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At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories Paperback – September 25, 2012
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"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
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I was not disappointed by the purchase. With eighteen (!) short stories, the book has more content than many anthologies that contain entries from multiple authors. The stories in the book aren’t all wispy little things; the paperback version of the book clocks in at around 300 pages. And it is packed with award-winners! “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” won the World Fantasy Award, “Fox Magic” won the Theodore Sturgeon Award, “Names for Water” was a Locus Award finalist, “Spar” and “Ponies” each won the Nebula Award, and “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” won the Hugo and Nebula Awards.
The variety of stories in this collection is staggering. Johnson generally writes lush, beautiful, descriptive prose, but some of her stories are intentional experiments in opposition to that style (“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” and “Spar”). She writes folklore-ish and mythological tales of animals (“Fox Magic” and “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles”) just as well as she writes George Saunders-esque literary explorations – with speculative trappings – of modern issues (“Ponies”). The stories run the gamut from science fiction to fantasy to just plain experimental strangeness (“Story Kit” and “Schrodinger’s Cathouse”). There are even a variety of Point of Views: some first person, some third person. There is not really a clear “theme” that runs through all of the stories, but I guess they generally concern relationships and connection to others, through communication and empathy. Or the lack thereof.
I would encourage anyone that wants to explore some of the best speculative short fiction that has been written in the last few years to pick up this book. You won’t be disappointed.
I've been a fan of Kij Johnson since I attended one of her writing seminars at Gen Con in 1998 and have read many of these stories before, but I found a lot that I hadn't read. Having them all in one perfectly packaged book was awesome. Small Beer Press did a great job.
It's hard for me to describe all eighteen stories in the collection, but I'll go over a few of my favorites.
26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss was first published in Asimov's Science Fiction magazine in 2008 and if you haven't read this Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy award winning short story, you're in for a treat. The premise is crazy: a woman buys a traveling monkey show . . . because she must. It's deep, amazing, and will get in your head for a long time. It's still in mine years after first reading it.
Spar, originally published in Clarksworld in 2009, won the Nebula for best short story, and this one will blow your mind. It's a science fiction nightmare about a woman who is trapped with an alien for a very long time. It's a chilling story. I hear people talking about this one at writer gatherings all the time. It's that good.
Fox Magic, originally published in 1993 in Asimov's, and won the Sturgeon Award. It became the basis for the award winning novel, Fox Woman from Tor, which I fell in love with. This is the legend of kitsune, the magical fox who became a woman and seduced a Japanese samurai lord. I loved this story and especially the novel. Fox Magic is incredibly beautiful and poignant. If you love it, read the novel for sure.
Wolf Trapping first appeared in Twilight Zone magazine in 1989, and I'd never read it before. The story is about a wolf researcher who meets a strange, feral woman who is trying to become part of a pack of wolves. The ending will leave you sick and in shock.
The Empress Jingu Fishes is a great story about a woman who can see the future, and goes through the years ahead with the bitter knowledge of what's going to happen to the people she loves. Fascinating.
The Man Who Bridged the Mist won the Hugo and Nubula award for best novella, and I found it to be beautifully crafted. It reminded me of the world I created for my Iron Dragon series a little, with the mists surrounding the land, so I loved that aspect, and was captivated all the way through.
The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change, won the World Fantasy Award, and I can see why. I hadn't read it before and loved it. The story is about a woman who becomes close to a pack of dogs after "the Change." Dogs (and all the mammals) gain the ability to speak and it throws off the whole world. Dog lovers will be very touched by this one, I think. I know I was.
Ponies, won the 2010 Nebula award for best short story, and I was fortunate enough to hear Kij read it at World Fantasy soon after it came out on Tor.com. This tale is an allegory about growing up, although this one is in a world where all the little girls get pretty winged, talking ponies, but if the girls want to be part of the popular crowd they have to, shall we say, make some changes to their beloved ponies. This is such an awesome story and when I read it in this collection, I heard Kij, in my mind reading it like she did back at World Fantasy, like she was reading a sweet story to kids, when in truth it's a nightmare.
There are a lot of other great stories in this collection, and I've savored them, letting the beauty of the words, and the expertise of the writing wash over me. The technical brilliance is one thing, but the way some of the stories stick with me is uncanny.
The title story, At the Mouth of the River of Bees, was a new one for me as well, and I saved it for last. It was about a woman (the same one from the Trickster stories) who is on a journey across the country with her old German Shepherd dog, who is dying. They run into a roadblock, the Bee River is flooding, but it's unlike any flood you've ever heard of, and the main character is drawn to find the source of the flooding. It's a journey of the heart and the mind.
Kij Johnson has a way of getting you to believe 100% in whatever world she creates, and then slips in some fantastical concept, like a river of bees stopping traffic, and it makes perfect sense.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED 5/5 STARS