Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review: Prophecies, Libels, and Dreams by Ysabeau S. Wilce

Cover of Prophecies, Libels, & Dreams, featuring a long-haired white person wearing a kilt and a long, flared coat. A ball of golden light hovers above their chest, between their outstretched palms.
I don’t spend nearly enough time telling y’all to read Ysabeau S. Wilce. Oh, I’ve gushed here and there, and I’ve bought copies of FLORA SEGUNDA for a couple of folks, and I somehow managed to convince a couple more to buy copies their own selves. But my efforts have all been low key, you know? And it’s been ages since I made a concerted effort to spread the word about one of my favourite authors.

That just won’t do.

A few words on what I consider a “favourite author,” so’s you know where I’m coming from. There are plenty of people on my mental list of authors whose work I regularly enjoy, but a favourite goes above and beyond that. Most of the time, I want to have at least three or four of a writer’s books under my belt before I’ll cautiously declare they’re a favourite, maybe, unless the wind shifts. It takes something pretty durned special to make me leap straight into the reader/favourite author relationship.

Ysabeau S. Wilce got on the list by virtue of one novella, one short story, and one novel. She’s that fucking good.

The novella in question--“The Lineaments of Gratified Desire”--served as my gateway into her work. By the time I’d spent three pages immersed in Wilce’s twisty-turny prose and the brutal, glorious world it described, I knew I had to seek out and devour everything this woman had ever written.

Thus began my Epic Readerly Quest. I found a free story of hers online (“The Curious Case of Springheel Jack,” which has since been removed for inclusion the collection I’m working my way around to telling you about today). I borrowed FLORA SEGUNDA, which was then her only novel, loved it, and rushed off to buy my own copy1. I preordered her next release, FLORA’S DARE, from my favourite local indie. I learned she had another short story coming in an unthemed anthology (Jonathan Strahan’s ECLIPSE TWO), so I placed a request the very moment my library ordered it. I bought a back issue of F&SF so I could read “Metal More Attractive,” the prequel to “The Lineaments of Gratified Desire.” When she released another story in Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant’s STEAMPUNK! a couple years down the line, I snatched that up, too.

What I’m saying is, I follow Wilce. And I don’t follow many authors.

The only thing of hers I haven’t yet read is FLORA’S FURY, the conclusion to the Flora trilogy. It’s a terrible oversight on my part, and I intend to rectify it as soon as I can find the space in my readerly schedule.

Wilce’s short stories and novels alike take place in Califa, an alternate version of nineteenth century San Francisco in which dangerous magic abounds. Califa quickly became one of my favourite settings, and with each new story I tracked down and devoured, my desire for THE COLLECTED CALIFA grew. I wanted an easy way to wallow in the place. A way beyond the novels, I mean; a way that would let me read a bunch of different perspectives all at once.

And hey, if Wilce wanted to tell me a little bit more about Hardhands and Tiny Doom, the folks at the heart of those two novellas, I’d be perfectly all right with that.

Enter PROPHECIES, LIBELS, & DREAMS, which is my ideal COLLECTED CALIFA in all ways save one: I wish it were three times longer than it actually is.

The collection brings together seven stories: five reprints and two tales original to this volume. Six of them are concerned with Califa, while the final story in the volume purports to be either a fantasy penned by a Califan or a tale that has wandered there from another (read: our) world.

The stories are fabulous: twisty, atmospheric, and fully steeped in their own internal mythology. Califa lives and breathes on the page. Its baroque traditions feel rooted and weighty. Its inhabitants are true individuals, from the central characters on down to the people who staff the many bars, ice cream shoppes, and entertainment complexes the protagonists frequent. It is brutal and dangerous in the most moreish way possible.

Wilce’s glorious prose is a perfect fit with this dark, elegant setting. She writes predominantly in present tense here, each sentence crackling with immediacy and packed with style to spare. Her words perform wild dances around one another, never a phrase out of place, never a choice bit of imagery left unevoked.

Sometimes, this sort of syntax alienates me; in Wilce’s capable hands, it invites me deeper into the story and leaves me desperate to know everything about this world, these characters, and the magic that powers both.

There’s not a doubt in my mind that Wilce herself knows everything. Her assurance is impossible to deny.

In addition to the stories themselves, the collection presents a series of Afterwards in which a contemporary-to-us Califan scholar comments on each tale’s place in the historical record. These short essays set out to disprove the stories more often than not. The author got this wrong, the scholar tells us. They clearly made that up, and obfuscated this other thing to discredit a particular personage, and wrote always with their own agenda in mind. According to the unnamed scholar, these stories contain few accuracies and much bunk.

This commentary raises all sorts of fascinating questions about primary sources, propaganda, and the practice of historiography. Are these stories as untrustworthy as the scholar claims, or has she herself been sold a version of history that propagates a particular agenda?

An example: the three stories about Hardhands and Tiny Doom show Hardhands in a particularly vicious (but not entirely unsympathetic) light. The scholar dismisses these fictions as slander; an attempt to discredit Califa’s former ruling family and thus bolster the Warlord’s right to rule. She backs up this assertion with citations from the official record--an approach that ought to leave everything sure and certain, but which carries rather less weight because we know from the first two Flora books that it’s entirely possible to fudge Califa’s official documents. You can have the most detailed record imaginable of, say, someone’s birth or death, but that doesn’t mean the person was actually born in that particular manner, or that their death happened exactly as written. Surely any number of other events can be obscured in the same way.

Me, I’m a suspicious reader through and through, so I had a marvellous time considering the possible veracity of either the stories before me or the scholar’s take on them. It’s exactly the sort of thing that tickles my fancy.

And yet, I love Hardhands because he’s vicious (but not entirely unsympathetic, which may say something terrible about me), so I’m inclined to accept the stories as written. I’m quite happy to believe in everything on the page, even as I delight in the possibility that it could all be lies, lies, lies.

I find it interesting, too, that the scholar and I both appear to be pro-Hardhands, but from different angles. She’s inclined to think his badness has been played up because that fits her notion of history; I’m quite happy to buy into it because that interpretation fits mine.

Basically, PROPHECIES, LIBELS, AND DREAMS is awesome on a story level and on a how-we-engage-with-history-and-scholarship-and-fiction level. I want y’all to read it, please. Don’t worry if you haven’t read FLORA SEGUNDA &c. These stories all take place a fair few years before Wilce’s novels and so stand alone while still adding another level to the longer works.

Not that I’ll try to stop you if you decide to buy or borrow FLORA SEGUNDA right this very second. I want you to visit Califa in whatever way is most convenient for you, please and thanks.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read PROPHECIES, LIBELS, AND DREAMS, you can try:

  1. This is my standard practice. With a very few exceptions, I always read a library copy before I decide whether I want to add a given title to my permanent collection. No impulse purchases here, thanks.

    I’m such a boring book-buyer. Y’all are like, “Wow, look at all these great books I bought on a whim!” and I’m all, “Let me weigh the pros and cons of ownership before I spend money on this single, solitary volume.”

    I do go frickin’ wild at the library. I’ve got that in my favour.

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