Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia A. McKillip
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Every now and then you'll see a fantasy writer go on about how magic has to have rules - rules that the reader knows about in advance. Otherwise, the argument goes, the author can just cheat by using magic to resolve the problem, leaving the reader unsatisfied.
Well, that's one approach to magic. It assumes, among other things, that the main characters have the magic, and that they're setting out to solve a problem - neither of which is necessarily the case. This is why Patricia McKillip (and many other authors, mainly, but not exclusively, those writing before the 1970s commercial fantasy boom) can get away with magic that isn't like that.
In McKillip, the magic isn't what it needs to be to have the plot work; it's what it needs to be to have the poetry work. Usually, the protagonists aren't in control of it. They're experiencing its effects more than they're using its effects. They're not necessarily solving a problem, either, so much as coming to a realization, and for this, magic that doesn't have fixed boundaries works perfectly fine.
I will say that this approach tends to work better for me at shorter lengths. I didn't enjoy the novella in this volume (Something Rich and Strange) as much as the shorter pieces, and I think it was because the characters didn't have a clear goal and clear steps to take in order to strive towards it. I missed that structuring element, as I hadn't with the shorter stories. Still, Something Rich and Strange did give me my favourite of many fine moments in the collection: "I don't know how to bargain for Jonah. I don't know how to say, you can have this for him, but not this. I don't know what he's not worth because right now he's costing me everything." And there you have the book in a nutshell, and the reason that rules and limitations on the magic would simply be wrong: for the stories to be emotionally all-in, for the characters to reach the realizations they reach, the magic has to be unrestrained, wild, not circumscribed or calculated.
The opening story, "Weird," does something wonderful with the in medius res approach: a couple are forted up in a bathroom (a nice one), with supplies consisting of a luxurious picnic, while outside terrible noises imply that something is dreadfully wrong. Their conversation consists of the man asking the woman what's the weirdest thing that's ever happened to her - and she doesn't lead with "this". If that isn't guaranteed to keep you reading, I don't know what's wrong with you.
"Mer" is a prime example of magic without rules or restraints. A nameless witch, apparently immortal or very long-lived, transforms into various shapes as the story requires. It isn't the witch's story, though, but the story of ordinary people who encounter her and are vexed and challenged and changed by the experience.
"The Gorgon in the Cupboard" is set among Victorian artists and their models, and the magic is more a way of pushing events along and creating reflection on them than it is the core of the story. The core of the story is a woman who's been treated badly, and is now being treated kindly; who was the model for Persephone, and is now the model for Medusa. Alongside that runs a theme of the artist and his love for a "goddess," the wife of his mentor, and how he comes to see her, and his own model, as human. It's intricate and beautiful and draws power from myths while, at the same time, questioning a mythological view of the world.
"Which Witch" is a music/magic story, which for me are hard to pull off, partly because it's too easy to lean on poetic descriptions that don't really convey the experience of listening to music, and then having the magic arbitrarily happen while the audience is distracted. That's not a trap McKillip falls into (she's too experienced for that). In this case, the protagonist does have magic, but she doesn't know exactly what it can do, and when it activates she still has to exercise love and courage to battle on behalf of her familiar.
"Edith and Henry Go Motoring" is another very English period piece (like "Gorgon"), with none of the horrible wrong notes that American writers so often hit when they attempt to write about English people in England. It involves a psychological journey for the main characters in the guise of a physical journey.
"Alien" is, I suppose, technically SF, but only because the narrator's grandmother has seen aliens rather than Fae. Or has she? The story is about the response of a family to a beloved elder's unlikely claim of an experience, and the relationships are where the emphasis lies.
Something Rich and Strange I've already said a little about. It's full of the magic of the sea, with a sometimes heavy-handed ecological message (still, doesn't it need to be?). The main characters spend most of the time wandering lost and confused (literally or figuratively), ill-equipped to counter the moves of ocean gods. Though I felt it was overlong, it still had power and beauty.
McKillip closes with a reflection on "Writing High Fantasy," a kind of manifesto in which she declares that simply tromping through the tropes is not enough - that the challenge she chooses is to take the trappings of high fantasy and twist them just enough to be interesting. She offers examples from her novels.
In an afterword, Peter S. Beagle celebrates McKillip's genius, from his perspective as someone who knows her personally and writes in the same genre. He claims, I'm sure genuinely, to be jealous, and that he couldn't write some of these stories as well as she has done (he goes through personal reactions to each one of them). It's an enjoyable close to the book.
Overall, this is a fine collection of a rare type of story, the mythopoeic kind of fantasy that evokes wonder and shows us complex human people undergoing realizations about themselves that shake them to the core of their identities.
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