Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
In the Palace of Repose
Holly Phillips
Prime Books, 203 pages

In the Palace of Repose
Holly Phillips
Holly Phillips has sold short fiction to a number of magazines and anthologies, and is on the editorial board of On Spec, the Canadian magazine of the fantastic. She resides in Trail, BC, and is taking a break from writing short fiction to work on a novel.

ISFDB Bibliography
Interview with Holly Phillips

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

It's always tempting, when reviewing a short story collection, to look for a single theme or quality of authorial voice that can neatly encapsulate the whole. So, for instance, I could say that in this gathering of nine atmospheric, fluidly-written stories, Holly Phillips envisions the "real" world as a thin veneer over a much darker and stranger reality, which is always, fearfully, wanting to break through. Or I could say that she writes about characters who are cursed (or blessed?) with a perception more acute than that of ordinary folk, which not only enables them to glimpse that other reality, but actually draws it to them. Or I could say that even though there is magic in these stories, Phillips isn't writing about magic in the traditional fantasy sense, as an arcane discipline wielded by adepts, but about what magic truly is: a wild natural power, which like other natural powers is fundamentally beyond human control. All those statements would be true -- at least, of most of the stories in this book. But they would not be true of the same stories, and each would be untrue of some of them. Better, therefore, simply to let the stories speak for themselves.

In this slipstream collection, the title piece comes closest to high fantasy. An ancient and deathless King has been imprisoned within his palace, pressed magically into sleep by a world that has rejected magic: "There was a time, you see," one character says, "when the power the King embodies promised nothing but chaos. Our ancestors yearned so intensely for order, for peace, for understanding..." But the King's power isn't just an attribute; it's an essential aspect of reality, and can't be eradicated, only confined. And to forget it, as all prisoners eventually are forgotten, is also to forget the need to lock the gates. Phillips vividly portrays both the dreamy strangeness of the King's prison-palace, a fantastical inner territory that changes with the season and the visitor, and the barrenness of the world beyond it, devoid of wonder, straitjacketed with bureaucracy, cracking with the ice of a bitter winter.

In "The New Ecology," a young woman is the only person (as far as she knows) to perceive that the discards of our machine culture, the junkyards and scrap heaps, have begun to give birth to living things -- a new kind of evolution for an urban ecology. Has she been chosen by these bizarre creatures as a witness? Is she just more perceptive than others? One thing she's sure of -- what's happening isn't magic, at least not in the fairy tale sense. "[I]t belongs to this world," she tells someone who thinks it is. "Maybe it is the world, even. Maybe it's the life we've been squeezing out that has nowhere else to go." "A Woman's Bones," in which an archaeological dig threatens to wake both ethnic conflict and an ancient, imprisoned power, addresses a similar theme -- though the re-emergence of what has been squeezed out seems poised to occur inside the protagonist as well, who has renounced her native heritage less thoroughly than she believes. The ultimate resolution is left ambiguous by the story's abrupt ending. In "One of the Hungry Ones," a spooky urban horror piece in which a homeless girl is drawn into a mysterious masked celebration, the protagonist also unlocks a portion of herself, an entirely unexpected, and not at all benign, dimension of her personality. "By the Light of Tomorrow's Sun" is also horror of a sort, a grim tale of otherworldly culture clash and retribution.

Several of the stories involve artists, whose talents link them either directly or implicitly with realms the rest of us don't perceive. In "Pen & Ink," a girl searches for her vanished father, a painter like herself -- not in the "real" world, but in his paintings, which she believes are doorways to a different reality. The artist as vampire, draining the essence of what she portrays in the act of capturing it, is a common trope; here, though, it's the connoisseur of art who is the parasite: "Somewhere, a thin man with gray hair and hungry, cowardly eyes entered that lustrous summer day and drained its warmth. Somewhere, a painting died." Phillips's luminous descriptions of the father's extraordinary paintings make tangible the transformative power of art -- and also the fundamental elusiveness of its meaning. "Variations on a Theme" has a more conventional premise, with parallel narratives about musicians whose gifts gain them access to another dimension -- though there is always a price. Lovely images of water run throughout, heightening the sense of mystery. In "Summer Ice," a sculptor whose creativity is blocked finds inspiration in unexpected sources, and through her art captures the essence of what she sees and feels. Despite its vaguely science fictional setting, this is really a mainstream piece, and doesn't seem quite to fit the rest of the collection.

My favorite story is "The Other Grace," which explores the fragility of identity and the tenacity of self. A young woman abruptly loses her memory. She still understands the world around her -- cars, houses, doctors -- but her knowledge of her family and friends, her own personal history, have vanished. Has she lost herself? Or has she simply woken to a new self? The old Grace is still there, hovering like a shadow; the new Grace senses that she wants to come back, but the new Grace is as real a person as the old Grace, and doesn't want to disappear. Starting the story at the instant of memory loss/awakening, Phillips evokes a powerful sense of strangeness, the everyday world transmuted into an alien realm. Yet even in an alien realm there are certain constants, one of which is love. In this revelation, the story draws to a quietly unexpected conclusion.

In the Palace of Repose is a fine collection from a talented author, whose work I will certainly be following in future.

Copyright © 2005 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide