Thursday, February 2, 2012

"Ishtar" edited by Amanda Pillar & K.V. Taylor

Publisher: Gilgamesh Press
The review is based on a bought copy of the book

In time I developed an interest towards mythology and although I do not feed this interest as often and constant as I do with my other passions it was never neglected. This is the first thing that advertised Amanda Pillar and K.V. Taylor’s novella collection “Ishtar” to me. The other ones worked better and made me cross the line between the contemplative curiosity and the concise and definitive reading process. The respective elements, were the sister publishing houseof Gilgamesh Press, Morrigan Books, which offered me a couple of very good books in the past years, the more than satisfying experience I had with Amanda Pillar’s anthologies before and last, but not least, the quality of the authors line-up for this collection, two of whom I previously read and enjoyed, Kaaron Warren and Deborah Biancotti. So with the balance inclined by a single scale the choice was obvious. It remained to be seen if it is worthy too.

“The Five Loves of Ishtar” by Kaaron Warren – As the name of the novella suggests, the debut story of the “Ishtar” anthology is concentrated on the five great loves of the goddess. It is told through the voices of Ishtar’s washerwomen and this is one of the interesting elements of the story, because Kaaron Warren manages to balance the five voices, to give each one an identity, but also each reported to the personal relationship with Ishtar. I came to believe that the five washerwomen also represent a different report of the humankind to religion, a reflection of the degrees of believing in a godlike figure, Ishtar in this instance. A similar reflection can be seen in the five love relationships of Ishtar, each one of them mirroring a certain stage of life, of the journey from birth until death. There is the innocence and hope of childhood, the dreams and boldness of youth, the ambition and tumult of the prime adulthood, the wisdom and serenity of maturity and the bitterness and resignation of the elder age. All these can be seen in Ishtar’s lovers, but also in Ishtar herself and in the human devotion in the goddess. Kaaron Warren’s refers to two myths of Ishtar, her descent into the underworld and the Epic of Gilgamesh, encompassing them and building together with these myths a story that feels very much like a legend. The language used by Kaaron Warren entraps the reader within her story and with talent creates scenes that submit the reader under their power

“It was so dry in the year before the rain that people arrived to beg with their eyelids open, too dry to close them.”

or haunts him for long after the reading is finished.

“Initially, children played in it as it rose, laughing at the idea of water where it shouldn’t be, in the school rooms, the tents. But as it rose higher and higher, more were lost. They were lost laughing.”

However, as much as “The Five Loves of Ishtar” cannot be easily discarded I have to fully admit that it is not a story for me. I am perfectly aware that Ishtar is the Assyrian goddess of love and war and above all is associated with sexuality, but the story contains too much reference to the physical act of love for my liking and the erotic side of fiction is something I am not searching in my readings. Still, it is a personal opinion and it should not take anything away from Kaaron Warren’s merits.

“And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living” by Deborah Biancotti – Detective Adrienne Garner has to investigate a series of strange murders, all the victims are male and their bones are turned to paste without a significant damaged done to the body. With the second novella of “Ishtar” we move to the present day and change the registry. “And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living” is a crime investigation with plenty of supernatural elements. It is hard to say that the entire procedure of finding the responsible for the crimes has a surprising result, the murderer is predictable from the anthology’s theme and made almost clear when two cults are put in the balance of responsibility for the murders. However, the outcome is totally surprising. The investigation follows a steady and logical course and although the responsibility for the murders was obvious from an early stage, nothing prepared me for the actual end. Even more, the police investigator turns that particular shortcoming of the story into a minor nuisance, barely felt. Another excellent contributor for the remodeling of this imperfection is the climax of “And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living”, very well executed and with a sense of growing panic never lost until it reaches the boiling point.

I am always amazed and attracted by the ability of a writer to create powerful, believable characters. Especially when dealing with the small space offered by the short forms of fiction. Deborah Biancotti not only manages to build a strong main character, but gives birth from her pen to a lively supporting cast of characters too. The actual space of movement doesn’t allow them to grow as big as Adrienne Garner, the main character, but they are not only straw-made props either and from my reading experience this not something easily achieved.

“The Sleeping and the Dead” by Cat Sparks – After the world as it is known came to an end Dr. Anna continues her life in a desert outpost. But after three travelers stumble into her retreat Dr. Anna’s existence is suddenly changed. This anthology of novellas ends in a post-apocalyptic setting, masterfully created and described by Cat Sparks. The world described by the author is in a standstill situation, the atmosphere is desolating and the sense of hopelessness is omnipresent. The perspectives are grim and Dr. Anna’s thoughts are grimmer. Many post-apocalyptic settings inflict the same feelings in a reader, but Cat Sparks makes her novella unforgettable not only through setting, but also through a very personal touch and additions brought to the post-apocalyptic setting.

“A wall of turbulence obscures the horizon, broiling acid clouds spitting phlegm upon the silicon sea.”

I never read a post-apocalyptic story that is developed, or at least a part of it, around a fertility clinic, as it is Dr. Anna’s outpost. But the process of artificial insemination doesn’t bring hope in “The Sleeping and the Dead”, but fuels the feeling of despair infused by the atmosphere of the story. The originality of the setting is completed by a very strange religious cult that involves skulls, ossuaries, weird incantations and ceremonies. The respective cult is also a reflection of our modern society since elements of consumerism survived the apocalyptic event and found their way into the new existence. But even flimsy and hollow things born from consumerism can be missed in such a desolate place and situation, as Dr. Anna will see for herself. In the second part of the story Dr. Anna leaves her hell only to discover another different one, but Cat Sparks’ writing isn’t diminish by the change. On the contrary, it becomes more powerful and creates an even more oppressive atmosphere. I think that the story is an interpretation of Ishtar’s mythical descent to the Underworld, but with plenty of original elements.

“Spread bellow, the vista of Hell is just as it ought to be: a belching, bleeding catastrophe of pain”.

The story ends with a small blink of hope, one that I believe that was better without. But then again, in that case the sense of gloom would have been total and irreversible. For me, the “Ishtar” collection could not have ended in a better way than it does with Cat Sparks’ memorable “The Sleeping and the Dead”.

With “Ishtar”, the Assyrian goddess of love is given a new opportunity to express herself, through the voices of three very talented writers, Kaaron Warren, Deborah Biancotti and Cat Sparks, to mesmerize and fascinate once again. The three novellas of Amanda Pillar and K.V. Taylor’s story collection span through time, as it is intended to, taking the reader from past to future with a stop in the present. There is the common element of the goddess Ishtar that is guide in this journey, but also the three stories are bridged each other through small and common elements, met at some point in all the three novellas. It is a nice way to link the anthology’s theme tighter still. For me, the collection grew gradually with each of the three stories, reaching the summit with the last novella, the best possible way. There is only one answer to the question I asked myself at the start of this review, if the choice of reading the collection edited by Amanda Pillar and K.V. Taylor, “Ishtar”, is worthy. It definitely is.


Victoria Dixon said...

Thanks for these! Ishtar sounds a little riske, perhaps, but otherwise right up my alley. I'll check it out. :) I saw you over on Aliette de Bodard's page and thought I'd come over here. :)

Mihai A. said...

Victoria, thank you very much for visiting and following my blog :)
I also hope you'll like "Ishtar" if you have a chance to read it :)