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Night Lives, Nine Stories of the Dark Fantastic
Phyllis Eisenstein
Five Star, 290 pages

Night Lives
Phyllis Eisenstein
Phyllis Eisenstein was born in 1946. She teaches science fiction writing at Columbia College of Chicago. A professional writer since 1971, she has written more than 5 novels and 30 short stories, novelets, and novellas. She has two nominations for each the Hugo and the Nebula awards.

Phyllis Eisenstein Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Steven H Silver

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One of the nice things about reading a collection of short stories by a single author is the spotlight it shines on the recurrent themes and tropes they use. Reading Phyllis Eisenstein's collection Night Lives allows the reader to see these commonalities in the story, while enjoying the different things Eisenstein does with them.

Appearing in three of the nine tales is the idea of dreaming. "Night Life," "Wallpaper World" and "Altar Ego" all deal with stories in which she uses the borders between reality and dreams. Despite the similar mechanism in the three stories, Jane meeting the man of her dreams in a dream, Edward gaining the courage to introduce himself to the woman on the bus through his dreams, and Father Stephen having his dreams raise unknown insecurities about his calling, the stories all play out very differently with different tones.

Obsession features in multiple stories as well. "In the Western Tradition," "The Amethyst Phial," "Dark Wings" and, again, "Wallpaper World" all deal with individuals who fixate on something, whether the hatred which forms such an important, but ultimately trivial, part of Tayis's life in "The Amethyst Phial" or the need to recreate an image by the painter Lydia in "Dark Wings." The obsession in the other two stories deals with the desire one human being has for another. As noted above, Eisenstein treats her themes differently in different stories, and "In the Western Tradition" winds up practically diametrically opposed to "Wallpaper World."

The second story in the collection, "The Island in the Lake" was nominated for the Nebula Award and is a high fantasy setting set in a distant backwater of a world in which magic works. Told from the point of view of a traveling magician, Alaric, the story provides an interesting take on power, applying a strange, almost democratic, system of checks and balance to the more traditional social structure of a mediaeval world.

Eisenstein revisits the world of fantasy, although different worlds, in her retelling of Sleeping Beauty, basing her more horrific version of the tale on the older, unsanitized version, and in "The Amethyst Phial," which may include magic, but focuses on how magic can be more of a placebo than any real solution.

Many of Eisenstein's stories in Night Lives, whether written solo or in collaboration with her husband, Alex (three of the nine are collaborations, "Sleeping Beauty: The True Story," "Altar Ego," and "Wallpaper World") do a fantastic job of playing with the reader's expectations. Even when the reader is able to guess the main resolution of the story, Eisenstein manages to incorporate twists into her tales to keep them from appearing cliché or trite.

Copyright © 2003 Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is a four-time Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer and the editor of the anthologies Wondrous Beginnings, Magical Beginnings, and Horrible Beginnings (DAW Books, January, February and March, 2003). In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is heavily involved in convention running and publishes the fanzine Argentus.


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