Title and Author: Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia McKillip
Publication Date: June 14th, 2016
Genre: Fantasy, short stories
How I got it: NetGalley. Thanks to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.
At the recent International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, I went to a panel called “Putting the Epic in Fantasy,” and Patricia McKillip was one of the panelists, along with Stephen R. Donaldson, Matt Oliver, and Alethea Kontis. I fangirled at McKillip a bit later in the day, in the bathroom of all places, holding the bathroom door open for her as I sang her praises. Could there be a more awkward place to fangirl than a bathroom?
Anyway, I was reading Dreams from Distant Shores at the same time I attended the conference, so it was impossible not to relate her theories and ideas concerning fantasy from the panel with the short stories in the collection.
For example, when the discussion turned to the essentialism of fantasy settings, McKillip asserted that “Landscape is the human condition.” While all of the stories in Dreams from Distant Shores deal with how humans and landscape are inextricably linked—even the title suggests such—nowhere is that theme more prevalent than in the novella “Something Rich and Strange.” “Something Rich and Strange” is a reprint, but this was my first time reading it. In this novella, the ocean enraptures couple Jonah and Megan with its seen and unseen wonders, which are rich and strange. It begins when Megan, an artist, realizes she’s capturing odd moments in her paintings of the sea, moments she didn’t realize were there until she looks at the finished painting. Then two sibling newcomers come to their small coastal town and Jonah, Megan’s husband and an antique shop owner, becomes ensnared by one of their voices, which sounds just like the sea’s song. Meanwhile, Megan is drawn to the singer’s brother, who brings beautiful, sea-inspired jewelry to sell in the antique shop. A fairytale quest follows, venturing deep into the ocean’s depths. This novella is an atmospheric, ecological-themed treatise on the ocean and its magic.
Random: Here’s a picture of a turtle sunbathing in a pond outside the conference hotel. No, it’s not relevant to this book review in any way, but if landscape is the human condition, than this landscape was part of mine while attending the conference. And it’s cute.
Moving on, McKillip also said during the panel that “Language speaks more than what the words say.” As any reader knows, the right rhythms, patterns, and words can be visceral, emotional, almost like a spell, a spell McKillip has most certainly mastered. “The Gorgon in the Cupboard,” my favorite story in the collection, is a lovely example of the power, both spoken and unspoken, of language. In this short story, a painter struggles with his craft. He’s developed an obsession with another painter’s model, and one day paints that model’s lips on his unfinished painting of a gorgon. The model he’d been using for the gorgon has disappeared, and he’s been searching for her for months. Once he finishes painting the lips, the gorgon in the painting opens her mouth and speaks. Magic follows. With its artistic themes, this short story reminded me of Charles De Lint’s Memory and Dream. It’s definitely going to stick with me.
My favorite quote from the panel came near the end: “As a fantasy writer, I have to believe that there’s hope in the end.” Her short story “Alien,” my 2nd favorite in the collection, uses hope of the impossible as the impetus for plot. In this story, a grandmother believes she’s being visited by aliens, but her family at a family reunion uses this belief as an impetus for gossip. But some hang on to that hope, including the grandmother. “Alien” is a fantastic story about belief, and original to this collection. If I decide to renew my Hugo membership, I’ll definitely consider nominating it.
While these three are my favorite stories in the collection, there are many more to enjoy. In “Mer,” another original to this collection, a witch awakens after a 100 year nap to find a goddess who wants her body. The two switch shapes, and the witch becomes a wooden mermaid. This is a lovely story of switched identities and small magics in a small town. In another fun story, “Which Witch,” a young witch finally finds a familiar—a crow—but the problem is neither can understand a word the other’s saying, and something dangerous lurks at her rock concert that night.
My two least favorite stories were also the weirdest: “Weird” and “Edith and Henry Go Motoring.” “Weird,” the very first story, makes more sense as an introduction to the entire collection. In “Weird,” a couple lies on the bathroom floor while terrible noises echo around them. The man asks, “What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you?”, and the woman answers him with increasingly weird anecdotes amidst the noise. In context of the entire collection, all of the stories that follow could be a response to “What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you?” The weirdness in “Edith and Henry Go Motoring” occurs when Edith, Henry, and their driver travel to a small town right out of a fairy tale, and find a house that appears empty, until they step inside. It’s a story of confronting repressed hope, and letting your dreams go, but lacked the cohesion of the other pieces in the collection.
The collection ends on the essay “Writing High Fantasy,” where McKillip gives a short description of fantasy, using The Riddle-Master Trilogy as examples. Unfortunately, I have not read the Riddle-Master books, but I’m sure the essay would be an interesting read for those who have. (I know, I know, I really need to read the trilogy!)
McKillip’s writing is sharp and lyrical, full of humanity, myth, and hope. If you haven’t read McKillip before, this is a great collection to start with and see if you like her style. If you’re already a McKillip fan, then you should definitely pick this up, if you haven’t already.