Next to coming across an uncashed check, encountering a long lost friend, or unearthing the magical talisman that will help ward off the evil spirit that is haunting your sister’s duplex, there is no greater thrill than the discovery of a new writer. You crack open the book, start reading and, before you know it, you’re thoroughly engrossed, lost in the narrative, progressing deeper and deeper into the story, all the while thinking “This is fantastic!” and “Please, don’t suddenly suck and end up spoiling this for me!”. So it was with John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas, Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones – all tremendous titles that introduced me to writers who I now rank among my very favorites. Which brings me to Jeffrey Ford. Now, I can’t put him up there with the likes of Banks and Martin just yet because, to be fair, I’ve only read one of his books. But if The Empire of Ice Cream is anything to go by, I suspect it won’t be long before I do.
Like all anthologies, some stories worked better for me than others – yet unlike most anthologies, there wasn’t a clunker in the bunch. Even the (relatively speaking) weaker entries contained an element or two that made them enjoyable in spite of my reservations.
I loved “The Annals of Eeelin-Ok”, a magical and ultimately poignant tale that evoked memories of my childhood – specifically the childlike thought processes that had me imagining tiny unseen societies teeming, hidden, beneath the surface of our relatively mundane world. Ford demonstrates that he has not lost that sense of marvel Jonathan Carroll talks about in the introduction. He is still able to tap that rich vein of childlike wonder and, in so doing, does a masterful job reminding us of what we may have left behind.
Which is a neat segue into Jupiter’s Skull. On the surface, it’s the mysterious tale of a Shangri-la-like town that disappears from the collective memories of outsiders. And yet, as I read it, I found myself struck not so much by the bizarre development of the missing town, but by the unsettling and all-too-familiar notion of being cut off from one’s past. I thought of the many times I’ve gone back to my home town over the years and how, with each return visit, it has grown increasingly unfamiliar. The place where I grew up is long-gone because, in truth, it was far more than its mere location. It was the people, the sights, the sounds, and so many other ethereal elements that now exist only in my mind.
As I said, I liked a number of the stories in this collection, but the ones I truly loved were those that struck a more personal chord. A Night in the Tropics is a fine example. Again, we touch on the idea of reconnecting with one’s past. The writer returns to his home town where he learns of a the legend surrounding a purportedly supernatural chess set. An interesting premise that makes for an intriguing story – but it’s the personal moments (his return to the bar, the painting, his past relationship with the bartender) that really touched me. Similar stories in this same vein include The Trentino Kid, Coffins on the River, and, my favorite, Botch Town. The latter, with its small town character and quirky sense of humor, was such a pleasure to read that I took to noting the most memorable lines as I went along:
– “Occasionally John would try to be pleasant, but I think the paper canoe of a hat he wore every day had soured his disposition irreparably.”
– “Throughout all of this, and even when he lay flat, he held his drink up above his head like a man trying to keep a pistol dry while crossing a river.”
“Otherwise, he was a pretty blank person, save for his toupee, which sat on his head like a doily.”
I was delighted to hear that this story has been expanded into a novel, The Shadow Year, that was just released this March by Harper Collins/Morrow. It’s already on order.
While the aforementioned stories spoke to me on an emotional level, The Empire of Ice Cream and The Weight of Words delivered on the intellectual plane – both stand out stories brilliantly conceived and skillfully executed.
A Man of Light, The Beautiful Gelreesh and Boatman’s Holiday were also strong, highly imaginative entries. The only stories that I thought didn’t measure up to the rest were The Green Word, Summer Afternoon, and Giant Land. The first felt a little too straightforward, the latter (quite the opposite) so out there I had a difficult time connecting with it.
After finishing The Empire of Ice Cream, my initial response was not so much “I want to re-read it!” as it was “I want my friends to read it!”. And that, preople, is the mark of a great book.
Today’s blog is dedicated to soon-to-be-regular reader Katherine and birthday celebrant Airelle.
Today’s video: Gun school!!! Christina, Nicole, and Janina prepare for battle!