Most fantasy stories contain only a small ration of magic or amazement. A flash of the uncanny, or a glimpse of supernatural wonders, no matter how many cheesy fantasy trappings they're clothed in. So it's really refreshing to read Patricia A. McKillip's beautifully spare book of stories, Wonders of the Invisible World, and realize that fantasy literature really can be transporting, after all.
Anybody who wants to write fantasy, or know what fantasy stories are really capable of, should read this new collection.
The 16 stories in Wonders of the Invisible World span the past few decades, with the earliest dating from the mid-1980s. They also range from high fantasy, to urban fantasy, to fairy tales, to something approaching magical realism, with a couple of stories set in the future or on other planets. In fact, part of the amazement of reading this collection comes from the fact that no two stories are the same, in theme or approach — and yet, they feel of a piece.
Each story is like a master class in drawing the reader into a setting and a group of characters, using humor and surprise and irony and weirdness to twist you around once you're already hooked. Her characters tend to be introspective and self-aware, but also flawed and sometimes self-absorbed to the point where they miss stuff the reader sees going on. And yet, all too often, both the reader and the main character are completely misled as to what's going on in a story — until McKillip pulls the veil away and suddenly you see the real story unfolding, not the one you thought you were reading.
Several of these 16 stories feel as though they end just as the story is getting started — finally, things are clicking into place, and the story is just getting good. And then McKillip finishes, because she's shown you what she wanted you to see — and you look back and realize that you already know enough to see what's going to happen next. McKillip deftly sketches the moment when someone makes a life-altering decision, and then there's no need to see how that decision actually plays out. Or the moment when a person realizes that his or her arrogance or self-absorption has blinded them to things that are happening right in front of him/her.
A lot of McKillip's characters have a script in their heads, and a way that they believe their interactions with the world should play out — and then the world turns out to be a much stranger place than they realized. In the best stories, both the characters' scripts and the startling reality of the world each turn out to be rich enough to justify a story in their own right.
In "Undine," for example, a mystical sea creature goes to our world to find a husband — and finds something very different than what she expected, something terrible and yet mundane. In "The Fortune-Teller," a girl steals a group of very strange tarot cards, so she can set herself up as a fortune teller to the rich and gullible — but what the cards reveal is the last thing she's expecting.
And you should be aware: This book is a slow read. These are not short stories that you can breeze through, reading one after the other like consuming a box of crackers. Each of McKillip's stories is dense with description and little touches that inform everything that's going on, and you may find yourself going back and re-reading bits of the story you just finished to see how it all fits together. It's taken me a couple weeks to finish reading this book, because I kept pausing to see just how she was doing some of these amazing reversals and revelations.
Luckily, McKillip's prose is worth it. Every word is evocative and chosen with immense care. Here's the opening to her story "Undine":
All of my sisters caught mortals that way. I have more sisters than I can count, and they've all had more husbands than they can count. It's easy, they told me. And when you get tired of them you just let them go. Sometimes they find their way back to their world, where they sit around a lot with a gaffed look in their eyes, their mouths loosing words slowly like bubbles drifting away. Other times they just die in our world. They don't float like mortals anymore. They sink down, lie among the water weeds and stones at the bottom, their skin turning pearly over time, tiny snails clustering in their hair.
Easy. When it was time for my first, my sisters showed me how to find my way. In our deep, cool, opalescent pools, our reedy, light-stained waters, time passes so slowly you hardly notice it. Things rarely ever change. Even the enormous, jewel-winged dragonflies that dart among the reeds have been there longer than I have. To catch humans, I have to rise up into their time, pull them down into ours. It takes practice, which is why so many of them die.
It's all just lovely and strange and often a bit sad. There are also stories about the women who are supposed to be helpers or inspiration to men, but not the creators themselves — like "Out of the Woods," about a woman who goes to work as a housekeeper for a young sorcerer who's oblivious to the magic she keeps seeing happening nearby. And "The Kelpie," about a beautiful artist's model who wants to be an artist herself — and is forced to wonder who's more of a problem: the jerk who wants to paint her, or the nice guy who wants to marry her?
Not all of these stories are complete triumphs — the two outright science fiction stories, the title story and "A Gift to be Simple," both feel a little bit out of place and unformed. They both mix religious themes with futuristic science fiction notions, in a way that's probably supposed to be profound but somehow falls a bit flat. But pretty much all the other stories succeed marvelously — as character studies, as world-building, as mind-expanding bits of narrative.
Anybody who loves fantasy — not just for what most fantasy does, but for what the genre is really capable of — should definitely pick this book up. It's like a perfect encapsulation of fantasy writing at its most brave and beautiful.