Tim Pratt's Journal
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2003-11-05 5:39 PM
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And now, continuing the review-a-thon...
With Jonathan Strahan's kind permission, here's the review of Little Gods that appears in the current issue of Locus. (For context regarding the beginning of this review, you should know that Jonathan first reviewed Avram Davidson's posthumous collection Limekiller, and then my collection.)
If íLimekiller! is an unexpected gift, delivered years after a career has ended, then Tim Pratt's first short story collection, Little Gods, is the exact opposite: a small gift delivered at the beginning of a new career. Science fiction has a long history of landmark first short story collections, books like Bradbury's Dark Carnival, Leiber's Night's Black Agents, or Sturgeon's Without Sorcery, that have given us our first real chance to look at a new writer's emerging body of work in a concentrated form. It's a tradition that has continued through Ian R. Macleod's Voyages in Starlight to Andy Duncan's Beluthahatchie, and now to Tim Pratt's Little Gods. And if Little Gods isn't quite to the standard of those early classics, it is a strong collection from a writer who has all the hallmarks of developing into a writer to watch. Pratt's preferred writing territory is what Charles de Lint recently described in a Locus interview as ''mythic fiction,'' fiction with ''modern sensibilities, dealing with contemporary people and issues, but... utiliz[ing] the material of folklore, fairy tale, and myth.'' The fifteen stories and four poems collected in Little Gods are, for the most part, set in a recognizably real contemporary world into which magic intrudes. More importantly, though, they are principally centered on the small, intimate moments that build relationships and fill our lives. In a recent interview, Pratt cited William Faulkner's statement that the only thing that is worth writing about is ''the human heart in conflict with itself,'' and in a selection of stories that are for the most part small, gentle and romantic, he does exactly that. The best-known story here, and in some ways the most typical of Pratt's fiction, is the Nebula nominated short story ''Little Gods''. It opens with a wish and an act of violence and ends in redemption. While the unnamed narrator and his wife Emily are shopping for groceries, she tells him that she would like to be a god, but not a big god. Perhaps the little god of cinnamon, or tuna sandwiches. Just when we are being charmed by the whimsy of the moment, the story is transformed by Emily's sudden, violent death. The narrator's life is shattered, turned into a living hell built around a grief he cannot escape. The strength of the story, though, is in the way that Pratt shows how he escapes that hell, and how his wife has given him a gift he could not have anticipated.
If ''Little Gods'' is about accepting loss and escaping from the madness of grief, then ''Captain Fantasy and the Secret Masters'' is about not wanting to escape that madness if escape means surrendering anything of the person you love. On the surface, ''Captain Fantasy'' is a tribute to the garish, action- filled stories of the Golden Age of Comics. Li, a Metamorph, is recalled to active duty when an evil mastermind's plot leads to the escape of Joseph Mengele and a string of other evildoers. The only person who can stop the plot, and save the world (of course), is the mentally infirm, immortal superhero Captain Fantasy. In order to bring the Captain to his senses, Li has to pose as Spaceboy, the Captain's shinily clad offsider who died years earlier, just prior to the Captain's descent in madness. While the story is a note-perfect tribute to, and deconstruction of, the pulps, it's also a tender look at the cost of love.
''Fable from a Cage'', on the other hand, is a tricky bit of work. The title immediately points to the conflict that lies at the heart of the story - fables are typically instructional tales that contain some kind of clear moral message, and yet for some reason this one is told by someone in a cage. From the story's opening line we know we have entered fairy-tale territory. ''Let me tell you a little fable,'' Pratt offers, before commencing to introduce his protagonist, a young, immoral thief too lazy to actually plan his crimes, instead preferring to stumble across the opportunities that fund his life-in- exile. It is while pondering exactly what crime he should next commit that he literally stumbles across the hidden prison of a strange woman who it appears comes from faerie and is graphically nasty and brutal. She quickly manages to dominate him completely, turning him into her creature and to her purposes. ''Fable from a Cage'' is not a perfect story, but it is handled with real skill, balancing the stuff of fairy tales with the sharply nasty and dissonant voice of Pratt's protagonist in a way that keeps the reader slightly off-balance and unsure what to expect next.
Of the remaining stories, the best are probably ''Annabelle's Alphabet'', original ''Pale Dog'', ''The Witch's Bicycle'', and ''The Scent of Copper Pennies'': ''Annabelle's Alphabet'' tells of the price a couple desperate for children are willing to make a little girl pay in order to make sure that she conforms; ''The Witch's Bicycle'' tells of the odd lengths an ageing witch is willing to go to in order to extend her life, and what it takes to stop her; and ''The Scent of Copper Pennies'' is an inverted version of ''Little Gods'', where a man is approached by a woman from a parallel universe seeking a new version of an old lover. However the plot and details of the stories may change, and Pratt is a varied and talented storyteller, his focus remains fixed on matters of the heart, on the conflict at the center of our lives.
With electronic and print-on-demand publishing making it easy, arguably too easy, for some books to get into print, it had crossed my mind that Little Gods might be published before Pratt was really ready, that a writer and publisher's enthusiasm might put too much weight on the work produced. However, that really isn't the case. For all that there are one or two minor false notes, and that the quality of some stories does vary, Little Gods is quite delightful and easily one of the better first fantasies published this year. It is, you could say, a gift from the little god of promising beginnings. [Note: In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that Tim Pratt is an Assistant Editor at Locus.] -Jonathan Strahan
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