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Winter Shadows and Other Tales
Mary Soon Lee
Dark Regions Press, 150 pages

Winter Shadows and Other Tales
Mary Soon Lee
Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, UK. She attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge University where she earned a M.A. in mathematics and a diploma in computer science and met her husband, Andrew Moore. After two years working as a computer consultant, she returned to Cranfield University for a M.Sc. in astronautics and space engineering. In November 1990, she moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, staying for 3 years before moving to Pittsburgh. Winter Shadows and Other Tales is her first book.

Mary Soon Lee Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Mary Soon Lee
Dark Regions Press

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

A Mary Soon Lee story isn't a swashbuckling adventure or a pyrotechnic fountain of ideas. Lee doesn't mince mint images but hits her stride with characterization, detailing the backdrop of lives and relationships, gathering her huddled masses of the discarded: the divorced and the destitute, the desperate and the longing, the lost and the lonely. These are quiet stories -- even in death -- awash with sentiment, unburdened by complex plots. The reader looking for the pace of a literary story in traditional and contemporary speculative garb has found his place in Lee's twenty-story fantasy collection Winter Shadows and Other Tales. Jack McDevitt could not have struck upon a better adjective than "passionate" in describing the strength of Lee's creations.

The collection opens with a tale from F&SF under the editorial helm of Kristine Rusch, "Monstrosity," varying the old fairy tale of Beauty & the Beast by reversing genders. A few of her stories like "Monstrosity" that end abruptly as though rushed, make the reader wonder if more could be developed here. Lee's "Cause and Consequence" won the Best of Soft SF Contest for answering the intriguing question of what happened during the years of missing letters in the history of the real Jane Austen's life. A man in love with the personal letters and the woman of letters travels back in time to find out, bungling a rich literary history. "Winter Shadows" relates Anna's encounter with the ghost of an old lover she had dumped for a richer sort. The ghost regains the moment he needs for peace, and she discovers what she lost.

Mixing horror and war fantasy to conjure the inevitable doom of Tolstoy's War and Peace, the "Vigil" Branwen takes is one that greets the war dead in search of their bodies and then binds them to their bones under earth. When her young apprentice returns against her wishes soon before the enemy troops arrive, Branwen must act in a manner that runs counter to her profession, if she hopes to save the life of this child. "Vigil" compares reasonably well to "The Hollow Dancer," another war fantasy concerning the dead wherein, instead of killing thousands in a chaotic, bloody battle, a dancer inspired by the goddess dances with those who have been appointed to die, but what if the goddess doesn't seem to inspire?

"Mail-A-Day" and "Roadside Stop" are probably the most emotionally evocative and, hence, the reviewer's personal favorites. Jane Digby, a lonely, homely, middle-aged woman, orders a "Mail-A-Day" mailbox to keep her engaged, but like the woman, the mailbox's loneliness has borne out the Catch-22 personality that desires companionship but simultaneously shoves it away, exuding diesel exhaust and eau de rotting garbage, casting aspersions on Jane's weight, looks and choice of perfume. When Jane stops trying, the mailbox reconciles but it may be too late. The company that made the mailboxes is coming around to recall them due to all the complaints. Thanks to an undertone of Lolita, the character complexity steps up in the Twilight Zone-ish "Roadside Stop." Disappointed his wife won't start a family, a trucker heads South to find peace in labor elsewhere. He pulls over to wet his whistle, plays a game of cards with an adolescent girl who cons more than poker chips out of him.

With an ingenious title like "Conversation Pieces," the story plays off a number of literal and not-so literal meanings: objects conversing, objects to converse about, and someone going to pieces over such objects. A young woman moves town-to-town to escape discovery of her possessing the talent (or is it madness?) of talking to her belongings. All that changes when a prostitute with the heart of gold comes calling... but is it change for the better?

"Spell Night," the tale of human cursed into cat-form prowling the streets for the price to purchase peace, finds Lee in rare descriptive form:

"When Misha had been human she had hated the dark. But now she padded through the streets of Tivermouth at midnight, a lithe black shadow slipping cat-quiet over the cobblestones. Messages threaded the air from every side: the scurry of a mouse darting for cover as Misha approached, the distant slap of water on wood where the boats rocked in the harbor, a musky smell from an attic where two human lovers pressed one against the other."
In true fairy tale style, a barbarian prince woos the princesses at each of "The Three Kingdoms" and each spurns him with the ignorance of their self-absorbed ways just as he spurns (albeit, gives what he has to) a dirty, beggar woman who dogs his feet, which may be a fatal mistake. "Seeing Deeper" is what the narrator, Robert, must do when his wife, Geetha, has the faith he lacks that their stillborn child will climb to heaven on a tree planted over its grave. A "Homecoming" is not always a welcoming if you've been away from wife and child for six years courting kings and courtiers who don't give a damn about you and slaying monsters you don't hate.

A box grants a nursing home resident "The Gift" but the gifts it gives of nostalgia are not what the old man is looking for. In "Not Another Unicorn," Henna shapes leopard after uninspired leopard until she's approached by a rival magician who cajoles her into helping him shape a unicorn for the Princess tomorrow -- only time runs out (a familiarity with unicorn lore will bear out the climax of this one). Following "The Winter of the Rats," the Hamelin residents refuse to pay their deliverer, the Pied Piper, so he seeks revenge upon its children, which infuriates the child narrator whose father had paid -- three wrongs, however, still don't make a right. "Heron," the king's daughter who refuses to marry her betrothed, is locked away inside the temple of the goddess to discover she has a gift which allows her to escape far beyond the confines of locked temples. Pinocchio retold finds "Puppetta" an escapist during one of her moments of humanity. "The Fall of a Kingdom" comes about when a woman will risk everything to have a child. In "Dragonslayer" a young girl finds her heroine can be far more dangerous than the beast she slays.

Murderers are exiled to the "City of Mercy." One young woman is invited to watch the gates, but should she sacrifice the possibility of rejoining her family for the honor? The scaffolding of the stories present a dependable literary form though sometimes by using the wrong construction material. "City of Mercy" pulls a van Vogtian hook-up, although the information withheld sets up a finale in which, had the reader known what the character knew before the ending, the character development wouldn't have paid off, preventing fair play with the reader and a deeper level of tension, creating a pay-off more difficult to render.

Behind many of these tales, a novelist yearns to break free of the confines of a short story, many of which are difficult to leap into without the character goals presented up front so that, in the case of "Spell Night," the reader is surprised (and disappointed to the testament of the author's skill of drawing the reader into the life of the characters) that the story has reached an end. Even when the story enthralls en media res ("The winter I turned thirteen, the rats came to our town." -- alluring first line from the alluring title "The Winter of the Rats"), the ending bears slight resemblance to the conflict established at the beginning, thwarting reader expectations -- a laudable attribute in the novel. With her majestic powers of character conjuration, this reader fully expects Mary Soon Lee to populate worlds every bit as popular if not more popular than Anne McCaffery or Robert Jordan -- all the taste without the fattening calories (glory be to writers who can economize) -- casting a motley crew of characters readers can care about.

Copyright © 2002 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared in The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, and The Zone among others. He has interviewed for, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine he can be seen coaching the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach, or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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