Book Review: Leviathan Wept and Other Stories | Daniel Abraham

in #books6 years ago

High fantasy to hard science fiction, screwball comedy to gut-punching tragedy, but always, always intelligent, compassionate, thoughtful, and deeply, deeply human.

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A sadly now out-of-print hardcover collection of nine short stories by writer Daniel Abraham (who you may remember as a favorite of mine through my reviews of The Long Price Quartet and The Dagger and the Coin) issued by Subterranean Press in... what was it... 2010, yes.

This is my second time reading it and I enjoyed it even more than the first time around. It also reinforces my desire for a second Abraham short story collection as he has a good couple dozen pieces of short fiction to his name dating back to the to 1996.

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The nine stories here are all excellent. Abraham displays his skill once again at conjuring fully-fleshed characters in just a few sentences. His penchant for precise, yet evocative prose, is all across these stories.

There's a great depth of variety here - the description was accurate. The first story is his Hugo nominee, "The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairytale of Economics," which was originally written for the John Klima-edited anthology Logorrhea. It's a delightful tale, keeping well to the three-challenges structure of fairy tales, and to the tone of such, but with the unique (and fresh) slant of economics.

The next story is "Flat Diane," which won the 2005 International Horror Guild Award (and was nominated for a 2005 Nebula, to boot). The story was inspired by the Flat Stanley Project, and so in the story, Ian traces out his daughter Diane to send Flat Diane out into the world. But he's accidentally sent her soul along with it, and soon enough Diane's behavior begins to change and she begins to know things only Flat Diane could've known.

It's not a story that instantly scares you but rather a slow, insidious, creeping fear that emerges the more you think about it. It's a beautiful and powerful story, too, a metaphor for the nightmares parents have of sending their children out into the world and then wondering if they did so too soon.

The next story is "The Best Monkey," wherein a journalist in the far future is sent to investigate a company which, naturally, is headed up by his ex. It's a story concerning the nature of beauty and attraction, and aesthetic choice - particularly what could happen if our perceptions are altered.

This one is somewhat disappointing, despite its interesting ideas, because Jimmy is surprisingly underdeveloped, providing very little in the way of his own ideas beyond discomfort with change. The ideas are presented, but never engaged with - a little bit more thought reveals a great many holes in the story.

"The Support Technician Tango" is a comedy based around the singularly hilarious idea of a living self-help book - one that, when you pick it up, always gives you just the wrong advice at just the right time. This story is marvelously animated by its central cast of distinctive characters and the ending itself is wonderful and heart-warming.

The fifth story, right in the middle, is one previously unpublished except for this collection. "A Hunter in Arin-Qin" is narrated by the lonely, haunted voice of a single mother whose child has been stolen away, enlivened by flashbacks to her past, ruminations on both past and present, and a companion who joins her for a time during her journey to find her daughter.

"Leviathan Wept" is another story with fascinating ideas at its core - and this idea, combined with its near-present-day setting, got it into the 22nd Annual Year's Best Science Fiction and the 18th Annual Mammoth Book of Best New Science Fiction and a reprint, in 2013, in Telling Tales: The Clarion West 30th Anniversary Anthology.

Despite that, I never quite fully latched on to it that way. It's a story with moments of beauty and terror alike, of course, and the near-future setting is animated with far more vividity than Abraham's typical world-building (likely since he didn't have to do much of it since it was already done for him) but the ending seemed disappointing, the idea presented, but ultimately, not engaged with.

Perhaps, though, I have it wrong. The idea is that, just as neurons are part of a large structure, even if they are not aware of it, perhaps we, too, are part of a larger structure, but not aware of it. We, to some extent, have figured out how to affect the neurons. Perhaps the larger structure is learning how to affect us. And so, perhaps, the ending is entirely suitable: we ultimately don't have much power. And isn't that a scary thought? (I may end up loving this story yet...)

"Exclusion" bases itself around another cool idea - that we can literally block out people in reality, thus that we can't see them, hear them, or interact with them at all. It is from this story that the in-flap line "What if you had a holocaust and nobody came?" originates: as the introduction to the story, a way of explaining the concept. What follows is a very human story. The moral you can guess from the idea alone, but nevertheless, it's told very well, the interactions feeling very real.

The second-to-last story, "As Sweet," plays on Shakespeare when Rosaline appears to the main character, changing her perception of her husband. Rosaline herself is caught in a bind, living in a world of monogamy while teaching of passion and wild abandon - the same sort of wild abandon that rests within her, waiting to come out. This one is a beautiful, beautiful story, and again, very human: it doesn't demonize the main character, it doesn't demonize her husband.

The in-flap says:

[...] Daniel Abraham's stories never fail to be intelligent, compassionate, thoughtful, and humane.

And they are. They all are. (Except, perhaps, "The Best Monkey," wherein we don't get enough of a sense of any of the characters to feel for them.)

Finally, "The Curandaro and the Swede: A Tale from the 1001 American Nights." This is one of my favorites in the whole collection not least which because it quietly shows off Abraham's ability as a storyteller - it's multiple stories, in fact. Recently married man is talking to Uncle Dab, who launches into a story which itself branches out on various tangents - so easy it would've been for it to be a mess! But the story creates a loop, every tangent worthwhile, touching on love and anger and race.

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This, if you could not tell, is a fantastic collection of short fiction that showcases brilliantly why I adore Daniel Abraham's fiction so much: its deeply human nature, be it small scale or large scale, and its magnificent, "why did I think of that?" ideas. Each story is enjoyable and interesting to read, even if not every one of them is exceptional.

Hopefully, another, larger collection will emerge sometime in the next few years. I tweeted at Daniel on the very subject and he said he is waiting for there to be a few more short pieces out before it can be justified. Well, here's hoping the day comes soon!

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