THEY DO THE SAME THINGS DIFFERENT THERE: THE BEST WEIRD FANTASY OF ROBERT SHEARMAN

22130073They Do the Same Things Different There:
The Best Weird Fantasy of Robert Shearman

By Robert Shearman
Published by ChiZine Publications – 16th September 2014
ISBN 1771483008 – 384 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


Read immediately following Helen Marshall’s Gifts for the One Who Comes After, a similar dark, weird literary fantasy collection from ChiZine, I found Shearman’s more difficult to approach and get into. Reading a large chunk of this type of intense, subtle material like these all at once probably had a large impact in this and I will need to return to this collection again sometime to give it the full attention of my brain it deserves.
What I can relate about this is that it is wonderfully written, the language exquisite, and the stories unsettling. For those who really enjoy Marshall’s work, this is something you’ll want to read, and vice versa. It makes sense that ChiZine had both collections out at the same time. Though they have much in common in style, and particularly tone of their stories, the two writers are of course not exactly the same and readers may have their preference. In general I found Shearman’s stories to be even more surreal and nuanced, with less of the classic horror elements that Marshall’s stories contain. Both are great, but every potential reader may still have one that they slightly prefer and Shearman’s style of ‘weirdness’ is something new for me, different (as the title suggests) from the usual subgenre of literary surreal horror.
Shearman’s tales here are filled with non-traditional, fantastic situations or settings and the plots are usually not clear at first, or follow the path you might expect them to based on their set-up. Unlike in Marshall’s collection there is not any consistent thread of theme to Shearman’s stories that I could discern, but another reading when I’m less burnt out may reveal more. Regardless how  you first read these I think that the collection is something that a fan of this genre would want to return to and find new facets that weren’t picked up on originally. If oddity is your thing or something you’d like to try, don’t let this collection pass you by.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from ChiZine Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

GIFTS FOR THE ONE WHO COMES AFTER, by Helen Marshall

22130074

Gifts for the One Who Comes After
By Helen Marshall
Published by ChiZine – 16th September 2014
ISBN 1771483024 – 270 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
– The Hanging Game
– Secondhand Magic
– I’m the Lady of Good Times, She Said
– Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects
– All My Love, a Fishhook
– In the Year of Omens
– The Santa Claus Parade
– The Zhanell Adler Brass Spyglass
– Death and the Girl from Pi Delta Zeta
– Crossroads and Gateways
– Ship House
– A Brief History of Science Fiction
– Supply Limited, Act Now
– We Ruin the Sky
– In the Moonlight, the Skin of You
– The Gallery of the Eliminated
– The Slipway Grey

The disturbing cover of Marshall’s second collection and its feature on i09.com made me eagerly seek this out and I quickly found that it was exactly the type of short fiction that I most enjoy, well written with a distinct shade of darkness. To call her stories dark and unsettling is accurate, but the supernatural and horrific elements of these stories provide an enshrouding tone for the basic character exploration beneath. By delving into a reality of human emotions rather than a focus on the odd aspects Marshall makes her stories graceful and stirring like the similar use of darkness by writers like Neil Gaiman, Karen Russell, or Shirley Jackson.
There isn’t a single story in this collection that I didn’t enjoy and I now will have to go back and read her first collection from ChiZine, Hair Side, Flesh Side, which I expect should be equally as sublime and haunting as this. The stories making up Gifts for the One Who Comes After are mostly unified by character explorations around the theme of family: couples, parents, children. The frequent presence of children gives some of the stories an additional chill because of that sense (correct or not) revolving around the ‘innocence’ of childhood.
The opening story “The Hanging Game” is one of my favorites in the collection, and it perfectly introduces the major theme of Gifts for the One Who Comes After. In this story, children play a grim and treacherous game that has passed down through the generations in their community, a twisted tradition of ritual. “The Hanging Game” was originally published at Tor.com, so I’d encourage you to go read it there for a great sense of what the rest of this collection is like.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from ChiZine Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Irregular Verbs and Other Stories, by Matthew Johnson

