Nina Allan's latest collection Stardust is subtitled "The Ruby Castle Stories." Likewise, the introduction by Robert Shearman led me to think of them as specifically linked stories, even going so far as to toy with the idea that it is actually a novel:
When Nina was writing it she would refer to it as a novel, but it doesn't behave like a novel; there is no single narrative here, nothing that's quite so safe or reassuring. You could see this as a collection of six self-contained short stories, and it may be better that you believe that—because the cumulative effect of reading them back to back, and discovering the sneaking ways in which they are connected, is shocking and very moving. Even now I've said too much. I don't want to give the game away. (p. ix)
This oversold the whole thing for me. While there are hints of common elements running through the six short stories here, they work very well or better as standalones. The collection feels a bit like a dream: while I was in it, I enjoyed it immensely, but when I woke up, I couldn't find the expected thread that made it all make sense together.
The six stories bounce around in time and tone. We start with "B-Side," a present-day story about Michael, a young Afro-Argentine-British chess player who has just lost his first tournament. Then in "The Lammas Worm" we jump back before WWII to mysterious events in a circus troupe. "The Gateway," by far my favorite of the stories, brackets WWII and tells of a girl who visited a circus and then disappeared. "Laburnums" also features a missing girl but is set back in the present day, as is "The Wreck of the Julia." "Stardust" is set in Russia in 2029. Between them, the stories feature an excellent range of point of view characters: Michael with his mixed heritage, circus performers, an irresponsible British bookseller, a mousy would-be poet, a young Russian girl who grows up to be an author, and finally an art enthusiast on the rebound. What we don't get is much sense of Ruby Castle or why she may be a thread tying these stories together.
In "B-Side" we get our first glimpse of Ruby, as Michael has a crush on her. This is fairly incidental to the very bad day he's having: aside from losing his first tournament, his mentor Lennox has received a terminal cancer diagnosis. Michael gets beat up by some local bullies and saved by Lennox's "nephew," who is actually another failed chess champion. Michael has an odd encounter in the park with some supernatural beings, figures from a Ruby Castle horror movie, who give him a gift and a warning about success and fame. He returns to his blessedly and convincingly normal parents, but finds another gift in his room—a wind-up toy that seems to feature Lennox's nephew trapped in an eternal game of chess, where he is doomed to forever lose to an obvious trick set-up. Metaphorically it is a clear warning about getting trapped, chewed up, and spat out by the world of competitive chess or other narrowly focused pursuits. The story ends without resolving, as Michael makes a phone call to the nephew. When the story leaves with the phone still ringing, understanding that this is a set of linked stories, I expected to get some level of resolution in the next stories. Instead they all function independently with separate casts of characters, although occasionally a character will be briefly mentioned in another story. We never hear from Michael again or learn if his call will be answered.
In "The Lammas Worm" Ruby makes her most direct appearance, but again she is at most a minor player. The story focuses on knife-thrower Marek and his observations of the relationship between Leonie Pickering and the charismatic dwarf Piet. Leonie is a lost girl in many senses; originally found wandering and uncommunicative, she is oddly shaped and oddly talented. She has little voice in this story. Marek is fascinated by her, at once (disturbingly) attracted and repelled. He pokes around Cirencester, the town where she was found, and learns creepy things about a local legend, the Lammas Worm, that impregnates young girls and drives them insane. The offspring of such unions are monsters. When Leonie and Piet come back from winter break married with Leonie pregnant, Marek is worried. When the show returns to Cirencester things come to a head as Leonie's brother arrives to assault her. From there things takes a turn for the worse, until the story finally ends in tragedy. Leonie is never fully human in this story—we only see her through the eyes of others; her fate is entirely decided by others; her effect on the narrator Marek is perhaps supernatural; and in the end she partakes in and is destroyed by the monstrous. Afterwards Marek and his wife Mae leave the circus and transition to a normal life, while Ruby, Marek's performing partner, mentions that she will leave and start her life as an actress. The relationships here, especially between Marek and Mae, are warmly drawn, and even minor characters feel solidly human.
"The Gateway" takes place before and after WWII. This is the most vivid of the six tales, the one that stuck with me most clearly and that I stayed up late to finish. After WWII, Andrew tracks down his old friend Thomas. They had lost touch during the war since Andrew is English and Thomas German. I say that they are friends, but before the war Andrew had an affair with Thomas's wife and lost his daughter, Claudia, at a circus—she was never found. Andrew is an entirely convincing and consistent character, narrating things in such a way that you have no trouble believing that he was able to do these things to Thomas and yet remain his friend. As they reunite, Thomas is in the hospital. He gives Andrew a letter he'd been writing to him with no way to send it, in which he reveals what little he knows about his daughter's disappearance. He has no suspicions of Andrew at all, focusing instead on researching the strange art and artefacts made by two nineteenth-century artists (possibly commissioned by Ruby's grandfather—the only mention of her in the story) that may have wound up in the circus where Claudia disappeared. Claudia, like Leonie, is on the cusp between girlhood and adulthood. Neither makes it to adulthood unscathed, although Claudia's story has an ambiguously hopeful ending. The setting of Germany before the war is very well realized—in all the stories Allan evokes place and character brilliantly. In the post-WWII era, we get Thomas's perspective on the East/West tensions and what they mean for culture and travel, as well as being forced to confront the realities of the Holocaust. The gateway of the title is linked with the trauma and historical weight of the concentration camps. There is still a lot unresolved in the story—what Andrew will tell Thomas and how he will react—but this is perhaps the richest story in the collection.
