Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Daniel Abraham - Leviathan Wept

Black folks in America, even ones like the Swede, they got a particular kind of wound. Indians like that Sahkyo girl? They got one too. Hell, maybe we all do, but not like them. and they can’t heal it anymore than we can. All anyone can do is change what the wound means…They can change what stories mean. That’s why they’ve got power. (p. 275, The Curandero and the Swede)

Daniel Abraham first made a name for himself in Epic Fantasy circles with the Long Price Quartet and his partnership with Martin and Dozois, Hunter’s Run. Evidently not one to lie back and reminisce about what he’s already accomplished, Abraham’s got plans to follow the Long Price up with a more traditional Epic Fantasy series (The Dagger and Coin) and a collaborative science fiction novel (James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes), not to mention his burgeoning Urban Fantasy series (MLN Hannover’s Black Sun’s Daughter). Amidst the barrage of quality novels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Abraham’s got his plate full. Nope. In addition to all of those, Daniel Abraham’s an award winning author of short stories and one of the members of the mosaic Wild Cards series. Leviathan Wept is a limited edition short story collection from Subterranean Press and my first experience with Abraham’s short work.

The Long Price shed light on its characters by evolving them over a vast stretch of years. Short stories, however, don’t allow for that kind of timeline, but Abraham proves just as adept at developing personality through other means. Every story here has the emotional impact of a powerful novel; Abraham drives through so much personality and emotion with each line that, by the end of each twenty or thirty page story, you feel like you’ve known the characters half your life.

Support Technician Tango is the best example of this. The story begins with a viewpoint or two in a legal office and then branches out with insane rapidity, soon encompassing just about everyone present in its web. The tale is, above everything else, organic; events and twists come about in unexpected and often absurd ways, but they’re never nonsensical or damaging to the structure that Abraham builds up. The really surprising thing, however, is that the story never spirals out of control. Strands that seem to be speeding towards various dead ends about face, graceful just before the crash, and the whole mess turns out to have just been illusion, a structure so precise that it could afford to appear unwieldy without sacrificing any of its cohesion. When everything falls into place, the office is in a totally different configuration, one impossible to foresee from the opening and yet as logical as can be.

In fact, the discipline with which Abraham constructed these stories is one of the dominant aspects of the collection. Each of these stories has something to say, but they, generally stay well away from the didactic. The way that Abraham weaves plot, character, and theme together is dazzling. Many stories are constructed almost like puzzles, with the events and their meaning feeling occluded and impossible to conclude until the last piece is dropped in and everything is clear as day.

Mind you, there is the occasional exception. Every once in a while Abraham’s ideas shove past story and character and leave you with an experience more interesting than it is visceral. Exclusion is the poster child for this. The idea is great – imagine the ability to simply ignore someone you dislike, going so far as to be unaware if they were in the same room as you and vice versa, at whim – but the story never progresses beyond the simple moral that it’s better to solve problems than it is to run from them.

Still, Abraham’s allowed a few that fall a tad short considering the power and variety of the rest of what’s here. The Long Price was, though very original, still Epic Fantasy through and through, so I was expecting something similar in Leviathan Wept. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. The stories here range from the whimsical fairy tale of The Cambist and Lord Iron, to the emotional horror of Flat Diane, the Epic Fantasy-esque quest of The Hunter in Arin-Quin, the near future science fiction of Exclusion, the Shakespearean As Sweet, etc. Every story is different from every other, and each of them is unique.

Of course, it’s easy to write in nine styles if all of them are rubbish, but that’s most certainly not the case here. The basics of Abraham’s style stay the same throughout the collection – his precise yet evocative prose, his rapid donning of different characters – but the rest of each story could be the product of a master in its respective field. Abraham breathes life into whatever idea he chooses to explore. Some of the ideas in this collection are impishly silly, some dangerously serious, but all are rendered with the same level of care. Though you may be in a different world and genre when you turn the page, it’s safe to assume that the quality of the storytelling will remain consistent. Abraham’s prose is clear throughout, always providing just the right amount of detail to immerse the reader without ever drowning or boring them with minutia.

Within horror fiction, it’s become standard practice to provide a few rays of sunshine so that the darkness around them appears darker. Abraham’s fiction is odd, because the moments of light actually have the opposite effect:

Lord Iron stood in the hall. He looked powerfully out of place. His fine jacket and cravat, the polished boots, the well groomed beard and moustache all belonged in a palace or club. And yet rather than making the boarding house hall seem shabby and below him, the hallway made Lord Iron, monster of the city, seem false as a boy playing dress-up. (p. 30, The Cambist and Lord Iron))

In the same manner, moments of optimism in Abraham’s fiction have a habit of appearing gaudy and na├»ve, ridiculous compared to the weight of what’s around them, like the banner happily proclaiming We Aim For Excellence! We Expect The Best Of You! (p. 48, Flat Diane) hanging in the principal’s office that looks down at them while Flat Diane is going astray.

Unfortunately, while the content and style of the stories varies wildly, their structures can repeat themselves. Well, no, that’s not wholly fair. Only two stories in the collection – Leviathan Wept and The Hunter in Arin-Quin – utilize a frame story that’s gradually built up in flashbacks, but the two are, for some reason, back to back. A minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, yes, but still one that grates and makes going straight from one to the other feel far more repetitive than it should.

Leviathan Wept is a diverse and powerful collection that shows Abraham to be every bit the professional that he seemed in the Long Price Quartet. Coming from Subterranean, this can be a bit pricey, but the quality displayed in this relatively slim volume makes it well worth the price.

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