Leviathan Wept: And Other Stories by Daniel Abraham
Leviathan Wept is a collection of short fiction by Daniel Abraham, author of The Long Price Quartet, one of my favorite fantasy epics of the past several years. I’ll admit up front that I’m not usually gung ho about story collections. I find they tend to be uneven just as part of their nature (i.e., it’s hard to get a collection of all excellent stories) and I just have a personal preference for the depth and richness of the novelistic form versus the short form. That confession said, how does Leviathan Wept stack up against my admitted bias? Actually, surprisingly well.
There are only nine stories in Leviathan Wept (though they tend to be long so it’s still nearly 300 pages) and while I don’t know if Daniel Abraham has only written nine stories, or if he has a whole pile of them, the effect of such a small number is that he seemed to be pretty selective, meaning that while some are better than others, none are weak. And there are none I’d categorize as “bad,” a rarity in my experience with story collections and anthologies.
The title story is a fascinating look at one of a number of anti-terrorist groups (I love that they refer to themselves as “cells”) who are visually all linked in to one another. The story asks some big questions about large-scale consciousness, but I found the “big” question less interesting than the smaller details of the interactions among the cell, their methods, and the effect the job is having on them.
“The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics” is exactly what it says, as a currency exchange agent finds himself in the toying spotlight of the frightfully notorious Lord Iron. Abraham hits most of the fairytale tropes here: the number three, deadlines, a judging, but the economic points being made add a thoughtful slant of depth while the story and characters take some nice twists and turns while the language, style, and tone (along with the ending) remain faithfully fairytale.
“Flat Diane” is a complete change in tone, turning much grimmer. A recently divorced dad traces an outline of his young daughter and then sends it out into the world (to family members) to “travel.” The fantastical enters when a connection begins to appear between the flat and real Dianes and the fantastic turns to horror when a strange man begins sending lewd photos of himself and Flat Diane and the acts depicted in them start to affect real Diane as if she were actually there. The metaphor here — the fears of a parent “sending” their child “out into the world” is no less effective for its simplicity and obviousness, though the story seemed to suffer from being too short.
“Exclusion” is another story whose emotional impact is perhaps slighted somewhat by the story being too short, but the concept — a new technology which allows people to “exclude” anyone from their perception (cutting off your brother means you literally can’t see him if he’s in the room with you) — is a great set-up and if the point is a bit obvious, it still makes for thoughtful consideration. Having one of his characters go on a “de-excluding” tour, where he basically has to find those he’s excluded and apologize, was a great touch that added some needed humor while fleshing out the concept.
“The Curandero and the Swede” is a nested story, with a young man taking his fiancée home to his conservative family. Uncle Dab takes issue with the boy’s response to how the two met (“one thing led to another”) and launches into a series of surreal stories layered one into another, all of them dealing with the “other” American (a black, a Native-American, a “queer” and so on) as well as with underlying themes of vengeance, loss, and America. The tale also has a lot to do with the power of story and storytelling, something it handles perhaps a bit more subtly.
“A Hunter in Arin-Qin” starts off as a seemingly straightforward tale of a mother hunting the beast who took her daughter, but spins off in somewhat unexpected directions. Its biggest strength is perhaps the voice of its main character, a haunting consistent voice that carries a lot of quiet emotion.
The other three stories, “Best Monkey,” “The Support-Technician Tango,” and “As Sweet” were mostly solidly enjoyable, but I can’t say they stuck in my mind for any amount of time, either due to their characters, underlying concepts, or themes. And while several of my favorite stories felt too short, a compliment to how compelling they were, these three felt a bit too long, even if they took up fewer pages.
Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet is one of the best reads of the past several years for me. Its stylistic strengths of tight composition — strong precise prose, good pace, consistent and easy-to-get-into voicing — are all evident in these stories, even the weaker ones. The major strength of his novels — the deeply rich characterization — isn’t quite so present, partly as a result of the short form and partly because it seems some of the stories are carried more by their concepts than their characters (with the exception of “The Cambist,” “A Hunter,” and the title story, where the characters come more fully alive and are more compelling).
Varying in style, tone, voice, and genre, almost every story is consistently entertaining (only “As Sweet” failed to reach that bar for me) while the better ones are thought-provoking or elicit a strong emotional impact. The best stories do both. I can’t say that Leviathan Wept bowled me over like Daniel Abraham’s novels did, but that’s probably more due to my personal preference for the long form rather than to any fault of Abraham’s short fiction. Leviathan Wept is recommended.
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