Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Hart & Boot & Other Stories, Tim Pratt

This review originally appeared in Strange Horizons

Tim Pratt's new collection will be a revelation to those who are only familiar with him from his first novel The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl (2005). Indeed, the cover of Hart & Boot & Other Stories promises more of the same Western-flavored contemporary fantasy, but this is something of a bait-and-switch. The title story shows similar influences to Rangergirl, but all the other stories draw from different styles and mythologies: Greek, Southern, and Irish among others, showing off the breadth of Pratt's knowledge and craft. When you consider the consistently high quality of the collection, and the fact that these thirteen stories represent the creative output of only four years (the stories were published from 2003 to 2007, with two being original to this collection), there can be no doubting Pratt's talent for the fantastic.

"Hart & Boot" is the story of a woman, Pearl Hart, in the late days of the Wild West, who wants to be an outlaw. Her will and desire are so fierce that they conjure up a man to help her (being as not many folks then took a woman for a serious threat). In a nice bit of role reversal, Hart is the aggressive plotter, while John Boot is the helpmeet, the caring one. Over and over again though, when the pair encounter civilization, folks assume that Boot is the nefarious one and that he's seduced Hart to his evil ways. The feel of the Old West, at the time it was ceasing to be wild, and the over-the-top character of Pearl Hart (based on the life story of a "Pearl Hart" that was a real historical figure), draw you into the story completely, and it's easy to see why this one stood out and was chosen for a mainstream collection, the Michael Chabon-edited Best American Short Stories 2005.

The collection continues with equally strong but completely different stories. What we get next ("Life in Stone") is a pure fantasy story, although one where the plot lightly intersects the modern world. It is a beautifully written story about an assassin who has been hired by a sorcerer to end the sorcerer's life. The only problem is that said sorcerer placed his life in a stone years ago, and has now forgotten where he'd hidden it. Thus, the need for an assassin. The surface moral of the story, about the perils of eternal life, is fairly obvious, but in a thread about the sorcerer's half-aquarian daughter, Pratt touches on a deeper current of feeling and fear about aging. As in many of the stories in this collection, the narrator has a certain matter-of-fact air about the fantastic things that happen to him. There is some graphic and disturbing violence, but also a feeling that everything will turn out OK. This, I think, is the sense that leads people to compare Pratt to Neil Gaiman (for instance, in this Green Man Review). Despite the very dark tone the work of both writers can take, there is rarely an aura of actual menace; we basically trust them to work things out in a non-threatening way.

This general good nature makes stories such as "Tyrant in Love" less effective than they could be. Despite depicting an evil despot who goes in search of new methods of torture, and discovers love and grief to be some of the most painful torture of all, the lack of real potential for harm keeps this tale from being as frightening or tense as it might have been. "Bottom Feeding" is a re-telling of an Irish story about a salmon, configured for the American South with a catfish. While it should be an elegiac piece about sorrow and grief, like "Tyrant in Love" it lacks a certain something. The main character isn't terribly empathetic, and the most interesting character, his lesbian ex-girlfriend, is only barely sketched in. The Southern setting doesn't come through as strongly as the California settings, and frankly the story seems to stop much too abruptly, leaving the reader feeling a bit cheated. The placement of these two tales doesn't help the overall structure of the collection, either. I've heard it said that a short story collection or anthology should be structured like a 'W': Start and end on high notes, with a strong "tent pole" story in the middle. Hart & Boot is structured a bit more like a "U," lacking that central strong point. "Tyrant" and "Bottom Feeding" together make a bit of a lull in the middle.

