Jan 9, 2010

YetiReview: Scenting the Dark and Other Stories

30 Words or Less: In one of the most impressive debut collections I’ve read, Kowal proves why she deserves the Campbell Award for Best New Writer by portraying identifiable characters in unforgettable scenes.

Rating: 5/5 stars

The Good: Kowal’s stories evoke honest emotion with apparently little effort; Authentic sounding dialogue free from tags and other distractions; Simple scenes that will sneak into your memory and stick there.

The Bad: The price to page ratio is a little poor though price to quality remains high, the majority of stories are more speculative fiction than Hard SF or Fantasy.

Mary Robinette’s debut collection, Scenting the Dark and Other Stories, is built like a featherweight boxer. It might be short and lean but if you aren’t ready for it, it’s got a punch that will knock you on your ass. Luckily for me, I received fair warning from John Scalzi, Paul Melko, and whoever voted for the 2008 Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Scenting the Dark weighs in at only 80 pages but it’s safe to say that there isn’t an ounce of fat anywhere in this collection. A lot of first collections seem to be everything the author has published so far, regardless of quality. From the 8 stories included here, it appears that Kowal selected the best of the best. On the other hand, if this is all of Kowal’s short fiction to date: Wow. The most remarkable part of Kowal’s writing isn’t the weight of her ideas or whatever passes for quality plot in short fiction. The ideas and the plots are there (and stronger than the average piece published in the genre magazines) but Kowal’s most impressive feat is how she evokes such emotion is so few pages. Two of the collection’s best stories, “Just Right” and “Locked In” check at only 8 and 4 pages respectively but I felt a greater connection to those characters than I have in entire novels.

Here’s a story by story breakdown of Scenting the Dark and Other Stories:

Portrait of Ari4/5 – A great selection for opening story, “Portrait of Ari” focuses on a young artist whose memories of his girlfriend aren’t exactly what they seem. The mysterious tone and lack of clear detail provoke the imagination in preparation for future stories.

Death Comes but Twice4.5/5 – I’m a sucker for “Victorian Biological Science Fiction” and this very short story works perfectly as a letter confessing the results of some dangerous experimentation. At only six pages, this is just another example of Kowal doing less with more.

Some Other Day4/5 –Josie grows up in the shadow of her father whose name became a curse after inadvertently kills off the mosquito population. As her relationship with fellow researcher Stan grows, she discovers more than she anticipated. Kowal’s strength really lies in developing characters with minimal description and efficient use of dialogue. All the relationships in this book feel real, but this pairing stood out as particularly authentic.

Just Right5/5 - A heartbreaking story set in a kitchen over breakfast. The scene Kowal lays out is memorable, frightening, and realistic all in one. It’s not exactly SFF but who cares when the stories are this moving.

Scenting the Dark4.5/5 – Titular story in which a blind man and his dog encounter…something. Using non-visual stimuli, Kowal ratchets up the tension in this story that is all too easy to close your eyes and envision

Locked In5/5 – While “Scenting the Dark” is scary, dark and unsettling, “Locked In” is all that and more. In only four pages and without leaving a hospital bed, Kowal induces one of the most basic human fears.

This Little Pig – 3/5 - Arguably the weakest story in the collection, This Little Pig is yet another story that’s not quiet SFF. Concerning a simple boy whose chief goal in life is to drive around in an old fashioned car (i.e. Internal Combustion Engine) with his school crush, the story doesn’t generate the same level of intrigue the rest do. At the same time, I use the term weakest only in comparison to the other 7 stories. Kowal maintains her standard of relatable characters and crisp, clean dialogue. It wasn’t a bad story, just forgettable.

Jaiden’s Weaver4/5 – Evoking thoughts of Charlotte’s Web, Jaiden’s Weaver has an optimistic, YA flavor to it. Telling a simple story of a girl and her pet teddy bear spider, Kowal demonstrates a knack for world building that I hope to see more of in future stories.

All in all, Scenting the Dark makes it clear that Kowal can do in 5 pages what other authors can’t do in 50. It’s going to be interesting to see what she does with 300 or so pages to play with in her debut novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, due out from Tor this summer. I expect huge things.

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