Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Moscow But Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia

This is an uneven collection of stories that has more good points than bad ones. There were stories I was absolutely enchanted by, many stories I liked a good deal, some that were only so-so, and at least one that I thought was truly terrible. But as a writer, Sedia is growing on me. I was only slightly enthused by her steampunk book, the name of which escapes me at the moment. But there were moments in Moscow But Dreaming that were stunning.

This is a collection of short stories, most of which are either set in Russia, or a former part of the USSR, or are about expats in other countries. A couple, though, are not, and those confused the heck out of me. Thematically, they were just jarring. I spent far more time than I should have trying to find the connection to Russia. They weren't bad stories, but neither were they terrific stories that were worth breaking the theme.

Some of these reminded me pleasantly of the things Catherynne Valente was doing with Russian folklore in Deathless, although without the truly superlative prose. Still, I enjoyed reading them.  There were some truly spooky ghost stories mixed in there, from an old woman helping find coins for the eyes of dead soldiers, to a man who guarded a house where many young women disappeared to feed the horrific appetites of the leader of the secret police, to two men finding they can steal memories from recent corpses with the help of a jug of alcohol.

But it was a story that had nothing to do with ghosts that was the one that really made me sit up and take notice. "The Bank of Burkina Faso" is, quite frankly, brilliant. She meshes together the plaintive letters from scammers we all receive in email with a story about being an expat and and the supernatural in a truly charming way. This story was worth the whole collection alone.

I wish I had a list of the stories, but I can't seem to find it, and the Kindle I read it on is just enough of a pain that I haven't gone back to dig it out. Many of these were published in other places as well.

At their best, these are stories that weave together fantastical elements (often horrific) with mundane reality, often against recent Russian history. They explore what it is like to stay, what it is like to leave, and how folklore could enter ives in unexpected ways. Most of the stories are very good.

The one about the puppet and the autistic boy, however, is terrible. It's like she decided to try an experiment, and then followed through in absolutely no way. You don't call something a "play" when all you are doing is putting "Act One" (or Two or Three) at the top of each section, giving one italicized line of setting, and then go on to write it just as you've written every other story, in the same sort of first-person narrative. It's not a play! It's not formatted as a play! It's not written as a play! There are no lines, no stage directions. It isn't even a monologue. It's just a first-person story. Why would you bother to call it a play? And the story isn't that good either.

Just...don't. If you're not going to follow through, don't. Why?

Other than that story, the rest are at least interesting, with a few real jewels sprinkled amongst them.

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