Oh, Califa! How I have missed you. There are very few books (usually series of books) that give me this warm feeling of coming home after a long, uncomfortable journey. Harry Potter is the prime example, Cat Valente’s Fairyland books are another. After I gobbled up the three volumes published in the Flora Segunda series, I did have a huge book hangover, but I didn’t know just how much I had fallen in love with Wilce’s style and the world she created. I’m glad to be back and actually thinking about re-reading Flora during the Christmas holidays.
Published by: Small Beer Press, 2014
Paperback: 262 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 9/10
First sentence: Ah, Califa! Cool white city surrounded on three sides by water, braced by fog and sea breezes.
These inter-connected stories are set in an opulent quasi-historical world of magick and high manners called the Republic of Califa. The Republic is a strangely familiar place—a baroque approximation of Gold Rush era-California with an overlay of Aztec ceremony—yet the characters who populate it are true originals: rockstar magicians, murderous gloves, bouncing boy terrors, blue tinted butlers, sentient squids, and a three-year-old Little Tiny Doom and her vengeful pink plush pig. By turn whimsical and horrific (sometime in the same paragraph), Wilce’s stories have been characterized as “screwball comedies for goths” but they could also be described as “historical fantasies” or “fanciful histories” for there are nuggets of historical fact hidden in them there lies.
Ysabeau S. Wilce is the author of Flora Segunda, Andre Norton Award–winner Flora’s Dare, and Flora’s Fury, and she has published work in Asimov’s, Steampunk!, and Fantasy & Science Fiction. She lives in San Francisco, California.
Ysabeau Wilce has already stolen my heart with her enchanting, wonderful Flora Segunda trilogy (Flora Segunda, Flora’s Dare, Flora’s Fury) but it wasn’t until this collection of short stories that I realised just how talented and brilliant she really is. I’ve been following her on Twitter, hoping for an announcement of new books, so naturally I pounced when this one showed up.
What delights me more than anything is how original Wilce is in everything she writes. The historian in her clearly shines through, as does her experience with the military. Califa is a wild mixture of the Wild West, magic, mythology, Aztec rituals, crazy scientists, and so much more. If you don’t fall in love with her style – which varies quite a bit in these stories – then I can’t help you. These stories are more grown-up than the Flora books, in more ways than one. They are not all for children, first and foremost. But it is also the writing as such that has matured. Ysabeau Wilce was not idle in the years I’ve been pining for more of her writing. She has been honing her craft and I will read everything else she decides to publish. Just don’t make the wait too long, okay?
And here’s what I thought of the stories contained in Prophecies, Libels & Dreams.
The Biography of a Bouncing Boy Terror! [read on Lightspeed]
Spring-Heeled Jack features quite a bit in the Flora Segunda books, although not in the capacity you might think. Even a well-known bouncing terror must begin his terrorizing at some point. This fun little story tells of these beginnings, of how a young, poor boy named Jack came into the possession of a pair of red, sparkly boots. What makes this story shine is the playful language that is strangely aware of itself.
I read the story and almost cried because I was so happy to be back. Wilce’s style is dynamic and engaging and I can’t believe that she’s not all over the bloggosphere. Everybody should be raving about her, she should be signing 10-book-deals. Oh well, I’m happy I got a little more of her magic and I won’t give up hope for more Flora books.
Quartermaster Returns [read on Tor.com]
From this point onwards, I will only become more and more delighted. In “Quartermaster Returns”, Wilce returns to the military and to Buck, earlier in her career. Set in the heat of the desert, the quartermaster does indeed return – from the dead, that is. With charming language and clever plot twists, the author magicked up a fascinating tale that is as entertaining as it is witty.
I loved every section of this little story. It has humor and darkness and clever characters, it’s told in brilliant language that made me feel like I was there. Wilce clearly knows how to create a military atmosphere without too many words. Her world-building in general is phenomenal and feels so effortless. Whether it’s the Arivaipa desert or Califa itself, they read like real places where real people (some really silly) have real adventures. And Quartermaster’s tale will make you laugh out loud.
