Bibliomancy collects four novellas by Elizabeth Hand, all published within the last four years, and repackages them in a faintly luxurious hardback with an introduction by Lucius Shepard. All four are more or less realist tales (I'm strangely reluctant to call them 'stories' in this particular genre) with fantasy elements impinging to greater ('Cleopatra Brimstone') or lesser ('Pavane For A Prince Of The Air') degrees.
Before we go any further, let it be noted that I am going rather against the critical grain here. I suffered an attack of chronic reviewer insecurity after finishing Bibliomancy because having read some good things about Elizabeth Hand I found myself peculiarly unmoved by all of the stories in this collection. They were well written, well observed - but interesting, engaging or memorable? No. Was it just me, I asked myself? Had I been desensitised by too much fan-boy space opera in 2003?
Fortunately help arrived, in the unlikely form of the annual VECTOR request for a list of my five favourite books of 2003. I happened to notice that only one out of my five choices was at all space-operatic and the rest were a right old jumble of genres. It wasn't necessarily my narrowness of taste, then. And so I shall say loudly and proudly that I didn't enjoy Bibliomancy much at all, and that it seemed full of meandering and rather limp tales.
The first tale, 'Cleopatra Brimstone', follows a quiet and intense young American woman who grows up to be a lepidopterist. In the aftermath of a rape she goes, alone, to London to housesit for a family friend and gets very much into clubbing whilst working at Regents Park Zoo during the day. Her chance discovery of a strange club in Camden somehow awakens a strange latent ability in her - one that she indulges - throwing herself with absolute abandon into a new sybaritic life.
I couldn't help thinking that every Goth I've ever met would love this story, what with its dark vampiric undercurrents, 'alternative' fashion sense and its being set in Camden Town.
'Pavane For A Prince Of The Air', by far the shortest member of this collection, is a slight, cathartic tale of love and death amongst the hippies. It follows (though at a respectful distance) a close group of friends when one of them is dying, and dying rather unpleasantly. There's only the faintest wisp of the fantastic here, a bright endnote at the closing of an otherwise sad story.
This is probably the best novella in this collection, dealing with a difficult subject without becoming overly maudlin. That said, it perhaps errs in the other direction, giving us too little of Cal, the cancer victim, and too many supporting characters to really feel for any of them.
The longest tale of all, 'Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol', possesses elements of A Christmas Carol but not to excess, I'm glad to say. Brendan, a beaten-down everyman is just trying to hold things together in the face of a mediocre job, a divorce and a mentally disabled son who seems completely alien. This is a closely observed tale of redemption - or as close to redemption as most people ever get, via family, work, friends and memories.
There are some great moments in this piece, and some great pieces of characterisation as well: Brendan, basically a good guy who's been slowly ground down to nothing by bad luck, and his friend Tony, a chirpy middle-aged optimist with apparently nothing really to be optimistic about. But the roughly 4-5 pages of brightness are left washed out by the 128 other pages that seemed to spiral around endlessly with no direction or likelihood of resolution.
'The Least Trumps' is the affected tale of a tattoo artist who lives alone on an island. Discovering a lost set of tarot cards, all but two of which seem to have been worn away by time, she copies the design of one onto her own skin. Things get a bit strange then, à la, Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe Of Heaven.
I hate to dismiss the whole thing so brusquely but this seemed like another story for our Goth friends, and arriving, as it does, at the end of this collection it left me feeling simply relieved to finish Bibliomancy. Elizabeth Hand can craft a fine individual sentence, but I remain unconvinced as to her ability to engage as a storyteller.