Irregular Verbs and Other Stories, by Matthew Johnson
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
ISBN: 1771481773
340 pages, paperback
Published 18th June 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“Irregular Verbs”
“Another Country”
“Public Safety”
“Beyond the Fields You Know”
“What You Couldn’t Leave Behind”
“When We Have Time”
“The Wise Foolish Son”
“Long Pig”
“Talking Blues”
“The Face of the Waters”
“Outside Chance”
“Closing Time”
“Lagos”
“The Dragon’s Lesson”
Au coeur des ombres
“Jump, Frog!”
“The Afflicted”
“Holdfast”
“The Coldest War”
“Written by the Winners”
“Heroic Measures”
“The Last Islanders”

 The cover to this collection popped out to me on NetGalley, and the name Matthew Johnson immediately rang a bell of vague familiarity. I knew I’d read a lot by the author, mostly in Asimov’s Science Fiction, and also in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and respected online publications like Strange Horizons and Fantasy Magazine (the latter now merged into Lightspeed).

I recalled his name with fondness, not a sense of trepidation. But I couldn’t really remember any particular story clearly from a title, nor did I have any sense in my head of what kind of story Johnson writes.

Going through this grand debut collection of twenty-two stories spanning over a decade of productivity, I begin to get a sense why. Johnson’s writing doesn’t fit neatly into a single sub-genre mold, nor within the confines of any particular style (to my note). His stories are incredibly varied within the vast SF/Fantasy field and the breadth of markets where he has published is a testament to how well he can move across the spectrum.

While reading the contents didn’t jog specific memories, several of the stories became immediately familiar once starting them anew in this collection. With that special joy of rediscovering something beloved but neglected I savored this group of stories, notably “Another Country” and “The Afflicted”. Though I recalled loving each originally, I had never connected that they were written by the same person, likely because these two stories are very different on the surface – one an alternate history or time travel mashup of sorts and another a post-apocalyptic zombie tale.

Yet both feature a strong emotional resonance that reaches beyond the plot. For Johnson’s stories are full of realistic characters with basic human struggles that readers can relate to. Even when those characters are temporally displaced Romans struggling in present day culture and bureaucracy, or a young woman trying to provide medical aid and hope to the populace of a plague-ravaged wasteland.

Others, including in the introduction to this collection, have discussed the importance of language and communication as a defining characteristic link between Johnson’s stories. This theme is certainly present in several stories here, mostly notably the title piece of the collection, “Irregular Verbs”. New to me, this opening story is profoundly powerful and moving, the type of short story that should be featured in a Best of… literary collection regardless of the fantasy ‘created’ world in which it is set. A perfect tale tot start this collection, because you don’t want to stop reading after it closes.

The plot and culture of Irregular Verbs rests on this theme of linguistic communication, of words. I believe a better (well more accurate) common theme between Johnson’s works, however, involves the setting. It isn’t so much as Johnson’s characters are struggling to find the proper precise words to communicate, it is that they are struggling to exist in a time and a place where they are not really meant to be. His characters are ‘fish out of water’ or ‘strangers in a strange land’.

For instance in the wonderfully spooky “Beyond the Fields You Know” (the sole story I’d classify as horror in the collection) the child protagonist is enticed into a dark, magical realm of slavery, a place and position he should not be in, and that of course he is trying to find escape from. And sometimes the character learns that the setting they are trying to free themselves from is actually what they need most (“Closing Time”). In others (“The Dragon’s Lesson” or the previously mentioned “Another Country” and “The Afflicted”) the characters struggle to maintain a personal culture or moral outlook that is in direct opposition to the society they find themselves within.

With such a large collection as this with stories varying in every way imaginable, including from humorously light to deeply serious, it is likely that there will be some things in this collection that you might not like as much as others. And that’s okay. There are a few authors out there who I can adore for each thing they produce, but many quality writers like Johnson who will produce something amazing one day and something that just isn’t my cup of tea the next.

The high points of this vast collection, though, make it an easy recommendation for any fan of speculative fiction, particularly if you are someone that normally doesn’t read the shorter published works out there. A handful of exceptional tales that deserve universal note beyond the realms of genre (such as the lead-off “Irregular Verbs”) also should give this collection a certain broader appeal.

Four Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from ChiZine Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.