The Empire of Ice Cream
by Jeffrey Ford
Cover Artist: John Picacio
Review by Colleen Cahill
Golden Gryphon Press Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 1930846398
Date: 01 April, 2006 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
There is a wide range of emotion in these tales, starting with "The Annals of Eelin-Ok," a Victorian Age story of a Twilmish, a fairy who comes to life when a child builds a sand castle by the sea and lives only as long as that castle is standing. Both bittersweet and heartwarming, this story took me back to my younger days on the beach. The bittersweet quality continues in "Jupiter's Skull," centering on Bolukuchet, a section of an unnamed city that draws those who have "a hole in the heart." This place holds unexpected characters, such an old woman who offers foxglove tea to any takers. In "A Night in the Tropics," a man visits his aging father and discovers a childhood bully has become a local bartender, one with a story of theft, violence and a cursed chess set. It is one of Ford's hallmarks to take average places and events and turn them into the unusual, such as in "The Trentino Kid" which describes the life of a college drop-out who has turned to clamming for a living. All seems normal until a young man drowns when a storm catches him in the bay and his ghost begins to haunt the clammer.
Not all these tales are set in our world: the fairy tale "Giant Land" begins with a giant who has captured three humans for his meal. The two male captures convince the giant that the woman would make a fine wife and if they can get her to agree, the two men would be set free. The woman's refusal to cooperate starts a chain of events that lead her on a twisting path, one that never goes where the reader would predict. "A Man of Light" also contains surprises, as a journalist goes to interview the reclusive Larchcroft, a man who can make light do anything, from turning a battlefield into a place of angels to transforming a grandmother into a young beauty. Larchcroft seeks to understand light and will pay any price, even at a cost to himself ... and those around him. The title story, "The Empire of Ice Cream," deals with synesthesia, a disease that causes its sufferers to get different signals from their senses, such as seeing sounds as colors and tastes as textures. The hero discovers he sees visions when he eats coffee ice cream and these are always of the same beautiful girl. Soon he realizes his life is entwined with this ghost girl, but once again, not the way the reader expects.
It is hard to say which is my favorite story as all these works are not only finely written, but are the kind that stay with you over time. The first Ford story I was ever exposed to was "Coffins on the River," a funny and touching work about two middle-aged artists who try a new drug in an attempt to reach their muse. As in many of Ford's stories, the ending is nothing I anticipated and it was very satisfying, with a tug at the heart and a tweak to the brain.
If one or more of these stories seems familiar, that is not surprising, as they were first published in the magazines and anthologies like Argosy Magazine, SCIFICTION, and Polyphony. Several were nominated or won awards, such as the World Fantasy Award, the Horror Guild Award, the Locus Award and a Nebula for "The Empire of Ice Cream". For those who have already read these stories, the collection has a bonus in "Botch Town," a previously unpublished piece about a young boy in the 1960s whose life becomes darker after another boy disappears. All the stories include an afterword by Ford that explains the roots of each piece and the book begins with an introduction by fellow speculative fiction writer Jonathan Carroll who defines Ford as a story teller so compelling that you must read to the end. I certainly agree and urge everyone to get a copy of this wonderful mix of humor, fancy, darkness, and heart, all wrapped in truly impressive stories.