Metal More Attractive
In “Metal More Attractive” we get to know Hardhands- uncle to Tiny Doom and rockstar magician – and the hardships he faces a little better. Who would have thought I’d grow to like the guy so much? In order to make a life for himself and his boyfriend/lover, Hardhands is willing to go to great lengths. But things don’t go as planned and that red-headed Tiny Doom is always in the way.
Now, Tiny Doom is a character we know from the original Flora books. The appearance of the small stuffed pig was a particularly happy moment for me. Getting to know more about Tiny Doom’s past and the history of her uncle felt not only like reading a prequel to Flora’s Dare but was also a great story, all on its own. Hardhands isn’t quite Hardhands when the story starts. But he’s turning into Hardhands as it ends…
The Lineaments of Gratified Desire
This is the longest story of the collection and it follows Hardhands and Tiny Doom a few years after the events of “Metal More Attractive”. Hardhands is stuck babysitting his little niece and since it’s Pirate’s Parade Day (read: Halloween), the little red-head sneaks out, her stuffed pig under her arm, and gets into all sorts of trouble.
I loved how this story turns from quite adorable and cute into something much darker, without ever picking a side or telling the reader what’s magic, what’s real, or even what’s true. The whimsical style turns into a magical melting pot of awesome and in the middle of it all is Hardhands, whom I still quite like. He is vain and stubborn and self-centered but also strangely endearing. As for that plush pig… you’ll have a hard time not loving it.
A hilarious story featuring teenaged Tiny Doom and her inauguration into the military proper. In order to be accepted she has to perform a task she’s not looking forward to. Bring back someone’s scalp… but Tiny Doom already thought of a way around it and hilarity ensues. The press gets involved, her uncle Hardhands gets embarrassed and there’s cheers all around.
If you like stories of gentlemen highwaymen or very polite thieves in general, you will love this. Tiny Doom totally rocks this tale and manages to save several innocent (or somewhat innocent) hides before the night is over.
Hand in Glove
Departing from the known and beloved characters, this is a detective story with a Frankenstein-ish spin. Our protagonist detective got stuck on the most boring duty in all of Califa while the goldenboy Wilkins gets all the good cases – and the glory. But Etreyo, our heroine, just wants to promote the use of forensics in the police force, a passion for which she is mostly ridiculed. But, good logical policewoman that she is, she secretly takes finger prints and examines the crime scenes left behind by the Califa Squeeze – a serial killer who squeezes his victims to death and steals just one small item from each of them.
Hunting the killer takes Etreyo to interesting places and even more interesting people. For fear of spoiling, I will stop here. Let it be said, however, that certain scenes are quite giggle-worthy, while sending chills down my spine at the same time. In retrospect, the entire story is rather hilarious, though, and fits perfectly into the setting.
Scaring the Shavetail
This was the only story I didn’t love. It still has the signature whimsical style and feels very much like a western. Atmosphere-wise, Wilce did a fantastic job. The plot revolves around a prank which will be played upon the Shavetail in question – an annoying superior who is way too friendly with his subordinates. Trying to make him afraid and leave their post, a group of people tell scary stories of the chupacabra and how it rips people to pieces.
Certain scenes were genuinely creepy, but I didn’t feel enough connection to the characters to truly care. Plus, I was very confused to read about states like Arizona or countries like Mexico.
This is where the afterwords come in handy. After every story, a historian – A Lady of Quality – leaves comments on how much credulity each story has. She refers her readers to various works of history, noted in footnotes (oh, I do so love footnotes). These afterwords don’t really add much to the collection as such – it would have been just as fun without them – but they lend a layer of realism and another bit of biting humor to Califa.
So even though the collection ended on a meh story for me, this has still made it onto my best of the year list. It is such an enjoyable little gem that I hope will draw more attention to a truly talented writer. Ysabeau S. Wilce deserves fame and love and huge, huge fandoms. If you’re unsure about Flora Segunda, try these short stories. They give you a (more adult) taste of what you can expect. I loved it and will put these books into the hands of anyone who comes near me.
RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection