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A Glass Of Shadow by Liz Williams

01/03/2012. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy A Glass Of Shadow in the USA - or Buy A Glass Of Shadow in the UK

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pub: NewCon Press. 237 page small enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-907069-28-4).

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One of the best places to look for anthologies and collections of short stories is among the volumes produced by the small presses. Often they begin life with either the publisher deciding that they stories they like are not out there (or too randomly scattered) or the project begins with a project for a single book and takes off. NewCon Press began as a means to recoup the losses made by a small but enjoyable convention and grew. Since there is no time or money to handle more than a couple of volumes a year, often a lot of effort can be put into the production.

‘A Glass Of Shadow’ makes an impression even before the book is opened. The cover art by Anne Sudworth is exquisite and fits the tone of the title story perfectly. The play of light and shadow promises good things to come. It is a shame that the story titles are done in a script that is almost unreadable. Inside the book are nineteen short stories and an introduction to the writing of Liz Williams by Tanith Lee.

Williams has gained a solid reputation for her imaginative and complex Science Fiction novels which draw from a multitude of sources and leave lasting impressions. Her characters demand to be noticed. Stories are often an excuse to play with themes, ideas and approaches that may not fit in a novel. The stories here are varied and cover a period from 1998 to 2011.

A short story is a good place to play with history, to take chronicled events or lives and put a different spin on them. ‘Mr. De Quincy And The Daughters Of Madness’ is one such. De Quincy was a friend of William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. This is a supernatural version of the causes behind their falling out. It the style of writing the first person narrative seems very female but as the story settles into its form it changes to the much stronger masculine style that carries it through.

‘Tycho And The Stargazer’ is another story that has a historical basis. Johannes Kepler was a student of Tycho Brahe. This supernatural story leads to their acrimonious parting. Tycho captures an angel and wants to make it release its knowledge of the universe to him. Kepler takes pity on the creature, wishing to free it. With both these stories there is nothing to say that events didn’t happen this way or that they did. The pleasure derived from them in knowing that, unlikely as the rational mind thinks, it cannot be proved one way or the other.

Both ‘Mr Animation And The Wu Zhiang Zombies’ and ‘Necrochip’ are very different though set in the same place – a futuristic Hong Kong. The first tells of a rock group who, deciding to carry out a séance as part of their act and open a doorway to hell. The second involves a woman who is willing to sell sex but only after she is dead. The former story could be described as supernatural, whereas the second involves advanced technology. Both contain a degree of horror showing that a particular setting does not have to preclude different genres. These stories have exotic settings. So also does ‘The Flower Of Tekheli’, but of a very different kind. In Khazakstan, the spirit of a long dead poetess kidnaps Arshan after a car crash. His sister, Fairuza, bargains for his return by promising to get recognition for her work. It contains a number of levels. There is the love of the sister who does not give up the search for her brother and her persistence in not only negotiating his release but in trying to keep her promise. It also has a feminist agenda in recognising that, even in a male-orientated society, women can achieve important things, whether it is in the creation of poetry or the freeing of Arshan.

Williams is very knowledgeable about the myth and folk lore of various cultures and uses it to shape her fiction. A number of the stories in this collection use these ideas in refreshing ways. ‘On Windhover Down’, a young village girl, unhappy with the current tradition willingly sacrifices herself to bring back the old and proper order of the Green Man. ‘Troytown’ is a coming of age story using the ideas behind the maze to assist the transform the child into an adult by allowing the walker of the maze to face their fears. ‘Blackthorn And Nettles’ is a tale of green magic but as the narrator discovers, even that cannot protect your heart. The heart of these stories is close to home while ‘Who Pays’ delves into Egyptian mythology. Here, the servant of Anubis finally, after a very long time, receives a customer who he needs to assess and send on his journey to the next world. Unfortunately, he doesn’t want to go.

Topical concerns often provide sparks for stories and genetic manipulation are contrasting foci behind two of these. ‘Voivodoi’ is a beautifully subtle story about the effects that GM foods have on some people by converting them into mythical creatures. ‘Ikiryoh’ lies at the other end of the spectrum where a scapegoat genetically cloned to take the darker emotions of an important person.

Two of these stories, ‘Age Of Ice’ and ‘La Malcontenta’ are precursors to Williams’ novel. ‘Winterstrike’. Anyone familiar with the novel will recognise the background and characters involved. This is a terraformed and frozen Mars where society is a matriarchy and men are pariahs living outside the towns. In the former, Hestia is searching the ruins of a library in an enemy town to find clues to a weapon that can give her own an advantage in the current war. In the second, Shorn is a woman of Winterstrike who has committed the sin of consorting with a man. Both these stories taken on their own indicate a rich, underused background that needs expansion. Williams went on to do this by enfolding them in the novel.

The title story, ‘A Glass Of Shadow’, is strategically placed last within the volume and is one of two that have not previously been published. It is a very evocative story and in many ways, sums up the collection. The narrator is a man who has been deserted by his wife but finds himself back in the Venice at carnival time he once visited as a boy. A man he meets repeats what others have told him, that he is better without her, but also she has stolen his shadow. He says that he can help him get it back and is offered choices.

Stories are like shadows. They are as real as you want to make them. They may fade when a brighter one comes along but you can always turn the page and find them again. Some of these stories are stronger than others, some linger longer in the memory, some will be flawed, others small gems. It is up to the reader to decide which they will distil from this glass of shadow.

Pauline Morgan

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