Sunday, September 30, 2018

Birthday Review: Theodora Goss stories

Birthday Review: Short Fiction from Theodora Goss

Theodora Goss is one of my favorite SF/F writers, bar none; and especially so if you consider writers of short fiction who began publishing in this millennium. (Add Genevieve Valentine and C. S. E. Cooney to that list, and I note that those are all women without comment.) Today is her birthday, and so here is my compilation of most of the reviews I've done of her work for Locus.

(Locus, April 2002)

I reviewed her first story, "The Rose in Twelve Petals", from Realms of Fantasy, for Locus, in the third monthly column I ever wrote. I am always proud when I realize the potential of a new writer from the beginning -- though the pride belongs to them! Alas, my electronic copy of that review is corrupted, and I can't read it. But here's the excerpt from the Small Beer Press page:

One of the most impressive debuts I can recall. Fairy tale retellings are a dime a dozen, and Sleeping Beauty ones probably as common as any, so this story has to be special to stand out, and special it is.

(Locus, January 2004)

Theodora Goss's "Lily, With Clouds" (Alchemy #1) tells of a woman coming home to her sister's house to die, accompanied by her dead husband's mistress, and her husband's paintings. Mostly it's simply of picture of three woman: the conventional, prudish, sister; the once rebellious dying woman; and the rather odd mistress -- but the ending is just beautiful, an inevitable surprise.

(Locus, May 2004)

In Polyphony 4, Theodora Goss continues to impress with "The Wings of Meister Wilhelm", in which a girl takes violin lessons from a German newly arrived at her Southern town. She learns he has a strange desire -- to make a flying machine and reach the flying city of Orillion. Goss blends a heartfelt depiction of a girl growing up with a lovely portrait of a man's dream, and at the end adds darker strands to her tapestry.

(Locus, September 2005)

Theodora Goss offers "A Statement in the Case" (Realms of Fantasy, August). An old man tells a policeman of his friendship with an apothecary. The apothecary is an immigrant, and he runs an old-fashioned store: one might say "charming". All this changes when he marries. Slowly we learn the apothecary's strange secrets, his sadness, and why the policeman is interested.

(Locus, December 2005)

First, Strange Horizons -- which, however, is no longer exactly "less prominent". But they do feature one of the best stories of the month -- indeed, of the year: Theodora Goss’s "Pip and the Fairies". Philippa’s late mother wrote children’s books about a girl visiting fairyland. Philippa (Pip?) is now a successful actress, and she has bought the house her mother and she lived in, in poverty, while the books were written. These books, lately popular, were based on her childhood -- or were they? Stories she told her mother, or stories her mother made up, or real magical experiences, or some sort of fictional distillation of the problems a single mother and her child faced … Goss intertwines Philippa’s memories of her childhood, her imperfect relationship with her mother, her present day relationship with fans of the book, and passages from her mother’s books. The material is perhaps familiar but the treatment is powerfully affecting.

(Locus, April 2006)

The second issue of Fantasy Magazine has appeared. Disclaimer first -- I contribute short book reviews to this magazine. Even so, I don’t think I am wrong to praise Theodora Goss’s "Lessons With Miss Gray", in which five young women, four close friends and an outsider, take lessons in magic from the title character, who has appeared in other Goss pieces. The girls learn real magic, and they also learn (or we learn) about their characters how these (and their futures) are affected by race, class, and gender. It’s witty and involving and clearheaded -- another triumph for Goss.

(Logorrhea review, Locus, May 2007)

Theodora Goss’s "Singing of Mount Abora" plays with Coleridge instead of Tolkien -- recasting the inspiration of "Kubla Khan" in weaving together a story of an Ancient Chinese woman trying to win a dragon’s hand, a contemporary woman studying Coleridge, and Coleridge himself, in Xanadu of all places.

(Locus, June 2007)

The June Realms of Fantasy closes with a lovely Theodora Goss tale, "Princess Lucinda and the Hound of the Moon", about a Princess who is really a baby found by a childless royal couple in the woods, and her ordinary childhood, and ambitions, and what happens when she finds her real mother. Here again is a story that captivates first -- perhaps it is not especially profound but it is great fun. I thought first of George MacDonald's The Light Princess.

(Locus, December 2007)

And to a true survivor in online SF: Strange Horizons. In October I liked best Theodora Goss’s "Catherine and the Satyr". It’s set in Regency England. Catherine is unhappily married, and has left her husband. The Earl of Aberdeen has a zoo, and the zoo has a satyr. Catherine finds the satyr surprisingly well-educated, and attractive, and so ... but Goss is a subtler writer than that, and the story, in the end, suggests that marriage in a society like Catherine’s could be a cage -- like the satyr’s cage, perhaps, or even like the servitude endured by a servant Catherine unwittingly causes harm to.

