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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"A Handful of Pearls & Other Stories" by Beth Bernobich (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Beth Bernobich Website
Order "A Handful of Pearls & Other Stories" HERE
Read two stories from the collection: Poison HERE and Marsdog HERE

INTRODUCTION: Beth Bernobich has recently been mentioned as one of the next fantasy stars and the quality of prose in the ambitious novella Ars Memoriae confirmed that potential for me. I was eager to read her debut collection "A Handful of Pearls & Other Stories" and it fulfilled my expectations and more, so much so that her novelistic debut "Passion Play" has become my most awaited debut for the second half of 2010 and an overall top five awaited novel.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "A Handful of Pearls & Other Stories" stands at about 250 pages and consists of nine stories and a superb introduction by James Patrick Kelly
suggestively titled "Telling Secrets". The cover is beautiful and expressive of the collection's theme. The stories range in time, space and genre from historical fantasy and alt-history to near-future sf to alien planets and beings.

Lyrical, touching and imaginative short fiction of the highest caliber.

ANALYSIS: "A Handful of Pearls & Other Stories" stands out by its wonderful prose. If it has a theme, it is about strong people who are in a less than privileged position - mostly women in male dominated societies, but not only - it is also about regrets and (sometimes) second chances, with sense of wonder and great characters; the occasional lighter touches work well too.

I will present a short discussion story by story while I strongly suggest to try the free online stories linked above or head to Ms. Bernobich's website for more stories available online.

Chrysalide (A+)
The opening of the collection gives its tone and showcases its theme with a beautiful story about a painter who has to balance her family duties - her son whose attempts at being gentleman farmer are not quite successful and needs money all the time - her unique artistic gift that comes at a high cost, her secret high nobility lover and the intrigues that come with her fragile court position, all expressed in the process of her painting the portrait of a young beautiful duchess that is the new "star" of the court. The one failing of this story is that it is too short - though it has some 15 pages - for its content which is excellent but would have been awesome with maybe another 15 pages.

Poison (A++)
One of my two super-favorites from the collection; the story of two siblings who are not quite regular humans; touching, suspenseful and introducing a milieu that is extremely imaginative and interesting and in which I would love a novel or more short stories; the 40 pages of this tale allow the scope for an almost perfect story with a great ending that illustrates the power of fiction at shorter length.

Remembrance (A+)
A story about two near-future women who are lovers separated by the Mars assignment of one of them who is a security operative, while the other works as a scientist on Earth; new technology allows a much more intimate communication over long distances than usual - at a price - the story is quite predictable as ending and it also reminded me of one of my all time favorite short stories
"Life on the Moon" by Tony Daniel; haunting and powerful.

Marsdog (A)
The lightest story of the collection featuring the friendship between an alien boy and a robot probe on Mars; imaginative and thought provoking.

A Handful of Pearls (A+)
The darkest story of the collection with a very troubled main character who has big issues in his personal relationships with women and tries to immerse himself in work on a distant archipelago; when a strange mute girl is found, his past comes back to life; this is a "sleeper" story that starts pretty conventionally and then it takes a shocking u-turn that I did not see beforehand; dark and disturbing.

Watercolors in the Rain (A)
A husband and wife get a second chance late in life when an accident sends them in a magical realm; poetic and imaginative, a story that could find itself in any "mainstream" fiction venue.

Medusa at Morning (A-)
The shortest story of the collection makes a good point - "freedom is a painful gift" - but it's too short at 3 pages or so to be fully formed.

Jump to Zion (A-)
Slavery, revolution, compromises, freedom... A substantive story that tries to use a different style which is appropriate for the theme but did not work that well for me.

Air and Angels (A++)
The other super-favorite and another story that starts making you think it will go one way, only to turn in a very unexpected direction, while the ending is just great with one of the best lines that celebrate "freedom" that I've read recently; a young man of scientific promise - a bit wasted in parties rather than studies abroad - returns to a steampunk alt-London around the early 1900's and meets a seemingly shy retiring girl with an interest in science; this story is probably the best representative of the collection's theme and I utterly loved it.

In conclusion I would say that
"A Handful of Pearls & Other Stories" (A+ overall) shows why Ms. Bernobich's announced five or so upcoming novels from Tor are not to be missed, while also celebrating the power of fiction at short length to enchant and inspire.


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