In The Palace of Repose by Holly Phillips
Reviewed by Niall Harrison
Prime Books, Holicong (USA), 2005, 224pp, $15.00, t/p, ISBN 1-894815-70-X
It is perhaps only in the sf field that a debut short story collection consisting mostly of original stories might be greeted with suspicion. Where, we wonder (I wonder, before I catch myself doing it) are the publication credits? Why were these stories not published in the magazines? What's wrong with them? And yet to think along such lines is, increasingly, to miss out: here is a debut collection where the majority of the stories are making their first appearance, but which without a doubt marks the arrival of an interesting new voice.
There are rough edges, no question. At times, In The Palace of Repose reminded me of Kelly Link's first collection, Stranger Things Happen (2001), as an example of work by a writer exploring her options and her strengths—although where Link was perhaps exploring the possibilities of story structure, Holly Phillips is more concerned with tone. Her great gift is her ability to capture the feel of things: the smells and textures of places, and the nuances of moods. The stories in In The Palace of Repose are linked by some shared concerns, such as the experiences of young women and the appeal of the fantastic, but most of all by the intense sensory experiences they evoke. Unusually, it is not a richness born of lyricism, for the most part; rather, it comes from her ability to pick exactly the right word or phrase for the job at hand.
Perhaps the best showcase for this is 'One of the Hungry Ones', a story about a homeless girl, Sadie, who gets sucked into a recurring wild rumpus. What makes the story is the sharply defined contrast between the mundane emptiness of Sadie's street life ("she haunted lit sidewalks", 149), and the extravagant, manic cruelty of the hunt (with "the blood leaping wine-bright in her veins," 141). Another such contrast is found in the collection's title story (2003), in which Magic has been kept contained by a bureaucracy now on the verge of forgetting what it is holding. Edmund is the sole civil servant who remembers; he knows what the shutdown of his department might mean, and his frustration is clear. But when he visits the King in his Palace of Repose, the world he encounters is authentically dreamlike, from the shifting seasons to the glimpsed light at the story's end, and the more so because of the utter normality of his daily life.
Both 'One of the Hungry Ones' and 'In The Palace of Repose' end with their protagonists choosing to engage more fully with the fantastic: in one case the choice is terrible but understandable, while in the other it is, perhaps, a sign of hope. Similar choices are found in other stories. 'A Woman's Bones' is a tale familiar in outline, with blundering Westerners digging up tribal burial grounds, and being warned that dire consequences will result. Once again, the protagonist is caught between two worlds—but this time the difference is human culture, and the fantastic represents a third choice, a statement of personal intent. In 'Variations on a Theme', the intertwining tales of Berenice and Brona, musical geniuses separated by ninety years, there is a sense that neither of the story's protagonists will be able to achieve peace until they accept the unavoidable magic of their lives.
Such endings, though, are risky. A touch of the transcendental is a hard thing to convey, and when it falls flat it can make a story's flaws cruelly obvious. However, Phillips succeeds perhaps half the time, which is good enough, and even her failures are of interest. 'By The Light of Tomorrow's Sun' is set in the collection's most separate fantasy location, a sort of nexus between worlds known as End Harbour. The story doesn't work, because it relies on its narrator withholding information for shock value, and because it is too short to fully develop the relationships it describes. But the evocation of End Harbour itself, a chill, foggy outpost, adrift from reality, is memorable: "As a blank space at the edge of the world, it would have been beautiful" (160). 'The New Ecology' (2002) and 'Pen & Ink', meanwhile, are both hampered by one-note adversaries (respectively, a Nerd and a Curator). But 'The New Ecology', in which life begins to develop from urban detritus, is creepy, and meaningful in its examination of what it means to be an individual, as opposed to a freak; and 'Pen & Ink' features a mother-daughter relationship that is electrically believable, and in the descriptions of the paintings that the curator is collecting, showcases Phillips' ability to create vivid vignettes.
So for every hesitation, In the Palace of Repose contains a moment of rare skill, to be treasured. Perhaps the two most successful stories in the book are the two least speculative—although it is possible to argue that part of their success comes from their surroundings. In 'The Other Grace', a young woman wakes to a life she doesn't know, amnesiac. It's the second such story I've read this year; but where Daryl Gregory's 'Second Person, Present Tense' (Asimov's, September 2005) is a rigorous, almost Eganesque examination of identity, 'The Other Grace' is concerned more with how it would feel to be that new personality. The new Grace is scared; learning a world she doesn't recognise with halting, hesitant steps, afraid at any moment that she might be supplanted and cease to exist. It's not fantasy. It's a stronger story both because of that fact, and because we know that Holly Phillips writes fantasy and find ourselves waiting for an intrusion (the closest it actually comes is when our Grace thinks she sees the other Grace in her room at night). Consequently, Phillips' portrayal of an unfamiliar but mimetic world has some echoes of William Gibson's portrayal of a science-fictional present in Pattern Recognition.
'Summer Ice' (reprinted by Sean Wallace in the first issue of his new Fantasy Magazine) similarly leaves the reader waiting for the other shoe to drop. Manon lives in an unnamed city that's on the slide from 'continental wealth to continental poverty' (179). It is hot, and dirty, and dismal, and very different to her memories of her home and her youth in Canada. Manon is an artist, but she's having trouble making art; more often, these days, she is working on reclamation projects, tearing up tarmac or installing a roof-garden. Such ecologically sound projects, and the smooth, highly descriptive prose, recall a book like Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge, but the tone of 'Summer Ice' is radically different; in place of Robinson's brimming optimism, Phillips' story echoes with quiet despair. Looking at the torn-up city, Manon thinks that 'it is hard to look at the rubbled street and not think of armies invading'. These and other faint hints of a near-future setting play a trick on the reader. They ping eager sf antennae, but the subsequent story conspicuously avoids doing what we expect sf stories to do. There is no explanation of the world, no uncovering; instead, the plot follows an arc more associated with fantasy, using its setting to create a sense that the events happening are slightly exaggerated, slightly unreal, on the edge of hallucination. There is no magic, save the kind attributed to artistic creation, and nothing about the story is shallow or trivial. Like the truest fantasies, it is simply set in a world that shimmers: our world, as seen by a dreamer.
This article first appeared in Vector 245. Back issues of Vector are available from