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The Night Circus, like many very popular books, seems to divide opinion. Lots of "best of the year" lists and five-star reviews, but quiet a few 1- and 2-star reviews as well. There's a lot of magic here, both in the literal sense and metaphorically in term of atmosphere and wonder. Circus imagery abounds, which is not a surprise given the title, and the "black and white with a dash of red" color scheme of the cover seems to be the color of just about everyone and everything in the story. Descriptions are rich with detail, and it would be fair to say Erin Morgenstern devotes at least as much attention to describing the accoutrements of the circus as developing her major characters.

Le Cirque des RĂªves, a seemingly mystical traveling circus which appears without warning, vanishes just as suddenly, and is only open to patrons at night. A pair of young magicians, Celia and Marco, are brought up in lifelong magical training, each by an adoptive father figure, in preparation for between these two older men which will be played out by Celia and Marco, at some time in the future.

If the book has one failing, it's a greater focus on the performances and mechanisms of the circus and the magical contest than on the internal workings of the characters. The story is not perfect, but the writing is so lushly descriptive and image-rich, the setting so attractive, I found myself in love with it all anyway. I believe this is one of those books prospective readers can easily judge by the cover and synopsis. If it doesn't seem like your kind of thing, it almost certainly isn't. Those readers to whom the central conceit seems interesting will likely be enchanted and forgive the book its few shortcomings. Like me, many will adore this book and find themselves eagerly awaiting a followup from this first-time novelist.
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Nightingale Songs is the third story collection from Canadian writer Simon Strantzas, following Beneath the Surface and Cold to the Touch. While these earlier collections might be characterized by more of a Ligotti or Lovecraft vibe, Nightingale Songs takes the reader into quieter, more restrained territory. The influences underlying these stories are acknowledged up-front, in John Langan's introduction, which mentions Ramsay Campbell and Robert Aickman. I perceive more of an Aickman feel here. Robert Aickman is a favorite of many readers of horror fiction, but some consider his work too vague or low-key. The same quality is true of Strantzas's work. His work is so accomplished, so cleanly polished, that he's quickly acquired a devoted following. At the same time, the style and the mood of these stories may not satisfy those readers seeking a more visceral or dynamic experience. This collection is most suited to those who enjoy a subtle, introspective read in which the reader's imagination is called upon to enrich and enliven the experience.

One word that comes to mind, as an overall descriptor for these stories as a group, is restrained. The emotions at play here aren't terror, rage or mania. The characters in Nightingale Songs worry. They suffer anxiety or hesitation. In some cases they doubt, or wonder if they saw what they think they saw, if they can trust their memory. When they obsess, their focus is directed inward. When they act, they do so quietly.

The writing is transparent in style. The simplicity and clarity of the prose is its strength, though some readers will consider this its weakness. Sentences are stripped-down and polished, and convey the sense that a lot more craft and care goes into this almost Zen-like level of straightforwardness than is immediately apparent to the reader. Much writing in the horror community is concerned with splashy set pieces and gotcha moments, so a writer who cares so much about subtler, slower effects stands out from the crowd.

At the same time, I'd argue most of the stories could benefit from a bit more sensory detail. Descriptive passages seem intentionally vague. I'd like to see how a Strantzas story worked, with all the same tension and disquiet, but with greater fleshing-out of the sensory world of the story. The inner world of the character is described with subtlety and nuance, and I think these stories could be improved by giving the reader a more vivid sense (mostly visual) of the characters and their surroundings. This may be completely my own bias, and doesn't indicate Strantzas has failed to achieve his aim with these stories. My impression is that the author has rendered characters and settings in an intentionally elliptical way, leaving many details blank, to be filled-in by the reader's imagination.

There is much to respect here in terms of writerly craft and care. These stories all have a distinctive clarity, a sort of crystalline straightforwardness. I enjoyed this collection and will definitely keep an eye on Strantzas in the future.

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If not for a recommendation on Laird Barron's blog, I might never have picked up this excellent collection (to which Barron provided a foreword). Prior to the release of this collection, all I'd seen from Livia Llewellyn was "Brimstone Orange," too short a piece to give much of a sense of this writer's capabilities. I'm very glad I didn't miss what turned out to be one of the best single author short story collections I've come across in recent years.

Llewellyn's prose style is strongly visual and evocative. Readers who prefer their prose simple and declarative may find this a too rich, but those enjoy a writer with a vibrant, poetic approach to putting words together will love it. Especially as a debut collection, Engines of Desire is noteworthy for the strength and richness of its language.

That's not to say these stories are for everyone. The mood is uniformly dark, at times bitterly so. These stories cover a wide ground from post-apocalyptic science fiction to erotica, from psychological horror to dark fantasy. At first I thought the book might be too scattered genre-wise, but further along I realized the stories here were held together not by genre conventions, but by thematic commonalities and a consistency to the personal concerns of the characters, apart from place, time or the existence of monsters or magic. Whatever the trappings of one story or another, all clearly arise out of a strong, unified creative impetus. In terms of cumulative effect, these stories hold together quite well, both individually and as a collection.

The collection opens with "Horses," a bleak and psychologically extreme piece of post-apocalyptic SF. It effectively lets the reader know what they're in for. This is followed by a dramatic shift to what is effectively (despite the insertion of a few elements that feel vaguely "fantastic" but which are not really part of the story's core) a realistic story of a sexually obsessed and self-destructive college student. Llewellyn depicts the college girl obsessed with the wrong guy with the same raw desperation with which she draws characters beset by a disintegrating.

Among the rest of the collection, the best include "The Four-Hundred," the title story "The Engines of Desire," and "Her Deepness." This last, an ambitious novella, is a really impressive example of fantasy world building. Truly dark, deeply weird and at times surreal.

While a few of these stories were less effective on the level of compelling plot or characters than they were in terms of language and mood, I found none of them less than satisfying overall. If we can extrapolate from an author's debut collection to guess what they may be capable of, I really can't wait to see what Livia Llewellyn does next.


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[ GriffinWords ]

August 2013

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