Monday, September 6, 2010

Leviathan Wept and Other Stories by Daniel Abraham

Quality and diversity are what to expect in Abraham's first short story collection. Personal conflicts mirror global ones, redemption is sold at a very high price and a minor Shakespearean character finally gets to take center stage.

Reading this collection marked the third time I'd read 'The Cambist and Lord Iron' and I still smiled at the clever scenarios characters are presented with and rejoiced in the manner of their resolution. The story is about a man who is asked to objectively evaluate the value of money, life, and a person's soul at great personal risk should he not get things right. I don't think 'The Cambist' was the strongest in the collection but it is worth it's accolades and a great introduction to the author. Rightfully, it was chosen as the first story in the book.

The title story, 'Leviathan Wept,' would be my personal favorite. It brought themes of futility of violence and raging against death together with the human desires for reparations and vengeance. What stood out to me most was the plot device, slightly sci-fi, a connection within a group of people; similarly explored in the story 'Exclusion.' The idea was simple enough: communication with a group or individuals without the need of being with the person or group or a device as a phone; a mental link. Yet what sold me on the idea was the complete lack of the author feeling the need to expand on how it was possible. It was presented once, stated as fact and then he moved on; I, as a reader, had no choice but to follow and accept what was given. Perhaps it's only the nature of a short story but I found pressing forward much better than the backstory and exposition that some call 'world-building.'

'The Hunter of 'Arin-Qin' was the only story to be completely forgettable. It was easily the least ambitions of material Abraham worked with featuring a hunter on a quest to kill a monster and save child. (And you thought I'd say 'princess' didn't you?) There were a few deviations from the formula but the pace, alteration of past and current events and near complete lack of dialogue made for some very stiff reading.

I felt 'The Curandero and the Swede' had more narrative cohesion problems than any other, but on the grounds of entertaining the reader it succeeded. The story tells alternate tales of a man who breaks out into large talking bumps and another man's encounters with a ghost. Reconciling past events to relieve their immediate situations is the unifying element. There is an abrupt point where the story switches between the two narratives. Furthermore story is 'set' in Atlanta, Georgia only to serve as a vehicle for abundant cliches: two men in the south, on a back porch, drinking sweet tea, on a hot summer evening, swapping stories. Yeah, those kind of cliches.

'Flat Diane' is an excellent reason to not get comfortable reading Abraham. What I assumed to be a story of family separation and growth became disturbingly real with a child in peril and blood to be shed. I could easily levy the abrupt change of events charge on this story as well; only it was more unified and without the divergent character narratives 'Flat Diane' had a much stronger effect on me than 'The Curandero and the Swede.'

Abraham has a quality that many writers seem to be imbued with upon 'graduation' from many of America's short story clinics. Editors Renni Browne and Dave King called them 'beats': added action for the sake of showing the passage of time (which is admittedly really difficult), to slow down hurried dialogue, or keep readers aware that others things are happening other than what characters are talking about. Making mention of someone washing dishes and interrupting dialogue to merely mention the clink of glasses, for example. You can see it coming when it's employed even when it's well done; almost a cliche unto itself. In Abraham's case I felt it distracted from tension that he had built into his writing. Perhaps it is only because so many very good short story writers are going to similar 'schools' and applying similar principles that it is readily apparent to me. Or perhaps it is something that I am supersensitive to. Either way, it is certainly not a criticism I level exclusively at Abraham.

There was at least one sentence in every story that I had to read twice. Something of his prose was jarring enough to muddle my comprehension. In this situation he is not helped in anyway by Subterranean Press as I found more than a few typos. Which seems extra odd considering the 'Limited Edition' nature of this book.

The remaining stories were all fun but lacked the star power of those mentioned here in greater detail. Solid writing, great entertainment, and occasional depth of thought; each can be found in less time than it takes to watch a re-run of whatever sitcom you're contemplating. I eagerly await his next collection.

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