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Clockwork Phoenix 2
edited by Mike Allen
Norilana Books, 296 pages

Clockwork Phoenix 2
Mike Allen
Mike Allen was born in 1969 in Minneapolis and his family settled in Roanoke, Virginia. He received his B.A. in Liberal Arts from Virginia Tech and made his first short story sale to a small press magazine in 1992. At present, he works as a reporter for the Roanoke newspaper.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Clockwork Phoenix 2
SF Site Review: Clockwork Phoenix
SF Site Review: Mythic 2
SF Site Review: Journey to Kailash
SF Site Review: Mythic

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Amal El-Mohtar

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It has often occurred to me that my method of reviewing short fiction is somewhat inadequate; surely to read the collection over, muse on the effect of the whole, and name those stories that stood out by reason of their merits or faults is a lazy approach. Surely I should instead be jotting notes when I reach the end of each story, measuring them against each other in order to mete out appropriate quantities of praise, giving what amounts to a series of mini-reviews to cover every aspect of the story.

I'm rather glad I didn't do that with Clockwork Phoenix 2; the extra effort would have been wasted. Each story -- for a variety of reasons -- incited me to read it over more than once as I formed my opinion of it, mused on it, re-read, revisited that opinion, and passed it to friends to read that we might discuss it further, all the while enjoying it thoroughly and increasingly.

Clockwork Phoenix 2, published by Norilana Books and subtitled "more tales of beauty and strangeness," is a frequently astonishing collection of fifteen original stories by Claude Lalumière, Leah Bobet, Marie Brennan, Ian McHugh, Ann Leckie, Mary Robinette Kowal, Saladin Ahmed, Tanith Lee, Joanna Galbraith, Catherynne M. Valente, Forrest Aguirre, Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer, Kelly Barnhill, Barbara Krasnoff, and Steve Rasnic Tem. The anthology is not themed, except in being a sequel to the much-lauded Clockwork Phoenix; the stories themselves defy straight-lacing as obvious as "fantasy," "science fiction," or "horror," though many would certainly be comfortably filed under any of those headings. The chief accomplishment of this anthology is its showcasing of sixteen unique voices that manage nevertheless to harmonize into a sort of choir of the uncanny singing in the key of beauty and strangeness. The whole of Clockwork Phoenix 2 -- like the mechanical raptor featured in the title and introduction -- is very much more than the sum of its parts.

We begin with Mike Allen's introduction. As with Clockwork Phoenix, the introduction is less a setting out of aims and process than a ringmaster's appeal to a crowd through the medium of dense, atmospheric language, inviting the reader's gaze to dwell on gallery of distressing images:

"See the ghosts of the slaughtered and the suicides as they escape past us or scream in their prisons of cathode and glass.

"See the deformed lovers, their eyes too damaged to perceive, much less grasp, the desperate hands groping beside them. See the perfect lovers, painful in their glory, steadying their spears against the slavering hate that lurches toward them from all sides, determined to crack them into easily consumed pieces" (14).

I did not particularly appreciate the effect this had in the first volume -- the introduction read like flash fiction, which, however well done, made me feel it was somewhat inappropriate -- but in Clockwork Phoenix 2, it works both as a prologue to the stories and a metaphor for the narrative progression of the collection. It also rewards re-reading, as it takes on new and interesting significance after the anthology's been consumed.

Throughout the anthology, there is an arc of increasing narrative disruption, paralleled by the introduction which informs us that "a phoenix can only endure its own friction for so long" (15). Where the first few stories are straightforwardly told, from the middle towards the end fractures begin to show, and from Tanith Lee's "The Pain of Glass" on, the tales are presented in increasingly fragmented form. There is much of light refracted and broken in these stories, much of glass and stone and recursivity, tangibility and intangibility, mechanisms that deconstruct themselves or function toward their own destruction.

The introduction deposits us neatly at the threshold of Claude Lalumière's "Three Friends," which opens the collection with a story about The Boy Who Speaks With Walls, The Girl Who Eats Fire, and The Kid Whose Laughter Makes Adults Run Away. Very moving, it presents a very real, raw rendering of the dynamics of childhood friendships through the surreal twists the children's titles suggest.

