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Scenting the Dark and Other Stories
Mary Robinette Kowal
Subterranean Press, 80 pages

Scenting the Dark and Other Stories
Mary Robinette Kowal
Mary Robinette Kowal is a professional puppeteer who moonlights as a writer. She has performed for LazyTown (CBS), the Center for Puppetry Arts, Jim Henson Pictures and founded Other Hand Productions. Her design work has garnered two UNIMA-USA Citations of Excellence, the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve. Her short fiction appears in Strange Horizons, Cosmos and CICADA. She is the art director of Shimmer and a graduate of Orson Scott Card's Literary BootCamp. In 2008, she received the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Mary Robinette Kowal Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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There was some discussion not too long ago at Strange Horizons concerning a recently common career arc in our field. Abigail Nussbaum wrote (in a review of John Langan's first collection, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters): "There's a logical progression that shapes the early careers of many genre writers. It goes: write short stories, submit to genre magazines, get published, get nominated for a couple of awards, get some name recognition, publish a collection." People quibbled about her statement, but it seems, if not necessarily "logical," to be increasingly common. To my perception this is different to the situation over, say, the last half of the last century. More common back then was for a writer to, yes, begin by publishing short fiction, perhaps even garner an award nomination or two, but then proceed to novels, and only amass the clout to publish a collection after establishing a name as a novelist. To be sure there were exceptions, most notably some writers best known for short fiction: Robert Sheckley, for example, published three collections prior to his first novel (and they were magnificent collections!), and similarly Harlan Ellison had a couple of collections out before his first novel, and to this day his few novels are very little known while his collections are cherished. But in recent years it has become very common for writers to place an early collection after establishing at least a small reputation for short fiction. I think one key reason for that is that collections are increasingly left to the smaller presses. In the past, it was sort of a reward for a successful novelist to have his publisher put out a collection. Nowadays, we hear that publishers are afraid that short story collections, by selling less than novels (as they do, generally) might poison their authors' sales figures. So fewer collections (though not zero) appear from the big name houses. But by contrast a fair amount appear from places like Prime (which put out the Langan book) and Subterranean (which is the source of the Mary Robinette Kowal book under review).

I would have to say that, on occasion, a first collection has crossed my desk that caused my eyebrows to rise. "That guy wasn't ready for a book!", I'd think. But not so with Mary Robinette Kowal (nor indeed with John Langan, though I do share some of Abigail Nussbaum's misgivings about some of his early stories). Kowal caught my eye with the first story of hers I saw, and indeed I have reprinted two of her early stories in my best of the year anthologies. I'm not the only one to like her work -- she has appeared on the Nebula Preliminary ballot, appeared on the 2008 Hugo ballot for Best Short Story (with "Evil Robot Monkey"), and she won the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. So I think a collection is welcome indeed -- particularly as much of her work has appeared in quite obscure places. And the readers who like what they find here can look forward to a novel soon: her first is due from Tor in 2010.

Scenting the Dark and Other Stories is notable, compared to other first books I've seen, for its brevity -- only 8 short stories, some 80 pages. I rather think this is a wise choice -- start with something of a taster, a sample. It's not that she has used up all the good stuff either -- for instance, neither of the stories I've reprinted is included here. The book does represent her style and concerns very well. It's also representative temporally -- a couple of her earliest stories are included, and a couple from 2009, including one new to this book. On the evidence of this book (and, I will add, her other work that I've seen) Kowal is a writer interested to a great extent in the characters behind her stories. But this is not to say she ignores plot: her stories are stories, complete on occasion with twists. She tends to write Science Fiction, though often with a slyly horrific angle. She's a fine writer of prose, and her plots turn on emotional hinges more than technical hinges. Noticeably, many of her stories feature people in committed relationships who mean it -- put another way, Kowal's authorial persona is strikingly optimistic about human love.

Here, then, are the stories. "Portrait of Ari" is a very nice love story about a young art student and his lover -- who he realizes briefly is not quite human -- an alien? doesn't matter -- and how that realization, and its aftermath, change their relationship. "Death Comes But Twice" is wryer, I think, than Kowal's norm, in telling of a man who finds a way to escape death -- with unfortunate consequences. "Some Other Day" is a bit of a science detective story -- in the near future, an attempt to eradicate mosquitos has been only too successful, and the daughter of the scientist who originally caused these problems is searching for a solution. "Just Right" is a fairly simple story, presenting a woman whose child has OCD, and her belated realization that her husband is also obsessive-compulsive. "Scenting the Dark" is straightforward SF horror, threatening a blind man with an alien predator. "Locked In" is short and depressing, as a man dying of ALS is offered an alternative means of communication with his family -- but perhaps they didn't want to hear? "The Little Pig" is set on a Scandinavian island devoted to green technology, and tells of a teenaged boy fascinated by forbidden automobiles and by a beautiful American girl. As often with Kowal's stories, no point is insisted on -- this isn't an environmentalist tract -- rather, a plausible near future SFnal situation is a setting for a nicely limned character depiction. Finally, "Jaiden's Weaver" is sweet YA-flavored SF, set on another planet, with an adolescent girl who wants a pet spider creature but can't quite afford it... familiar in flavor, but nicely executed.

Mary Robinette Kowal's early writing career shows tremendous promise, and this short book serves a fine introduction to her work to date -- all the more impressive in that she has published plenty of other fine stories not reprinted here.

Copyright © 2009 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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