Magic Is a Little Bit Alive: How the World Became Quiet by Rachel Swirsky

Just the most basic book description should be enough to set some people running to their preferred purveyor of books to purchase this new title from Subterranean Press: “How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present and Future is a collection of short stories by Rachel Swirsky.” Yep. That’ll do it for me.

If you follow short-form SF and fantasy at all, you’ll probably be familiar with the author’s name. If you’re like me, the possibility of owning a collection of her stories may send you into the same type of frenzied excitement most commonly seen in felines when people dangle catnip in front of their faces. (“Want. Want! Want NOW!”) And if you’re not familiar with the author yet, you’re in luck, because you can sample some of Swirsky’s finest work right here on Tor.com before (inevitably) purchasing the book. My personal favorite, out of the ones published on this site at least, is the stunning, Hugo-nominated “Eros, Philia, Agape.”

So, the abridged version of this review: I love this collection and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who has an interest in intelligent, emotionally powerful and occasionally challenging short fiction. Not every story was a slam dunk for me, but taken as a whole, this is an excellent collection.

“My story should have ended on the day I died. Instead, it began there.” So starts the Nebula-winning novella “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window,” which kicks off this collection. It’s the stunning, winding tale of Naeva, a sorceress who involuntarily finds herself yanked from the peace of death into a bewildering series of futures that challenge her every preconception. As with many of Swirsky’s best tales, it forces the reader to question the gender and power roles imposed by society (or, in this case, several societies) without offering easy answers. There’s an odd but enjoyable contrast between the languorous, dreamy atmosphere of this story and its disturbing moral dilemmas. This is one of those novellas that offers more food for thought than many full-length novels do.

At this point I should probably mention that some of these stories—including the aforementioned novella, “The Monster’s Million Faces,” and “With Singleness of Heart”—feature or deal specifically with sexual violence in varying degrees of directness. It’s actually the first book I remember reading that has a trigger warning right up front, before the Table of Contents. Now, to be clear: Swirsky’s treatment of rape is thought-provoking and valuable and, well, more or less the direct opposite of those books that throw it out casually or brush it off or use it as a cheap plot device. This is deep, and deeply moving, fiction about a difficult subject.

Another favorite in the collection is “Heartstrung,” which pulls off the very difficult trick of literalizing a metaphor while still staying meaningful and deeply affecting. It explores a horrid rite of passage with suppressed but shockingly intense emotion, in a way that reminded me of Kij Johnson’s “Ponies.” This is simply an unforgettable gem of a story.

Further into the collection you’ll find my personal favorite, “Eros, Philia, Agape.” Thanks to the magic of Wikipedia I learned that the title lists three of the four Greek words for love. Makes sense: the story itself is an elaborate exploration of different expressions and components of love, alternating between the points of view of a rich, broken woman and the robot lover she purchased. It sounds crude, summed up this way, but it’s an unbelievably rich and complex tale that digs uncomfortably deep into exactly how big a part of a relationship is ownership. It’s a heartbreaking story that really deserves a full post/review in itself. (Coincidentally, I saw this tweet right after I finished rereading the story for this review. That ending… it just killed me.)

Lest you think it’s all doom and gloom in this amazing collection, I’d like to briefly mention a few stories that show off Swirsky’s quirky sense of humor (say that three times fast!). In order of appearance: the rat-filled pirate romp “The Adventures of Captain Black Heart Wentworth: A Nautical Tail” reads like a rum-soaked (yet at times disturbingly cute) Brian Jacques fever dream. “Marrying the Sun” is a Bridget Jones’ Diary-style rom-com mixed with mythology, about a contemporary woman marrying Helios. (Opening line: “The wedding went well until the bride caught fire.”) And “Again and Again and Again” is an awesome little tale showing a never-ending generation gap. And all three of these stories also present serious food for thought—about colonialism, gender relations, and evolving forms of various prejudices, respectively. So, layers, always more layers. This is a good collection to read and reread, and reread again.

The only negative I really have about this book (aside from a few stories that didn’t hit me as strongly as the others, though I suspect that may be personal preference more than anything else) is the lack of some form of author notes, an introduction or Afterword maybe. Something to help place these stories in context would have been great, especially given that this is the first time many of these stories have been collected. I respect the decision to present them without external info that might influence the reader, whether this was a conscious decision or not, but as a fan of the author, I’d have loved to at least have the option to read the author’s thoughts.

I haven’t even touched on half of the stories in the collection, because I fear that I’m already drawing this out too long. So, for completion’s sake, here are the titles of the stories I haven’t mentioned yet: “Monstrous Embrace,” “The Sea of Trees,” “Fields of Gold,” “A Monkey Will Never Be Rid of Its Black Hands,” “Diving after the Moon,” “Scene from a Dystopia,” “The Taste of Promises,” “Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind,” “How the World Became Quiet: A Post-Human Creation Myth,” and “Speech Strata.” Altogether, Subterranean Press has delivered over 300 pages of Rachel Swirsky’s short fiction.

I suspect that what’s true for me will be true for many people who follow the SFF short story world closely: I’d read several of Rachel Swirksy’s stories before, because they appeared in markets I’m familiar with or because I caught them in anthologies. Still, it’s a special treat to read them grouped together like this. As with all great collections, the effect is cumulative, more than the sum of its parts. Highly recommended.

 

How the World Became Quiet is available September 30th from Subterranean Press
Read an excerpt from the collection here on Tor.com


Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. You can find him on Twitter, and his website is Far Beyond Reality.

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