(Prime Books, $29.95, 203 pages; hardcover, published in February 2005; reviewed from advance reading copy.)
Canadian fantasist Holly Phillips's first collection, In the Palace of Repose, is perhaps a premature release.
Of its nine stories, only two have been previously published: the title piece in H.P. Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror and "The New Ecology" in Canada's leading speculative-fiction magazine, On Spec. Both of these show Phillips in top form.
The title story, which follows the travails of a civil servant whose responsibilities involve tending a king who may or may not exist, is a gorgeously composed exercise in world-building. Magic simmers menacingly below the surface of everyday life in this world slightly askew from our own. Phillips plays enticing games with revelation and allusion, every revelation opening new questions with ever-more intriguing implications for the setting she has created. Phillips also balances the mundane and the fantastic to great effect: on the one hand the quotidian worries of bureaucratic life, on the other, the fearsome wonders of the story's eponymous castle.
"The New Ecology" is told in a brash, exciting voice. A young woman with strange powers fears she is being hunted and moves from city to city to avoid her pursuers. The tale is filled with surprises, moves forward at a brisk pace, and again involves a secret world, both wondrous and frightening, that lurks below the surface of the mundane. This theme recurs frequently in Phillips's fiction.
Of the seven stories original to this collection, only "A Woman's Bones" -- a powerful and terrifying archeological tale about the rediscovery of an ancient warrior goddess -- compares favourably with the book's previously published selections.
Every story showcases Phillips's deft understated touch, her evocative allusions, her depth of vocabulary, her knack for beautifully complex sentences. Yet, the six remaining new pieces all feel somewhat shapeless, as if they had yet to be sculpted into stories.
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© Claude Lalumière 1 October 2005, 28 January 2006