Last week I reviewed the anthology, Noir, edited by Ian Whates and published by NewCon Press. This week I am looking at its twin, La Femme. Both books were launched at EasterCon 65 in Glasgow on 18 April. I could just as easily have reviewed them the other way around.
According to the editor’s introduction to Noir, ‘This all started out as a single simple project, but, as so often happens, the concept evolved. The initial idea was to publish a collection of stories, each featuring a femme fatale, but on reflection that seemed too restrictive…’ The end result ‘was two books, thematically linked but each with their own identity.’ Such that Noir features ‘thirteen stories that dance around genre boundaries but are linked by a sense of foreboding, a prickly itch that will unsettle and leave you with the impression of something sinister lurking just beyond the reach of awareness…’ Meanwhile La Femme developed from stories about femme fatales into, ‘a book about women who are more or less than they seem’.
La Femme opens with Stephen Palmer’s ‘Palestinian Sweets’, which imagines a future London given over to refugees from the Lebanese Bomb. The British have moved to the countryside and patchwork London is the domain of various middle-eastern expatriate groups. Lucas Nohandys, a 16 year old negotiator, is involved in an arcane conflict. He lives with his family in the Status Quo, a restaurant in Wardour Street ‘at the heart of Greek Orthodoxy.’ He is tasked with negotiating with the representatives of Palestinian Christianity, based around The Jameed restaurant ‘in an alley off Baker Street’.
Lucas and the Palestinian representatives are all biochemically enhanced, communicating through food and scent, through subtle new senses unknown to the majority of humanity. As with so many of Stephen Palmer’s stories, ‘Palestinian Sweets’ is about the world undergoing radical transformation (not to say a radically transformed as the capital of in Palmer’s new novel, Hairy London, which I will be reviewing next week), about compromise verses conflict and the development of a new understanding, perhaps a new status quo. Palmer has created a richly detailed environment for ‘Palestinian Sweets’; an in all senses, sensual love story, a reworking of the greatest gardening story of them all, of a beautiful new Eve offering a new Adam, if not forbidden knowledge, then a secret understanding which might bring positive change. Where else to start a volume called La Femme than at the beginning?
‘Slink-Thinking’ by Frances Hardinge offers a couple of rival femmes fatale in a hugely inventive, not to say surreal and a little bit barking, ghost story. Benjamin is the newly deceased household canine. Lu Lin, the feline, proceeded him into the afterlife by a year. She takes to showing Benjamin the ropes as the pair continue as ghosts in the house where they were formally beloved pets. On the spirit level the whole house is occupied by the shades of every pet who ever lived there, from deranged gerbils to a power-crazed chinchilla. There is also a human, and very much alive, femme fatale to deal with, and Benjamin soon finds life isn’t easy being dead. ‘Slink-Thinking’ is original, off the wall and tremendous fun.
Storm Constantine’s ‘A Winter Bewitchment’ finds the bored, married, countess of Graserve encouraged by her companion, Mimosa, to beguile a successful businessman and department store owner. The setting is fantasy Victoriana, Zachary Wilde, the man in question, not so far removed from the protagonist of Diane Setterfield’s recent Bellman & Black. ‘A Winter’s Bewitchment’ is a beautifully crafted tale of middle-aged longing and romantic fantasy set against the potential consequences of acting on such dreams, and of a younger woman with her own agenda. The story works well other than in the revelation of Mimosa’s intent, which feels underdeveloped and leaves the story fizzling on an anticlimax.
‘Softwood’ by Andrew Hook plays into our fantasies about Bletchley Park and secret code breaking. Apricot has been working at Softwood for six months on a team devoted to deciphering Linear A. She is offered a very special job within the top secret code breaking facility, one which leads to isolation and the development of a more outspoken alter ego. Apricot solves the mystery, but finds a greater puzzle within. An episode of Fringe (‘6955 kHz’) played with the enigmatic possibilities of a numbers station. ‘Softwood’ does likewise, differently, to compelling affect.
‘Haecceity’ by Stewart Hotston is the story of the woman found completely unharmed at the centre of the explosion which destroyed a chemical works and killed four people. Naturally the authorities want to know why Jayne is alive when the man next to her was vaporized. And what is the connection with the simultaneous explosion at Manchester airport? The solution is an ingenious self-fulfilling prophecy in a story which in a parallel universe could almost be an episode of Fringe.
