Elizabeth Hand, Saffron and Brimstone (M Press, 2006)

The title of Elizabeth Hand's new collection of short stories is just one of the many clever things about this book, referencing the two stories that begin and end the collection, "Cleopatra Brimstone" and "The Saffron Gatherers," respectively. However, despite the title, this gorgeously written collection cannot be so easily bookended.

The majority of the book is taken up by the first four novellas, three of which appeared in an earlier Elizabeth Hand collection, Bibliomancy. The first is "Cleopatra Brimstone," about a troubled, but beautiful entomologist who goes to London to housesit in order to recover from a sexual assault, and ends up expressing her rage on men in very interesting, and chillingly described ways. "Pavane for a Prince of the Air" follows, and is my personal favourite in the entire collection. A fantasy author (who might be modeled on Elizabeth Hand herself, as this story has a distinctly autobiographical slant to it) learns that a very dear friend is dying, and the story revolves around the steady crush of people and memories who flock to this man, this "Prince of the Earth," to make sense of his impending death and discuss his remarkable contributions to the lives around him. More fiction than fantasy, this tale is both intricately constructed and gorgeously told. While the conclusion is inevitable, I didn't want the story to end.

After that is "The Least Trumps," a mind-bending tale about a tattoo artist who inflicts curious changes upon the world when she uses designs found on a pair of tarot cards for the tattoos she draws on herself and others. This reads a bit more awkwardly than the previous two novellas, but is redeemed by a relatable narrator and the author's evocative prose. "Wonderwall" is the weakest of the four novellas, and my least favourite entry in the collection, a detailed but directionless story about a pair of broke, drug-addled drama students, desperate to be discovered, who are tormented by a malevolent figure who foretells their doom as "poseurs."

The second section of the book, titled "The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations," contains works that are no less bedazzling for their brevity. "Kronia" is a delightfully twisty, albeit slight story about how a boy and girl meet, or never meet, or meet only briefly but under significant circumstances, in a cunning examination of lies, forgotten details, and the fanciful reconstruction of memories. "Calypso in Berlin" follows the nymph from The Odyssey as she realizes that her modern attachment to a married man is doomed to the same conclusion as her dalliance with Odysseus, and seeks to recover herself and her artistry from its grip before the inevitable separation. It's an intriguing twist on a well-known story that nevertheless maintains the wild magic of Greek myth.

"Echo," which also references the plight of a lovesick nymph, instead uses it as a metaphor for the circumstances of the narrator. Possessed of remarkable foresight, the unnamed woman exists in relative comfort as her communications with the outside world gradually recede in the wake of a global disaster. With solar panels for energy, a basement full of canned food, a serviceable vegetable garden, and her dog for company, she nevertheless hungers for the random and increasingly infrequent messages she exchanges with her old lover over her unreliable Internet connection. The setting and the theme of enforced isolation make this somewhat similar to "The Least Trumps," but the conclusion is all the more heartbreaking.

With "The Saffron Gatherers," this magnificent collection is concluded. I wonder if Elizabeth Hand wrote this story to intentionally finish this collection, because the story is peppered with symbols and verbal souvenirs from the previous stories -- the mention of a character's battle with cancer recalls "Pavane for a Prince of the Air," a description of tattooed eyebrows in the shape of antennae references both "Cleopatra Brimstone" and "The Least Trumps," and the impending disaster that separates the narrator from her lover is reminiscent of "Echo." Suzanne, a science fiction writer, briefly reunites with her boyfriend Randall in California. As a gift, he gives her a book on The Thera Frescoes, paintings that were recovered from a city annihilated by a volcanic eruption. While she enjoys them all, her favourite painting is one called "The Saffron Gatherers," which reminds her of all that great city lost in the disaster, unaware that her own society is no less vulnerable to natural destruction.

The only flaw that could attributed to this collection is that it is too short, that there are too few stories, too few escapes into fantastically illogical dreamscapes. Elizabeth Hand possesses a beautifully poetic writing style, one of the few authors who can construct each sentence as a verbal treat while combining them into a fully rendered story. There are no limits to the imagination of these tales. While a few were initially frustrating for me to wrap my head around, once I realized that such exercises are futile, the stories created their own wondrous logic. I can honestly say this collection held me in thrall, and still holds me in thrall, poised in painful anticipation for her next work.

[Elizabeth Vail]