REVIEW SUMMARY: A beautiful book, which will complement any personal library based on printing, illustration and formatting alone. You’d also be happy to know Tanzer knows her stuff and writes captivating stories.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: You get weird and fantastical stories that take you on a ride through time periods, genres and themes. Each tale leaves you with an original cocktail recipe that best captures its essence.
PROS: Skilled stylist; able to adapt her style to the story that needs telling; a good sense of humor as most of these stories carry a healthy dose of humor, very creative decisions in terms of world building.
CONS: Not every story in the collection focuses on drinking and brews as a theme; the story order is jarring and does little to make me believe a few of the stories are a good fit for this particular collection – on their own they work fine as pieces of writing.
BOTTOM LINE: You should own this. It’s a limited edition and most of these stories only get better with rereading, so just buy it.
I can’t talk about Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations as a collection without first discussing the edition as a work of art. Egaeus Press has committed fully to printing books of overwhelming beauty that rekindle that initial wonder all readers feel towards books and the act of reading. From its captivating cover and binding to the woodcut style illustrations, thick pages and layout, Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations commands attention and then demands to be devoured with heady avarice. I answered the call and once I reached the finale, I found myself pleasantly intoxicated.
Tanzer’s writing itself is much like a libation – it goes down smoothly and then leaves you in light euphoria. Her skill as a mixologist (at the end of each story, readers find an original recipe created for your responsible inebriation) easily translates into an adaptable style, which authentically transports you to 18th-century England and then whisks you away to the modern day. However, it’s this diversity that takes away some of the magic, because in terms of how the book is formatted, printed and illustrated, you’re hinted at what you’re to expect given the aesthetic influences and artistic decisions. What I expected was fantastical fiction with a very strong historic flavor and “Rumbullion: An Apostrophe”, “The Poison Well” as well as “How John Wilmot Contracted Syphilis” certainly deliver on that promise.
But then there are stories like “In Sheep’s Clothing”, “Go, Go, Go, Said the Byakhee” and the Lovecraftian “Herbert West in Love” – all written in a different style and diverging from what I thought would be the collection’s theme (drinking and brews; I’m discounting West’s serum as it’s administered intravenously). This dissonance in time periods and styles, more pronounced by the somewhat random story order, is jarring and doesn’t allow for the pieces to create an even reading with a build-up as you advance through the time periods depicted in the stories. Thankfully, that’s my biggest gripe with the collection as a whole.
“Rumbullion: An Apostrophe” serves as the opener and stands the longest with 143 pages. A fusion of journal entries and correspondence, the novella seeks to create a comprehensive and illuminating account of the events that have transpired on the night of a party at the manor of one Julian Bretwynde, which ended with disastrous results. Of course, one should expect no less when the notorious Count of St. Germaine is guest of honor in charge of entertainment. The novella begins as Bretwynde tries to understand what transpired during the fateful night that broke off his engagement, had his cousin murdered and caused much mayhem; and in the beginning of his journey the nature of said events seems innocent enough. However, at each exchange of letters with periphery characters, a much more sinister truth begins to emerge. A few incidents of little significance mentioned early on take a life of their own, come into sharp focus and take you on a slow descent into madness.
Wherein Tanzer succeeds most is her use of ambiguity to muddle the storyline and let you wander in a hedge maze of mutually contradicting narratives, which struck me as earnest and believable. “Rumbullion: An Apostrophe” doesn’t just question whom do you believe, but also in what you believe. I’m discussing this piece in such a roundabout way, because the novella comes into its own when you’re fully unaware of its contents.
However, I’d like to bring out one excellent example of ambiguity – the contested gender of a servant named Dionysus. Through Bretwynde’s eyes, the reader sees nothing but a bright young man who can travel the world and has his good health – things he desperately wants for himself. Bretwynde’s school friend, Cloudsley James, however, insists Dionysus to be a most seductive woman dressed as a boy and claims they have fallen in love. The reader is unsure, who is correct, but only learns both men share affections for the servant. Cloudsley even goes so far as to suggest Bretwynde is homosexual for his liking of Dionysus, especially if he sees him as a boy. Both gentlemen are convinced in the veracity of their own judgement and in the end, the reader doesn’t learn the definitive truth. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. Much like in the hedge maze in the Bretwynde residence, half the fun comes from getting lost and finding dead ends rather than knowing how to get out. If you’re interested in reading this and can’t afford the limited edition collection, “Rumbullion: An Apostrophe” will receive its release as a standalone work published by Lazy Fascist Press.
“Rumbullion: An Apostrophe” is most in conversation with “How John Wilmot Contracted Syphilis”, which takes readers to 17th century London to portray the very real historical figure John Wilmot who wore elaborate disguises and pretended to be a doctor and his wife. This story really shows off Tanzer’s skill at evoking time periods without sacrificing readability in the process and showcases her knowledge of history as she blends the paranormal into actual historical narrative. The end result is a John Wilmot causing mischief with a personal demon spirit that shares his body. It’s a fun read and I think Tanzer manages to breathe in humor and wit into Wilmot, especially during his banter with his demonic friend – essential when writing about a famous satirist.
A strong theme in Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations is anthropomorphism. From the La Fontaine flavored “The Poison Well” that tells about the rivalry of a shrewmouse and a mole to the highly entertaining “Tubby McMungus, Fat from Fungus”, which is co-penned by Jesse Bullington and tells the tale of an overly ambitious feline merkin maker with much wit and aplomb, Tanzer is fascinated with the man in beast and the beast in man.
The latter is best demonstrated in the post-apocalyptic “In Sheep’s Clothing”, where all the survivors of an apocalypse seem to undergo physical transformations into animals. This story is fascinating on a conceptual level because the virus that swipes the world clean affects only those who consume products with corn syrup – you can see as to why humanity was almost wiped out in full. This then coupled with the fact that the narrator knitted her way through the apocalypse and the homemade confections they wear triggered the transformations makes for a strange story. However, it only appeals on a conceptual level. The delivery is tinted with the distinct detachment a person who has gone through a lot of trauma and needs to stay that way in order to keep going. This flattened the disturbing events that happen and really robbed the story from its emotionally devastating potential.
In some part, I imagine this lies in Tanzer getting caught up in playing with the world and the day-to-day survival. I’d say “Go, Go, Go, Said the Byakhee” shares similar problems for it is a focus on a society of human-animal chimeras and the rite of passage Dicle, a young girl who is human, wants to undergo to become a chimera herself. The act of transformation is a concept rooted in technology and science fiction here and to me the story felt more as a device to answer the question – how does one transform into an animal hybrid. The answer is quite enjoyable and I commend Tanzer for choosing a country for her setting that is not America or England, but overall “Go, Go, Go, Said the Byakhee” with its outlandish delivery did not give me that satisfaction of a really hearty story and certainly felt wrong as a closer.
Although, I complain Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations is a bit too eclectic and chaotic for a collection I assumed would be built on a theme, it showcases Tanzer’s range and proves she can confidently write anything she pleases. This isn’t just a limited edition collection. It is a work of art and it belongs on your shelf. Your personal library will thank you.