Monday, December 17, 2012

Wonders of the Invisible World

Wonders of the Invisible World is the fifth book by Patricia McKillip I've read. Truthfully, she's not such a favorite author of mine that it goes without saying that I'd read her new short story collection, but there is nonetheless something about her writing that draws me in again and again, even as some of her books fail to impress me. Wonders of the Invisible World may have been significantly better than some of the other book's I've read by her, but I was not left gushing as many other reviewers have been. The fault lies in a somewhat unexpected realm.

For starters, the eponymous opening story is fairly weak. Openers need to be strong hooks, and all "Wonders of the Invisible World" managed to do was lull me to sleep. The idea behind the story is nice, but overall... meh. The second story, while better, was also decidedly far from the top of the scale, though it did feel a little more like McKillip's standard, smooth-and-eloquent writing style. It really wasn't until the third story, "The Kelpie", that I began to be remotely interested. And "The Kelpie" is really an interesting story, both in the way it portrays art and artists, and the way it steals little bits of a more old-fashioned writing style, to suit the story's own time period.

But once I began to read the collection with more interest, I also began to read more attentively (and as such, more critically). It soon became hard to ignore the imbalances in this collection, not simply in terms of quality or style (more the latter), rather the recurring themes, ideas and even name fragments that McKillip returned to. Water is perhaps the strongest of these themes, featuring rather prominently in no less than four stories. The thing is, I liked the majority of these stories, but clumped together in the same collection... they lost some of their magic. Similarly the fairy-tale like stories. Individually, there are some fine stories in here. But they overshadow each other, leaving each a bit dimmer than what it might have been. Then there's the downside of any short story collection: quite a few of these stories are utterly forgettable. Stories like "Oak Hill", "The Fortune Teller" and "A Gift to Be Simple" simply didn't stick.

Then there's McKillip's writing style itself. In the previous four books I've read, McKillip maintained a very clean, very subtle writing style. She is a master of the contained fantasy, never overwriting what can be said in a few words. Yet I've found that her short fiction seems to lack that perfect balance. I wasn't particularly fond of her novella The Changeling Sea (though I do intend to reread it, to see how much of my opinion was colored by the circumstances under which I read the book...), and now Wonders of the Invisible World has also struck me as containing slightly... messier writing. The writing rarely feels like McKillip's traditional style. When it worked, the result was truly wonderful ("Naming Day", "Jack O'Lantern" and "The Kelpie"), but sometimes it just... didn't.

Ultimately, Wonders of the Invisible World is a pretty good short story collection. If read properly. If read in pieces, not in one sitting. I like the range of stories, I like the range of styles. The repetitive themes weigh down the collection a bit, as do some of the less memorable stories, but on the whole, this is a good choice for a reader looking for fantasy shorts. Though I would recommend some of McKillip's other books well before this one (namely The Alphabet of Thorn, which remains one of the best fantasy novels I've read), Wonders of the Invisible World is a reasonable starting point for readers new to McKillip, and certainly worth reading for long-time fans.

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