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November 11th, 2005

Review: "In the Palace of Repose" Holly Phillips [Nov. 11th, 2005|02:32 pm]
I'm not going to excerpt the entire review, as it runs four entire pages, but:

Living Inside the Mystery
"When I was starting my own career nearly thirty years ago, the path to publication for an aspiring newcomer was plainly staked out by hundreds of genre writers who had gone before. What you did was, you broke into the magazines, learning your trade and acquiring a name for yourself. Then came book publication, either of a novel, or, if you were very lucky (as I was), with a collection of your short stories.

Of course, I was really the last generation to imprint fully on such a template. With the gradual diminishment of the importance of SF zines in the field (not in my estimation, I hasten to add!), and the upwelling of many lines of SF books from many “younger” publishers (DAW, Tor, et al), as well as the establishment of franchise fiction, which allowed many a newbie to make a start, the old route of apprenticeship via short stories came to a dead end.

Oh, sure, occasionally a Ted Chiang would arise to fulfill the ancient pattern, but the very sparsity of such personages testified to the prevalence of the replacement paradigm: new authors debuted in book form immediately, almost always with a novel.

What was in the past and remains today the most rare kind of debut for a writer has to be the appearance in book form of a volume of original stories never previously seen.

We encounter such a unicorn of a book today in the form of Holly Phillips’s In the Palace of Repose (Prime Books, hardcover, $29.95, 208 pages, ISBN 1-894815-58-0). This volume of nine stories consists of seven virginal ones and only two that have seen print previously. It comes with an introduction by talented fantasist Sean Stewart and an encomium from noted author Michael Bishop that predispose the reader to receptiveness. But for us old salts who came up through the periodical ranks, a niggling doubt remains: can these stories be any good if no magazine had swooped upon them prior to now?

Well, what if they were simply never marketed? What if the author wanted to present them as a whole? What if there were simply not enough niches for them in the dwindling marketplace, or editorial quirkiness caused them to be slighted?

I can’t say what led Holly Phillips to offer her wares in this fashion. But what I can do is dispense with any similar doubts you yourself might be having in connection with this book.

These are some accomplished, splendid, enticing—even masterful—stories. Holly Phillips steps out for her first time on stage, all unknown, and brings down the house with a restrained yet bold performance. We are present at the birth of something major.

. . .

What makes these stories so exceptional? Several things.

First is Phillips’s easy familiarity with many of the classic tropes of the field, and the voices of the geniuses who have worked such veins in the past, a familiarity which allows her to put refreshing spins on her tales while still hewing to a proud lineage. The title story, with its dreaming god, invokes Dunsany, but the addition of imperial bureacracy adds a piquantly mundane and comic element to the mix, in the manner of Jeffrey Ford. “The New Ecology” speaks to the Ellisonian notion of strange new gods arising to fill vacant niches, but does so in a hopeful rather than despairing fashion. Echoes of Le Guin’s anthropological slant permeates “A Woman’s Bones,” but the “primitive” culture is not overly privileged. Bradbury, as he must, surfaces in the autumnal atmosphere of “One of the Hungry Ones,” but it’s an unromantic Bradbury. Tinges of a modified Lovecraft permeate “In the Light of Tomorrow’s Sun,” while the John Crowley of Beasts (1976) seems to inform “Summer Ice.”

In short, Phillips’s models for her fictions, her influences and guides, are among the very best. And in the subtlety of her narratives, the depth of her characterizations, and the determined ambiguity and open-endedness of her resolutions, she does honor to them all.

Phillips also has a knack for beginning her stories sharply, with awesome hooks, even though the reader is often delightfully left—in the words of Tiptree—“a mile underground in the dark.” She continues to hold the reader with silky, limpid prose that neither strains too heavily after fine writing, nor disdains a certain poetry. She knows instinctively just how much description is enough to conjure up vivid mental images without being over-deterministic. Consider the passage in “The New Ecology” where our heroine summons up “the Largest One” from its slumber. Just a sentence or three, and you have a perfect conception of this monster.

Lastly, Phillips deals with intriguing themes. The search for identity is perhaps her signature. Time and again, her protagonists must learn who they really are, in the light of who society says they must be. “The Other Grace” presents this struggle most overtly, but it’s present in nearly every piece herein.

Whether Phillips continues in the short-story mode or moves on to novels, she’s a writer to watch.

And really, who cares in what venues she first appears? Just let her continue to write."

—Paul di Filippo
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