Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Parrish ed., Clockwork, Curses, and Coal (2021)

Rhonda Parrish (ed.), Clockwork, Curses, and Coal: Steampunk and Gaslamp Fairy Tales. World Weaver Press, 2021. Pp. 200. ISBN 978-1-7340-5451-4. $15.95 pb/$4.99 e.

Reviewed by Gwen C. Katz

Rhonda Parrish, the patron saint of short spec fic, is back with Clockwork, Curses, and Coal, the second in her Punked-Up Fairy Tales anthology series. Parrish is a prolific editor, and her new anthologies are eagerly anticipated by readers and writers alike. The first installment in this series, Grimm, Grit, and Gasoline, even netted a star from Publishers Weekly—a rare distinction for a small-press anthology.

Broad-ranging, generously long, and usually focused on the fun and upbeat, Parrish’s anthologies are a home for the odd, unexpected, and overlooked, and I always appreciate the room they give to stories that you wouldn’t find in the promags, even though that usually means there are one or two that didn’t work for me. But Clockwork, Curses, and Coal, a bit darker than her usual, has nary a weak point in sight—although I did find myself wishing the contributors were as diverse as the stories.

It opens with “The Iron Revolution” by Christina Ruth Johnson. I love the sheer chutzpah of retelling The Princess and the Pea, one of the silliest fairy tales, and actually making it work. I liked the global scope of the story, and I’d definitely enjoy more of these characters. “Clockwork Tea” by Joseph Halden puts us into the head of an enjoyably horrid protagonist, and it contains a sharp commentary about British imperialism. That said, this was the one story in the collection where the fairy tale connection didn’t quite work for me; I did groan a little when “Ping Nuo Cha”’s nose starts growing.

Beth Cato’s “A Future of Towers Made” is one of my favorite types of retelling: A story that originally had a very passive protagonist (Rapunzel) rewritten to give the heroine agency. This Rapunzel is smart and motivated, and I loved watching her find a way to triumph against a patriarchal world. A turn for the dark comes in “A Bird Girl in the Dark of Night” by Sarah Van Goethem. The theme of sisterly devotion resonates through this story, which hits some spot-on creepy notes.

One of the standouts for me was “Checkmate” by Brian Trent. This wildly creative story sets up a perfectly crafted world where wars are fought by human chessmen following strictly regimented rules. I was completely absorbed following every twist and turn of the world, which is both strange and compelling. I wouldn’t have guessed that a story called “Necromancy” would be a Pied Piper retelling, but Melissa Bobe’s story takes it in a compelling new direction. Instead of a plague of rats, the plague is countercultural defiance among the town’s girls—which the townspeople are willing to ruthlessly punish. The sanctimoniousness and brutality of the townspeople is appropriately chilling.

Wendy Nikel’s “Blood and Clockwork,” an original story, is a perfectly crafted adventure that dips into thriller and mystery as the royal tinkerer turns herself into a cyborg to protect the king. The twists in this one absolutely blindsided me. No anthology is complete without some sapphic content, and we get ours in “Sappho and Erinna” by Lex T. Lindsay. It’s more loosely inspired by The Twelve Dancing Princesses than it is an adaptation, which is certainly for the best. “Divine Spark” by Diana Hurlburt is a Pygmalion story starring a freeborn African-American girl and her mother in an alternate antebellum America. I was intrigued by the odd, often disturbing Watchmaker cult they’re a part of and charmed by the bond between Mariah and the construct she builds. In Reese Hogan’s “The Balance of Memory,” the anthology takes another turn for the dark. Meticulously put together, this story stays true to the tone of Hansel and Gretel while painting a resonant picture of the results of childhood abuse. Despite the wildly speculative premise—a single child split into two half-human constructs through trauma and injury—it remains a deeply personal story.

“The Giant and the Unicorn” by Alethea Kontis is a cute little Aesop retelling; it’s sweet but trivial, and the worldbuilding feels forced and overwrought, especially for a 2000-word story. “Ningyō” by Laura VanArendonk Baugh is a wonderfully creepy Japanese-inspired horror story where two monks, caught in a storm, take shelter at the house of a woman who is not what she seems. The tone and imagery are spot-on. I couldn’t help wishing there were more actual Japanese contributors to the anthology, though.

The second big standout in this collection was Adam Breckenridge’s “Father Worm.” Set in an unfamiliar and unsettling world where people offer birds as sacrifices to the sun, this story constantly raised new questions, culminating in an ending that left me unsure whether the protagonist had chosen the better thing or not. We return to a lighthearted tone with the final story, “The Coach Girl” by M.L.D. Curelas. The story of a girl who can talk to machines hits a lot of fun notes and ends the anthology on an optimistic high.

All in all, this is a particularly solid and well-put-together collection even compared to Parrish’s other anthologies. There are exciting highs, disturbing lows, and a lot of great adventure along the way. I have no doubt her anthologies will continue to meet this high standard of storytelling; my only hope is that we’ll see a more diverse group of contributors as well.

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