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Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Midnight by Cat Rambo

01/06/2011. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Midnight in the USA - or Buy Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Midnight in the UK

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pub: Paper Golem. 175 page enlarged paperback. Price: $14.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-9795349-5-9).

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I first heard the name Cat Rambo when I was reviewing Jeff VanderMeer’s short story collection ‘The Third Bear’ for SFCrowsnest last December. She co-wrote one of the stories that I enjoyed most in that collection, so when the chance to review a collection of her own fantasy fiction came up, I jumped at it. ‘Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Moonlight’ came out in August 2009. It collects together twenty short stories, most of which were written between 2005 and 2008, although a couple date back to the early 1990s.

As well as being a writer and a co-editor at ‘Fantasy Magazine’, Cat Rambo has worked as a computer games designer. As she explains in the introductory notes to the relevant stories, several of them are based in the imaginary city of Tabat, a place she originally designed for a computer game that never saw the light of day. This provides a certain continuity across roughly half of the stories in the collection.

Cat Rambo is a talented writer. At her best, her stories are enthralling and magical tales that leave you with a smile on your face, even if the smile is sometimes born of sorrow. However, she is not always at her best in this collection. Several of the stories left me muttering, ‘So what?’ when I finished them, as a promising premise was only half investigated. I’ll illustrate what I mean below, looking at three of the stories I enjoyed and two that I found frustratingly incomplete.

The title story, ‘Her Eyes Like Sky, And Coal And Moonlight’, is excellent. It is narrated by an unnamed middle-aged woman who recalls the three times that she met the wind mage Alkyone, a central figure in a long rebellion against oppressive rule. The colour of Alkyone’s eyes is different at each meeting, first sky-blue, then coal-black and finally moonlight silver, as the conflict takes its toll on her. Their final meeting follows the overthrow of the king, yet as so often, one dictator seems likely to be replaced by another, whose first decision as ruler is to banish the very mages whose powers were central to his victory. The story tells these extraordinary events from the perspective of an ordinary woman, the daughter of an innkeeper who ends up running the inn herself. She does not take part in any battles, yet the long-running conflict has a huge impact on her life, taking her father and her two youngest children from her. This contrast between historic events and the everyday provides the story with real emotional weight, which Rambo shows us with great skill.

‘Events At Fort Plenitude’ is another very strong story. Told through three months worth of a sorcerer’s diary entries, this is the tale of a military fort under siege by paranormal forces. It is a great portrayal of the effects of slowly running out of food, losing soldiers to illness and the strange powers of the enemy and not knowing what to do next when the powers that be abandon you to your fate. Though Rambo explains in her introduction that the story was inspired by American frontier history, there is no happy Hollywood ending here. The writing is taut and spare and delivers an emotional impact which lasts far beyond the final sentence.

A third story that I enjoyed is ‘I’ll Gnaw Your Bones, The Manticore Said’. The tale is told by Tara, the beast trainer in a travelling circus, who encounters trouble when the wheel comes off her wagon as they travel between villages. The rest of the circus continues on to the next venue, while she and her trained manticore, Bupus, wait for husband Rik to come back from the nearest town with materials to repair the broken wheel. When a strange woman approaches them, Tara rapidly smells a rat. Once she works out what the ‘woman’ actually is and what she wants, the way that Tara deals with her is both brave and inventive. Cat Rambo takes stock fantasy tropes here and plays with them in amusing and interesting ways, creating something new and entertaining in the process.

One of the stories I found less convincing was ‘Sugar’. This tells the tale of Laurana, a sorceress who runs a sugar farm, employing human slaves and enchanted golems. She is torn between her new lover, the pirate Christina and her old lover, Britomart, who is dying of venereal disease caught from a one-night stand. My problem with the story is that very little actually happens. When the story ends, life seems much the same as when it started, other than for Britomart, who is now dead. I found this disappointing, as the story seemed initially very promising.

Another story which failed to deliver on its promise was ‘A Key Decides Its Destiny’. We meet Lily, apprenticed to Solon the enchanter. He creates a magical key for a local witch and tells Lily to deliver it. However, the witch rejects it, saying it has already decided its own destiny and blaming Lily. Confused and scared, Lily doesn’t dare tell Solon what happened. Instead, she convinces herself that the key’s destiny is to make Solon fall in love with her, even though her train of logic is pretty hard to follow. Due to the weakness of her position, when things don’t work out as she was hoping, I found it hard to have much sympathy for her. More generally, though, this was another story where an interesting premise was followed by a rather limited exploration of the available possibilities, so that when the story concluded, I was left feeling distinctly underwhelmed.

‘Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Moonlight’ is an interesting but mixed collection of fantasy stories. At her best, Cat Rambo can write stories that are enchanting, enthralling and entertaining. Many of the stories in this collection fall into that category. However, potential readers should be aware that there are several stories which do not deliver on their potential. On balance, I think the collection is worth reading, as long as you don’t expect every story to be a gem, you won’t come away disappointed.

Patrick Mahon

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