Review: Animythical Tales, by Sarah Totton

 

Animythical_tales_cover

(Fantastic Books 2010: ISBN: 9781604599329)

(review first published on the now-demised Specusphere website, May 2010)

 

I first encountered the writing of award-winning Canadian author Sarah Totton somewhat over two years ago, when I was in the process of assembling Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine issue 35: Sarah’s pharmaceutical-SF story ‘The Stone Man’ had run the slush gauntlet and was one of the stories I was considering using in the issue. But I blinked, and ‘The Stone Man’ ended up instead in issue 33, under another editor. Subsequent feedback on the issue identified Sarah’s story as one of the highlights, and rightly so.

The stories in Animythical Tales are very different in timbre to ‘The Stone Man’ – Totton’s tales here are fantasy of varying shades, and suffused with the magic of the mundane, the mysterious, and the flatly impossible. It’s a slim book – ten stories, in around 120 pages – but it would certainly be wrong to equate ‘slim’ with ‘slight’ in this case.

‘A Fish Story’ opens the proceedings. It’s the cheerfully contrary story of Dagmar, a dowager’s daughter who persists against all reason and rebuff in wooing Henry, a bell tower boy who is indisputably, even scandalously, beneath her station. Dagmar’s resilience is inspiring … and if you’re expecting happy-ever-after from all this, then perhaps you’re as hopeless a case as Dagmar herself.

‘The Man with a Seahorse Head’ is a breathtaking piece of flash fiction, which in two pages manages to create a world so vivid and so steeped in bathos that it deserves the description ‘haunting’. It’s wistful, and tragic, and quietly patient.

‘Flatrock Sunners’ is a sinister, elusive coming-of-age story, in which another world intrudes, and seeks to lay claim to, the life of a schoolboy whose father bears the scars of a similar sequence of events decades before. The magic on display here is dark; incomprehensible; ominous.

In ‘Polly Medley’, an isolated field researcher – his days consisting pretty much of cataloguing the seabirds that congregate on the cliffs visible from his island post – becomes overwhelmed by memories. It’s a quiet piece, similar in theme to the preceding story in some respects, but with much less malevolence at play.

‘Bluecoat Jack’ is the name the protagonist gives to his latest, doomed, conduit. The fate of these victims is only suggested with obliquity, which perhaps heightens the tension, the sense of loss, here. It’s never explained exactly what Spring does with her victims, nor how Weyland disposes of them afterwards, but from the moment we encounter him, blue-coated Jack is a marked man, and he knows it. The mood here is rather reminiscent of ‘Flatrock Sunners’, though the worldbuilding is quite different.

‘A Sip from the Cup of Enlightenment’ is the second story in the collection to reference the ostensibly Welsh location Gwyntog (the other is ‘Polly Medley’), but there’s no thematic connection between the two stories that I can identify. Anders is a substitute History teacher at the Gwyntog School, but history at Gwyntog does not seem to be the same as history elsewhere in the English-speaking world, and Anders rebels against indoctrinating the pupils with the school’s patent mix of ritual, arcane tradition, and forgotten magic – that is, until he makes a discovery among the school’s outbuildings. I found it very difficult not to keep thinking ‘Defence Against The Dark Arts Master’ while I was reading this, but the implied comparison isn’t really appropriate: where JK Rowling’s magic is a codified, prescribed, easily-comprehended property, Totton’s is elusive and unfathomable. The detail and the pacing of this story perhaps give the clearest indication on offer here of what might be expected from a Sarah Totton novel, which one hopes will eventuate in the not-too-distant future.

‘Choke Point’ is the least fantastic story on offer here, in terms of any magical or otherworldly content. Steve’s epiphany is in some respects unremarkable, but it’s meticulously observed and carefully drawn. A quiet, poignant story.

‘The Bone Fisher’s Apprentice’ is a brittle, gritty exploration of the ambivalent relationship between the beachcombing Bone Fisher and his tide-abandoned, adopted daughter. To the Bone Fisher, other people are an irrelevance, a disruption of his pursuit of a hermetic existence; to his daughter, they are an enigma, a risk, perhaps a promise. That is, until she decides she’s got in too deep. This story is a more bittersweet counterpart in many ways (and connected not merely by their similarly piscine titles) to the ‘Fish Story’ that opens the collection.

‘A Little Tea and Personal Magnetism’ catalogues the misadventures, and innermost mental workings, of George Yarmouth Whynot, would-be Great British Novelist, would-be Philanthropist, and sporadically fearless Tamer of would-be Lions. George is a character constructed very much in the manner of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, but without Wooster’s street smarts, savoir faire, or keen intellect (which, if you’re at all familiar with Wooster, is saying something). It’s an immensely playful piece, and big fun.

In ‘The Teasewater Five’, eccentric spinster Anna-Lisa’s grief over a stillborn son feeds her creative impulse in a manner which her brother Marlow finds increasingly disturbing, but which he cannot help but abet. The ‘Five’ of the title, the siblings’ shared creations, take on a life of their own, to Anna-Lisa’s indulgent relief and Marlow’s growing consternation.

If you’re looking for a collection of straightforward and pleasantly dependable fantasy stories, then you would have picked up the wrong book in this case. Totton’s prose is challenging, confronting, elusive and darkly allegorical, redolent with themes of loss, yearning, and incomprehensible otherness. Amongst Australian writers whose work I’ve encountered, there are marked similarities to the worldbuilding and themes of Deborah Biancotti’s stories, infused with the compellingly treacherous undercurrents running through Margo Lanagan’s writing; but Totton’s voice is undeniably her own, and well worth hearing on its own merits.

Sarah Totton keeps her web site at http://www.sarahtotton.com and Fantastic Books can be found at www.fantasticbooks.wilderpublications.com.

 

(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2010)

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