Adele Kirby is the model on both the front and back cover of La Femme. She also contributes the complex and ambitious space opera, ‘Soleil’. Eclipse is hunting Soleil. He finds her. She is a femme fatale, but is she even human? Eclipse is her match. Hollywood would have their story end in mass destruction. Kirby takes a more interesting path, one akin to Palmer’s. Perhaps things don’t always have to be the same. There is a nice Hitch-Hiker’s joke.
In ‘The Girl With No Face’ we head into comedy horror territory with John Llewellyn Probert’s arch homage to the country house horror of Hammer and the French-Italian film classic Les yeux sans visage. A young woman turns up late at night at the home of a leading plastic surgeon and insists, at gun point, that he change her appearance there and then. He, a bereaved widower, has a secret of his own. Events become increasingly, but entertainingly, ludicrous.
Something similar might be said about the darkly comic ‘High Church’ by Jonathan Oliver. Madeline is the new vicar at St. Marks. When she is called to visit a former incumbent of her office on his death bed things get strange. Madeline is modern Church of England. Grahame Staines was one of the last of the Hellfire and Brimstone preachers, and he does not like, well… pretty much anything. He definitely does not approve of women priests. And being dead isn’t going to change that. ‘High Church’ is a more broad-strokes look at different perspectives within Christianity than ‘Palestinian Sweets’, as Oliver contrasts a ferociously judgmental faith with a more embracing outlook, and resolves Madeline’s nightmare with an ironic sting.
Also comedic in tone is ‘Trysting Antlers’ by Holly Ice. Here men have antlers and behave like stags in pursuit of women and sex. Marilyn makes like a doe and has a one night stand with Kobe, but doesn’t appreciate him going back to playing the field. The story is amusing, but Marilyn’s reaction and subsequent behavior doesn’t make much sense – if in the world of the story humans behave like deer then why be upset when the alpha stag goes after another female? And if we discount the fantasy element then the story becomes one of a casual sexual encounter which involved no promise of commitment. Again, Marilyn’s reaction seems excessive. As for how men with antlers get through doors or into cars, best not to ask.
Maura McHugh’s ‘Valerie’ plunges into the world of a special interest convention. The basics might be familiar to fans, though this convention , Carnivadoll, is ‘the mid-West’s largest celebration of rubber dolls and their fetishists’. With roll-playing, suppressed desires and the fantastical all meeting over one emotionally intense weekend there is more than one sort of fantasy at work. Valerie is a strange, moving story about the courage taken and price sometimes paid to be oneself.
‘The Honey Trap’ by Ruth EJ Booth is a complex piece of hard SF in a near, post-economic collapse future America. Danielle has grown the most delicious of rare apples and awarding-winning Growth Guru Jack is keen to work with her. Another story which goes back to the origins of the project, drawing inspiration from the first femme fatale. It may leave a bitter taste.
La Femme draws to a close with ‘Elision’, another intricate space opera. We are present to an encounter between Kita-Ushma, who eight years ago ‘amputated a Song judge in self-defense’, and the priest Ashenti Turyen. Kita-Ushma may be seeking absolution or explanation, or both. Her memory is compromised. The truth not easy to discern, but the choice she makes now will determine her future. Featuring two powerful women, ‘Elision’ is a strong, compelling story with which to end the collection.
I will conclude in similar vein to last week. Ultimately it seems to me that a fair few, though not all, of the stories featured in La Femme could have could have easily been in Noir. Equally, Noir contains its share of stories which could have been in this volume instead. I liked each collection equally, finding both to contain some really outstanding stories, and a couple which I didn’t care so much for; and perhaps striking that balance so that there is sufficient to satisfy most tastes in each book is the real art of deciding what went in which volume. Regardless, La Femme is a very strong collection and highly recommended. In fact I’d suggest you get La Femme and Noir and read them back to back.
Click here for my review of Noir.
Two weeks ago I reviewed the new novel from NewCon Press, The Moon King by Neil Williamson.
I have previously reviewed single author collections from NewCon Press, including Objects in Dreams by Lisa Tuttle, and Ian Whates’ own collection of short fiction, Growing Pains, published by PS Publishing.
You can read my interview with author and editor-in-chief of Solaris Books, Jonathan Oliver, here.