However, "Cup and Table," and the collection's strong final story "Dream Engine," more than make up for it. Sometimes the highest praise one can give a short piece is that you'd like to read the novel it could be part of, and both of these tales merit that sort of speculative curiosity. "Cup and Table" is an apocalyptic story that is merely sketched in rapid-fire episodes, told by a man who is bouncing around in time. He is a member of an occult/secret society group that seeks the Grail, but over the centuries their purpose has changed: from seeking it to protect it to seeking it to use it for their own nefarious purposes. The ending is both moving and surprising, and has a lot more heft than you'd expect considering the strobe-effect buildup. "Dream Engine," on the other hand, is pure steampunk, set in a city at the hub of multiverses. As the different universes wheel around, the rulers of the city reach out and grab things and people that they need from whatever universe is in range. When the Regent starts to grab dream stuff however, things get even stranger than usual. The narrator is Wisp, a non-material entity who is a keeper of sorts for Howlaa, a shapeshifter. Together these two must resolve the threats that are facing the city. The dense chaotic urban environment, wildly diverse population, and baroque technology recall some of China MiƩville's work, but once again there's an air of good intentions that means that the story lacks the dark tension that suffuses a book like Perdido Street Station. You generally feel that everything is going to work out well, especially after the evidence of the preceding twelve stories.

Several of the stories are about single women making their way in the world. "Terrible Ones" is a surprisingly comic story considering the ground that it covers. Zara is an actress who used to make money doing the bondage leather dominatrix thing. Now she's about to perform as the star in a new adaptation of Medea, but is being stalked by a former john who doesn't understand about professional detachment. Other forces are stalking her as well, with a randomly appearing Greek Chorus showing up attired in pancake white make-up and togas made from bed linen. In fact, the Greek mythos isn't looking in terribly good shape as the Furies have been living in a run-down apartment and going badly senile. It's time for a shake-up in the cast of the Greek pantheon, and Zara is unwittingly at the center of it. The protagonist of "Komodo"—a female sorcerer questing for immortality, powering her magic using energy produced by having sex with men—is more in control of her destiny. Pratt twists the stereotypes nicely: while often this sort of character would be presented as some sort of vampire, this sorceress sincerely likes her lovers and does her best to help them live more fulfilling lives, whatever that may mean for them. Drawing on Asian philosophies of balance and karma, she understands that gaining immortality through evil wouldn't be worth it. However, one of her lovers turns out to be a complete jackass, the kind that women have nightmares about. Nice enough at the time, he leaves her fake phone numbers and never calls back, and worse yet leaves her with a magical disease that renders her almost powerless and dismantles her carefully wrought magical defenses. The resolution to this story is poignant, pretty, and surprising. A slighter story is "Living With the Harpy." A woman has allowed a literal harpy to take up residence in her apartment. In exchange the harpy has been slowly transforming her, making her stronger, more beautiful, and impervious to pain and damage. However, all these benefits also keep others at a distance, and when she discovers a woman that she thinks she can really love, she has to make a choice. The symbolism is very clear here, but the story is no less meaningful for that.

Two stories depart from the slipstream-type fantasy mold into the realm of science fiction. Hugo-nominated "Impossible Dreams" is a cute romantic comedy of sorts. Two universes briefly collide, and a movie buff discovers an interdimensional video store. It has the Harlan Ellison I, Robot movie, the director's cut of The Magnifiscent Ambersons by Orson Welles and The Death of Superman by Tim Burton starring Nicholas Cage. It also has a very cute interdimensional saleswoman. As their dimensions begin to separate again, our hero has to decide what to do, and while it's a predictable choice that doesn't make it any less sweet.

"Lachrymose and the Golden Egg" may be technically pure science fiction, but it uses mostly fantasy tropes. People can enter their own self-contained fantasy worlds through a biological drug, and that is a particularly attractive option to our hero. He suffers from a rare disease that makes his blood incredibly valuable for making various pharmaceuticals (and which the drug companies happily exploit), but will kill him at a relatively young age. However, he meets someone in his personal fantasy world who seems very familiar, and the Golden Egg they quest for may have very real significance. As science fiction it is a little light, but its conflation of SF and fantasy elements is well done.

With such a broad range of subject matter, it's perhaps surprising that Hart & Boot shows such clear thematic unity. All the stories in this collection make manifest the fantastic elements of real life. A woman lives with a harpy that is a symbol of the barriers she throws up between herself and those who might get close to her. A man grieving for his brother finds a catfish that will enable him to wallow in his misery. A woman jilted by a one-night stand enlists the aid of friends and past lovers to help her solve her problem. This is the stuff of wonderful modern fantasy, the sort that speaks to us specifically about the world we live in and the ways we live in it. It is the sort of fantasy that sticks with you, adding an extra dimension of poetry to the mundane world.