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Iron Mosaic

by Michael Cobley

(Immanion Press, hardback £17.99.)

Review by Eric Brown

cover scanMichael Cobley is best known for his darkly epic fantasy Shadowkings trilogy, but over the years he has been steadily turning out stories which fall broadly into the SF and fantasy categories, and others which slip between the genre gaps. Iron Mosaic, a collection of seventeen tales, collects all but two of his shorter published stories to date.

It's divided into three sections, Fantasies and Fables, Out of Caledonia, and From the Wires to the Stars. The first contains five fantasy stories cut from wildly contrasting cloth. "Writing for a Dying" is a wry ghost-story from the point of view of a murdered writer. "The Recondite Rebus" is a more traditional affair, a puzzle story replete with wizards and apprentices and evil derring-do. The best of the first section is the accomplished "Have You Heard the Word?" about a writer craving fame who overhears The Word, which, passed down the generations, confers a terrible price on the hearer's soul. It's a neat take on the Faustian fable, well-written and nicely observed. "With CoAxe in Tibet" reads like a meld of high fantasy and cyberpunk, a vertiginous verbal riff that sweeps the reader along despite the slight story-line. With "Travelling in the Dark" we're in more traditional fantasy territory, as Cobley revisits the setting of Shadowkings.

Out of Caledonia contains four stories connected by their Scottish settings. "Tactics at Twilight" is a quiet, contemplative two-hander set in an alternate-world Scotland, in which opposing philosophies are played out between captive and captor on the former's voyage into exile. "Synopsis of a Looking-Glass Rebellion" is a fractured narrative in the Ballardian style, a daring political treatise on rebellion and revolution. "Heartbreak (with incidental music)" is neither SF nor fantasy, but an inner space exploration of one man's feelings on the breakdown of an affair: it's poignant and bleak and contains some of Cobley's best writing. "Waltz in Flexitime", his first professionally published piece, is a humorous time-travel romp through a chronically fractured Glasgow which begins with the simple premise of a hapless soul who loses his watch.

From the Wires to the Stars contains Cobley's hardcore SF. It's much influenced, verbally and contextually, by the cyberpunk movement, and presents two of the writer's very best stories. "Corrosion" is out-and-out Gibson-inspired cp. It's got everything, a brilliantly realised future London as you've never seen it before: driven characters with damaged pasts, corporate shenanigans, a wildly-inventive techno-Maguffin, a great plot and some fine writing. "The Undertaker Faker Caper" is another incendiary take on high-tec SF, this time virtual reality. Cobley paints a convincing portrait of what VR might very well be like, from the brilliant nomenclature of the technology to its visual aspect, and the complex consequences of being a download in a virtual world.

Iron Mosaic is a fascinating collection, though it's not without its flaws. I'd quibble with the presentation order of the contents, with two weaker stories opening the volume, and its two finest buried away near the end. Also, in two or three stories, Cobley allows verbal dexterity to come before the writer's duty to tell a story, resulting in tales which are triumphs of form over content. (And while I'm nit-picking, it would have been nice to know the date of each story's original publication).

For the many admirers of the Shadowkings Trilogy, the themes and dark concerns of these stories prefigure those of the novels; for the historian of the genre, Cobley's take on the cyberpunk ethos will strike a chord; and the reader new to this writer will find stories across the genres which are both entertaining and thought-provoking.

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