Monday, January 11, 2010

Scenting the Dark and Other Stories (2009) - Mary Robinette Kowal

Scenting the Dark and Other Stories (2009) - Mary Robinette Kowal

There's a lot of great science fiction, fantasy and horror being published by small presses and I like to support their efforts when I can. Usually I'll purchase a couple of small press books a year, books that I know I can't get anywhere else by authors I know I'll like. I decided to take a chance on Mary Robinette Kowal's debut collection of short stories from Subterranean Press. I'd never read one word of Kowal's work, but have read glowing reviews of her individual stories as they appeared in print or online. So it was a bit of a risk spending $25 on a slim 80-page book by a relatively unknown author.

I'm so glad I did.

Kowal's stories are filled with interesting characters and fascinating ideas, but it's the human element (as well as excellent writing) that makes this collection soar. Two of the stories concern young adults who yearn for something they don't yet have. In the case of a boy named Aage in "This Little Pig," it's a 1952 MG in a future in which internal combustion engines are largely a thing of the past. For a girl named Jaiden in "Jaiden's Weaver," it's an expensive teddy bear spider that her homesteading family will never be able to afford. Both stories capture not only the yearning of these two people, but also the humanity and struggles that we all remember from our youth (and beyond).

"Just Right," about OCD and "Locked In" about a man suffering from ALS are both moving without becoming sappy, powerful without being manipulative. Yet the title story is my favorite, a tale of a blind man and his dog who travel to distant planets searching for exotic native fragrances that can be turned into perfumes. Kowal narrates this gripping "first contact" story from the blind man's point-of-view. I challenge anyone to write a gripping, nail-biting alien story as good as this one without using visual imagery.

Kowal, winner of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, is clearly a writer to watch. I know I plan to.

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