I’ve never yet seen a collection of short stories which I loved from cover to cover. There’s always at least one stinker, and a couple of average stories, and one, maybe two, really great and memorable ones. Wonders of the Invisible World is, unfortunately, no exception. While I will staunchly champion McKillip as an above-average writer whose prose has influenced my writing and my life, I must agree with my fellow reviewers that now and again, she misses a step or two. In this, I’m boldly disagreeing with another Green Man Review favorite author.
Wonders begins with an enthusiastic Introduction by none other than Charles de Lint, who says: “She’s one of the few writers I know who hasn’t written a bad book. I don’t think she has it in her.” Well…let’s look at the collected stories themselves, shall we, and decide from there. I will note that this is one of the rare collections that I find worthy of a story-by-story examination, so settle in with some coffee, folks; this is a long review.
The collection opens with the title story, “Wonders of the Invisible World”. It’s a twist, McKillip-style, on the trope of time travelers going back to research the past first-hand; in this case, the researcher takes on the form of an angel and appears to Cotton Mather. This one is a good and solid tale, too quickly over and worth multiple rereadings. The ending image is one that not only wraps up the story perfectly but hooked in and haunted me for days afterwards: definitely one of McKillip’s better efforts.
The second story, “Out of the Woods”, is a bit more difficult for me. It’s a compelling story of a woman who works as housekeeper for a would-be wizard; ironically, she seems able to perceive the magic he seeks but is ultimately blind to, just as her husband grows increasingly blind to his own wife. I loved this one, right up to the ending, which left me a bit puzzled and even annoyed. I have little patience with stories that fade out on such an ethereal, non-resolute note; that may be only my own flaw as a reader, as I don’t care for most “literary” stories for this precise reason. The story itself is completely gorgeous, and I have and will read it again and again–but knowing that I don’t like the ending sours me a bit more each time.
“The Kelpie”, on the other hand, brings me back around to full applause: it’s a dark and complex story of a group of artists in long-ago–well, on rereading, I realized I had assumed it to be England, but in truth there’s no direct locational cues beyond references to Thomas the Rhymer and Boudicca as inspiration. That’s the sort of trick I love seeing McKillip employ: she evokes a vivid location without anchors, which gives it an intrinsic sense of hovering on the borders of reality and dream. The story itself does the same, layering intricate visions upon mazy half-reality, mixing love and hatred, hope and despair, until the triumphant, completely satisfying ending. This one, I think, deserves to be called a stunning achievement–and it’s a long story, which may be what helps it succeed better than the shorter preceding tales.
“Hunter’s Moon” is a startling gem of a story, beginning with lost children in a modern-day wood and twisting from the Hansel and Gretel echo into a thoroughly fascinating variation on the Wild Hunt. I don’t have more to say about this one; it’s short, it’s quick, it’s compelling.
“Oak Hill” is an odd one, as all Bordertown stories seem to be; the narrator searches for magic, for elves, for acceptance and transformation into the beautiful Other; it’s something of an ugly duckling tale, in the end, with intriguing twists along the way. I’m not an unreserved fan of the Bordertown setting, so I have a mixed reaction to this one; it’s a good story, a solid story–I just can’t get enthused about it. Devoted fans of Bordertown will doubtless love it.
“The Fortune-Teller” puts me back to the same judgement as “Out of the Woods”; it’s a very short story about a thief and con artist who steals a pack of fortune-telling cards and winds up regretting that choice. It’s a good story, with perhaps a slightly predictable arc, and feels a bit scanty at the end, as though it could easily have been a longer and more satisfying story.
“Jack O’Lantern” follows, revisiting the world of artists and portrait painting; and this one, while considerably shorter than “The Kelpie”, offers just as solid and satisfying a read. The reader is left with the elusive echoes of true magic and a smile at the romantic impulsiveness of the young woman who dashes through the story, dragging us recklessly along into the inevitable danger–and her surprising response to it.
“Knight of the Well” takes us far from Reality into a fantastical tale of water-spirits and love gone awry, and is another thoroughly satisfactory offering. Garner, a knight, and his beloved Damaris (betrothed, of course, to another) are forced to work through a series of personal, political, and magical disasters, emerging at the other end not only triumphant but better people for the process. It’s a simple enough premise, and perhaps McKillip’s treatment of it is simpler than her treatment of “The Kelpie”–but this is still a strong and very rereadable tale.
“Naming Day”, a wry retort on the ubiquitious School of Magic stories floating around these days, is my favorite tale out of the entire collection. I first read it in the collection “Wizards: Magical Tales”, and loved it then. I could comfortably reread this story alone a dozen times–oh, all right, I have…and I still adore it. Briskly paced and sharply funny around the edges, it deserves to be named a classic of fantastic short fiction.
