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Tales from a Fragrant Harbour: Short Stories of Hong Kong and the Far East
Garry Kilworth
PS Publishing, 290 pages

Tales from a Fragrant Harbour
Garry Kilworth
Garry Kilworth has now been writing novels and short stories for 35 years and is as close to seven million words in print as he is to his seventh decade. While he enjoys writing novels, and dabbles with poetry, his paramount passion is the short story, which he rips from his brain and burns onto the page. A great deal of his inspiration for the tales he writes comes from traveling, especially in the Far East, where he spent much of his youth and a few years of his later life. His latest book is Scarlet Sash (Severn House) a military crime novel set during the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. He is currently planning a volume of poems, half of them written by himself, and half written by the late Robert Holdstock. The shared collection will be entitled Poems, Peoms and other Atrocities, scheduled for publication from PS's Stanza Press imprint in 2011.

Garry Kilworth Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Kit O'Connell

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Any culture can be looked at from two perspectives within fiction -- that of the native, and that of the outsider. For a long time, readers in the West have enjoyed stories of expatriates abroad in Asia, whether they be Marco Polo-esque adventures on the Silk Road or more modern travellers' tales. We also love tales of lost worlds, and in some ways Hong Kong satisfies both these needs -- at least for the British and other Westerners that experienced it before its 1997 return to China.

Garry Kilworth's Tales From A Fragrant Harbour: Short Stories of Hong Kong and the Far East is the latest entry in the mythology of a certain "lost" land. He and his wife spent 4 years there prior to the turnover of power, and the stories also draw on similar experiences in overseas jobs in both Singapore and Malaysia. The title of the book is drawn from the meaning of 'Hong Kong' itself in Cantonese, and it's clear the author got more of the flavor of this culture than any mere tourist. While some of the stories are told from the perspective of a foreign visitor looking down his nose at the native culture, it's clear from others that Kilworth's efforts to befriend and understand the Chinese with whom he lived and worked paid off in his writing.

Fragrant Harbour is divided into two halves. The first, Once-Told Tales, are non-genre, "realistic fiction" stories that take place within the confines of Hong Kong and conventional reality. The Twice-Told Tales add a supernatural element and venture further afield into other Asian countries and even Australia.

As a reviewer for a speculative fiction website, it pains me a little to say that I feel the first half of the collection was stronger than the second. The tight focus on Hong Kong gives those stories a better sense of cohesion. Kilworth's writing sometimes has a slightly antiquated feel to it, as if this were a musty hardcover from your local used bookstore rather than one of the latest products of a modern SF small press. In the first half, this worked in his favour, linking the stories to a wealthy tradition of similar works I've already referenced. But after exploring everyday life in the "fragrant harbour" so vividly, I found myself disappointed whenever a story departed from the confines of the former British territory.

In addition, the supernatural element often feels arbitrary or underdeveloped, and these elements are often combined with characters who make it hard for the reader to sympathize with them when something weird or unpleasant happens. Take "The Cave Painting," which I feel is a typical example of these stories. We are introduced to a threesome on vacation in the Australian desert: a whiny, weak-willed male tourist; a macho Australian native named Mace; and Janet, the tourist's former lover who is deliberately playing the two off of each other. When the three camp out in a cave with an aborigine and the titular weird painting, the world suddenly ends (or is transformed) and Mace disappears after a hasty resolution to the love triangle. The story ends as abruptly as the world itself when some weird creatures (the inhabitants of the new Earth) begin to approach the remaining characters.

Likewise, as a William Gibson fan, I was excited when I realized that the infamous Kowloon Walled City was the setting for the Twice-Told "Inside the Walled City," but in the end it just mines the tired idea of a building taking revenge -- with protruding nails and other architectural offences -- on those who would destroy it. I got a much better sense of place in Once-Told stories like "Triads," where a man who lives in the Walled City falls for a rich woman he glimpses on a boat. There are highlights such as "Memories of the Flying Ball Bike Shop" which at first seems to be yet another iteration of "be careful what you wish for," but enjoyably subverts the trope in the end; it also reminded me favourably of some of Spider Robinson's better moments.

Kilworth's writing is direct and readable throughout, and even though it was not always deeply engaging it was also never boring. I can't wholeheartedly recommend it to the audience of this website because its best moments are those that aren't genre fiction at all. Still, this amateur Sinophile enjoyed it a great deal and I imagine many of those readers with similar interests would as well.

Copyright © 2010 Kit O'Connell

Kit O'Connell is a writer, geek and Voluptuary living in Austin, Texas. Kit's poetry has appeared in Aberrant Dreams and Oysters and Chocolate. He can be found online at approximately 8,000 words, his homepage.


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