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A Glass of Shadow by Liz Williams

A Glass of Shadow by Liz Williams (NewCon Press, 2011) is her second collection with short stories covering the period from 1998 to date with two originals.

“Mr De Quincy and the Daughters of Madness” introduces a succubus in a cleverly selected historical context, explaining why Thomas of that ilk probably first took to the opium for which he is now notorious. It’s a gently meditative discourse on loneliness and guilt for those left behind. We then come to two Singapore 3 stories (see the Inspector Chen novels) which demonstrate you don’t have to be entirely serious when writing a horror story. In “Mr Animation and the Wu Zhiang Zombies” the thin barrier between Earth and Hell gives a vocalist in death metal style group the chance to see life on the other side, while “Necrochip” reruns the succubus theme in a world now dominated by capitalism. Matching, if not beating it, for wit is “Indicating the Awakening of Persons Buried Alive”. If they were still around, both Edgar Alan Poe and Keats might, for rather different reasons, benefit from reading this delightful story.

“The Flower of Tekheli” is a nicely atmospheric piece which says something about how to mollify a woman scorned while “On Windhover Down” a woman might find a rather different role, but only if she consents, of course. “Woewater” is one of these pleasing, “Why didn’t I think of that?” stories in which the unsuspecting reader gets to the end and discovers a neat twist. “Blackthorn and Nettles” uses fantasy to explore the burdens of jealousy, hate and guilt that can distort relationships even before they have a chance to form, while “The Water Cure” wonders whether the physics of electricity when it comes into contact with water would prejudice a relationship between spirits of water and air. “All Fish and Dracula” is a slightly unkind way of describing the small seaside town of Whitby but, in this Goth meets more than she dreamed possible scenario, it has an appropriate relevance to events.

“Tycho and the Stargazer” has us back in historical pastures with a suggestion of how Kepler found the inspiration to keep working on his calculations of Mars orbit. Maintaining a scientific theme, “Voivodoi” deals with the social difficulties families might have if one of their children displays variant genetic drift. “Ikiryoh” is a candidate for my favourite story in this collection. Once again we look at the possible uses of genetic engineering, this time using cloning for a very specific purpose. In a way, it’s an application of a rather mechanical view of psychology through which individual personality factors can be separated out from the whole, drawing inspiration from the Japanese myth of the ikiryō as a way of casting an evil eye.

Liz Williams confronts a microphone as it morphs into a snake

“Troytown” is a pleasing meditation on the significance of death. Too often people try to go through life without ever thinking about the inevitability of dying. This elegant story suggests you can never live life to the full unless you confront the fact of your own mortality. “Who Pays” is also interested in what might happen after death. It’s a clever mixture of science fiction and fantasy as the beliefs underpinning Ancient Egypt’s civilisation are translated into a functional technology. It’s interesting to see what you can still believe when there’s no-one around to challenge those beliefs.

We then have two stories from the Winterstrike universe. “The Age of Ice” has us with an undercover operative sent into a city on a war-footing to sift through the wreckage of a library for the technology of a weapon. As with the novel so this story blends science fiction, fantasy and horror in a pleasing way as our heroine’s exploration of the library finds rather more than she expected. “La Malcontenta” has us in Winterstrike itself for the festival of Ombre. Much like the Carnevale di Venezia, the inhabitants go masked about the city, remembering the past and honouring its conventions.

“Dusking” is another very elegant fantasy story where a young girl is forced into the strict care of her aunt when her mother disappears and her father dies. She’s naturally drawn to the fey and, courtesy of an eligible young man, she plans to escape from the her confinement, perhaps even managing to catch a real fairy for all the good that will bring her.

And, finally, the titular story, “A Glass of Shadow”, is an original and my other candidate for favourite story. By coincidence, this has us in a contemporary Carnevale di Venezia with a man looking to escape the misery of losing an unfaithful wife to another. In this situation, gender is hardly relevant. Everyone loses people they love. The question, of course, is what you do about that loss. Do you, for example, seize the chance for revenge if it’s presented to you?

A Glass of Shadow is quite an elegant book. I lashed out and bought the signed limited edition. The jacket artwork by Anne Sudworth is rather fine and I would have been completely delighted were it not for some very curious lapses in the typesetting. I should have become enured to widows and orphans by now — they are reaching epidemic proportions in modern editions — but, in “Voivodoi” the line indentations intermittently disappear. I can forgive one but not both. Nevertheless, this is a fine collection and well worth reading.

The other reviews of books by Liz Williams are: The Iron Khan, Precious Dragon, Shadow Pavilion, Winterstrike and Worldsoul.

For the record, A Glass of Shadow has been shortlisted in the Best Collection category by the British Fantasy Society 2012.

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