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REVIEW: Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan

REVIEW SUMMARY: Trying to put my finger on the magic ingredients that go into a good fantasy story.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Ten short fantasy stories aimed at the young adult reader.

PROS: Interesting premises; touches on numerous themes.
CONS: Odd language used at times, which slowed reading; some stories simply not that engaging.
BOTTOM LINE: Red Spikes offers a variety of themes that should appeal to fans of fantasy.

Why, you might ask, is someone who is admittedly not a huge fan of fantasy reading fantasy stories? It’s because I want to know why. Some fantasy stories I like. Others, not so much. But I just can’t quite put my finger on which ingredients make a fantasy story that suits my palate. So onward I trudge, picking up an occasional fantasy book here, reading an occasional short fantasy fiction piece there…

The latest is Red Spikes, a young adult short fiction collection by Margo Lanagan. I thoroughly enjoyed her 2005 Nebula-nominated story “Singing My Sister Down” – thought it should have taken the prize, in fact. Alas, it was not to be.

The enjoyment level of the stories in Red Spikes was more hit and miss. There was one standout story (“A Good Heart”) and a few that never made it past the mediocre range. Overall the collection is good but this casual fantasy fan was not finding the genius of “Singing My Sister Down” at every turn.

Red Spikes is targeted at a young adult audience, a move that just adds to my belief that the young adult fiction marketed to today’s teens deals with much more serious subject matter – things like graphic depictions of childbirth and animal kingdom sex – than YA fiction of yesteryear. There is also a fine line between necessarily showing the harsh realities of our world and adding shock value.

Much more lasting than the startling imagery are the emotions and themes that these stories dabble in: lost love, death, sense of belonging, drug use, and violence to name a few. These stories are unquestionably dark and Lanagan’s prose, while sometimes weighted down in odd language, creates a suitably dark mood to accompany them.

The stories in Red Spikes work best when the author creates mood pieces with likable 3d characters, but that’s true of fiction in general, not just fantasy fiction. I’m not sure if I’m any closer to finding those elusive magic ingredients that make a great fantasy story that suits my tastes, so onward I trudge…

Individual story reviews follow…

The opening story, “Baby Jane”, mixes the beginnings of a fantasy book with multiple-worlds. A boy finds fantasy figurines that become real overnight. The Warrior Queen is pregnant and has come to this world to give birth. The boy winds up delivering the baby (via a graphic childbirth scene) because his mother, a midwife herself, is too zonked out by the magic of the group’s arrival. (They come from a world embroiled in battle.) Lanagan’s prose is smooth, and the ending makes me think this is a great setup for a much longer story.

“Monkey’s Paternoster” is told from the point of view of a young monkey, part of a group in captivity. Their leader is near death, a concept that the young one does not quite understand. With a lethargic leader, the pack is defenseless against a group of “bachelor” monkeys that have, until now, been keeping their distance. The young monkey thus gets some quick lessons in (wild)life. What starts out as a serious tale about the circle of life devolves to some unexpected and off-putting scenes of forced monkey love, something that seems thrown in more for shock value than as something to reinforce the “reality of life” theme.

Lanagan whips up a heartfelt story of lost love in “A Good Heart”, a medieval-era story in which the narrator, commoner Arlen Michaels, spies his childhood sweetheart, Annie Stork, with her new husband, the son of a Lord. Arlen’s incorrect grammar and internal thoughts leads us to believe he is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he is no less passionate for it. Arlen follows Annie through the woods where she hides something that is in dramatic contrast to her new Fairy Tale life. Lanagan’s prose does an excellent job of suspense-building here, trumped only by the admirable maturity exhibited by Arlen in how he handles this newfound information. Well-done.

“Winkie” is a retelling of the nursery rhyme Wee Willie Winkie. Taken out of that context, this story is just bizarre. I mean, a nightgown-wearing stranger who peeks at children through their windows and steals them? The super-tall stranger earned the name Winkie because he lacks eyelids, a condition he compensates for by removing them from children. Dark and creepy stuff.

“A Feather in the Breast of God” shows a soul returning from the afterlife in the body of a pet bird, back to the family that owned it, to prevent the daughter from using drugs. The guardian angel aspect of the story is a nice touch and gives a gentle but cautionary message for any young readers.

When a truant schoolboy visits “Hero Vale”, a valley rumored to hold dark mysteries in its mists, he is visited upon by a stranger from another world. Their meeting is brief and tragic, but leaves the boy better equipped to deal with the school bully. Lanagan does a good job here of portraying a common adolescent problem. I like a good underdog story and this delivered.

“Under Hell, Over Heaven” follows a band of travelers in Limbo wanting to get into Heaven, while avoiding the call of Hell. While Lanagan evokes suitable imagery for the surroundings, I was not able to get immersed in this story at all. So much time was spent on descriptive surroundings that it seamed our sullen band of protagonists didn’t actually do anything. Or perhaps that’s the point.

In “Mouse Maker”, an alleged witch is beaten by the townspeople. Her neighbor, Pedder, comes to her aid, but to protect her he decides to use the woman’s witchcraft to summon hordes of mice. Creepy and quick, Lanagan tells a non-linear story that builds a satisfying tail – er, I mean tale. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

“Forever Upward” takes place on an island of women. The Church has taken all the men and left the women to worship separately – which they do by praying to sky gods which are, as near as I can tell, floating fish-like creatures the size of a house anchored to the Earth by string. Young Currija and her mother pray to the creature, but it’s Currija who has the gift to do so properly and thus pass into womanhood. I suppose there are symbolisms that are meant to be drawn from this, but the story moved so slowly that it sapped my energy and I didn’t even bother looking.

The opening scene of “Daughter of the Clay” is just heartbreaking. What child wouldn’t feel unwanted hearing their own mother admit to not loving them? This is the message Cerise hears before she secludes herself in her room. A fairy visits her and brings her to another world where she feels more than wanted; she feels like she belongs. In this story, Lanagan creates a sympathetic character that you can’t help but root for. The switched-at-birth premise explains much about the daughter made from clay – and inspires Red Spikes‘ creepy cover – without dismissing the emotions felt by Cerise, thanks to Lanagan’s careful prose.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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