alphabet_of_embers_coverTitle: An Alphabet of Embers (An Anthology of Unclassifiables)
Editor: R.B. Lemberg
Publisher: Stone Bird Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: I was offered an Advance Reader Copy for review

(Note: The editor of An Alphabet of Embers now goes by R.B. Lemberg. The body of this review has been changed to reflect this, but the URL and the associated image still show the name under which this anthology was originally created.)

I saw the Mad Max movie The Road Warrior for the first time this year. As I watched it I was entranced, because it exhibits an unusual trait: it’s a movie that is very happy to be itself. Whatever its references and antecedents are, it incorporates them so well that it transforms them into something completely unique.

I got the same feeling when I read An Alphabet of Embers, an anthology of short stories edited by R.B. Lemberg that will be launching later on this week at the Nebula Awards conference. Lemberg’s goal with An Alphabet of Embers was to collect a variety of “very short tales and prose poems showcasing evocative and startling language.” Looking over stories contained within, it’s very fair to say they’ve succeeded.

I say this because despite the variety of tones, textures and voices, Embers maintains a consistent and cohesive feel throughout: it stories are literary and poetic, with a fluidity of style and theme that borders on slipstream and the surreal. Reading them, I felt like I was encountering instances of dream logic — even if the stories didn’t make sense on the surface, they contained the kind of truth that exists between sleep and wakefulness.

This sense of fluidity is tangible in both the contributors’ prose and as an overarching theme within the collection itself: many of the stories’ characters inhabit liminal states or move between states. A few examples:

  • The protagonist of Mina Li’s story “Dreaming Keys” gains the ability to hop between different worlds/dimensions if she falls asleep wearing keys on her person.
  • In “Everything Under One Roof” by Zen Cho, the protagonist visits a trendy restaurant that the local food bloggers are going gaga over, only to realize that the restaurant literally has everything in the cosmos under its roof, including unseen mementos from her late father.
  • Both “An Awfully Big Adventure” by Nisi Shawl and “Telomerase” by Ian Muneshwar deal with the ultimate example of crossing a threshold by featuring narrators who are on the verge of death.
  • In “The River’s Children” by Shweta Narayan, a gender-nonconforming prince marries a river goddess who can manifest as both male and female, and their children display similar abilities.

However, the anthology’s focus on short, dreamlike works with vivid prose often results in pieces that seem more like vignettes than stories. Sometimes these vignettes are successful, like “Absinthe Fish” by M. David Blake. However, at other times they result in works that are too fragmentary and experimental for me to successfully grasp, like “Some Silver Wheel” by Kari Sperring and “One Testimony (m. Lao)” by Ching-in Chen.

I appreciated the following stories in particular:

  • “The City Beneath the Sea” by Sara Norja
  • “An Awfully Big Adventure” by Nisi Shawl
  • “Everything Under One Roof” by Zen Cho
  • “Absinthe Fish” by M. David Blake
  • “Dreaming Keys” by Mina Li
  • “The River’s Children” by Shweta Narayan
  • “Telomerase” by Ian Muneshwar
  • “Wing” by Amal El-Mohtar
  • “Rhizomatic Diplomacy” by Vajra Chandrasekera

Most of these stories are clustered in the middle of the anthology, and I found the first and final few stories to be hard going as I acclimated to the overall tone of the collection. However, even with its occasional missteps, An Anthology of Embers is unapologetically itself, and worth a look for its consistency of tone. It feels like a cohesive whole.