Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pandora's Closet Review

Pandora’s Closet – ed Jean Rabe & Martin H. Greenberg

I came into this anthology with middling expectations. Daw’s anthologies tend to be solid – not terrible, not great, with good stories but a few off the mark. Very few blow me away. But this is a really fun concept – stories about articles of clothing that bring power and chaos to their bearers, that might have come out of Pandora’s closet – and I looked forward to it.

First up is “The Ring” by Timothy Zahn, where a young stockbroker fallen on hard times finds the famed Ring of the Nibelungs in a curio shop. Unfortunately, the vast wealth the ring provides its wearer comes with a price. This was a light, engaging story with multiple levels of tension, foreshadowed well without being obvious. The main character is sympathetic; perhaps a little too much so, for his faults are downplayed enough that his girlfriend seems shrewish for complaining. The story’s only real flaw is a lack of evocative description. Particularly when we’re playing with mythic elements, I would have loved to know how some of the characters looked. Still, a satisfying read throughout.

Chris Pierson’s “What Quig Found” is an absolute gem. It details what happens when a group of programmers gather in a deliberately (and comically) nebulous chain restaurant and find what appears to be the “helmet” of Don Quixote. The madcap quality of this story is a blast to read, and the narrator does a nice job of hanging a lampshade – or a shaving basin – over the absurdity. The only slight complaint I would have is that the story itself takes a bit too long to get off the ground, but the payoff is worth it.

“Technicolor” by Louise Marley maintains the trend of strong stories. In this tale, Dorothy – I’ll let you guess what her forbidden article of clothing is – longs to escape her frumpish housewife existence in Kansas. This story was a vivid portrayal of midlife despair interrupted by secret desire, and it rung a strong chord … and that’s coming from a non-traditional, non-housewifey twenty-something. The descriptions were pitch-perfect and the action satisfying – though I thought the conclusion was a little too rosey. The only other minor complaint is how broken up Dorothy is about her daughter’s aloofness. Err, she’s a teenager, what did you expect? But this is never once pointed out.

Next is “Loincloth” by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta – and this one breaks the spell. Maybe it was the similarity of the mental transformation to that in Pierson’s story, but I wasn’t too impressed. This is an entertaining enough tale of an odd-job man who works at a movie studio and discovers the skimpy attire of a Tarzan knock-off – but it just feels like something I’ve seen before. I knew exactly where it was going, and while it was entertaining, it didn’t have enough sparkle to make the journey worthwhile. Also, I question placing “The Wedding Date” in a list of classic movies such as “Gone with the Wind” and “Casablanca.”

Michael Stackpole’s “Seamless” is a somewhat puzzling story of a young woman who asks an occultist and his assistant to look into the mystery of an ancient box her grandfather has left her. This story has an interesting plot and is well-paced, but it seems to leave some gaps – how did the antagonist find out about the box? Is the occultist working for free, and if so, why? What about the other mysterious events that serve as a hook for the opening? I didn’t find this one held my attention.

I also had trouble with “Ancestral Armor” by John Helfers. This is the story of a young clan leader who begins to act strangely – brooding upon thoughts of war. Sorcerer Asano and his young pupil Kitsune (the point of view character) are summoned to investigate his behavior. It was fairly obvious from early in the story, given the anthology and the title, what was going on. Moreover, a tale of this length can be burdened by a surplus of foreign words – particularly when a dozen of them occur on the first page alone. I liked Kitsune as a character, but didn’t find much meat in this story. (Also – genuine typo/discrepancy in character names continuing throughout.)

“The Opposite of Solid” by Linda P. Baker was, for me, the opposite of its predecessors. This is a rich, evocative story of a dependable, common-sense man who meets a mysterious woman with a jacket that possesses the power of time travel. The conclusion – and what the main character suddenly learns about himself – is startling and subtly done. Personally, I don’t understand the fascination with hippie lifestyle (or Janis Joplin, for the matter of that), but this story overcame my disconnect to keep me hooked.

I’m not sure how to feel about Jane Lindskold’s “The Travails of Princess Stephen,” due to some slight discomfort with the subject matter portrayed – but it is a light, frothy story with an endearing characrer in the lead. Stephen, the story’s protagonist, dresses up like a woman to gain an equal opportunity job at a company … and promptly falls in love with the man of his/her dreams. It’s up to great-grandmother’s wedding dress to see them through the day. The disguise is handled cleverly and even with the ending foreshadowed, it is gratifying to read.

“Lady in Red” by A.M. Strout is a delightful story for any fan of fairy tales. Our unnamed narrator purchases a red hoodie at a thrift story – and suddenly finds her life turning into a certain familiar fable. But Strout doesn’t stop there, deftly weaving a number of other fairy tale references in stylish and unexpected places. I loved the way the character’s life slid from normalcy into the wild woods, all without leaving New York. My only small complaint is that the item the main character used to solve her dilemma wasn’t properly foreshadowed beforehand.

Belle and Nancy Holder’s “A Touching Ghost Story” is a delight to read, an archaic “dear reader” pulled off with panache. The interjections of the author and her daughter as enjoyable as the chronicle of the dowdy, time-travelling mouse who is the story’s heroine. During World War II, Lightning – this redoubtable mouse – discovers a chest that belonged to a relative rumored to have shot down the infamous Bloody Rat Baron. The style of this story picked me up, carried me away, and made me grin. I only wish the story had been longer and more “plotful.” It seems to end just as it gets good.

