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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Saffron and Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand

This is a collection of short stories by one of my favorite writers. Hand generally writes a kind of urban fantasy, with elements of ancient mythology, horror, romanticism, and the Seventies punk/club scene, but her work can vary wildly. Of what I've read, two stand out in my mind. Waking the Moon is my favorite novel, told from the viewpoint of an annoyingly incurious woman who is only half aware of a great battle raging around her between an Illuminati-style secret organization and an ancient Goddess cult bent on destroying the world (to be fair, her focus is on protecting or just supporting the people she loves). Glimmering, on the other hand, was a dystopian novel set in the near future (and depressingly prescient), something I did not enjoy at all; but then, I hate reading dystopias.

The eight stories in Saffron and Brimstone cover these styles, and more. Thematically, they are divided in two, with the first four being stand-alone stories originally published elsewhere that superficially are quite different from each other. One of the title stories, "Cleopatra Brimstone," is a chilling tale about the way women can be subdued and pinned down; "The Least Trumps" is about opening oneself to life and the world via a couple of mysterious Tarot cards; "Pavane for a Prince of the Air" is a meditation on the rituals of death and the reactions loved ones have; and "Wonderwall" is about trying desperately to fit in, to find something to belong to. What connects them is Hand's style, and the use of intricate, vibrant imagery. Hand tends to return to the same types of characters (misfit women who struggle with college and the underground scene in Washington D.C. in the seventies; beautiful, intelligent, androgynous men who don't quite belong in the world; artists of all kinds), but her characters are affecting and well drawn.

The latter four stories contain these same elements, yet they are linked, stories Hand wrote that were inspired by a particular friendship and world events like September 11, with overt references to Greek mythology. And so "Calypso in Berlin" is about Calypso, who has learned her lesson and won't let a man leave, using him instead as her muse; "Kronia" is about all the ways two people may or may not have met; and "The Saffron Gatherers" connects San Francisco to the ancient island of Thera. Themes of loss, heartbreak, and creation run through them all.

But the absolute standout in the quartet, indeed in the entire collection, is "Echo," which moves the story of Echo and Narcissus to the near future. The narrator, completely isolated on an island off the coast of Maine after a series of unexplained apocalyptic events, has all but disappeared from the world -- all that remains are the words she writes for her former lover, which she sends off into the ether on the rare occasion she can pick up an internet connection. This story was stark and beautiful and bleak. It left me chilled and haunted. I can think of very few writers who can do that so beautifully.

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