The Chains That You Refuse
by Elizabeth Bear
Review by Sam Lubell
Night Shade Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 1597800481
Date: 15 May, 2006 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The stories in this volume are very recent and most are from the small press although a few are from SCIFICTION. Many are short, more like a scene than a story; once the reader finds out what is going on, the story is over. They show considerable range. Most of these are fantasy or slipstream on the border of mainstream. Yet a few are as much "SF with rivets" as anything in Analog.
Bear likes to play with history and with literary figures. The book opens with a play featuring several famous writers – Shakespeare, Marlowe, Shelley, Keats, and Ginsberg among them – at a fern bar in the Afterlife. Irene Adler, the Sherlock Holmes character, appears in a story about a tiger hunt with supernatural overtones. Space alien angels show 16th century astronomer Tycho Brahe the stars. In "This Tragic Glass," academics of the far future bring back Elizabethan playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe to determine if he was a woman and find out more about gender issues than they had anticipated. In "Ice," one of the best stories, a survivor of Ragnarok, the Norse End of Days, considers what it means to be a coward and brave. This character pops up again in "The Devil You Don't" in a setting as far from Norse myths as possible, the American Western, but Bear makes it work and I'd love to see a series of this character's adventures.
Among the other stories, "Gone to Flowers," is a poignant portrayal of a cyborg war veteran weighing issues of personal loyalty and public betrayal. "The Company of Four" is a nice fairy tale, but lacks the twist that makes the later story, "Old Leatherwings" more interesting. At first, "And the Deep Blue Sea" seems to be a standard post-holocaust story about a special deliverywoman who has to transport a cure through the poisoned and radioactive America. But then the Devil shows up. "One-Eyed Jack and the Suicide King," is a fabulous story about the Goddess of LA, the Spirit of Las Vegas, and the Angel of California fighting over Hoover Dam. The Asian influenced "Seven Dragons Mountain" seems to start out a fantasy, with discussions of dragons, but then the dragon turns out to be a disguised warship, and then the twist turns on itself and the story is revealed as a fantasy after all. "Follow Me Light" is an intriguing character study of a sea creature turned desert lawyer. The title and final story is a second person future tense story about the last day of your life, which I found far from the strongest in the collection.
Clearly, Bear writes on the literary end of the spectrum. Her stories are well constructed with great imagery and interesting characters. Although all the stories are written by the same author, they are quite varied in tone and theme. Fans of high quality short stories should order this volume; few readers will have encountered many of these stories before as only a handful are from major magazines.