Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, by Elizabeth Hand
Publisher: Open Road Media
251 pages, eBook
Published 3rd June 2014
(original publ. 2006)
“Pavane for a Prince of the Air”
“The Least Trumps”
“The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations”
“Calypso in Berlin”
“The Saffron Gatherers”
There is a wonderful duality on display in this fabulous collection from Elizabeth Hand and a complexity of readings that make it a powerful piece of literary fantasy. First there is the title alone. Saffron and Brimstone evokes the biological and chemical. Or two forms of the biological (botanical and animal as in the brimstone moth). Or two forms of similar animals (brimstone moth vs. butterfly). Or two conflicting aromas, pleasantly fragrant and sulfurous foul. Or two conflicting styles held in careful balance, the achingly dark and the moments of peace and hope.
These are indeed Strange Stories. They fit into the typical paradoxical mold of Hand’s work, new interpretations and celebrations of the classical and old, for example the New Age or neo-paganism themes of “Pavane for a Prince of the Air”or the mythological inspirations behind “The Lost Domain”. The organization of the collection itself represents a dichotomy, four thematically-linked novella length works followed by another set of intentionally linked (though originally published separately) tales that make up “The Lost Domian”.
Yet, there is nothing outlandish about any of the stories here, despite fantastic or mythological elements, they all seem so familiar. This oxymoronic effect of strange familiarity is achieved through Hand’s mastery of the novella length. With all of their strangeness, or even horror, Hand fills her stories with details that verge on the mundane, that could be thrown away to achieve a short story that had the same plot and even themes, but would then end up horribly disfigured in style and tone. It is this extra space of the novella and details of the ordinary moments of the character’s life that grounds the stories in a reality and provides humanity to the characters. Again, a duality between the fantastic and the mundane, sometimes splitting the story (as in the opening “Cleopatra Brimstone”) into something that feels like two separate linked plots, a before and an after.
This transition between before and after characterizes the themes that link the first four novellas of the collection. Metamorphosis is rendered most literally in “Cleopatra Brimstone” with its symbolic inclusion of butterflies and the transformation of the protagonist into an agent of dark revenge fantasy after the trauma of rape. Representing the most blatant duality with Hand the author herself, “Cleopatra Brimstone” is brilliant and staggering despite its overt themes and clear autobiographical aspects.
The three novellas that follow continue this theme of metamorphosis, albeit with increasing subtlety. “Pavane for a Prince of the Air” is more akin to literary short fiction to anything genre, chronicling a man’s transformation into death from cancer and the transitional effects this has on his partner and friend. This beautiful tale is an emotional wringer, exploring death and mourning from a holistic point of view that shows how human lives and deaths have the power to transform. “The Least Trumps” and “Wonderwall” continue this exploration of transition, focusing on female protagonists at two stages of life, when older in relation to a mother and friends from the past, and when young at the height of rebellious angst. Each are exceptional and begin to thematically bridge with the second half of the collection by moving further from a focus on metamorphosis and increasingly onto desire.
I personally did not enjoy “The Lost Domain” nearly as much as the other half of Saffron and Brimstone. (Aside: The reason is their relation to Greek myth. I wasn’t a lit or Classics major, haven’t read much of mythology since high school, and what I have read drove me nuts or to boredom with its complex interconnected characters. Classical myth in literature is like immunology in biology to me – full of headache-inducing names and memorization.)
However, I do recognize the quality of each of the pieces here. As story variations, I read them as treatments on the theme of desire, much like Blatnik’s Law of Desire collection that I recently reviewed. Again here, Hand is exploring desire from its inherent property of being ultimately unattainable. Of the four variations I appreciate “Echo” the most, due in part to my actual familiarity with that myth, its apocalyptic setting, and having read the story at least twice before (its original publication and its recent inclusion in The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 that I also just reviewed. Getting to read “Echo” again in conjunction with the other stories of this series is worthwhile, given their original separate publications.
I’ve enjoyed previous works by Hand that I’ve had the opportunity to review through the same publisher: Last Summer on Mars Hill and Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol. I enjoyed them both, but this collection has impressed me the most with its focus and purity. Though Saffron and Brimstone has been out for a number of years, this new eBook release by Open Road Media offers an excellent cheap option to either introduce yourself to Hand’s talents or revisit her superb prose.
Five Stars out of Five
Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from Open Road Media via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.