It’s hard to believe that it’s taken until 2012 to get an actual, printed volume of Kij Johnson’s short stories. After all, Kij has been publishing stories for a quarter of a century now, and several of them have won the genre’s highest awards. Yes, there’s a ten year old collection up on Fictionwise, but still, you’d think that someone since then would have managed to collect her best works in print, right? Thank goodness Small Beer Press is here to make things right with At the Mouth of the River of the Bees, a stunning collection of short fiction by one of fantasy’s most talented authors.
Regular Tor.com readers will probably be familiar with Kij Johnson’s name thanks to the unforgettable story “Ponies,” which was originally published here and went on to win the author her second Nebula in 2011. It’s a simple, gut-wrenchingly direct story that’s impossible to erase from your memory once it’s set its claws in you. (Go ahead, read it right now. We’ll wait. It’s probably the single best way to convince you that this is a book you need to read.)
Of course, the year before Kij won that Nebula for “Ponies,” she’d already won her first Nebula for “Spar,” another one of those stories that’s impossible to scrub from your memory, once you’ve been exposed it. (In a Clarkesworld interview, the author actually said: “In some ways I’m the lucky one, because having written it I can walk away. Readers are stuck with it in their minds.”) To this day, I can’t read anything related to aliens and alien communication without thinking of “Spar.” She took the concept of alienation and boiled it down to its very purest essence, then amplified what was left to almost unbearable levels. If Sartre had written tentacle porn, it might have looked like this.
And, since I’m listing Kij’s Nebula wins, just this year she won the award again, for Best Novella this time, with “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” which then went on to snag this year's Hugo Award for Best Novella. This story shows a very different side to the author. Partly that’s due to the longer format, of course: where “Ponies” and “Spar” are emotion and concept reduced to bare essentials and a minimum of words, the novella delivers a more traditional narrative, complete with a world and a cast of characters that expand and evolve. I don’t want to spoil your experience, so I’ll just say that it’s another stunning story.
More award winners? The surreal and lovely “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss,” which opens this collection, won the World Fantasy Award in 2008. It’s a wonderful story that balances the complex, damaged emotional state of its protagonist with the mysterious whimsy of her simian companions and, at the end, wraps it all together with a charming, sly twist. It feels like something Jonathan Carroll and Julio Cortázar might have come up with, had they ever had the chance to collaborate.
Right on the heels of “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss,” we get the Theodore Sturgeon Award-winning “Fox Magic,” told from the point of view of a fox girl who beguiles a Japanese noble. It’s one of several stories in this collection showing characters who experience different versions of reality, but rather than merely rehashing something like The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance, Kij Johnson’s complicates matters with her gentle, confused protagonist. This is one of the best and most representative stories in the collection.
Speaking of representative: people who read a story like “Fox Magic” first, rather than the recent Nebula winners “Spar” or “Ponies,” will probably have a much better idea of what to expect from the average Kij Johnson story. If there is such a thing, of course. It’s quite likely that there’s a large group of readers coming to this collection expecting it to be full of shocking high-impact vignettes like “Spar” and “Ponies,” but it’ll quickly become clear that Johnson has many more cards up her sleeve. (I’m not even sure if it’s possible for one author to churn out stories of that type at a consistent pace. I’d be concerned for their welfare, to be honest.)
At the Mouth of the River of Bees contains 18 stories that share a few characteristics here and there but are mostly pleasant, highly individual surprises. Most of them loosely fall under the category “fantasy,” although a few are definitely SF. Some of them are set in Asian-themed fantasy worlds. A surprising amount of them deal with animals in unique ways: monkeys, foxes, dogs, cats, horses, to name a few. And there are those ponies, of course.
Regardless of length, many of these stories employ an economy of wording that, at times, seems to be at odds with their content: Kij Johnson has the odd ability to pull you into a fantastical situation with just a few carefully placed words. Then, once you’re in, she often employs a narrative voice that’s oddly rational and somehow calming, as if there’s really nothing weird going on here. The hypnotic quality of the author’s prose gently guides you away from the path of normalcy, and somehow you find yourself taking the surreality of the surroundings and the brute force of the emotions at face value.
Until, a sentence or a paragraph or a page or two later, realization sets in. Then, depending on the kind of reader you are, you’ll just let the story carry you to its ending, or you’ll immediately turn back a few pages to try and pinpoint the spot where you got sucked into the story. It’s almost exactly the opposite of the type of story that sets things up normally and then suddenly pulls the rug out from under your feet with a Big Revelation. As intense and alien as they often are, there’s also a comforting sense of stability to many of these stories.
Of course, that stability can be still highly confusing, depending on the style the author sets off in. Maybe the most challenging story in the collection, “Story Kit,” wraps metafictional references around (what I suspect might be) an intensely personal history. It’s the genuinely painful story of a writer struggling with a story and her life, all at once: “Some losses are too personal to write about, too searing to face. Easier to distance them in some fashion: zombies, or a ghost story.” In one part of the story, she uses a gorgeous quote from (her own) “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss,” followed by “unless it’s been used by someone else in a story she cannot recall.” And maybe the most memorable quote from the whole book, which I would have used as the title for this review if not for its length: “The writer’s craft is no longer a skill she has learned, but a ship she sails. It remains hard to control in strong winds.”
In the end, the majority of these stories are nothing short of excellent, and even the few that aren’t are still worth your time. (Don’t worry though—most of them really are excellent, and if you want to sample before buying, you can read some of them at the author’s website.) After the few stories I’d read by Kij Johnson so far, I had extremely high hopes for this collection, and I’m happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Very highly recommended.