Friday, November 6, 2015

The New Queen of the Smoke-Eyed Dreamscape

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 60
Cat Rambo, Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight: Stories

Spirits attack a fort full of despair on the frontier of a mythic kingdom. A girl is cursed to carry flame sprites throughout the land, creating a magical massacre. Tourists on the dingy side of Bangkok meet a woman who may or may not be Andersen's Little Mermaid. An elemental sorceress gambles everything to save her nation and discovers that victory may be the key to her greatest loss.

Cat Rambo, hailed as a leading voice in fantastic fiction, collects twenty stories of the speculative, the bone-chilling, and the uncanny. The tales in this volume are so strange, so evocative, and so different from one another that it's hard to believe they were all written by the same person. Rambo has a remarkable talent for plunging readers into alien realities in only a few pages, a talent that's become lamentably rare in recent short fiction.

The title story features many themes common in Rambo’s writing. (No, she doesn’t use a pseudonym.) Describing a young woman’s encounters with the general of an all-woman army, Rambo delves into meanings of gender and role in worlds where post-industrial Western traditions don’t apply. The story arose from Rambo’s involvement with a multi-player online RPG, underlining the reciprocal relationship Rambo’s writing has with media technologies.

Sometimes Rambo wears her influences undisguised upon her sleeves. “I’ll Gnaw Your Bones, the Manticore Said” has a very Harlan Ellison-esque title, though the story feels more Poe-like in its themes, and Lovecraftian in its imagery. Other times, Rambo’s influences vanish subtly beneath her sophisticated storytelling. “The Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race,” told from an animal’s POV, seamlessly combines a slumgullion of fictional and non-fictional, mainstream and fringe sources.

Cat Rambo
Literary critics and writing teachers frequently pooh-pooh genre fiction as mere escapism—as though there’s anything “mere” about stepping outside our lives and circumstances to perceive the world through new eyes. Okay, sometimes mass-market paperback fiction lowballs its audience’s intelligence. And sometimes audiences willingly live down to whatever expectations well-crafted marketing lays upon them. Perhaps ours is an age of tragically lowered standards.

But Cat Rambo, and her shoestring publisher, Paper Golem, represent the other extreme of genre writing. Like gazing into a funhouse mirror, Rambo’s fiction presents us with ourselves from another viewpoint, making us consider our situations from outside our limited, self-important perspective. Though never overtly political, Rambo’s best stories challenge her readers’ status quo. Every story places, or traps, its readers in the spotlight. Ultimately, every story is about us.

Consider “Narrative of a Beast’s Life.” In both form and content, it mirrors 19th Century American slave narratives, like Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass, while reminding us that the slaveholding mentality persists in post-industrial society. “Eagle-Haunted Lake Sammamish” questions what it means to “purchase” land forcibly seized from its original indigenous inhabitants. Can we ever truly own something stolen by our ancestors?

Also, Rambo continues a tradition in American fiction. From Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, to Lovecraft’s Arkham, Massachusetts, American writers love creating fictional cities which come into existence, not whole and ready to visit, but distant, complex, glimpsed only through characters’ partial viewpoints. Rambo’s distant city of Tabat, a manifestation of the human id, isn’t a place we visit. It’s a place that ambushes, engulfs, and strands mere tourists.

These stories refuse to be limited to one or a few genres. Rambo freely mixes heroic fantasy with psychological horror, or steampunk with westerns. Hers is an innovative mind that will stop at nothing to tell the best possible story, and she writes for eager, curious readers. Every character she creates has a distinctive voice, and every story she tells expands her world, and the reader's as well.

I applaud Rambo for choosing a small press. However, the wing-and-a-prayer budget of Paper Golem apparently leaves Rambo without an editor, and her stories could intermittently use a little clean-up. Several sentences drop important words, and sometimes her punctuation could be called quirky. Though these are distracting, they never diminish my enjoyment. Some of Rambo's story notes, on the other hand, contain spoilers; read her notes only after the stories.

Rambo comes to the reading public with glowing recommendations from luminaries like Jeff VanderMeer and John Barth, and it's easy to see why. Her unconventional fantasy refuses to follow familiar paths, and her writing eclipses most genre fiction coming pell-mell from the major publishing houses. This debut short story collection, signalled the arrival of a bold voice in fantasy literature, promise Rambo, now SFWA president, has fulfilled with aplomb.

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