Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson

Speaking of authors who write stories that feel like coming home, I am always very excited to get my hands on something new by Robin McKinley. Interestingly, despite my adoration, I haven't actually read Water, the collection that predates Fire, but that will be rectified next time I head into a book store. If Water is anything like Fire, I want to own it.

The lovely thing about Fire is that I've also had an introduction to Peter Dickinson now, an author I have been meaning to try for years. His name keeps cropping up as a must-read speculative fiction author, so it's about time I got on that train.

There are five stories in Fire. None of them are connected by anything except, well, fire, and the fact that they are fantasy. Thematically each is separate, and stylistically it's really interesting to notice just how very different Dickinson and McKinley's voices are. Each has a particularly strong voice, too. I worried a little (because I worry about stuff like this) that one's voice might shine and the other might pale in comparison, but that didn't happen because they're so vastly different.

Dickinson's stories, "Phoenix", "Fireworm" and "Salamander Man" all seem to share a slightly distant, mythological quality. They read like legend, as though Dickinson is a tale-teller, passing these carefully crafted gems of stories to us from one generation to the next. In "Fireworm" he almost seems to reflect himself -- one of the main threads through this story is the power of story, and the unreal quality a tale can take on once it becomes a story versus experience. It's a story explicitly about heroes and perspectives, and though it's not the first story I've read to question what makes a hero, I think it's one of the better ones. I felt a deep-seated discomfort, even sorrow, at the ambiguity, and I was supposed to. With one exception (the main character in "Salamander Man") I didn't get as emotionally invested in Dickinson's characters as I usually like to be in a story. Normally I might count this as a bad thing, but in this case I simply can't. The stories are fascinating, imaginative, and lovely in their complex/simple way. Will be reading more.

McKinley's stories are "Hellhound" which I loved and was likely my favourite of the collection, and the longest story in the book, "First Flight". Both are very McKinley -- her voice is so clear. It's a chatty style, full of detail and sidetracks and information that may not at first glance seem relevant, but boy does it build the world. By the time I'm a page in to either story, I know the main character, and I'm curious about the world, and I'm deeply invested in what happens. The added detail annoys some people, I've found. "Hellhound" is similar in feel to her book Sunshine, which is one of my all-time favourite books, and which tends to be a bit of a polarizing book. Some people love it and some really, really don't. Sunshine is basically one of my ideal books, and because "Hellhound" feels like it I love it too. In both her stories McKinley starts a number of different threads, and ties some up while leaving others dangling at the end of the story -- it's a complete story, but not all the questions are answered; and many of them are unlikely to ever be answered. I'm okay with that, the way she does it. In fact, I think it's one of the things I like best.

Recommended collection for sure, especially for lovers of fantasy. Reading this book made me happy.


ClaireLines said...

Hi Kiirsten! I'm Claire, a new follower. I write a blog that I try to keep focused on books too. :) I really enjoyed this review; I appreciated your assessment of the difference in the author's styles. I'll be giving the book a go when I come across it!

Emma Michaels said...

Great review! I can always use a book that puts me in a good mood!

Unknown said...

Hi Claire, thanks for introducing yourself! I hope you enjoy this book -- would love to hear what you think.

Emma, thanks! It's just such a pleasant read, it's hard not to feel good when finished. :)

Felicity Grace Terry said...

A great review. Not a huge lover of short stories I read one of the stories in the Fire collection and have to admit it didn't change my mind. I was just left feeling that I wished the story had been longer and more involved.

Unknown said...

I kind of like that sweet feeling of wanting a bit more, myself, but I think it has to be done the right way. :) I've also had that experience of wishing there was more and not being impressed.