Friday, November 11, 2022

Prophecies, Libels & Dreams by Ysabeau S. Wilce

Writing careers are quirky, sometimes fragile things. They depend on so much that's invisible: opportunity, time, inspiration, support...publishing contracts, sales figures. We never know from the outside the reasons why a career takes a particular shape, why a writer disappears for years or forever. But we do know that careers are contingent, that ideas are not endless, that stories are hard to make in the first place.

Ysabeau S. Wilce is a quirky, deeply specific writer - or, at least, the vast bulk of her work to date is all in one fictional world, and that is quirky and deeply specific. Califa is a city-state roughly where San Francisco is in our world, and the stories Wilce tells about it are set in what are probably our 18th and 19th centuries, but this is not our world at all. She never gives any serious historical background, but, from names and other random details, I suspect this is a North America thinly settled by Vikings, possibly with a major Dutch or English polity on the east coast but not one that ever embraced Manifest Destiny. The Spanish did penetrate further south, but perhaps did not conquer as they did in our world; the major power, covering what I think is roughly Mexico at its largest extent, is the Huitzil Empire, which appears to be as much Aztec as Spanish. North American native tribes aren't mentioned by name, so they may have suffered a similar fate to our world - or may have their own nations, mostly in the center of the continent on the Plains.

She set a trilogy of YA fantasy novels in that world - Flora Segunda, Flora's Dare, and Flora's Fury. I see, looking back, that I claimed not to like the first one all that much but came back for the second book a year later and was much more positive. (I may have still been in SFBC mode, which was much more focused on negative criticism: every book has things wrong with it, and if you need to sell it, you have to be as clear-eyed as possible.)

Two years after that third book, a small book of stories appeared: Prophecies, Libels & Dreams. Since then, if the ISFDB can be trusted, there's been three other stories, the last in 2018. That's disappointing: Wilce had a great voice and a powerful imagination and could write like a demented angel, as several of these stories show. (The novels, as first-person narratives for teens, were a bit more sedate and straightforward.) I have no idea how old she is - details are scarce, probably on purpose - but I do hope she'll eventually return with more books or stories.

Prophecies says that all of its seven tales are "Stories of Califa," and includes Afterwords to each story, in-character as a stuffy Califa academic of the modern day, sniffing about how wrong and ridiculous each story is. This is not quite true, but it's close enough for fiction - I'll get to that later. More seriously, the stories seem to be organized in internal chronological order, which means it starts strong and focused but gets vaguer towards the end - that's unfortunate, but a book of stories is always going to be various anyway.

And so let me run through those stories - there are few enough of them that I feel obligated.

"The Biography of a Bouncing Boy Terror!"

Wilce has a lot of fun with this one, telling a pseudo-folktale about the childhood of a famous criminal in her fictional world - Springheel Jack, who is not unknown in our world as well - and in particular how he got his famous boots.

Very deliberately mannered writing, but that's entirely fine for the matter, and works for the length. It also prepares us for the rest of the book, where Wilce uses a similar style several more times, particularly for the Hardhands/Tiny Doom stories.

"Quartermaster Returns"

I see I read this, way back when, in Eclipse One; it may have been my first Wilce. This is something of a tall-tale as well, this time about a small Army detachment far out in the desert, focused on the resurrected person of the title and a drinking contest he takes part in. (Wilce, I've read, is or was a military historian, and that comes out in a number of her stories.)

Here may be an appropriate point to mention that Wilce's military world is entirely gender-mixed and uniforms (maybe just dress uniforms?) seem to include skirts for everyone. She's also fond of referring to people by title before gender-identifying them: I say this to warn those who have certain rigid expectations.

"Metal More Attractive"

Now we get into the core of the book - the first of several stories about the younger lives of Hardhands and Tiny Doom, very important people in the family of Flora Fyrdraca (narrator of the novels).

In this one, Hardhands is fifteen, in a secret relationship, and tempted to murder his grandmother, the then-Warlady (ruler of Califa). I suspect it is more meaningful if you've read the novels recently, but it's a strong story with a great sting in the end.

"The Lineaments of Gratified Desire"

Oh, wait - this is probably the first Wilce story I read, since Jonathan Strahan picked it for his Best Short Novels 2007, and I was the inside editor for that.

This takes place about a year after the previous story - Hardhands is about sixteen, and Tiny Doom a small child rather than a toddler. It's the longest story in the book, a novella about the Halloween equivalent in this world, when the walls between the Waking World and Elsewhere are so thin as to be nearly nonexistent, and a certain small child goes missing and needs to be retrieved before those forces do something irrevocable. 


The last of the Flora prequel cluster, with a now-grown-up Tiny Doom facing an ordeal to become a full member of an elite Califa military force. Except: she doesn't entirely want to be part of that force, and there are other things she wants to do with the freedom the ordeal gives her. It's also set on a day of revelry; Califa sure seems to have a lot of them.

"Hand in Glove"

Maybe a century later, a young female police detective thinks a renowned and flashy male counterpart has solved a murder by finding entirely the wrong culprit, and intends to use new kinds of forensic science to find the real murderer. She does, but it's a lot more mad-science-y than I expected; this story is arguably in a different genre than the ones before it. (They're all pseudo-historical fantasy, this is something closer to steampunk.)

"Scaring the Shavetail"

This is a supernatural story about a chupacabra, told by a Civil War veteran sergeant,. set in the Arizona Territory probably sometime in the late 1870s. (Custer is referenced, and I think he's dead before this story takes place.) It's also a shaggy dog story with a groaner of a punch line, so it's doubly an odd choice to end the book with: not a Califa story, and not a particularly strong ending.

So my guess is that Prophecies was everything short Wilce had published at that point - there seems to have been one 2013 collaboration with Ellen Kushner as well, which may have been in production as this book was assembled. It's a slim book, but it's got four absolutely fizzing stories, two pretty good ones, and the only mildly disappointing "Shavetail." That's a great batting average, and, again, I hope this isn't the last we hear from Wilce.

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