(Locus, May 2009)

Apex Online’s March issue is also strong, with a couple of thematically related original stories. ... "The Puma", by Theodora Goss, returns to the famous early exemplar of human/animal chimera stories, with a survivor of the events of Wells’s Island of Dr. Moreau confronted by the beautiful puma woman who plays on his guilt to support her efforts to continue Moreau’s work, but with more control ceded to the chimeras.

(Locus, March 2010)

Last year Theodora Goss explored the aftermath of Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau in a fine story called "The Puma". Now, at Strange Horizons in January, she gives us "The Mad Scientist’s Daughter", which features six "daughters" of mad scientists, among them Moreau’s creation Catherine, as well as Rappaccini’s daughter, and a creation of Dr. Frankenstein, and a hitherto unrevealed pair of daughters of Jekyll and Hyde. The story details their lives together, their difficulties with their unique histories and characteristics, and so on, in a very witty and intelligent fashion. [Gee, wouldn't a novel on this subject be nice? :) ]

(Locus, October 2010)

Another online magazine, Apex, unveils a new editor in August, Catherynne M. Valente. Her first issue features a lovely story from Theodora Goss, "Fair Ladies", about Rudi, a rather callow young R/u/r/i/t/a/n/i/a/n Sylvanian man who is compelled by his father to take up with an older woman -- in fact, we soon gather, his father’s old mistress. The oddly alluring woman has a secret, of course, a magical and sad secret. It’s a familiar story, but given particular resonance by the slightly dissonant angle of telling, and by the ominous historical events looming the background -- the rise of the Third Reich.

(Locus, July 2011)

"Pug", by Theodora Goss (Asimov's, July), is set in the background of one of the most famous novels of all time -- readily enough recognized though I’ll not mention which it is. But the title dog (who seems perhaps to have escaped from another novel by the same author!) has a unique characteristic -- he can travel to other worlds, and eventually the heroine of this story, a rather colorless and sickly girl, can follow him. Which perhaps gives her a life otherwise denied her. The story nicely elaborates on the circumstances of its heroine, and is just fun to read for Goss’s prose, and for the pleasure of unpicking the relationship with its source material.

(Locus, September 2012)

Finally, in the August Asimov's, I really liked Theodora Goss's "Beautiful Boys", a short piece about a certain class of young man -- "bad boys" one might call them as well as beautiful, prone to brief affairs with vulnerable women followed by abandonment. It's told by a woman researcher, and she has an explanation for them -- a science fictional one, so that the story becomes both a subtle and slightly sad look at her life, and a somewhat Sturgeonesque bit of Sfnal speculation.

(Locus, January 2014)

And "Blanchefleur", by Theodora Goss (from Paula Guran's anthology Once Upon a Time), is a long and quite traditional but very satisfying tale of a young man, regarded as the village idiot, who instead is part Fairy, and who eventually is summoned to his other family's place, where there seems to be lots of talking cats... and too a variant on the traditional three tasks. This is subversive or post-modern or revisionist, really -- but it's beautifully told and often funny and original and, well, nice.

(Locus, July 2015)

The other story I really liked in the July Lightspeed was "Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology", by Theodora Goss, in which a group of post-docs and grad students write about an imaginary country, creating history, religion, culture, etc., from scratch; then somehow find that it really exists. Did they create it? One of them ends up marrying a daughter of the Khan, and that is even stranger, as she has an identical twin who is ignored by everyone (as in Cimmeria, twins have no independent souls), but who follows them everywhere. Very Borgesian, of course, and very fine.

(Locus, January 2017)

More traditional in form, from The Starlit Wood, is "The Other Thea", by Theodora Goss, which takes the central idea of Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Shadow" (that a person might become disconnected from their shadow, which is sort of an other self, an alternate version of them), and makes a new story of it, related a couple of her best earlier stories, "Miss Emily Gray" and "Lessons with Miss Gray". Thea (surely a significant name choice!) has been drifting through life in the months since graduating from Miss Lavender’s School of Witchcraft, and she ends up drifting back to the school, where she is told that she must find her shadow, which had been cut off by her grandmother when she was just a child. So she travels to the Other Country, and, of course, does find her shadow -- or it finds her -- but who says the shadow wants anything to do with her? It’s a beautifully written story, and great fun, but perhaps a bit thin next to the Samatar story, and to my other favorite in the book.

(Locus, May 2017)

The best recent story in comes from Theodora Goss. "Come See the Living Dryad" is told by a contemporary woman, Daphne Levitt, a scientist writing about historical "freaks", like the Elephant Man. Her motivation is her great-grandmother, who was an exhibit in the 1880s as "the Living Dryad". In reality, this woman, Daphne Merwin, suffered from Lewandowsky-Lutz dysplasia, a real condition that can lead to branch-like growths on peoples’ skin. Dr. Levitt ends up investigated her great-grandmother’s murder, for which, she learns, a man was falsely convicted. The real story turns on a familiar tale of jealousy and abuse and charlatanage. A moving story, well-framed (and, if truth be told, not really SF or Fantasy, but very much worth reading).

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