Paper Cities is a collection of urban fantasy in the truest sense of the term: stories of the fantastic from or about the city and all the wonderment and horror that entails. I imagine most people would prefer to think of cities as dumb beasts, mere collections of brick and mortar, marble and steel, men and women, children and the dead. Yet people who think of society not as a collective organism but as a loose gathering of people only peripherally affected by each other would be under a mistaken impression. Cities are alive: they breathe, they think, and they dream. They are the loom that knits together past and present and future, weaving the living and the dead, the animate and the inanimate into a sum much bigger than the total of its parts.
The writers here collected by Senses Five Press and Ekaterina Sedia understand that. Not only have they channeled intoxicating and surprising places into these paper-and-ink windows, but some of the stories will put the feet of anyone who reads them on the road to understanding that cities are alive.
This is a fairly eclectic collection, bringing together semi-historical fantasy, mythpunk, cyberpunk, science fiction, YA fantasy, and even a hunting adventure about the one that got away. Of course, not all stories were created equal. While the quality of the writing in this collection is pretty consistent, the ideas and execution are not always as engaging.
To wit, I’ll get the slow runners out of the way: “The Tower of Morning’s Bones” by Hal Duncan, “The Title of This Story” by Stephanie Campisi, “Courting the Lady Scythe” by Richard Parks, and “Painting Haiti” by Michael Jasper slightly encumber the sleek lines of this anthology. As I said, there’s no fault to be found in the quality of the writing. It’s just that these particular stories carry within them either an element of confusion (the former two) or plot mediocrity (in the case of the latter). Duncan’s story is built dizzyingly with his usual shtick, albeit slightly more accessible than his novels, and the only thing that can be said about his confused morass of a mythpunk story is that it suits the subject matter and there are some lovely individual phrases. “The Title of This Story” seems to hit a few feet shy of its mark, and the remaining two stories are simply transparent and too restrained, respectively.
There’s also a solid middle class packed into this anthology. Forrest Aguirre’s “Andretto Walks the King’s Way” breaks down the Black Death into bite-sized chunks of horrific whimsy and phantasmagoric realism, while “The Bumblety’s Marble” by Cat Rambo gives us a pleasurable jaunt through a city where the dead and undead live and work (sometimes begrudgingly) together. “The One That Got Away” by Mark Teppo is definitely a bitter brew quaffed after a long, strange day and, while predictable, is awash in unpredictable emotions. “Alex and the Toyceivers” is too episodic to be completely engaging, but this is understandable given that it’s the continuation of a tale broken into short stories and scattered across publications. I hope Paul Meloy is planning to collect his stories soon, however; for although this short piece is absorbingly bizarre and fraught with danger, it’s too little to feel complete. Darin C. Bradley’s cyberpunk story, “They Would Only Be Roads,” is mainly intriguing due to the use of sympathetic magic and computer programs to create and control magical rituals and the tracing of a city through its veins of cable and circuitry. “Taser” by Jenn Reese engages us in a boys-on-the-street story where certain canines are in control and the street justice (and injustice) that ensues. David Schwartz’s “Somnambulist” rounds out the middle class, giving us an old soul who likes piggyback rides and hates death but makes the mistake of loving a fiery and powerful woman.
Before we get to the royalty of this collection, I’d like to also touch base with the high rollers. “Ghost Market” by Greg van Eekhout is well executed, shocking us into a reality where the essence of your life is collected at your death and sealed up in a little bottle for clientèle with the right cash. Steve Berman’s “Tearjerker” seals us off in a city gone weird, where tears are drugs and ink-bled words writhe on flesh, and everyone just tries to get by. Ben Peek’s “The Funeral, Ruined” chokes our throat with ashes and chills our skin with horror against the backdrop of a city built around a giant crematorium in a world where people need not die. “Down to the Silver Spirits” by Kaaron Warren sets that horror to quivering in our insides, climbing up our spines like the tiny hands of drowned children. At last, “The Age of Fish, Post-flowers” (Anna Tambour) and “The Last Escape” (Barth Anderson) give us back some distance, allowing us to engage our intellects in social science fiction: the dissolution of our cities in the face of monster onslaught, for one, and our head-in-the-sand herd mentality for the other. Any of these stories will leave you contemplative and replete with satisfaction.
Then, there are the crown jewels: those stories of the collection that blew me away, either with brutal majesty, sorrowful beauty, surprising whimsy, or sheer genius. Jay Lake’s “Promises: A Tale of the City Imperishable” is simply brilliant: the decadence of his city is intoxicating and the matter-of-fact plunge he takes into the depths of a brutal-to-be-compassionate Sisterhood is wholly absorbing. These words sting and sober. “Sammarynda Deep” by Cat Sparks is a uniquely told love tragedy, a bold interweaving of philosophy and culture that end in the creation of something forbidden and new. Vylar Kaftan’s “Godivy” is laugh-out-loud enjoyable satire and there’s nothing else I’ll tell you! “Palimpsest,” now. Catherynne M. Valente’s “Palimpsest” is sheer intoxication: a city both viral and literal that infects and changes the bodies of its inhabitants even as its inhabitants affect it. It is full of the whimsically delightful and blood-deep wonder and fascinating curiosity. “Palimpsest” leaves you hungry and satiated all at once.
I definitely recommend this collection: besides being full of so many solid and some brilliant works, it also acts as a good taster collection since several of the stories within open the door to larger works. Jay Lake’s City Imperishable can be visited again in Trial of Flowers and his forthcoming Madness of Flowers. Valente’s “Palimpsest” will, of course, be the topic of her forthcoming novel Palimpsest. Paul Meloy’s story is a continuation of several others which you can seek out in the publications The Third Alternative and Interzone. Also, if you like Hal Duncan’s style here, you’ll likely enjoy his two published volumes: Vellum and Ink.
(Senses Five Press, 2008)