Chewy, heartfelt, philosophical, concrete magic. Trigger warning for at least one of the stories, “Flat Diane,” a story I personally wish I hadn’t read. (I’m only halfway through the book.)
Lately, as in the past five years, I’ve gotten pickier and pickier in what I’m willing to read. Most books tell stories I’ve already heard and therefore can’t distract me from the ten thousand things on my mind these days. Not this book. I couldn’t predict a single ending, but when it came it was just right, and the journey was always full of allure.
I came across the collection after watching the first two seasons of The Expanse and wanting to read the books, which turned out to be written by James S. Corey, who is in fact not one person but two: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. It was hanging out at the local library and I’d passed over it many times, seeing pretension in the title.
The first story, “The Cambist and Lord Iron,” is an exceptional “three attempts” fairy tale. Our hero Olaf, who is a cambist (an exchanger of currencies) must contend with the impossible requests of Lord Iron, a monstrous excuse of a human being. Olaf’s misfortune is that he understands that it’s possible to exchange anything for anything. For instance, it’s true you can buy bread for money, but it’s equally true that you can buy money for bread, or exchange a horse for some number of lemon mints. Lord Iron brags about this ability and next thing you know, lives are staked on a bet. Can Olaf answer this question:
What is the value of a day in the life of the king, expressed in a day in the life of a prisoner?
This is starting to look like a Sufi riddle. It’s a seemingly simple question that breaks our usual way of thinking. Anybody can have an opinion, but to find an actual, correct, concrete answer?
I never saw the answer coming until it smacked me in the face. But it was true.
And that’s really as much as I can say about the story without spoilers. It’s a thinky story, also full of deep emotion and understandings, and concrete sensory experiences.
I’ll skip “Flat Diane,” which by the way is an International Horror Guild award-winner, so read it at your own peril, and move on to “The Best Monkey.” Just a taste. It begins like so:
How do men choose the women they’re attracted to? . . . It feels like kismet. Karma. Fate. It feels like love. Is it a particular way of laughing? A vulnerability in their tone of voice? A spiritual connection? Something deeper?
All the studies say it’s hip-to-waist ratio.
This snippet shows a tension between deeper meanings and concrete answers. The format – a question deep with longing and introspection, and a cold, abrupt answer that nevertheless sings with its own poetry – is repeated throughout the story, a seeming diversion from the detective-story plot, until the last. Then boom.
I won’t easily forget any of these stories.