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BOOK REVIEW: Bibliotheca Fantastica Edited by Don Pizarro

REVIEW SUMMARY: Eclectic, passionate and layered. Don Pizarro has an excellent eye for fascinating short fiction, which fully appreciates the magic imbued in books and the manners in which it shapes our lives, both directly and indirectly.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Twenty tales launch to create their own personal mythos centered around the notion books carry power, which can change people, the world and the characters’ personal reality. Bibliotheca Fantastica serves as a haven to nurture diverse concepts, plots and tropes in support of its central theme. There’s something for everyone as the saying goes.

PROS: Each story offers its own interpretation of the central theme; subtle work as well as more head-on approaches are represented; imagination and creative freedom are king.
CONS: An absence of harmony and cohesion between the individual pieces contribute to a more chaotic reading experience.
BOTTOM LINE: A guaranteed treat for the readers who are infatuated with books as physical objects as the stories help you rediscover why you fell in love with the written word and the act of reading in the first place.

Historically and culturally, books have always possessed power. Whether they denote high birth as literacy often did in the past, serve as vessels for the word of gods or preserve mystical rituals and incantations for the next generation of witches, books are the first, long-lasting imprint upon history. Encyclopedias catalogue human knowledge, journals document human lives and ledgers reveal the development of human logic. Now that the paperback has infiltrated just about every household and become, in a way, ubiquitous, the luster has worn off to a point, but books remain an object of power to those who, since early childhood, understand the potential for a good book to alter their reality.

Bibliotheca Fantastica celebrates books, the idea or sharing knowledge and the power books can be imbued with. In their purest form, powerful books function as tools to remodel the world and therefore, it’s not surprising how many stories feature books with magical properties. The opener story “The Secret Atlas” by Garry Kilworth concerns the unearthing of an unmarked atlas, which the protagonist, inter-dimensional explorer, George Skelton, finds in an isolated library in the cracks between dimensions. However, once the owner discovers how the unassuming volume can alter the geography, climate and topography of Earth, the book soon corrupts George. Corruption is a central theme in Lydia S. Gray’s “The Book of Doors” where a high school student buys a grimoire and each use peels back another layer of reality, not to mention her humanity. Once every spell’s been cast, the protagonist has undergone a drastic inhuman transformation. “The Book of Doors” is also one of the high points for Bibliotheca Fantastica.

Grimmer still is A.C. Wise’s excellent “The Book of Her”, where corruption is not only inevitable consequence of the book’s power, but also a punishment and trap for the nameless narrator. The book here allows the narrator to write and rewrite a woman. In the infinite dark room and after a thousand pages written and torn, the narrator finds sinister ways to abuse this power as he slowly descends into madness. The promise of immortality drives Lizbet to unspeakable acts in Colleen Anderson’s “The Book with No End”, where soft, human skin has become the scroll containing the cruel and inhuman recipe. Thankfully, not all books and scripts seek to pervert and dehumanize as is the case with “The Typographer’s Folly” by J.S. Bangs, which portrays the difficulty ascent to power as shown in Asref’s arduous journey to bring the script of Heaven. Yes, Asref suffers, but his love functions as his great motivator and in the end he receives his reward. A really positive tale, which can easily function within the mythology of Arabian Nights.

In some tales within Bibliotheca Fantastica, books develop personalities. Michael Skeet ponders about how rare books might feel about being collected and never read as to preserve them for the years to come in “Read Me”, where a thief communes with the spirit of a book he’s agreed to steal as a wedding gift. “Paperheart”, written by Tina Connolly, features a manuscript who has gained its self-awareness and assembled itself into a human shape to crisscross the world in search for texts for her frame. Perhaps the strongest story to fit in this thematic interpretation is “Where Love Is Written” by Todd T. Castillo, which I find to be the strongest story in the anthology. Castillo does nothing more than give voice to an ordinary book with unknown content, which begins to recall memories of its life. It’s a stripped-down, but heartfelt tale and its the emotional honesty that hits very hard. Often the simplest things cause the most astonishment.

An interesting subset of stories stray away from the conventional understanding of books and the power associated with them. Andrew S. Fuller’s “The Crimson Codex” charts the efforts of a sect to preserve the sole remaining book in a future, where a monolithic intergalactic monopole rules as the sole provider of content. The story echoes the hardships scribes faced in the Middle Ages, but in the end, the codex in question turns out to be inscribed somewhere else completely. Even more outlandish is “The Gallery of Vespasian Maraf”, written by Megan Arkenberg. The story is a collection of excerpts from a monograph, which analyzes the only surviving portrait of the titular character. Each excerpt connects to the next and hints at the very ominous nature of Vespasian by painting in the negative. Perhaps the most imaginative stories to redefine how a book can look like are David Sklar’s “The Philosopher’s Nectar”, which echoes Leena Krohn’s Tainaron: Mail from Another City with two insects having a reasonable discourse and sharing the teachings of a philosopher through nectar, and Ray Vukcevich’s “The Go-Between”, which features a novel written line by line in the works of other writers, though the story itself suffers from too much fragmentation to make an impact.

I have spent more time on the stories, which play off on one another thematically, but you can be sure Bibliotheca Fantastica has more to offer. There are stories of books, which dictate lifestyles, serve as the tool of a community’s undoing and whose wisdom aids protagonists to survive an otherworldly cathedral. All in all, even the most fanatic of bibliophiles will suffer an overdose in the most positive connotation of the word. In the end, that’s what you need to understand about Bibliotheca Fantastica.

About Haralambi Markov (15 Articles)
Haralambi Markov is a writer and critic with a taste for weird, dangerous fiction, coffee and spreadsheets. You can him mouthing off on Twitter at @HaralambiMarkov or on his blog The Alternative Typewriter.
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