Clockwork Phoenix Vol 5, edited by Mike Allen
Posted March 19, 2016on:
Available April 5, 2016
Where I got it: received review copy from the editor
Some people describe anthologies as a journey. I’ve been known to compare them to techno music. But today, I’d like you to think about anthologies as restaurants – the stories are the dishes on the menu, and the editor is the restaurateur. Some restaurants have great atmosphere, some restaurants you only like a few dishes on their menu, or maybe there is a great Sunday brunch, or maybe it’s just a super convenient location and the food is pretty darn good. Think about restaurants you’ve returned to again and again. There was a reason, right?
Some restaurateurs love attention for one particular dish their restaurant specializes in, or whatever. Maybe they are the King of Deep Fried Butter, or the Home of the Original Whiskey Waffles. Maybe they did a Taco throwdown with Bobby Flay or something.
And then there is that secret restaurant. The one all the locals know about. It doesn’t look like a fancy place, but every dish you’ve had there has been amazing. Sometimes the flavors are complex, sometimes they are simple. You go as often as you can, with the goal of trying every dish on the unique menu before the menu changes, because the chefs and owners are always trying something new and different, because the rules don’t apply here. There are no rules, there is no pretension, there is no ego, there are no signs proclaiming fame or autographed photos of Food Network personalities. But, omg, the food! It is perfection on a plate! And you feel better about yourself and your life and the world every time you go there. Clockwork Phoenix is the name of this restaurant, and Mike Allen is the restaurateur. One sublime dish after another, and yet I still have my favorites that I keep coming back to.
I credit this anthology series with introducing me to Benjanun’s Sriduangkaew’s writing, and she’s become a favorite short story author of mine. Her work isn’t always easy to read, but it’s always complex, fascinating, and pulls the genre envelope in directions you didn’t even know existed. The “Finch’s Wedding and the Hive that Sings” at first was like pushing open a very heavy and ornate door, but what was waiting for me on the other side was a most decadent dessert, savored slowly in the presence of stunning visuals and evocative music. That’s a very Andrea way of saying that I had some trouble getting into the story, but once I did, I absolutely loved it. I read this story silently, in a silent room, yet through the architecture of Sriduangkaew’s prose the sounds and environs of the story came alive in front of me – the rustling of the fabrics that hid the betrothed, the industrious sounds of a honeycomb moon, the sounds of metal heels on polished floors, the hush of courtly politics and decorum, the realization that the most valued things in life aren’t things. There’s something so beautiful and loving happening in this story, but to tell you exactly what it is would spoil the ending. It’s funny, how Benjanun writes – her stories will be about whatever they’re about, but there is so much complex worldbuilding and characterization and subtle details everywhere, that you get to the end of the story and the actual “what it’s about on the surface” is just a footnote in the fully sensory experience of what you just read. Ok, I guess that isn’t funny, but it’s funny to me, because I don’t ever expect to get that full package.
I have a thing for
ghost stories tragedies stories written in a minor key with a chord progression that pulls at my heart. It feels like musical therapy, that the vibrations are pulling the sadness out of me . . . like a musical purge (which sounds kind of gross?) But in this case, I’m reading and there’s no sound, but that’s what it feels like, and yes I sympathize with you if the beginning of this paragraph didn’t make any sense to you. But, if you like sort-of ghost stories that are more like grief counseling, you’re sure to like “Squeeze” by Rob Cameron, “Sabbath Wine” by Barbara Krasnoff, and “The Book of May” by C.S.E Cooney and Carlos Hernandez. “Squeeze” is the briefest of this group – the reader journeys with the protagonist through grief, and through finding another person who grieves. When you don’t let go, what is it exactly, that you aren’t letting go of? “Squeeze” is very, very short, but oh so effective. Krasnoff’s “Sabbath Wine” starts out rather mundane – in the time of prohibition, a single father is trying to get a bottle of wine for religious reasons. Subtly touched on is the awkwardness of a secular Jew trying to get emotional support from the observant community. Having to prove yourself worthy, and “Jewish enough” is a very real, very awkward thing that we don’t like talking about but it happens every day in our community. For the first half of this story I had no idea what it was doing in a spec fiction anthology. And then the twist, that I should have seen coming. Two unlikely friends, brought together by the circumstances of their children, and Clockwork Phoenix is exactly where this story belongs.
And if any story is the epitome of a minor key that then progresses through 4ths and 5ths into a kaleidoscope of evocative arpeggios, it’s “The Book of May” by C.S.E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez. I already wrote a bit about this story back in February. How can I have such a huge smile on my face while reading this story, yet be crying so much? It’s doubly disturbing that a story about death can be laugh out loud funny. But if you’re a funny goofy person, why should dying change your personality? (by the way, I recommend reading this story in private, because it will destroy you. Have tissues handy. Seriously. I reread it while writing this review, and was crying all over the place) Whose job is it to rail against impending death? Or should we laugh in death’s face, because laughter is the opposite of anger and that’s all we have left? Knowing the end is near brings on memories of growing up playing D&D, of that one weird guy, of why we give people nicknames, of owning your bad decisions, and then realizing that best friends love you no matter what your bad decisions are because that’s what “best friends” means. And that mention of the tree thing in the first paragraph? Gave me shivers, because that is so me it’s not even funny.
Other favorites included The Europa Report-esque “Innumerable Glimmering Lights” by Rich Larson; the lighthearted and highly entertaining “Social Visiting by Sunil Patel and “The Prime Importance Of a Happy Number” by Sam Fleming, “The Mirror City” by Marie Brennan, and “The Perfect Happy Family” by Patricia Russo.
I’ve had nearly every dish on the Clockwork Phoenix 5 menu, and I’ll be heading back soon to
order reread a lot of the other offerings in this volume. You should join me for a drink story there, I think you’ll really dig this restaurant.