Review of Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight by Cat Rambo (Paper Golem Press, 2009)

In my blurb for Cat Rambo’s new collection, Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight (Paper Golem Press, 2009), I wrote that reading her stories is like “reading the literature from worlds that don’t exist. She writes as that world’s Dickens, its Calvino, its Fredrick Douglass, its E. B. White. Rather than merely relaying the events of other realities, as some fantasy and science fiction writers might, at her best Cat Rambo acts as a literary interpreter. Within these imagined fictions — sometimes disjunctive and metaphysical, sometimes lucid and deceptively simple — there are embedded many new ways for looking at the history and social realities of our own world. Dying little girls may not be carried away by winged pigs, but what does it mean that we want so badly to believe that they might be? Cat Rambo’s fiction invites these questions, but the ultimate interpretation is left for the reader to ponder, and to answer if she can.”

I attended Clarion West with Cat Rambo in 2005 and have been a devoted fan of her work ever since. I’ve published her work on PodCastle – Magnificent Pigs; Dead Girl’s Wedding March; “I’ll Gnaw Your Bones,” the Manticore Said; Foam on the Water; In Order to Conserve; and the upcoming Narrative of a Beast’s Life, scheduled for January 19th. Paper Golem Press sent me an ARC of this book so that I could review its contents for possible publication in PodCastle, and so that I could blurb it, both of which I was more than happy to do.

Our host, the esteemed Mr. VanderMeer, lists Cat as one of his favorite fantasists. Cat’s stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Clarkesworld Magazine, and… everywhere. Once she burst onto the scene as a professional writer after Clarion West, she seemed to appear simultaneously in all magazines at once, as if she were at the center of some sort of physics-defying quantum phenomenon from a Star Trek movie.

Rambo’s collection features twenty fantasy stories, including a number of originals. Publisher’s Weekly calls Cat’s collection a “two-sided coin,” indicating that there are both excellent and weak stories in the collection. The reviewer seems to have taken against Cat’s fantasy world, Tabat, which has been developed over the course of stories, role playing games, and as-yet-unpublished novels. The reviewer says that these stories are full of “predictable genre tropes that fall flat.” I disagree with Publisher’s Weekly on the specifics — in my opinion, “Narrative of a Beast’s Life” is the strongest story in the collection, while “Eagle-Haunted Lake Sammamish” is one of the weaker ones — but the reviewer’s broader point is supportable. Rambo’s collection is sometimes uneven, as is perhaps inevitable in a collection of twenty stories.

It’s not that I don’t love this collection. When Cat’s stories are at their best, they’re more than good — they’re emotional, triumphant, beautifully rendered and profound. Her best stories are among the best published anywhere in the industry. This collection is well-worth purchasing for the strength and beauty of stories like “Heart in a Box,” “Sugar,” “Rare Pears and Greengages,” and “The Dead Girl’s Wedding March.”

The best stories in the collection are “’I’ll Gnaw Your Bones,’ the Manticore Said” and “The Narrative of a Beast’s Life,” both set in Cat’s Tabat. “I’ll Gnaw Your Bones,” originally published at Clarkesworld here, uses its fantasy setting to contemplate issues of personhood, eugenics, and everyday cruelty. The reader watches a sympathetic narrator commit an act that would be (rightly) condemned as evil in today’s society – but which is normal to Tabatians, just as it was normal in our culture for decades.

One of the most powerful tools in the arsenal of fantasy and science fiction writers is the ability to place familiar things in an unfamiliar setting and, thereby, force readers to reexamine them. Take this metaphor – I used to live in Santa Cruz, California, where I was constantly surrounded by redwoods. At first, I paid attention to every detail of them – the beauty of the red trunks stretching upward, the light shifting through the needles, the smell of bark and soil. But as I lived among the trees, they became part of the background of my existence. It wasn’t until I left for a while and came back to visit that I rediscovered them – unfamiliarity allowed me to regard each branch and gnarl anew.

