4 Stars (out of 4)
Clockwork Phoenix 4 takes the reader on a journey through the outer reaches of imagination. You'll find threads loosely tying these stories together, not in plot but theme. That's not an accident. Editor Mike Allen has a fascination with the abstract notion of celestial clockwork. In one way or the other, you'll see that fascination manifested in each of the stories he's chosen.
Even without the author bios you'll recognize many of the authors. If you read the major markets like Analog, Asimovs, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons and so on, you've probably ran across many of these authors before.
I wrote an comprehensive story by story breakdown of this book a few months ago. Each review was written directly after reading the short story. Unfortunately my hard drive passed on during that time and the review was lost. I've been mourning it's passing for months now and I'm finally ready to move on and give Clockwork Phoenix 4 it's proper due.
Our Lady of the Thyacines
by Yves Menard
This was a wise first choice for the anthology. It follows the story of a girl who's the last of her kind. She lives in a mysterious and magical place where her only conversation takes place with nameless "Lady". At first the Lady seems benevolent, but as more facts are revealed her nature is called into question.
I say this is a good first choice because it leaves so much to conjecture. Trust me, you're gonna want the mental warm up before diving into the rest of these tales.
The Canal Barge Magician's Number Nine Daughter
by Ian McHugh
This one didn't resonate with me. It follows a little girl with magic in her veins who's enslaved by her evil father on a barge. His first eight daughters are withered fetuses that hang from his belt. Yeah, I know, gross. There's nothing particularly wrong with the piece, but I felt it stretched itself thin with weirdness. Or maybe it just stretched me thin. That said, there's going to be readers who fall in love with the story. It's well written with a sympathetic protagonist. The presence of a cute little golem will help win some fans also.
On the Leitmotif of the Trickster Constellation in Northern Hemispheric Star Charts, Post Apocalypse
by Nicole Kornher-Stace
I know what you're thinking, the title isn't long enough. Even so, this story is a highlight of the anthology in my opinion. It's oddly formatted. We switch back and forth between academic essays describing the history of fictional constellations (at least I think they're fictional) and the characters represented in those constellations. It's alarmingly effective. The author is turning this idea into a novel and you can bet that I'll be one of the first to buy it. I'll read anything that involves a little girl fighting to the death for a chance to lure ghosts with salt-licks.
Beach Bum and the Drowned Girl
by Richard Parks
Here's an odd little story. The Drowned Girl isn't exactly what you might expect. She's drowned but not dead, and not a ghost. She specializes in drifting around the ocean and spooking sunbathers. Eventually she meets a Beach Bum with a similar history. He's not really a beach bum, but some elemental representation of one. The two meet after endless years of practicing their crafts and proceed to have interesting existential conversations. Though it's morbid and sometimes confusing, it's also sweet and romantic. It definitely fits in such an imaginative anthology. A good story by any measure.
by Gemma Files
Selkies rarely pop-up anywhere but speculative short stories. There are several variations. Gemma Files' selkie is a seal who can remove his skin to walk on land and replace it to return to the ocean. Our selkie protagonist chooses to leave the violent culture of his kin but ends up being caught by a pirate. Not just any pirate, this one specializes in imprisoning supernatural creatures. To achieve mutiny, he'll have to work together with a natural enemy.
Gemma Files' work speaks for itself. She's a succesful writer and Trap-Weed will show you why.
by Yukimi Ogawa
A frequent bio of Yukimi Ogawa, "Yukimi Ogawa lives in a small town in Tokyo, where she writes in English but never speaks the language. She still wonders why it works that way."
I wonder the same thing, because she writes in English like a champ. The story follows a girl who's half ice-spirit and half-human. She's been raised in the mountains by her mother, her human father appears to be a deadbeat dad. She's not happy with just the mountains though, and sets off on a journey that will reveal the truth about her heritage. Some of the names are Asian-sounding but not difficult on the American tongue. The most Asian aspects of the story are the folkloric roots, spirits living in all sorts of natural phenomena. If you're a fan of Hayao Miyazaki you'll probably enjoy this story. I am, and I did.
Lesser Creek: A Love Story, A Ghost Story
by A.C. Wise
A dead boy and a dead girl continue their summer tradition of competition. Competing to collect souls, that is. This story is haunting and clever, but I have to admit that it can get confusing. Or maybe it's just the ethereal nature of the characters. They are ghosts, but maybe not well-defined ghosts. As if maybe they are the spirits of all those to die in town. At least that was my take. It's another one of those stories that will require the reader to fill in the gaps. The prose is beautiful and complex with detailed descriptions. It's worth any amount of head-scratching.
What Still Abides
by Marie Brennan
Brush up on your Anglo-Saxon vocabulary for What Still Abides. Once you've done that you'll be ready to enjoy this story about a man who won't stay buried. This is a dark and scary story, brilliantly told. No matter how many times they bury the man, he's back the next day. As a physical threat he's not much, always still, always watching. But no one can rest with such a presence lurking nearby. The ending took me by surprise, but it's not illogical. You might find yourself gripping the book cover a little tighter while reading this one.
The Wanderer King
by Alisa Alering
If not for the dark, brooding, bloody nature of this story, The Wanderer King would feel a bit like C.S. Lewis. Somehow, the people of earth have fallen into a place of war. Maybe it's a different dimension, or perhaps a literal collapse, but the world is not a place for kids. But it's kids that we're presented with. An older girl who's protective of a younger friend. The youngest is full of hope in spite of her surroundings. When they find a bizarre crown that has powers when it meets the right head, there may finally be a chance of ascending to the upper world. Whether that head is on a living body is of no consequence. The story is cute, yet harrowing. Another nice choice for the anthology.
