Sunday, July 15, 2007

Saffron and Brimstone (Elizabeth Hand)

Skinny came bearing gifts. In one afternoon, I found myself the unexpected owner of KJ Bishop's The Etched City, Justina Robson's Living Next-Door to the God of Love, and Elizabeth Hand's Saffron and Brimstone.

I first saw Ms. Hand's short story collection at a local bookstore and was admittedly drawn by the reviews. Contemporary fantasy with a markedly feminine tone? Sold! But I was strapped for cash at that time and never found the book again. Thankfully, Skinny stepped in to buy me a copy in Singapore, and I tore into as soon as we parted.

Ms. Hand's gentle voice and disciplined eye made me breeze through "Cleopatra Brimstone," which I found intriguingly horrifying, though the outcome was not completely unexpected. Her "Pavane for a Prince of Air" struck a more personal chord with me as it dealt with the pain of loss, speaking of 'the impossible bargains I made at three o' clock in the morning with the pagan deities flitting about the room: what I would give up to save him, which digits, which hand, which leg; eyesight, the power of speech, an ear; two; my tongue (p 73-74).' I was beginning to like Ms. Hand more and more, even if I wasn't taking to "The Least Trumps" and "Wonderwall" well.

But it was The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations that kept me tethered to her engaging prose. Here, she speaks of eternal nymphs and muses, of what has been lost, of what has been forgotten. "Kronia" is my favorite of the quartet, with its simple flavor yet somehow wonderfully disjointed narrative. It has a certain cadence that makes reading it out loud a lovely exercise.

Fans of gritty spec fic may find Ms. Hand's kind of fantasy almost vulnerable, but there is a strength in the way she weaves her words that makes you believe that there is true magic here.

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