by Margo Lanagan
Published by Allen and Unwin
208 pages, 2007
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
My first encounter with Margo Lanagan's writing was through one of her mainstream works, a young adult novel. I admit that I didn't care for it, so it was a very pleasant surprise indeed when I learned that this writer could write fantasy brilliantly.
Her first collection of short fantasy tales, Black Juice, was on the short list for the Australian Children's Book Council's book of the year award for older readers, as well as winning a World Fantasy Award, a Victorian Premier's Award for Young Adult Literature and a Ditmar (the Australian version of the Hugo Award). It contained a story, "Singing My Sister Down," that has won several awards in its own right, plus being shortlisted for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and has to be the scariest piece of fiction I have ever read. Black Juice was followed by another collection, White Time. Red Spikes is the most recent, and a fine collection it is, too.
The author admits, in her afterword, that she was strongly influenced by others in the writing of her tales, and reading them, the influence is fairly clear. Which doesn't make them any less fascinating. There isn't a dud story in the collection, although I have my favorites.
The one I liked best, being an old softie, is the first, "Baby Jane," in which a young boy whose mother is a midwife of the New Age hippyish persuasion, finds himself having to deliver a baby for a heroic fantasy warrior queen. The heavily pregnant queen has arrived in our world with her chief counsellor and a... well, a bear. They arrive in the boy's home via tiny figurines and an Indian-In-The-Cupboard scenario, but they are full-sized and very real. The queen is believably dirty and ignorant of modern -- or New Age -- childbirth procedures. The bear has to be distracted with honey. Then the party continues on its way, leaving the baby to be protected and raised in our world. It's a good idea to start the collection with a gentle story and quite a contrast to the horror of "Singing My Sister Down," the opening tale of Black Juice!
"Monkey's Paternoster" is a story about the sacred monkeys at a temple in India, told from the viewpoint of one of the monkeys, In "A Good Heart," a young peasant whose sweetheart has married the local lord's son learns more about his darling than he would have liked.
"Winkie" is a scary piece; I mean, have you ever really thought about the implications of the nursery rhyme "Wee Willie Winkie"? Margo Lanagan has. You'll shudder over this one.
In "A Feather In The Breast of God" a small pet bird returns from the other side to save his beloved mistress from messing up her life. Another gentle tale.
"Hero Vale" gives a fantasy slant to school bullying (though admittedly not the kind of school I am familiar with) "Forever Upward" is set in an island community whose male members have been taken away by the church and whose women have their own way of handling it. In "Mouse Maker" the narrator experiments with a certain form of witchcraft.
"Under Hell, Over Heaven" deals with the old Catholic notion of Limbo and a sad tale it is, too: what if your only crime was that you weren't baptized and you could only look at heaven from outside?
All in all, well worth buying, whether for yourself or the teenager in your life. | January 2007
Sue Bursztynski is the author of several children's books, including the CBC Notable Book Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science and Your Cat Could Be A Spy. Her fiction has been published in various SF magazines. She publishes two blogs, a general one at http://greatraven.blogspot.com and a review/SF blog at http://suebursztynski.blogspot.com. She lives in Australia.