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Clockwork Phoenix
Mike Allen
Norilana Books, 288 pages

Clockwork Phoenix
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.

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A review by Michael M Jones

Billed as "Tales of Beauty and Strangeness," Clockwork Phoenix is editor Mike Allen's latest effort to inject a little more weirdness and artistic fantasy into the market, working from his own particular tastes of what he personally enjoys reading. His introduction to the anthology yields little concrete wisdom into the method and madness he used to construct this particular collection of stories, for all its poetic imagery and vivid, dreamlike narrative, but consulting the Clockwork Phoenix web site turns up more solid requirements for the stories within. Simply put, Mike Allen wanted stories with elements of the fantastic, something new and genuine, stories that lured the reader into unfamiliar territory and experiment with style. As he himself says, "I envision the CLOCKWORK PHOENIX books as places where these two schools of story telling can mingle and achieve Happy Medium; where there is significance to both the tale that's told and the style of the telling." It's important that we look at what he's trying to achieve, because Clockwork Phoenix is by no means your average, everyday anthology.

Catherynne M. Valente starts things off with "The City of Blind Delight," in which a mysterious train travels through every city on the globe, its ultimate destination the City of Blind Delights, which lies "somewhat to the rear of Ulan Bator, and also somewhat diagonally from Greenland, beneath a thin veneer of Iowa City..." It's an oddly haunting tale about a man who boards the train and ends up in the City of Blind Delights, where he learns the strange manner of its currency and enjoys the hospitality of its natives for a time. Valente weaves words adeptly in an almost hallucinatic manner to paint the portrait of a city which exists on the edge of our understanding, and the people affected by it.

John Grant's "All The Little Gods We Are" is a powerful, tragic, magic tale in which a man named John makes a fateful phone call one day, and reaches himself. The bizarre call stirs up memories of John's past, bringing back a time when he and his best friend Justine were inseparable. But what happened to tear them apart? How close was their relationship, and how did it end... or did it? Whatever you think the truth is, it's weirder. One of the most emotionally-powerful stories in the collection, it really needs multiple readings to understand its depths.

Cat Rambo's "The Dew Drop Coffee Lounge" is quirky and strange, the unusual tale of a woman who waits at a coffee shop, acting as a stand-in for all those blind dates that would otherwise be stood up. She meets the poor, lonely people looking for someone who will never come, and gives them a measure of closure. But is that all that's going on, or is there a deeper meaning at work here? This is a clever, entertaining story that reminds me of classic Charles de Lint.

Leah Bobet spins the story of several unusual people in "Bell, Book, and Candle." The titular trio are called every so often to perform arcane religious ceremonies, but at no little cost to themselves. How they relate to one another and their functions, and what it takes out of them, is told in this lyrical narrative that seems to be part truth and part dream. It's intriguing, and occasionally ambiguous.

Michael J. DeLuca's "The Tarrying Messenger" never stops, never slows down as it tells the story of Molly, a bike-riding traveler who stumbles across a bizarre ceremony involving an angel and a sort-of prophet. Kinetic and fluid, this story addresses issues of faith, belief, and one's inner nature.

There's something about Laird Barron's "The Occultation" that seems designed to drive off the casual reader. Perhaps it's his deliberate use of European-style punctuation (rather than double quotes -- " -- to denote dialogue) to alienate readers looking for a sense of familiarity, or perhaps it's the stark, uncensored way in which the protagonists talk and act, indulging in base desires and dark behaviors. To be honest, I certainly couldn't get into it, but it's bound to appeal to those who enjoy edgier fare.

Ekaterina Sedia offers up "There Is A Monster Under Helen's Bed" for our consideration. Helen, a Russian orphan adopted by an American couple, has troubles adjusting to her new home and surroundings, a traumatic youth manifesting itself in unexpected ways. Is the monster under her bed real, or is something more realistic, if just as horrifying, at work here? Why can't Helen get along with her new family? Is she secretly broken? Sedia's story lingers on the senses as it comes to a close, leaving questions unanswered and conclusions unfulfilled.

Marie Brennan evokes the ancient, lost civilizations of the Mayans and Aztecs, and infuses them with an alien, mythic feel in her tale of a woman seeking revenge for her shattered caste, in "A Mask of Flesh." Brennan does an excellent job of creating a fascinating, complex society in a short period of time, and raising a number of questions along the way. I wouldn't mind seeing her return to this world at some point, to further flesh out things barely touched upon in this story.

John C. Wright gets the "I wish I'd thought of that" award from me, for his story, "Choosers of the Slain."" On the last day of a brutal war, the commander of a broken army readies himself for a suicidal, final attack upon the other side, one that will cost him his life and catapult him into legend. But just as he's about to fire, a blonde beauty appears out of nowhere, offering him a deal. But what will his fate ultimately be? Cleverly reworking an aspect of Norse myth, this story hints at a much larger world, and events playing out both before and after the scene in question. It's a simple concept, but stunning nonetheless in the execution.

"Akhila, Divided," by C.S. MacCath, is another fascinating story set in a world I'd love to see more thoroughly explored. A sentient nanobomb, capable of shapeshifting and massive destruction, comes to a small community. Perhaps to inflict damage, perhaps to seek refuge. But what manner of reception will she receive here, and how will it determine the course of her actions? Mixing themes of religion, faith, redemption, revenge and sacrifice, this is a thought-provoking tale that tackles some complex subjects to admirable results.

Joanna Galbraith reveals the unusual secret of the Moon in "The Moon-Keeper's Friend." Every day, the Moon comes to rest upon the roof of a small roadside teahouse, where it sleeps until nighttime. The owner of the teahouse, Mohammed Muneer, protects it as best he can, and in return, his teahouse plays host to some unusual visitors. But things are not entirely as they seem... Quirky and whimsical, this is a deceptively light story that doesn't reveal its true nature until the very end.

Deborah Biancotti explores the true nature of the universe in "The Tailor of Time," where that selfsame individual, responsible for sewing together bits and pieces of time to create the ever-changing days and nights, is visited by a man who asks for a small, simple favor. Sadly, this favor, for all that it's proposed in the best of intentions, is near-impossible to grant, but the Tailor, just this once, will try. What happens then is a mystery, one not even the great Engineer who designed the progress of time itself, can explain. Beautifully told, it's filled with rich imagery and interesting concepts.

Other authors in this anthology include Erin Hoffman, David Sandner, Cat Sparks, Tanith Lee, Jennifer Crow, and Vandana Singh. All in all, Clockwork Phoenix has quite a lot to offer, and Mike Allen definitely lives up to his goal; this is a collection of rare treasures and intriguing stories, pushing boundaries and making the reader think. Many I liked, a few I didn't, but I can't argue with the craftsmanship that went into each and every one. This is not an easy anthology to read, and it was even harder to review, simply because it stretches out of the usual comfort zone, offering up entire new worlds and concepts to play with. However, that's a good thing. Without collections like this to make us actually work at understanding, comprehending, and enjoying, we'd never know where our limits are. I'd have to say I enjoyed Clockwork Phoenix, and I expect to see a few of these stories gracing assorted "Best of..." lists come next year. If you want something new, different, and challenging, this is an anthology worth checking out.

Copyright © 2009 Michael M Jones

Michael M Jones enjoys an addiction to books, for which he's glad there is no cure. He lives with his very patient wife (who doesn't complain about books taking over the house... much), eight cats, and a large plaster penguin that once tasted blood and enjoyed it. A prophecy states that when Michael finishes reading everything on his list, he'll finally die. He aims to be immortal.

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