Review: Neither Here Nor There by Cat Rambo
“Whose castle is this?” Marcus asked.
“The Sorceress Alyx,” the guard said.
It all made sense now. She had magically summoned him, that was why he had left his wife and come to her. She had glimpsed him, in a scrying mirror or crystal ball, and decided that he would be hers. He would rule in the castle by her side, and see to setting things right. Women had little idea how to govern, and she had probably realised she needed help.
But when Marcus said he had come to see the Sorceress, the guard only laughed, although not in an unkindly way, and said that Marcus might sleep that night in the kitchens, warm and fed, but that the Sorceress held no audiences.” ~Cat Rambo, Pippa's Smiles.
Neither Here Nor There is the latest short story collection by the award winning fantasy author Cat Rambo. This book is two anthologies in one. Neither Here is a collection of fantasy stories set in different worlds (such as the fantastic city of Serendib, which is made up entirely of pieces of other places), whereas Nor There is a set of stories set in an alternate version of our own world, mainly steampunk, clockpunk and dieselpunk. Each story is followed by notes from the author explaining where the story came from (whether it had been previously published, why it was written etc.) and how it fits in with her other stories. Both collections feature a satisfying number of wonderful female heroes, from decorated generals, to Pinkerton agents. Some of the stories included were;
Neither Here: Love, Resurrected; The Toad's Jewel; Pippa's Smiles; Karaluvian Fale; The Subtler Art; The Mage's Gift; How Dogs Came to the New Continent; Love's Footsteps; To Read the Sea; A Brooch of Bone, A Hint of Tooth; Call and Answer, Plant and Harvest. Nor There: Clockwork Fairies; Her Windowed Eyes, Her Chambered Heart; The Coffeemaker's Passion; Elections at Villa Encantada; Seven Clock Angels, All Dancing on a Pin; Coyote Barbie; The Wizards of West Seattle; Summer Night in Durham; Web of Blood and Iron; So Glad We Had This Time Together; Snakes on a Train; The Passing of Grandmother's Quilt.
This story was previously been published in the excellent zombie story anthology Zombies: More Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran. It's told from the perspective of a general in the army of a the sorceror Balthus, who would normally be the villain in fantasy novel. General Aife Crofadottir is recruited by Balthus after his army kills the queen she had sworn to protect, and proves so useful to Balthus's cause that he uses necromancy to allow her to continue to serve him even after her death. It's an odd story of survival and shifting loyalties.
The Toad's Jewel
A toad dwelling in the swamp on the border of Faerie becomes changed by the ambient magic and begins to think complex abstract thoughts. This attracts the attention of a wizard, who collects the toad and a pair of mist sylphs to take back to his home and use as spell components. This was a fun, quirky little story with a satisfying ending.
A young man named Marcus leaves his wife, Pippa, whose devotion he finds smothering, to wander the world. This is one of the most overtly feminist tales in the collection. Marcus encounters various powerful women on his journey but remains under the delusion that he is the hero of story when he is actually irrelevant.
Lady Kara hides her intelligence behind a veil of vapid frivolity while trying to maintain the facade that her once rich family has fallen on hard times. I enjoyed the courtly intrigue in this one.
How Dogs Came to the New Continent
The story of a young man and his adopted shapeshifter brother is disguised as a history of the settlement of the New Continent. It imitates the style of stories of early European explorers in the Americas, but the place is full of strange creatures and sights like a floating city, hives of fairies and sentient cacti. I really liked the way it immersed you in the world. It's linked to the second novel in Cat Rambo's Tabat Quartet, Hearts of Tabat.
The wizard Moulder removes his heart from his body as part of enchantment to make himself immortal, but in doing so loses the ability to feel. He and his faithful servant, Small, go on a quest to find something to make him feel something, anything again. It's a sweet love story, and while you can tell early on where it's going, it's enjoying following along as it gets there.
To Read the Sea
An oracle can read a person's future by examining an object found washed up on the sea shore. This short fairy tale reminded me of Angela Slatter's collection of modern fairy stories, A Feast of Sorrows. It's dark and satisfying.
A Brooch of Bone, A Hint of Tooth.
A young princess grows up in the castle, doted on by her father, the king, and menaced by his advisor, who hopes to be declared the king's heir in her place. It's very creepy, and masterful in its use of misdirection.