Following smoothly from representations of friendship to representations of family, Leah Bobet's "Six" is the deeply affecting story of a sixth son in a household where the seventh is most valued:

"Six's name is really Charlie, but he's the devil's boy right through, and they've been calling him by the devil's number since he was old enough to walk. Sixth son of a seventh son: 'you're bad news,' the brothers' wives tell him..."
It's an excellent piece, beautifully voiced and crafted to lodge uncomfortably in your ribs.

"Once a Goddess," by Marie Brennan, tells the story of Nefret, a woman who, after eleven years of being the vessel of the goddess Hathirekhmet, is sent home to be an ordinary woman among ordinary mortals, expected to live a life of submission and domesticity to which she has not been trained. This is a compelling exploration of womanhood and coming-of-age rituals, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Nefret's coming-of-age shifts into another woman's coming-to-life, in Ian McHugh's "Angel Dust." This is one of only two stories in this collection I disliked. For all the beauty of the writing and the originality of the story, I could not overcome the hump of its unproblematic representation of rape culture, nor its positive portrayal of a man who participates in it. I'm certain many people will find much to enjoy in this story of a stone statue accidentally brought to life in a dying city with barbarians at the gates, and there is certainly much to appreciate within it, but the momentum of the narrative could not entirely carry me past the problems I found in it.

"The Endangered Camp," by Ann Leckie, picks up with a group of individuals also fleeing a dying world -- except the world they're fleeing is a prehistoric Earth, the land they're seeking is Mars, and the individuals in question are dinosaurs. I kid you not. This story has dinosaurs on a spaceship (not to be confused with Snakes on a Plane), and it isn't played for laughs. It's a wonderfully effective, well-wrought story that reminded me just a little of Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw.

Mary Robinette Kowal's "At the Edge of Dying" actually sent me googling the names of the gods in her story to see if they were authentic, they were that well done. Set in a Polynesian-flavoured world, Kahe is a sorcerer who works his greatest magic by having his wife, Mehahui, attempt to kill him; by nearing death's door, the goddess Hia grants him the power to work his spells. But paying the price of his magic becomes harder and harder, since Kahe's tribesmen are at war with the invading Ouvallese, and straddling the edge of death is a difficult thing to do in battle. Unexpected twists abound in this story, the surprising conclusion of which I loved on several levels.

Saladin Ahmed's "Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela" takes us to a medieval Middle-East, where a young physician has been banished to a backwater village called Beit Zujaaj ("House of Glass," in case you'd like to read further significance into it, especially considering the next story) for daring to love a noblewoman named Shireen. That's where the similarity to The Thirteenth Warrior ends, however, as he is summoned to the hovel of Abdel Jameela, a strange recluse who has lived alone with his never-seen wife for many years. As his wife is in need of a physician, the latter's presence is requested, and the story rolls into the marvelous from there. I loved the representation of faith and village life in this story, and recognised many of the stock characters and personalities from anecdotes my parents would tell me of their childhoods in Lebanon.

While Tanith Lee's "The Pain of Glass" follows with a cunning thematic reversal into what is really the heart of the anthology, it's also the second story I did not remotely enjoy. Full disclosure: I have never read anything of Tanith Lee's before, and had the impression throughout that I was missing a layer on account of not having read her fiction. This is not to say that the missing layer made the story incomprehensible by any means, but it did make it feel too thin by parts and too thick by others, sometimes reading as an outline of a tale and sometimes giving exhaustive character descriptions that felt like the fleshing out of a background to which I had not been introduced. The story is divided into four "fragments" or sections, the tones of which vary wildly, and the narrative structure is slightly more ambitious than in medias res. The first section heading reads "1. The Third Fragment," and the story unfolds backwards from that point to explain the origin of a mysterious glass goblet purchased by an effete King-in-Waiting named Razved -- who finds himself strangely moved by and completely smitten with it -- before returning to his gaze in the present. While the central concept of the story was beautiful, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction between some characters (Jandur the Glass-seller and Morjhas the Vulture-Witch pleased me especially), the rest of the story had me gritting my teeth and rolling my eyes by turn, as it rose to a forced crisis that resolved itself into a bewilderingly flat conclusion.

