glitter and red, red wine. There are other warnings: mirror images and doubled faces; the importance of October and a month-long Hallowe'en; the fairytale importance threes; the fact that Rayne, Leo, and Tom, like the local pimp, know her name. Sadie has things to sell she doesn't know she has, leads a hunt whose prey she doesn't recognize.
There's blood at the heart of this masquerade, and hunger. Sadie has always been hungry. The masquerade has only awakened a different craving, one she doesn't want to escape. There's a trap for her. And there's a way to take possession of the trap, if she's willing to pay the price. This is a sparkling, madcap, deadly story, where every moment is a glass-edged reward.
"The New Ecology" and "A Woman's Bones" deal with the clash of separate worlds, separate paradigms. In "The New Ecology," a young woman named Millennium—with good cause, as it turns out—runs and runs and runs from a stalker she calls the Nerd, and from the Small Ones that lurk in cities. They are "[s]crapyard, trash heap, back alley beings," creatures of "wire and springs ... old shock absorbers and bicycle tires ... rebar and broken cement" (67), and what they want of her, she doesn't know. Flight brings no escape, however, and there comes a point when Millennium has to face the things they tell her about herself, and the things she can tell them about themselves.
"A Woman's Bones" deals with an archeological dig and the steppes people, the Alyakshin, who have come to protest the disturbance of their ancestors. Between them stands the narrator, a woman once of the Alyakshin and working for the archeologists as a translator. She transmits the story of the Conqueror Yulima, whose tomb should not be breached, to the archeologists, whose considerations of research and records contrast with the Alyakshin's ways of wind and fire. The narrator says, of her work, that "sometimes it seems that the two languages meet and mirror each other, word for word, without any involvement on my part at all, except the rudimentary cooperation of ears, lips and tongue" (91). That is precisely where the tale leads her, in an ending that is perhaps too attenuated for what it implies about power.
"Pen & Ink" and "Variations on a Theme" both literalize the otherworldliness of art. In the former a girl struggles against a shadowy, omnipresent curator; in the latter, the past and present meet in a pianist of extraordinary talent. Neither story is entirely successful, though not for want of ambition. The former takes too long to escape its hectic opening; "Variations on a Theme" winds through the premise in an overly leisurely fashion, and has a conclusion too reminiscent of that of "The Other Grace."
"Summer Ice" is a quietly lovely tale about an artist, Manon, and her sister. As children, they saw in icicles "[m]agical things ... tusks spears wands"; they saw snow "trampled by the playful feet of white boars that could tell your fortune, and warriors that clad themselves in armor so pure they were invisible against the snow," and other wonders (167). Manon still sees this other world, but remains firmly earthed in this one through her sister and the people around her. Phillips moves deftly toward the single shining moment that promises more beyond the story's ending.
Phillips's prose is frequently its own reward, moving effortlessly between radiance and shadows, beautiful without excess ornamentation. It is smooth and confident, and at its best it makes the story sing behind your eyes. On the other hand, some of the stories being told tantalize without satisfying, leaving behind a residue of sweet words and striking images. Phillips has much to say about the borders between what we are and what we have, and what happens when those borders become permeable; how the direction you choose may warp the you that is you, or affirm it. What remains is for her to say more, in more ways, beyond the boundaries of this collection. The richness of her voice, despite some missteps here, promises even better to come.
Yoon Ha Lee's fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Lenox Avenue. She is the articles section editor of The Internet Review of Science Fiction. Washington state currently tolerates her presence.