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Strange Attractors cover

Strange Attractors by Jaine Fenn

(Newcon Press, 2023)

Reviewed by Steven French

This is a delightful collection of fifteen short stories, of which all but one has been published previously elsewhere. The last, ‘Sin of Omission’ is one of the best in the collection, depicting on one hand, a shriver who takes on the sins of the dying, thereby denying herself eternal communion with the Empress and, on the other, a golem on a mission. It is how the paths of these two characters come together in a revelation of the true culture in which they operate, that illustrates the care in which these tales have been crafted.

Not that this should come as much of a surprise to the readers of this magazine. Fenn won the BSFA short fiction award a few years ago with her gay awakening story, ‘Liberty Bird’, set in a world of privileged clan scions racing space-yachts through the ion-streams of a gas giant.

‘Death on Elsewhere Street’ is likewise kinetic in the telling, opening with Geal, a ‘downsider’ street-girl barrelling through the crowds topside as she’s pursued by an ‘Angel’ who demands she witness an assassination. Geal, of course, is no passive attendant, throwing a curveball into the mix that affords her own form of justice.

Not all these stories are science-fiction, however. One of the most memorable, for me, is ‘Twilight at the Exchange House’, a redemptive fae-tale about the intertwining of three lives through an enchanted exchange and which features a ‘lol’-inducing Keith Richards moment! ‘Down at the Lake’ is another fairy-story, riffing on themes from Swan Lake, with a dark twist. Another of the grimmer pieces is ‘Crown of May’ in which a young woman gives up her virginity to avoid a much greater sacrifice, but thereby condemns her sister. A familial sacrifice also sits at the heart of ‘King of Pain’. Here a kingdom is preserved through a time of tribulation by the exchange of its king for a surrogate, in this case the monarch’s exiled half-brother. With betrayal, murder and infidelity themes this is a gripping little ‘crime-story’ set in another world.

‘What You Came For’ is told from the perspective of a hunter of human predators. Working their way back through the history of an abandoned house they zero in on the identity and whereabouts of a local child-killer. The final paragraph leaves the reader in no doubt that this is no ordinary hunter and also that their prey has zero chance of escaping.

Interestingly, three of the stories are tied together through the author’s fascination with pre-Colombian America. ‘The Path to the Sun’ is a nice slice of alt-history in which the first ever flying machine is invented by a citizen of the United Aztecan States. This time, sacrifice causes the inventor’s father to flee with the rudimentary aeroplane to Britain in a reversal of the usual power dynamics. ‘The Sky Weeps, the Earth Quakes’, on the other hand, goes back to the 16th century as we know it in order to explore the lure of certain Incan beliefs—except it is not just gold that is being sought here, but ‘ultimate knowledge’. Again, however, an act of familial betrayal has disastrous consequences for all involved.

Returning to the present, ‘Paying for Rain’ is a piece of more or less straight horror in which a travel-writer ventures into the Andes in search of a fabled mummy with his friend and a guide. His friend and the guide, however, have reasons for ensuring he does not return.

Religious belief is central motif also in ‘Fear Not Heaven’s Fire’. In this historical story, a young nun, Elfleda, who was raped and blinded, helps a fallen angel. Returning the favour, he uses the last of his grace to restore her sight and make her ‘a whole woman’ again in one of the most poignant and beautifully written stories in the collection. Similarly reflective, ‘High Ground’, is about a poet and son of a Government Minister, who, eager to set a good example, joins up during a war but finds himself captured and interrogated. Freed after a rocket hits the truck in which he’s being transported, he discovers that the ‘high ground’ of the title, whether geographical or moral, offers neither respite from the brutality of conflict nor a firm foothold for a noble stance.

Finally, there are two stories that are perhaps less freighted when it comes to both content and style. In ‘A Dormitory Haunting’, the headmistress of a girl’s boarding school—who happens to know a certain Sherlock Holmes—solves a ghostly mystery, saves a girl and glimpses a new future for herself. There are similar hints of a happy ending in ‘The Chatterslee Circle’, in which a pair of crop circle enthusiasts encounter some real-life Men—and a sole Woman—in Black. For anyone who’s wondered about the odd ‘rain of fish’ or ‘big cats’ prowling the countryside, this is a sweet little story in which the Woman in Black’s attempt to assuage her conscience by revealing all is subverted at the end.

The collection surveys a range of genres, from science-fiction and fantasy, to horror and straightforward tales of mystery. Some of the stories are grim, others light-hearted and many, I think, touch on themes that will resonate with the reader. All are skilfully written and quite beautifully balanced. They don’t exactly push the envelope when it comes to cutting-edge speculative fiction, but sometimes all you need is a good tale, told well and that is exactly what you get here.

Review from BSFA Review 23 - Download your copy here.


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