“Byndley” is an excellent tale of a man who dared to steal from the Queen of Faerie–and found the price higher than he could bear. This is one to curl up with in front of a nice winter’s fire, and read, reread, and read aloud, as an antidote to some of the more pallid elfin-court stories one might unfortunately encounter.
“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is another one I’d encountered previously, in “A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales”. It remains as good a read as ever: a young soldier sets out to increase his fortunes by wedding a princess–his pick of twelve, if he can only solve the mystery of where they go every night. It’s an intriguing tale with an odd twist at the end–I don’t entirely buy the implication of how the whole thing got started–but it’s a solid, fun story al the same, and well worth repeated readings.
Drawing towards the end now, “Undine” is a fantastically funny story about plans gone terribly awry for a hapless siren. It’s one of the shorter stories in this collection, and one of the best, easily standing just shy of “Naming Day” in my personal ranking chart. Like “Hunter’s Moon”, it’s best read rather than talked about, as any explanation of either story risks ruining the punch line.
“Xmas Cruise,” however, is at the other end of the scale–abstract to the point of resembling Jackson Pollock’s odder works. I had no grasp on this story at all, despite forcing myself to read it multiple times; it’s simply too far into the sideways for my taste. I can’t even exactly say what it’s about: a cruise? A marriage going to hell? The end of the world? I’m as adrift as the boat in this tale.
“A Gift to be Simple” came as a relief: rather more concrete, this tale of a cloister of teachers and thinkers in need of younger converts to carry on their work. The older ones persevere in their work, but the younger ones who come to train at the cloister always turn away and rejoin the outside world to make their fortunes from what they’ve learned. The solution requires a bit of creative interpretation of the Laws the cloister lives under, but serves well enough to close the story out on a satisfying note.
“The Old Woman and the Storm”, next to last in this collection, displays some of McKillip’s most lyrical descriptive prose: “The Sun, the painter, got out her paintbrushes of light. She drenched a bird in red and yellow as it swooped by…She painted stones and reflections of stones in the river.” It’s a more abstract story, verging at times dangerously close to the untethered feel of “Xmas Cruise”, but staying just this side of losing me completely. It’s probably not one I’ll read often, but it’s a close enough match between vision and words on paper that I can bridge the gap and fall into it without difficulty, largely on the strength of the vividly worded descriptions.
The collection closes with “The Doorkeeper of Khaat”, a smashing story that still brought tears to my eyes after the third reading, which is as high as my praise gets: it’s a passionate story of love and family, life and death, distant war and immediate cultural misunderstandings, interwoven with poetry and the best of McKillip’s lyrical prose. This is one where the vision and the words produced are, in my opinion, an absolute match; a world and a story that will take a very long time indeed to fade from my mind.
As an afterword, McKillip’s Guest of Honor Speech from WisCon 2004 serves as an interesting glimpse into the various circumstances that produced her stories. Unfortunately, while I can see it making an excellent speech (if a long one), in written form it drags on a bit. The opening question, “What Inspires Me”, does not really get addressed at all except in the very last three paragraphs–the bulk of the speech deals with tales of her life, stories of her wedding, of moving, and so forth. At the very end, she returns to the question, with a less than satisfactory answer:
Ever since I was young, the imagination, like the raw stuff of magic, has seemed to me a kind of formless, fluid pool of enormous possibility, both good and bad, dangerous and powerful, very like the magma in a volcano. ….At first, I felt very precariously balanced on top of my private volcano, spinning word and image into tales as quickly as I could to keep up with the unstable forces I was trying to harness. Lately, I’ve been feeling rather at home there. …What I set out to do…was to write a series of novels that were like paintings in a gallery by the same artist. …And now I’m reaching the the end of that series.//I have no idea what will come next.
She’s certainly accomplished a staggering amount to date, so I’m eager to find out what next might contain. As far as the collection to hand right now goes, however: Out of sixteen stories, I found one to be a stinker, two that could have been better, several enjoyables, and three shining examples of the author’s magnificent skill. That’s in line with what I expected to find, but I will say that the shining examples are so much better than most that I’m more likely to revisit this collection than I would most of the ones on my shelf, more often, and sooner.
In the opening quote of the foreword to this review, McKillip speaks of rereading a story as a sign that a need has not been met. I respectfully disagree: I find myself rereading stories because they have something important to tell me about the world I live in, and about myself; and human memory being what it is, I forget those things and must be constantly reminded. That is what the great writers do for me: they find those weak spots in my own life, strengthen them, and are always there for me when I begin to crumble under the distractions of life once more. McKillip is a sturdy reliable when it comes to reminding me to reach, reach, reach, no matter what the gap between vision and production; the effort, the work, the process all hold their own magic. I have no doubt that whatever she does next, I will snatch it up eagerly, and read it with high expectations; flawed or not, she’s still one of the best fantasy writers out there, and I’m eternally grateful for the chance at this review copy.