A Little of the Night (Ein Bisschen Nacht)
by Tanith Lee
To say Tanith Lee is a successful author is like saying Bill Gates had some success with computers. Lee has published upwards of 70 novels and 250 short stories. Unfortunately, this is another story that didn't resonate with me. The story follows a soldier who deserts his unit after murdering a ranking officer. After battling through a haunted forest he ends up taking refuge in a mysterious mansion. The mansion actually ends up being more haunted than the woods and doesn't want to let the soldier leave.
It's not the plot I took issue with here, I just didn't enjoy the writing. Good writing is often described as lyrical and I didn't feel that quality in this piece. Then again, I'm a nobody compared to Tanith Lee, so take my criticism with a grain of salt. I'll also say that this is a long piece, the longest in the book. That may have influenced my taste for the story.
I Come From A Dark Universe
by Cat Rambo
Cat Rambo's story is enormous for a short story. There's various languages, alien species and even an alternate universe. A girl from that alternate "dark" universe finds herself on another universe's spaceport after a catastrophic event. She's found and cared for by the madam of a local brothel. Once she's comfortable in her new surroundings she begins to tell her dark and bizarre tale. There's also a very bizarre romantic angle to the story. Cat Rambo is revered by many of her peers and is constantly putting out excellent work. This is another one of her must-read stories.
Happy Hour at the Tooth and Claw
by Shira Lipkin
One of my favorites, Shira Lipkin's story follows a playful witch who flips through dimensions like they're TV stations. Along the way she develops a relationship with a bar-keeping angel and a mysterious courtesan. She also casts a spell of love between a female werewolf and female vampire, who of course have all sorts of compatibility issues but love each other nonetheless. It's a story with heart, literally. Our witch has hidden her heart to increase her power, but now she's on a quest to find the pieces she's hidden throughout the multiverse. This is a truly fun story. There's a gimmick with the text alignment that adds to the fun. I'll let you discover it for yourself. I'm a huge fan of this story.
It's hard to believe that a spider-demon could lead to such heartwarming prose, but Duyvis makes that happen. Lilo is the offspring of a human mother and spider-demon father. The story is really the chronicles of raising such a child and the sacrifice that it takes. Spider-demons aren't the type to settle down so all of that sacrifice belongs to the mother. Lilo could be any special needs child, but being part spider-demon makes it a lot more interesting for the reader. This is a sentimental story that deserves all the praise I expect it will get.
Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer
by Kenneth Schneyer
The format of Schneyer's story bears a striking resemblance to Nicole Kornher-Stace's story earlier in the book, and not just in the length of its title. I've asked though, and the resemblance is coincidental.
Instead of constellations, Schneyer offers us some essays on a fictional art gallery. The paintings are presented in chronological order and slowly a life of intrigue and mystery is revealed, supernaturally intriguing. The writer of these program notes doesn't make the obvious connections that the reader does and it leads to some comical passages. The other thing it shares with Stace's work is its sheer brilliance.
by Camille Alexa
Interestingly, this story is the third in this anthology that uses a drowning victim as a protagonist. That has nothing to do with the title though. The drowning victim this time has actually been murdered. During the time it takes him die he reveals to us his life story, starting with his celestial origins. At its core, this is a story about love drawing two entities together despite the obstacles in their way. The descriptions here are incredibly visual. My admiration of the story stems mostly from its prose.
The Bees Her Heart, The Hive Her Belly
by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
There's no way I can summarize this story without leaving you confused. Likewise, the story left me confused. There's so many bizarre speculative elements; digital memories, animal-human integration, mind-networking. I just couldn't keep up. It doesn't help that all the proper nouns are over-complicated, but that is likely influenced by Sriduankaew's Thai heritage. If you can keep up, the story is well-written. Plus, it's part of a universe that she's expanding on. Another installment can be found at Clarkesworld.
The Old Woman With No Teeth
by Patricia Russo
This is the most humorous installment in Clockwork Phoenix 4 and one of my favorites. An old lady has many bizarre myths about her that circulate among the locals. She hires a ghost writer to tell the accurate versions of her story and that's who's perspective the story is told from. The process isn't without conflict, whenever the writer oversteps he's put quickly put back in his place by the old lady. The plot is okay, but the style makes it work. I'll share an excerpt so you can see how the back and forth works:
Another common story about The Old Woman With No Teeth is that she once drank the river on a bet, and then spewed it out again after she caught a cold, which is why all the fish in the river taste of phlegm, no matter how one prepares them—fried, baked, boiled, poached, in hundred-herb sauce—
“You ragged little ragger, stop wittering about fish recipes. Besides, the fish always tasted like that. I had nothing to do with it. People always blame me for everything.”
The History of Soul 2065
by Barbara Krasnoff
A group of people attending a Passover seder begin a conversation of religious nature. One of them proposes that they are drawn together because they all share the same soul, one that has been fractured and will only be made whole again when they "find each other". A ritual begins in jest that day, but is repeated throughout the years nonetheless. The story spans the entire lifetime of a child attending that initial ritual. It's a solemn piece that reflects on the nature of life and death. It's solid work and I believe it achieves its goal.
If you've made it through the entire review then you get an A+ !! Congrats.