Cat’s stories create a similar kind of disjunction when they recast slavery and eugenics in a fantasy setting. Her “Narrative of a Beast’s Life” is a fantasy mirror of the slave narratives which were written and published by escaped slaves before the civil war and then used by abolitionists as tools for converting Northerners to their cause. Much contemporary African American fiction plays on slave narratives in some way – for instance, Jones’s Known World and Morrison’s Beloved have both been described as taking on the project of re-imagining the lost histories of people who could not tell their stories. Rambo’s re-imagining of American slavery adds to this discourse in a different way, by altering the slave narrative subtly to create a new perspective for analyzing the original.

Of course, “Narrative of a Beast’s Life” also brings the slave narrative form to readers who may never have read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in which case it has the potential to mirror the purpose of the original work by simply recreating a slave’s eye view of slavery (a thing which, until very recently, was not considered particularly important). Slave narratives are interesting in their own right, as well as being politically and historically invaluable, and Rambo’s homage is well-written and full of lush detail.

The publisher’s weekly reviewer appears to be one of those people who’s never read Douglass. In light of their complaint that the story is “long-winded… without a trace of tension or intrigue” one must wonder what kind of threats would count as tension. Slavery and beating don’t. Neither do castration and lobotomy, apparently. What does?

Many of the strong stories are reprints. For instance, there’s “Heart in a Box” from Strange Horizons, a retelling of The Little Mermaid that concentrates on the oft-forgotten detail that each of the little mermaid’s human steps is incredibly painful. “The Dead Girl’s Wedding March” from Fantasy Magazine is a myth from a high fantasy world, its melancholy mood and slow, dark imagery rendered in beautiful prose. And “The Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race” from Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show tells the sometimes poignant, sometimes funny story of P.T. Barnum and Jumbo.

However, I was delighted to discover several excellent pieces among the originals as well. “Rare Pears and Greengages” is a moving Victorian fantasy, imagining a Dickensian world where the unfortunate characters include magical creatures as well as humans. “In Order to Conserve” is a witty ramble, posing a world in which concepts, instead of oil, are the non-renewable resource whose scarcity threatens society. Perhaps my favorite was “The Silent Familiar,” a tale about a wizard whose dragon familiar decides to lay an egg, which made me smile with its quirky humor until it snuck up to a surprisingly emotional ending.

The weaker stories come in two broad varieties. The first pair are urban fantasies – “Eagle-Haunted Lake Sammamish” and “Dew Drop Coffee Lounge” – which suffer from cliché settings, lacking character development, and easy morals. Neither of these stories has a central spark of originality or the redeeming uniqueness of Cat’s usual voice. Both are derivative, as though the eye that observed these stories is someone else’s.

The other weak stories are all from Cat’s world of Tabat. Here, again, I find myself in agreement with the Publisher’s Weekly reviewer – these stories are “filled with predictable genre tropes that fall flat.” Cat’s Tabat stories are excellent when they focus on the social conflicts of that world, its intricacies and ambiguities, the places where it deviates from other high fantasy realms. In stories like “Twine of Flame,” “In the Lesser Southern Isles,” and the titular “Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight,” the world of Tabat appears one-dimensional – and, like the urban fantasies, derivative — just another epic realm that could have been written by any author.

While I greatly enjoyed Cat’s collection, and while I would enthusiastically recommend it to any fantasy reader, I do think the collection would have benefited from some trimming. If Cat were presenting her best twelve fantasy stories – instead of her best twelve fantasy stories and eight lesser fantasy stories – then this collection would have read smoothly and powerfully, transitioning from one “wow” moment to the next. That streamlined collection would rival the best I’ve read.

Luckily, Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight is still excellent. It’s available at Amazon and through Paper Golem Press.

3 comments on “Review of Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight by Cat Rambo (Paper Golem Press, 2009)

  1. One of the things that fascinates me about publishing collections and anthologies is wondering how other readers will sort the stories in the book. Having read all the stories in Cat’s book multiple times, I find I’m still as haunted by the images in “Sugar” as the first time I read it. I think it will always be my favorite.

    P.S. I had a similar reaction to the redwoods, back during my time in Santa Cruz. ;)

  2. Rachel Swirsky says:

    I love “Sugar.” The details, the character development, the wrenching mood… it’s a beautiful story. Compared to Bones and Beat’s Life, I think it has fewer ideas in it that appeal to my inner radical/anthropologist, but it’s an undeniably beautiful piece.

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