All the Fabulous Beasts, Priya Sharma (Undertow 978-1-988964-02-7 $17.99 tp) May 2018.
Despite frequent appearances in “year’s best” compilations and on Locus Recommended Reading Lists, as well as a British Fantasy Award for Short Fiction, Priya Sharma may not yet have come to your attention. This award-worthy debut collection from Sharma, a practicing medical doctor in England, could change that. Sharma’s stories often feature families or the sea, but range widely in era, tone, locale, and dramatis personae. Two original and 13 reprint stories – all but one published in the last eight years – go a long way in showing why readers should take note of this true storyteller who invariably writes from her heart.
Written for a bird-themed anthology, “The Crow Palace” is a story about family relations or the lack of them. But it twists away from reality into a tale of supernatural corvid power and how humans can be doomed by the wishes they make.
“Rag and Bone” is set in an alternate Victorian-era Liverpool where the affluent stay healthy by using the flesh and blood of the genetically selected poor. A richly textured piece, “Rag and Bone” takes a couple of dark turns before its end.
Sam, in “The Anatomist’s Mnemonic”, is a “nice, unassuming guy,” except he’s fixated on beautiful hands. His obsession’s deadly outcome is somewhat predictable, but it’s a well-crafted story from which we also learn a bit of palmistry and anatomy
Like “The Crow Palace”, “Egg” deals with the price paid for wishes and the desire for maternity, but in a very different way. A complex fairy tale, “Egg” veers away from reality even more profoundly. Parenting an impossible child, despite the fantastic element, is portrayed as a very human struggle between self and sacrifice. Like many of the fairy tales that came before, it is both cruel and captivating.
Pip is a reluctant mother to Emma in “The Sunflower Seed Man”. Her daughter was closer to her father, and, after his death Pip struggles to be the kind of parent her husband was. The supernatural intervenes and Pip learns what motherhood can mean. Creepy.
Guilt alone is not enough to defeat the first-person female narrator of “The Ballad of Boomtown”. It is enough to haunt her, to skew her life to the negative, but it takes disapprobation, economic crisis, and an ancient Irish curse and spirits to bring her down. Or maybe it doesn’t. Sharma subtly hints that the woman is more bound to the past than the present and there may be no supernatural intervention at all in this unnerving tale.
In “The Show”, Martha is a successful television psychic who – helped by presenter Philipa and her producer husband Greg – finds ghosts in haunted places. Her mother, Iris, really had the gift, as does her estranged sister Suki, but for Martha it’s all show biz – until one day in a particularly spirit-infested cellar she learns more about the dead than she wants to know – this is a spooky tale that could easily be an urban legend.
“Pearls” is a clever retelling and updating of the myth of Medusa. It’s not a tale that can easily been given a happy ending, but Sharma manages.
“The Absent Shade”, an unsettling story set in Hong Kong with echoes of Philippines history, explores a family devoid of love and the son’s relationship with a caregiver who becomes everything to him.
Another family-focused tale, “Small Town Stories” – one of the collection’s two excellent originals – is a small tragedy set in a small town near London. Except no tragedy is small when it defines and confines you.
Crippled after barely surviving an accident at sea, Peter must now be a fishmonger rather than a fisherman like the rest of his family in the touching “Fish Skins”. His wife of 20 years, Marianne, came from the sea and he’s never felt the need to question her provenance. Then her behavior indicates he needs to pay some mind to who and what she is.
Dr. Cariad Evans is deeply depressed in the powerful “The Rising Tide”. She retreats to her late father’s house in the Preseli Hills of Wales. As we learn the cause of her depression, we struggle with the weight of it. When she thinks she sees and hears Gwrach-y-Rhibyn, the Hag in the Mist – a death omen – we can’t discount it any more than we can ignore her disorder. Logic demands that the guilt-ridden learn to overcome emotion and return to the world of the productive, but this physician cannot heal herself, and we understand why.
“The Englishman” is a universal story despite its exotic setting. The man of the title is a Hindu who married an Englishwoman. Now, 25 years later, she has died and he has returned to the land of his birth. India shocks him; it has “become so modern and brutal,” no longer the “place of genteel corruption and colour” he remembers. He is reminded that to “be reborn he has to die. That is the wheel.”
“The Nature of Bees” is the weird and lovely story of Vivien Avery, who blossoms at age 38. She becomes herself while vacationing in a cottage that once housed beekeepers. An odd family, direct descendants of the original beekeepers, live in a nearby orchard and keep bees that produce wonderous honey. In the family, sturdy women work while handsome men look on, and Vivien finds a special place among them.
“A Son of the Sea” is the other original. Thomas Briggs returns to Hong Kong when he inherits his father’s wealth, a father he seldom saw. His mother deserted him as an infant and all he knows about her is that she was from Ma Wan Island. Thomas himself, raised in British boarding schools and Texas, has always been drawn to the sea. On Ma Wan he meets Simone, a woman much like himself. Whatever expectations you may have of this one, Sharma will likely shatter them. Brilliant.
Novelette “Fabulous Beasts” tells of herpetologist Eliza. Snakes “are easy,” but she doesn’t know how to “charm people.” Sharma takes us back to her hard-knocks childhood as Lola, a little girl with a single mom. Eliza is not traditionally attractive and has inherited an unusual genomic legacy, but she is bright and has her cousin Tallulah to love and support her. When their Uncle Kenny is released after many years in prison, life for them all turns toxic. Like many of these stories, “Fabulous Beasts” is both beautiful and disturbing.
Paula Guran has edited more than 40 science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies and more than 50 novels and collections featuring the same. She’s reviewed and written articles for dozens of publications. She lives in Akron, Ohio, near enough to her grandchildren to frequently be indulgent.
This review and more like it in the October 2018 issue of Locus.
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