Rosemary Edghill, Paying the Piper at the Gates of Dawn (Tekno Books, 2003)

"Short stories are really hard. . . think of . . . mounting a full-dress production of Oklahoma! in a New York studio apartment and you'll get the idea." -- Rosemary Edghill

"An old story does not open the ear as a new one does." -- African proverb

Some books are enchanting rambles through wonderlands. Some are endless slogs through wordy mud. And most, especially short story collections, are a mixture of both. I've never seen a collection of short stories, even by "masters" of the form, that I found enjoyable all the way through, and this book is no exception. Let me soften that statement by starting with what I liked, which was quite a bit:

I liked the accent font used: it's a thready, whimsical touch that reflects the feel of most of these stories perfectly. I was mildly disappointed that the credits page listed only the body text font -- 11-point Plantin -- and not the accent font, since I'm a font junkie; but that just means I get to play font detective.

The goal of an introduction (to me) is to make readers hungry to get to the content. This one succeeded brilliantly. It's written in an easy, conversational tone, and has stories I definitely empathized with, such as the most insulting rejection slip she ever received ("find a new hobby"). As a diehard "skip the intro because it's boring" believer, this made for a refreshing change.

The smooth, offhand tone of the introduction is carried through in the best stories of this collection, including two that bring the Rex Stout "Nero Wolfe" series to mind: "The Maltese Feline" and "Killer in the Reign." Drop Archie into a world where wands replace guns and you'd have a near-perfect match. The rules of magic are clearly outlined and adhered to, and the plots are lively and original, one involving a double-cross laced chase after a mysterious cat, the other pitting detective Pendragon against a serial murderer who seems to be practicing to kill the queen. The characters are vivid, the endings unexpected but logical. Ms. Edghill does plan to write more stories about Artos, and I'll be watching for those.

"The Fairy Ring" moves into 1800 Scotland. Lord Auberon is seeking a bride -- but he's not the handsome rich man he appears to be. He's a demon, and he must pay a teine to Hell every seven years -- of a mortal bride. Not that he tells his intended brides about this, of course, but he does lure into marriage only those blinded by gold-induced greed. But even demons make mistakes, and he finds himself betrothed to a girl who has no interest in his money. The rest of the tale neatly twists through an uprooted Cinderella rags-to-riches plot, dancing through some unexpected corners along the way.

"Scandal" is one of several stories written in Edghill's "Crownland" universe. It's an intense story, a coming-of-age ritual gone wildly wrong in a demonic court. Again, as in the Pendragon stories, the rules are clear and the story flows smoothly from one event to the next. This is another world I'd like to see more of. My only quibble with this one lies in the second paragraph: ". . . even as the blackest seems less black when drowned in fulgent and nyctalopean shadows. . ." Blinded by brilliant shadows? I couldn't picture it. The rest of the story, thankfully, moves into more natural language and doesn't jar the eye.

"Haut-Clare," another Crownland story, is one of the shortest stories in the book, with a twist ending. A mercenary warrior seeking his fortune stumbles into a chain of events that will eventually release him from a forgotten enchantment, but it's not the one the reader assumes it is in the beginning. It's a good, sharp read.

"The Long Divorce of Steel," which Ms. Edghill calls "kind of a sequel to 'Haut-Clare' . . . several centuries later," is a psychological study of the fringes of a typical fantasy world -- no magic involved here, just poverty and desperation. It's a heavy story with an unhappy ending, but I enjoyed it all the same. It's nice to see attention paid to something other than shining knights and towering demons in a fantasy story.

"War of the Roses" is based on an interesting concept. Assassins move through society, taking out powerful people to keep everything balanced, but the assassins themselves have a secret society keeping them in check. It's a nicely paced story with detailed characters supporting it.

"Lizzie Fair and the Dragon of Heart's Desire" has to be my favorite from the collection. It's written in a natural, chatty tone, and feels like the writer's true "voice" emerging at last. A young artist in New York is tricked into stepping into the world of faerie and forced to go on a quest to find a faerie lord's heart in order to get home. By the end of the story, however, her desire to return home has metamorphed, rather like her companion, into something quite different. It's a solidly written story, and a good close to the book, leaving the reader interested in reading more of this author's work.

Now, inevitably and unfortunately, comes what I didn't like about this book. I'll start with a minor quibble about the cover. It's a pastel confusion of images: roots twining over a wall, foxes and sprites peering out of holes in the wall, strange faces leering from the knots in the wood. The tree twists upward, encircling a lady in a light green cloak, posed mysteriously against a disk decorated with intricate patterns. It's a good piece of artwork in itself, but the title, blazed across the center of the cover, with a white gauss background to help it stand out against the drawing, gets in the way and feels distracting. The dustjacket and the actual book cover are the same, which is a nice if somewhat redundant touch.

I had a more serious problem with the first story, "The Piper at the Gate." After the glowing introduction, it's like a splash of ice water. The heavy, strained language shuts this story down before it has a chance to draw breath. I also found the ending disappointing: "this wasn't real, it was a dream -- or was it?" always feels like a cheat to me.

Compared to the rest of Edghill's writing, "The Intersection of Anastasia Yeoman and Light" felt as if Michael Whelan were trying to imitate Jackson Pollock's worst work (which, in my opinion, is everything Pollock ever did -- but I digress). It didn't make any kind of sense to me at all, even after repeated readings. The sentences are convoluted: ". . . in one of those random savage limerences that are only superable when the object of desire is far, far separate from one's self. . .". Enough said.

The remaining stories in the book fell into a grey area of "not bad but could have been better." They often felt stilted and awkward, like old ideas reworked into something semi-new for practice. Rosemary Edghill does best when she sticks to her natural voice and doesn't try to force exotic wording. Her fantasy/real-world juxtapositions, such as the Pendragon and Crownworld stories, come off as the most convincing, and the revisions of old tales and alternate history ("Prince of Exiles," "And King Hereafter") feel the weakest. Her short stories suffer most, I think, from being a little cramped for room. I get the sense that she's much more comfortable with novels.

Overall, I definitely like Rosemary Edghill's work and would recommend her to other readers. She's a talented writer with a sharp sense of how to spin bizarre thread smoothly into a skein of golden story. I'll look for her novels next time I'm on a book-buying spree.

Rosemary Edghill is eluki bes shahar's pen name, created -- according to her website FAQ -- as a combination of "Rhett Butler's sister's name (Rosemary) and the site of the first battle in the English Civil War (Edghill)".

[Leona Wisoker]

For more about Rosemary Edghill, click here.

For more about Michael Whelan, click here