I have to admit, I hoped that Judi Rohrig’s “Revolution: Number 9” was going to be about Love Potion Number 9. This is the story of a young woman in a near-future tyranny who discovers a pair of spectacles that quite literally change her perceptions. The setting in this story is muddied and unclear – I felt as if I were missing pieces – and most of it is told through flashback about a rather unsympathetic romance. I didn’t understand the conclusion and found the incorporation of the extraordinary object to be a letdown.

“Cursory Review” by Donald J. Bingle is a unique story that covers multiple potential objects in Pandora’s Closet. It is primarily a dialogue between a demon in the Cursed Clothing and Frivolous Fashion Accessories Division and his boss. There are some funny and entertaining moments in this story, and you follow it just to spot the eventual last laugh. Unfortunately, the later parts of the story become more pop-culture and political, to the overall detriment of the tale, and I wasn’t satisfied by the conclusion – maybe even a little offended. (Also, some factual errors with the “mere mortal” in the first scene and her use of the Jenny Craig program.)

Joe Masdon brings us “Jack’s Mantle,” the story of a man trapped in a dull life with his wife and two kids whose flea market find is an overcoat once worn by one of history’s most infamous figures. The effect of the coat is an interesting (if gruesome) one and the denouement is very well-played, but something about this story doesn’t satisfy. For one thing, the story lingers too long on the character’s obsession with the (young) female form – creepy in a way that doesn’t lend the story. More significantly, I couldn’t empathize with Bob and instantly disliked his resignation towards his wife. It is hard to be interested in or care about him.

“Irresistible” by Yvonne Coats is a simple but clever story of a woman who buys a blue garter for her sister’s wedding, wears it herself – and finds herself the subject of a spell of attraction. This is a cute story, fun to read – not exceptional, but light and enjoyable, with a solid ending. As for the source of the disastrous garters, you’ll find it in one of America’s most infamous feuds.

Peter Schweighofer’s “Seebohm’s Cap” is an uneven story set during World War II. Major Prentice Vance interrogates a suspected spy, but discovers his uncanny knowledge his more to do with his attire than his allegiance. This story seemed like a set-piece to me, a part of a longer tale – it introduced a character who really had nothing to do, dangled plot-threads, and seemed to have a plot without significant obstacles. The mileage of history buffs may vary, but I couldn’t really get into this one.

“Cake and Candy” by Kelly Swails made me tear up – just a little. After a woman’s husband dies, her grandmother gives her a pair of earrings that provide unexpected help with the grieving process. This was a gentle, moving short story that started with some unusual, grabbing imagery and then delivered. My only quibble was the (somewhat unnecessary) use of present tense for narration. This story would have been equally effective in past tense – as it was, it stood out in a few places.

Most of these stories have been set in the world as we know it – “A Clean Getaway” by Keith R.A. DeCandido is one of the exceptions. Half-elf investigator Danthres is called to investigate the problem of a previously non-existent closet and the mess that spilled out of it. This was a fairly enjoyable mystery story, though not with particularly memorable characters. I also wasn’t totally sure this one fit into intended spirit of the collection as the items of apparel themselves are incidental to the mischief. Still, like any good mystery, this story “plays fair” and gives all the clues you need to leap one step ahead of Danthres – without making it too easy.

Elizabeth A. Vaughan’s “Off The Rack” was pitch-perfect for me, a quick, charming read. Sarah’s Closet, a consignment shop, is struggling, until an impulsive act of kindness nets its owner just the thing she needs. This story was light, fun and ended on just the perfect note. Like its predecessor, it technically didn’t adhere to the theme, as the articles of clothing were the product of the magical item, not the source of the magic, but I enjoyed this one too much to complain.

The anthology ends with “The Red Shoes” by Sarah Zettel, a moving fairy-tale that leaps – as these stories often do – from children’s story to dark and disturbing imagery. Karen, a young woman with no feet, comes to live with Elsa and her family. At the girl’s urging, Karen tells the story of the red shoes that caused her to dance until she could bear no more. Elsa declares it is not a proper story, and sets out to give it a good ending, come what may. This story swallowed me whole and kept me rapidly flipping pages. Ultimately, I wasn’t totally satisfied with the ending – I would have liked a happier conclusion after everything Elsa goes through – but this wasn’t enough of a detraction to hurt the story.

Overall, there were several excellent stories in this anthology and some which were lopsided or missed the mark. I found that the nature of the item or whether it was famous enough we might recognize its origins didn’t factor into the quality of the stories – a good enchantment, then, is all about what you do with it.


Kelly Swails said...

Glad you enjoyed it! :)

Lindsey Duncan said...

It was definitely one of my favorites in the anthology. :-)

(Also, glanced at your profile and noticed Ocean's Eleven, Chicago and The Princess Bride on favorite movies. Hurrah!)

Kelly Swails said...

Hurrah, indeed. Put a bottle of beer in me and I start quoteing one of the three. Fun for me, painful for others.

Now that I've found another writer in the blogsphere, I'll add you to my blogroll. My blogspot is mostly personal stuff, but my writer stuff is on livejournal ( if you want to check it out.

Judi Rohrig said...

Thanks so much for reading PANDORA'S CLOSET. I'm sorry my story, "Revolution: Number 9" did not click with you. Maybe next time!

Judi Rohrig