Call and Answer, Plant and Harvest
Cathay the chaos mage accidentally wanders into the city of Serendib, where she creates a home for herself and lives for many years. A mysterious woman appears and tempts her to gamble three times in different bizarre ways for increasingly high stakes. Several stories in the collection are set in the city of Serendib, which is comprised of pieces of thousands of other cities in different worlds. This is my favourite of the Serendib stories, mainly because I have a soft spot for tales of chaos magic. I loved the imagery of living on a street on the border between the water and fire districts, with sheets of steam constantly rising and hissing.
Claude, a respectable Oxford dean, wants to marry Desiree Southland, the brilliant “mulatto” inventor of, among other things, tiny flying clockwork fairies. Desiree's father disapproves of the match because he considers Claude too dull for his clever, unconventional daughter and does not believe Claude really loves her. A rival appears on the scene if the form of a Scottish lord who promises to show Desiree real fairies.
This story is a perfect blend of Austen style romance and a comedy of manners, with the steampunk elements seamlessly woven in. Cat Rambo commented in the afterword that she had found during her editing work that she was “seeing the steampunk genre emerge as a very white, very middle-class phenomenon that managed to ignore a great many implications of the word “punk””. She wanted to write a story which incorporated the punk concept of questioning the established order (it touches on the theory of evolution, women's suffrage and issues of race and class). It contained a person of colour, but not as the main character. Making the unlikeable Claude, so much a product of his time, the narrator instead was an interesting authorial choice which seems to have paid off.
Her Windowed Eyes, Her Chambered Heart.
I love the evocative title of this one. It's the story of two Pinkerton agents, one a woman and the other an autonomous mechanical man animated using a coveted rare mineral called phlogiston. It's Cat Rambo's homage to the old steampunk TV show, The Wild Wild West (not to be confused with the 1999 film loosely based on the show). There is another story in the collection (Snakes on a Train) featuring the same characters.
Elections at Villa Encantada
This fun little story is about the body corporate elections at a villa inhabited by a variety of magical creatures, including a goddess of justice (the narrator), Rumplestiltskin, whom the inhabitants have enslaved as their groundsman, dryands, ghosts and a collection of sentient talking cacti (Bombast, Furor, Humblepie, Obscuro, Smarmy, Weasel, Johnny Nonsense, Earnest, Hairyfoot, Splainer and Old Dignity- I love the nicknames!). Cat Rambo wrote several stories about the Villa Encantada, loosely based on her observations of neighbourhood politics in the actual villa where she lived, but stopped writing them when the nastiness and gossip that went on actually pushed one of the inhabitants to suicide.
The Wizards of West Seattle
This urban fantasy story is part of a series about wizards living in Seattle, which is ruled by shapeshifting dragons who walk unnoticed among humans. I enjoyed the way the rules of the world slowly unfold as the poor apprentice in this story struggles to figure things out before he loses his position as apprentice or something eats him alive.
Summer Night in Durham
The story of a tattooist dealing with a dumb customer (in this case a vampire) who wouldn't listen to her expert advice. I liked this one a lot, for the subtle forshadowing and gratifying ending.
Web of Blood and Iron
This is another tale set in the same world as Her Windowed Eyes, Her Chambered Heart and Clockwork Fairies, though instead of America this one is set in Europe where the vampires are on the brink of taking over and enslaving humanity. It's a little like Jeeves and Wooster if Jeeves were a gnome and Wooster a werewolf. Only the Wooster character isn't quite so foppish and silly, he uses that image to hide a core of steel. Unfortunately in his daring and heroics in trying to find and rescue his missing girlfriend a journalist who disappeared after asking too many questions about vampires, he is oblivious to the effects his actions have on his faithful servant and all the rest of the 'little people'. Like Clockwork Fairies it mixes considerations of class with fantasy, but here there is also the looming horror of impending war.
So Glad We Had this Time Together
This one is set in modern America and is a darkly funny tale about reality television. Unreality TV features supernatural creatures such as a vampire, a werewolf and a medium living in the Winchester Mystery House. While the existence of the supernatural is generally known in the world of the story this is the first time someone had put supernatural beings on TV. It turns out there was a reason for that.
The Passing of Grandmother's Quilt
This is a beautiful little piece of flash fiction about keepsakes and loss.
Neither Here Nor There is a collection that will keep you going for a while with so many stories, which are quite diverse in tone and subject matter. It will probably appeal most to fans of steampunk, but if you find steampunk annoys you some of these stories may be the exception since they seem to tap into themes that many other authors miss. A couple of the stories are overtly feminist, and others more subtly so. Overall I found it a very enjoyable anthology, well worth the time it takes to read.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Hydra House via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Published: December 15 2017
Rated: ★ ★ ★ ★☆