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Cloud and Ashes: Three Winter's Tales
Greer Gilman
Small Beer Press, 242 pages

Cloud and Ashes: Three Winter's Tales
Greer Gilman
Greer Gilman's novel, Moonwise, won the Crawford Award and was shortlisted for the Tiptree and Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards. "A Crowd of Bone" is one of three linked stories, variations on a winter myth. The first, "Jack Daw's Pack," was a Nebula finalist for 2001, and the subject of a Foundation interview by Michael Swanwick. A sometime forensic librarian, Gilman lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and travels in stone circles.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: A Conversation With Greer Gilman
SF Site Interview: Greer Gilman Interview with Michael Swanwick
Greer Gilman Interview

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

You encounter them sometimes, stories that haunt you without you ever knowing quite why or how. Stories that are good, yes, you are sure of that, but what makes them so? "Jack Daw's Pack," which leads off this novel or collection or what have you (and believe me, in this instance the distinction is immaterial), is drunk on words, is feasting on myth and legend and folk tales and song and literature. It's oblique, if that doesn't sound too straightforward for what Greer Gilman does here. It's allusive, yet no-one, probably not even Gilman herself, is going to pick up on all the allusions. Which means there is always mystery here, always some piece missing from the puzzle, always some sense of the fist closing on air.

Which is only an elaborate way of saying that I don't know what is going on here. Not fully. Yet it seems not to matter, for I am drunk on the words, I am feasting on the allusions that are both timeless and contemporary, that seem to take us to the very root of folklore and to its most modern expression, that is every legend you have ever heard and a tale you have never encountered before. It is pure story; enter at your peril.

In Mythago Wood and its sequels, Robert Holdstock presented the prehistory of familiar myths as crude, roughly-shaped figures occupying primeval woodland. Greer Gilman does something similar, but the ur-myth we encounter here is not actualised as characters in a landscape but as words in the telling. It's a crude, roughly-shaped language we discover here, because the origin of story is story.

What Gilman has fashioned on the page is a strong and distinctive voice, somewhere between Lowland Scots and North Country English, and echoing a period somewhere between the end of the medieval and the start of the Renaissance. It's a brutish language, filled with an explicit sexual vocabulary and tied inextricably to the working of the earth and the turning of the seasons. Yet it is also a lyrical language, hypnotic in its rhythms, the dividing line between workaday prose and song vanishingly small. If the vocabulary she employs is immeasureably greater than would probably have been familiar in an equivalent time and place, it is because the sound of the language matters as much as the sense, it is because the pattern of the language is meant to evoke echoes of everything from "Lyke Wake Dirge" and "John Barleycorn" and "The Twa Corbies" to Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats.

At first, as you open the book, the language is like a wall rising up to block you off from meaning. It is like Russell Hoban's deconstructed English in Riddley Walker or the refashioned Russian in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. The language is the story, the manner of the telling is crucial to what is told. But be warned, in this instance perseverance will not make the vocabulary any less opaque. The best advice is not to try and wrestle sense from the language; some of that will come as you work your way through the novel, but never enough to render the whole thing crystal clear. No, it is far better to just keep listening to the sound the words make, pick up on the rhythms and the patterns and the music, listen out for fleeting phrases that call to mind a poem you once read, an old folk song you used to play. As you fall into the sound of the language, some glimmering sense of what is going on begins to occur to you; and as you go on, so you come to realise that you know the story without ever being able to say that you know precisely what is going on.

Cloud and Ashes begins with the 2000 short story, "Jack Daw's Pack," a dense, impressionistic piece about which all I will say with any confidence is that there is multiple rape, birth, a vow of revenge, and death. A girl takes on the role of Ashes in the seasonal masque, a role that may have been a fertility symbol, though much about the masque has been lost or become confused, but it is nevertheless a role that opens the girl to sexual attack. All happens in the real world of Cloud, but it is so intimately entwined with legends and seasonal traditions that it becomes hard to see where one might end and the other begin.

This is followed by "A Crowd of Bone" from 2003, a novelette that takes us to the next generation on from the earlier story, but the same traditions are being enacted, and are having very much the same effect upon the people of Cloud. Another girl plays Ashes (the daughter of the previous one? I became confused by the exact relationships across this complex book) and flees from evil helped by a wandering minstrel who has his own quest. There is another birth, but all ends in tragedy.