Joanna Galbraith's "The Fish of Al-Kawthar's Fountain," on the other hand, delighted me. More full disclosure: write Syria into a story convincingly and you start the game with seven thousand bonus points. Write the story such that it reads like an oral tale, or a translation of Arabic material, and you earn seven thousand more before I even begin to consider plot and character. Although one of the simpler pieces, I was left rather charmed.

Catherynne Valente's "The Secret History of Mirrors" is desperately beautiful, and the most surreally imaginative, accomplished, and original retelling of Snow White I've ever read. In the jewelled prose that is her trademark, Valente puts forward three theories on the origin of mirrors, threaded through and encompassed by a twisting of the fairy tale -- and has them told by lesbian nuns. Again, I am not joking.

Forrest Aguirre's "Never nor Ever" takes up the mirror-trope with a story about Tweedledum and Tweedledee in their old age. You don't need to have read Through the Looking Glass to find a fascinating postmodern examination of life and death, but having read it certainly adds layers of nuance and depth. It's beautifully, cleverly written, ably engages with its source material, and makes explicit some of the more disturbing implications of Carroll's story.

Aguirre's piece leads perfectly into my favourite of the collection, Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer's "each thing i show you is a piece of my death." I hasten to state that my love of this story has only very little to do with the fact that I'm a closet Marilyn Manson fan, but everything to do with it being one of the most successfully ambitious, brilliant, and terrifying stories I've ever read. This is what I wish more horror was: fiction whose effect is a lingering awe, a reluctance to look through windows into the dark for fear of seeing a face, a rising thrill between sternum and chin as page after page is turned. Told through a collection of documents found in a case file, "each thing i show you is a piece of my death" explains the phenomenon of Background Man, a completely naked man "wearing a red necklace" who appears inexplicably in film after film where he is not expected to be. In addition to being overwhelmingly excellent in its execution, this story wins bonus points from me for featuring a Beirut-born Armenian-Canadian woman as a protagonist, as well as the sentence "Canadian as a beaver made out of maple sugar" (225). About the only criticism of it I could offer is that the italicised frame of a journal-entry serving as prologue and epilogue struck me as distracting and ultimately superfluous, adding very little to the otherwise painfully astonishing effect of the story.

"Open the Door and the Light Pours Through," by Kelly Barnhill, begins the downward slope in the collection that I think of as its coda. This is a story fraught with vanishing, evanescence, the ephemeral: what begins as a correspondence between a married couple separated by the necessities of the Second World War slowly unravels into something quite different, by turns beautiful and frightening.

Leading on from one form of vanishing to another is Barbara Krasnoff's "Rosemary, That's for Remembrance." This story is heart-breaking. I would caution anyone who has or has had a loved one suffer from Alzheimer's to keep a warm soothing drink to hand, because it will lodge a lump in your throat and an ache in your chest that has nothing to do with sentimentality.

Steve Rasnic Tem's "When We Moved On" makes me want to write an essay about how perfect an editorial decision it was to place it at the very end, and what a fitting final scene it provides to the last act of the anthology. Tem's story presents a dubious vision of almost-perfect normality in a happy family who have long lived in their house on the hill; the story begins when the parents announce to their now-adult children their decision to leave it and "live simply." It's a self-effacing statement of a story that provides quietly disquieting closure to the whole.

I spoke of this collection as forming a sort of choir of the beautifully strange, and Mike Allen has conducted it masterfully. I highly recommend it, and look forward with great anticipation to Clockwork Phoenix 3.

Copyright © 2009 Amal El-Mohtar

Amal has a history of reading anything with pages. Now, she reads stuff online, too. She sometimes does other things, but that's mainly it.


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