Review: ‘The Guardian Cycle, Vol. 1: In Dreams and Other Stories’

Anyone whose been following her blog or catching her entries in different anthologies over recent years will have been wondering when Caroline Furlong was going to favor us with a book of her own. At last she has obliged with this rich little collection of imaginative, emotionally taught short stories.

(Full disclosure, I served as a beta reader for one or two of these tales, but the majority are new to me).

Unlike most recent anthologies I’ve read, In Dreams and Other Stories doesn’t simply settle for being a collection of handy shorts that follow a common thread. Rather it imitates the structure of the classic pulp and sci-fi magazines in that, like an issue of Analogue or the like, it features both a smattering of shorts of varying lengths as well as a full novella and a part of a serialized complete novel. It’s an excellent formula, since it offers the reader a buffet-like choice of either a tasty snack for a brief respite or a satisfying small meal or part of a full-course banquet. At the same time, of course, it gives the author a chance to work in different sizes, breaking the school-born habit of writing to a word count. I’d recommend more authors should adopt it for anthologies going forward and I certainly hope Miss Furlong continues to use it (the fact that there are at least three or four more chapters of Guardian to go encourages me to hope in that regard).

Of course, it’s no good unless the stories themselves are worth reading, and these deliver, once more capturing the feel and tone of classic sci-fi, with its sense of endless imagination and variety. They all follow roughly a similar theme, but range all over in terms of style, approach, and length, more than enough to keep things interest. Some have only a touch of science fiction at all (Memories of Mars, Fish ‘n’ Wheel) while others involve full-blown alternate world fantasies with magic and demons (The Guardian).

First is Death’s Shadow, in which an ex-soldier struggles with a unique gift to foresee death and his sense of guilt over how he applies it. A solid and distinctly Koontzian take on an old premise exploring questions of guilt, the use of violence, and the protective power of masculinity.

Next is Memories of Mars, a very short, but extra heartwarming story of a father showing his young children the night sky while longing to tell them of his own secret adventures in that direction; a glowing little nugget of potent emotion sure to bring a lump to your throat.

Then comes the The Fish ‘n’ Wheel, which is about a strange New Orleans bar that offers healing and comfort to those who have the correct disposition to wander into it in the first place. It’s a warm, rambling little romance laced through with an evident love of classic rock and golden oldies. This one in particular feels a lot like a Twilight Zone episode, with its elaborate prose and careful ambiguity as to how much of the tale is magic.

It’s followed by Bullroarer, telling of the last stand of a semi-self-aware battlemech and its pilot, the latest of seven generations to ride the metal monster into battle against insectile hoards. An emotionally powerful tale of legacy, written in an unusual style, and probably my pick for the most effective story in the book.

Then we reach the titular In Dreams, a far-future tale centered around a substance called Dreamwater that creates strange mental and physical effects on the people submerged in it, including bringing them into deep, intense dreams. A young doctor resolves to dare to venture into the substance to try to save her soldier husband, whose mind is now lost in the dreamworld following months of exposure to the subject as a prisoner of war. This leads them both through a series of strange and hostile environments as she struggles to save his mind without losing hers. The Dreamwater idea is enough to sustain a whole franchise, and it’s a rare instance of a wife saving the husband without undermining him in the process (though I will say I think the dreams could have stood to be a little trippier).

Finally, The Guardian pt. 1: Discovery, where an old retired demon-slayer, mourning the death of his only son in a war between two great powers (not-Japan and not-America), discovers a fugitive from a prisoner of war camp on his property. A moment of weakness and a mystical vision later, he takes the boy into his house, discovering as he does so that his own side is performing terrible magical experiments upon the prisoners: practices that could potentially be far worse than the war itself. The first entry in a full-course novel, this one lays just enough info to get the audience interested in its tale of demons and magic in a pseudo-1930s war-torn Japan, with some wince-inducing scenes of anti-demonic surgery and a heartwarming sense of a beginning surrogate-fatherhood.

The binding theme across the tales is one of family, and especially the determined struggle to defend it against forces seeking to tear it apart. Whether ordinary muggers preying on young women, a soulless government frowningly glaring over a man’s shoulder, or whole wars, the heroes and heroines are obliged to step up one way or another to protect their own, whether wives or children or adopted children. This is made all the more effective by Miss Furlong’s skill at portraying the innocence and charm of small children, and her feel for the bond between them and their parents.

In general, the stories in this anthology hit a lot of the authoress’s signature strengths: strong descriptive prose, a fertile and varied imagination, a good grasp of psychology, especially as related to trauma, and a great ability to tug at the heartstrings and create emotional impact.

That said, they also evince some of the points where her craft still needs improvement. Most notably, I think the structure of many of these stories could be better. Having read many of her works by now, I find that Miss Furlong has a tendency to lose tension too quickly, with problems being resolved in an almost straight, point-to-point fashion, rather than the back-and-forth build up of alternating progress and set-back that one might expect. The audience is left expecting a reversal or crisis that never materializes.

In Death’s Shadow, for instance, the threat that serves as the catalyst for the story gets resolved with ease about the halfway point with no lingering consequences, leaving the rest of the story to be the protagonist’s struggles with his sense of guilt. It’s a well-done struggle, but I found it to be a bit of a letdown to have so much build up only to dissipate it almost at once. I kept expecting some twist or surprise to keep the danger going, but it never came. I think it may have been stronger to draw out the period of anticipation and working his introspect and doubts in during the build up, then perhaps to have the threat prove more difficult or other than expected, leading to a more challenging encounter and allowing the hero’s emotional resolution to come at about the same time as the resolution of the physical threat.

There are also a few small hiccups, such as where the needs of dialogue and exposition seem to overrule the character’s stated mental state. Like in Fish ‘n’ Wheel, we meet a character, we are told, is so down and hopeless that the narrator can tell at a glance he is suicidal. But when he speaks, he makes quips and smart cultural references. As someone whose been down into depths like that myself, his dialogue and attitude rang false to me.

Another one is an occasional tendency to drop references to popular contemporary works in stories set in the far future. In one story an Army Ranger many centuries in the future thinks how a scene reminds him of a Sabaton song. Referencing outside work is often a tricky business, but this increases exponentially as you set stories in the future, because even if such works are remembered they’re not likely to be mental touchstones (pop quiz: name me one popular entertainer of 17th century Spain). It draws back the curtain too much and shows the authoress working the strings.

But these are minor gripes, and any science-fiction / fantasy fan should be eager to grab up this refreshing collection of uplifting and richly imaginative tales from a very talented authoress at the first opportunity. Here’s hoping she follows it up with many more like it.

Highly Recommended!

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