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Neither Here Nor There
by Cat Rambo
Hydra House, 2016, $17.95, 290 p
Publishing date: December 2016

Neither Here Nor There constitutes 2 collections of stories printed in the back-to-back-and upside-down style, an exotic cat on one front and a pair of racing – or possibly flying – dogs on the other. The stories, full of wonder and humor, are a balanced mix of horror, high fantasy, steampunk, and world-building. They are perfect for personal entertainment, for sharing in a reading circle, or for use in a classroom, because they naturally generate all sorts of talking points. (Teachers, you have a gold mine here!) Settings and characters recur, and it is easy to develop favorites. Cat Rambo is especially deft at changing her narrative voice to suit a story’s theme. Her writing style is sometimes reminiscent of Lord Dunsany at his whimsical best. 

“Love, Resurrected” shows how a warrior can be lured by love of strategy and battle into becoming a monster. “The Toad’s Jewel” is a delightful story with an ironic twist, for traditionally the jewel in the forehead of a toad is a gem of wisdom, but this toad is vain and silly.  “Pippa’s Smiles” is a cautionary tale with a great deal packed into its 8 pages. “Karaluvian Fale” features a beleaguered protagonist whose amorality is part of her resilience. Lady Karaluvian is desperately trying to keep her Great House alive, with no help from a brother who gambles away what he does not spend on clothes and indulgences, while the lord of a rival House moves against them.  “The Subtler Art” is one of the funniest in the collection, from it’s description of the noodles served at a local eatery, to the eating habits and conversation of the protagonists, to the twisted outcome of their contest. “The Mage’s Gift” is one of many stories set in the strange city of Serendib, featuring the semi-retired Assassin called The Dark and her husband, the mage Teracitus. A quest for the perfect gift has The Dark run a gauntlet of challenges, magical and deadly. “How Dogs Came to the New Continent” is one of those stories where how the narrator perceives the world is as important as what he describes. As with all the stories, the author’s Afternotes are well worth reading, explaining how the story relates to her books that make up The Tabat Quartet. “Love’s Footsteps” takes a fresh look at the consequences of the magician’s custom of removing one’s heart to attain immortality.  This one reminded me of Ursula LeGuin’s early stories, and was one of my favorites. “To Read the Sea” is a flash fiction tale of consulting an oracle, and I can’t say anything more without risking a spoiler. “A Brooch of Bone, a Hint of Tooth” is a good example of how actions born of fear and hate trigger the very thing a person most fears to come to be.  It’s not a happy story, but it’s a very effective story. “Call and Answer, Plant and Harvest” is absolutely wonderful, from its description of how Cathay the Chaos Mage first came to Serendib and what she did there, through the three gambits she undertakes to win a prize, to the poignant pause at what I earnestly hope is not the end of the tale.

Flipping over, we come to the second set of stories, which are less fantasy, while being no whit less fantastic. Here are the steampunk and Altered America/War stories, starting with “Clockwork Fairies”, about a young man who is courting an inventor for the sake of her inheritance. “Her Windowed Eyes, Her Chambered Heart” is one of two stories featuring an unusual pair of Pinkerton detectives: Elspeth and Artemus West. She’s a Sensitive and he’s mechanical, and they make a very good team. “The Coffemaker’s Passion” is a hilarious look at how self-awareness in appliances might be like. “Elections at Villa Encantada” is humor/horror, since few things in this world are as horrific as bureaucracy in “stupid” mode.  The Afternotes strike a sad chord, however. “Seven Clockwork Angels, All Dancing on a Pin” is a lovely steampunk version of Sleeping Beauty, with a charming alternative to the opening phrase “Once upon a time”. “Coyote Barbie”… the name says it all. “The Wizards of West Seattle”, about an apprentice would-be wizard anxious to make the cut, is a delight, and I earnestly hope more stories are set in this domain. One of the charming lines in this story is, “Every wizard must have a sense of humor: it’s a prerequisite.” Then there’s this one: “Do you understand what sets a wizard’s mind apart from other people’s? They want the world so fiercely to be different that they bend it to their will.” Good thing there’s that sense of humor clause. “Summer Night in Durham” is a vampire story with a twisty ending that is perfectly foreshadowed – if you look in the shadows. After huffing with laughter at the end I went back and reread it, just to check. “Web of Blood and Iron” is diesel punk and a grim tale of the Vampire War, based on an actual race between a car and a train. It has evocative settings and a British lord who happens to be a werewolf, served faithfully by a gnome with Marxist leanings, so lots of internal conflict here. “So Glad We Had This Time Together”, another one of my favorites, is a fond send-up of Reality TV and a tribute to one of the great variety shows of all time that places Hidden World non-humans in the infamous Winchester Mystery House, with a killer of a surprise ending. “Snakes on a Train” is another Elspeth and Artemus West tale, notable for its “inside the mind of a Sensitive” narrative. Reading it is like being forced to be a teenager all over again. That’s not a slam; it’s a testament to how skillfully Cat describes a defenseless mind. The last story, “The Passing of Grandmother’s Quilt” is a short, punish tale with a lot of heart.

Cat Rambo is a prolific author of wonderful feeling and skill. If you have never read any of her works before, this is a great way to start. And if you ever find yourself, like Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in need of refreshment of the spirit, this collection casts a spell of enchantment worthy of the magician’s book.  – Chris R. Paige

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