These two short, dense pieces set the scene and the tone for the new, novel-length work, "Unleaving," that now completes the story. There is another girl, Margaret, who may be daughter or reincarnation or avatar of one of our earlier protagonists. She has fled confinement and now finds herself lost in the wild, bleak countryside of Cloud. Margaret is taken in by the household of a local lord, Grevil, which sets up one of the neat contradictions in the book. The lord takes up Margaret as his ward, both are intelligent and learned, but Grevil buries himself in books of folklore while Margaret is the scientist who effectively invents a telescope (later, we will see her as the harbinger of a Renaissance in Cloud, the opener of a new rational and scientific world).

Margaret's telescope is important in two ways. The world of Cloud is in communion with the heavens, as Grevil puts it: "It is mine argument that men do write the map of heaven on this earth, in stone, in history, in myth; but that the heavens write it in ourselves, in earth" (145). Later we get a restatement of the same point: "In their packs are dreams, lies, memories: the patterns that the mind makes of the scattered stars, the toys and engines of imagination" (406). This encapsulates the novel: this is a world in which the fate of everyone is mapped upon the stars, particularly one set of stars whose progress marks the seasons. The stars dictate the agricultural year; they provide the locus of power for the witch/goddesses who walk the pathways of Cloud; they may be the realm from which Margaret has escaped, they are certainly the realm to which she is drawn in the climactic moments of the novel. What falls from the sky may be a person, a hailstone that is itself the seed of a new witch breed, or a stone that is a frozen soul. The people of Cloud are in awe of the night sky; it shapes all they do. But in investigating the stars through her new telescope, Margaret transforms them from creatures of mythic power into objects of scientific wonder. It is the small beginning of the end of superstition.

Moreover, sneaking out at night to use her telescope brings Margaret into contact with the feral boy, the crow lad, who serves as her counterpoint in the story. Margaret's protector is homosexual in a world that cannot understand the state as anything other than contemptible. While there can be no romance there for Margaret, therefore, he is enraptured by the boy. Meanwhile the dark lord who claims Margaret as his bride also seeks to claim and execute the boy. At various times, Margaret will be instrumental in rescuing the boy, and the boy will be instrumental in rescuing her.

In a novel that takes so much of its inspiration from traditional ballads, all must come full circle of course. For this is a story about story, and stories are our way of understanding the mysteries of the seasons and the way our lives are shaped beyond our will. The subtitle for this book, "Three Winter's Tales," doesn't mean that everything takes place amid snow (though there are an awful lot of bleak wintry landscapes) nor that the book is a conscious echo of Shakespeare (though you will find plenty such echoes); rather, it indicates that the turning of the year, the turning of the seasons, is the hinge about which these tales must be understood.

Time and again, in innumerable different ways, we see hints about the ways that the stories we tell shape the actions we take. This is clearly deliberate, we keep getting remarks like: 'Didst thou think to put thyself into a story?' -- "Tale's eaten me, as it." (282); "Tales... They go on" (284) and "It is tales that make us human" (316). And since the book is about story, so it must follow the pattern of story. The traditional tales we tell always circle around each other, repeat key scenes, and come back to where they begin. So, inevitably, Margaret finds herself taking on the role of Ashes in the immemorial masque, and again, as in "Jack Daw's Pack" (though less condensed, more graspable), we get multiple rape and murder and revenge.

But Margaret has brought a new scientific perspective into the world, the lord has brought academe to bear upon the folk tales. Things are not quite as they were. This is where the circle is broken, and if events drive us incessantly towards tragedy as stories must, it is a very different tragedy from what has gone before.

Cloud and Ashes is not an easy book to read, but it is incredibly worth while making the effort. Any sense I have given of what goes on here is inevitably only partial, there is so much I have had to omit, major characters, significant plot lines. Above all, I have barely hinted at how much it plays with gender roles, how much it has to tell us about the role of women in shaping the world, indeed how every potent active character is female. It is a book you will barely grasp, but it is a book whose hold on your mind, on your memory, is assured. It is a story about story, and stories are what we are all made of. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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