Once or twice a year, I'll read a book that is so amazing, so wonderful, so utterly entrancing that I will devour it eagerly and also hold myself back for fear of losing it too soon. Months ago, I came very close to that feeling with Angélica Gorodischer's unique Trafalgar. I was very impressed by Trafalgar, but I had to admit that I did not fall for it quite in the same way that I had in the past for other favorites. It was good enough, however, to ensure that I would read Gorodischer's earlier Kalpa Imperial, a book that Trafalgar even casually referenced.
And then, lo and behold, Kalpa Imperial is that book: beautifully written, wonderfully translated, magical, unique, imaginative, entrancing, enticing, absorbing, amazing and just... brilliant.
Really. I'm understating here.
Kalpa Imperial (subtitled The Greatest Empire That Never Was) is exactly the sort of book I've often imagined writing myself. It creates a fictional empire and tells stories about it. That's it. There's an order, sure, but I was never really certain that the story was being told entirely chronologically. There are references to previously mentioned stories, but these are calm connections that - despite being located in what is officially the same empire - could be taking place in entirely different worlds.
One of the incredible aspects of Kalpa Imperial is its ability to take full advantage of its short story style, while still making the book feel overall like a coherent, balanced whole. There are no duds in Kalpa Imperial, no stories that seem out place. It's clearly not a novel, but unlike most short story collections, Kalpa Imperial has no moment in which the standard slips even a smidgen - the stories flow seamlessly into each other, painting an ever growing portrait of this entirely fictional empire. And these stories are absolutely amazing.
Kalpa Imperial falls into the category I've decided to call "imaginative fiction". This is the genre that Borges, and Calvino, and Michal Ajvaz and a whole host of other authors belong to. I think by this point it's safe to say that I really, really like these types of books - the crossover between the believable and the imaginary, the gentle overlapping of fantasy with reality. Each of the above authors takes it to a different level and uses different techniques to tell their story, but there's no doubt that Gorodischer's imaginary kingdom (and also the lovely techniques used in Trafalgar) place her directly in this category.
Kalpa Imperial is fantasy unlike any other - there's no hero's quest, references to magic are far and few between (and even then may just be myths that have been twisted along the way), the society hardly seems based on medieval Europe (I kept imagining various Middle Eastern kingdoms, to be honest), there are vague references to modern technology such as cars and buses, the time frame is huge (thousands of years!), there are no warring gods... and yet it's all clearly fantasy. It doesn't merely build a world; it builds an entire history, legacy, culture and, indeed, empire. I wish I could describe the perfection of these stories (among which one ranks as the greatest 30-odd pages of literature I have ever read) but I can't. It has to be read, it has to be experienced.
As for the writing: clear, beautiful - a perfect storytelling technique. But there's another tone here, one that I often felt creeping into Gorodischer's style: that of Ursula K. Le Guin, the grand mistress of fantasy and sci-fi herself, who translated Kalpa Imperial. Small witticisms and offhand remarks rang so clearly as those of Le Guin that - had the translation been any less perfect and the writing even slightly less smooth - they could have jolted me out of the story. This didn't happen. Le Guin, it turns out, is also a master translator, imbibing Kalpa Imperial with just a dash of her own tone while still letting Gorodischer's style reign supreme. It's incredibly done.
I don't know what else I can say to possibly convince a reader who hasn't been convinced yet. Only this, I suppose: Kalpa Imperial is worth it. It's worth taking a day off from work to sit and read. It's worth stepping out of your comfort zone if this isn't the type of book you'd normally read. It's worth it for fantasy fans, sci-fi fans, fans of Le Guin, fans of unique stories, fans of imaginative fiction, readers who like being challenged, readers who like feeling at home, readers who like stories... It's worth reading, it's worth recommending to your library, it's worth buying. It's worth every minute you may spend on it. My list of perfect books is very, very short, but Kalpa Imperial is on it. And it's near the top.
One final note: Small Beer Press, thank you for publishing two wonderful books by Angélica Gorodischer. Now... please publish the rest.