"Laburnums" also features a missing girl who vanishes on the cusp of adulthood. The story focuses on the story of Christine, caretaker to her very negative mother. She is an aspiring poet, but is held back by this responsibility. Her mentor, an aging poet himself, once wrote a book of poems about Ruby Castle, entitled "The High Wire and Other Transgressions." By the end of the story she is able to take a step forward, after coming to terms with perhaps a parallel universe version of her friend who had disappeared as a teenager. Christine, being necessarily subdued and mousy, doesn't hold the reader's attention the way Andrew and the major happenings of "The Gateway" did, and I found this story easier to put down.
"Stardust" moves ahead into science fictional territory, being centered on events in Russia in 2029. Despite its science fictional setting, it proceeds with the logic of a dream. The narrator here is a young girl herself, Alina, and this time the driving events are the murder of an eccentric older woman which occurs at the same time as the failed launch of a Russian fusion starship with the loss of all hands (after which the TV switches to showing a Ruby Castle movie). Alina shakes off a pass from a creepy ex-teacher, but is disturbingly and convincingly OK with non-invasive sexual abuse from her much-admired half-brother. When Alina is eventually sent to live with relatives farther East, her train journey becomes more surreal and dream-like, including disappearing spies and glimpses of the doomed spaceship crew. All these experiences go into shaping Alina into a writer.
Finally, we have "Wreck of the Julia," returning to the present day, in which Ruby Castle is entirely absent. This is the most disappointing story if you are expecting to wake up from the dream and discover some underlying rationale for everything. Instead it doubles down on the dream logic, with characters motivated by dreams, doppelgangers, going off on an adventure at short notice, and living through a nightmare. Vernon's wife leaves him via the expedience of a plane crash. Vernon's family assumes she's dead, but he finds out she was never on the plane. It works out well for both of them. Vernon meets a woman when he out-bids her for a painting that matches a dream he'd had. The woman is the niece of the artist, and they decide to take a holiday to the Canary Islands together to try to find out more about the painting and its inspiration. As part of the trip they go up to a mountain for an easy hike, but they get lost and have to stay up there overnight. During that nightmarish night they see a young Spanish girl get taken by a monster—another disappearance, never to be solved. Vernon has just discovered a love of photography and takes lots of pictures with his new digital camera—but for some reason he, as first-person narrator, never mentions looking at the pictures he takes. This irked me to no end—it seemed like a huge unfired gun on the mantelpiece, especially when he takes pictures during the nightmare up on the mountain and we never find out what they show.
Instead of a coherent picture of Ruby Castle or any of the other faintly recurring characters, what we do see a lot of here is disappearances. From Michael's missing chess master to Leonie's missing child to Thomas's missing daughter to Christine's missing friend to the missing Russian astronauts and the missing Spanish girl and Vernon's missing ex-wife. Many of these stories deal with problems in transition: Vernon is moving between relationships, Alina and Michael and Leonie are navigating between youth and adulthood and in a way Christine is doing the same, and "The Gateway" spans the war and the discontinuities it created. This is the closest that I could come to finding a resonance with Ruby's story: between "B-Side" and "Lammas Worm" we find out that she leaves the circus, becomes a successful horror actress, but eventually murders her lover when he won't leave his wife. So her transition into a life of fame embodies the extremes of success and tragedy. But that doesn't necessarily resonate with Andrew and Thomas's concern over a missing daughter or Vernon's need to find resolution with his not-dead ex-wife.
Instead of resonance with Ruby Castle we are treated to a lot of simply brilliant character portraits and sketches, settings that feel rich and fully realized, and a talent for descriptive passages. Allan crafts descriptions that make the smallest detail into something subtly creepy: "Slowly he reached out his hand, and incredibly the girl took it, her long fingers wrapping themselves around Piet's short stubby ones like vine suckers around a beanpole" (p. 37). In these stories the main characters feel fully three-dimensional and are convincing even in their flaws, and even minor characters have just enough flesh on their bones to seem self-animated. The relationships are equally well done, whether strained (as between Marek and Ruby), new (between Vernon and Charlie), adulterous (Andrew and Thomas's wife) or comfortably established (Michael's parents and Marek and Mae). There is also a vividness to the stories here that again echoes the feeling of some dreams: very rich and textured, with certain scenes (probably different ones for every reader) that simply leap off the page and stick with you. Even when you're not sure what's going on, there's no doubt that Allan is a master of the craft of storytelling.
But I still ask myself: would this collection have been weaker if they had all been officially standalone stories? For instance, four Russians disappear in "Stardust" and four Germans disappear in "Wreck of the Julia." Would anything have been lost if it had been five and four, or four and three? Or if the man Thomas's wife left him for was a different German than the one on the shipwreck? Circuses are common enough in dark/weird fantasy that their presence is unquestioned, but did Michael need to have a crush on the same actress who worked with Marek in the circus from "The Lammas Worm"? I keep trying to put the pieces together and failing. Without those elements I think I still would have been disappointed by the ending of "B-Side" and its eternally ringing phone. I still would have been frustrated by the undeveloped photographs of "Wreck of the Julia" and the lack of narrative consequence and concern for the little girl who disappeared. But I still would have thought that "The Gateway" is brilliant (easily a contender for this year's awards ballots), and I could have skipped the added frustration of all the unresolved common elements.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She edits the Locus Roundtable blog, and she can be emailed at email@example.com.