Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Empire of Ice Cream - Jeffrey Ford

This is a beautifully-crafted book full of beautifully-crafted stories. The cover art seems to imply that the book contains some surreal and magical fantasy, and indeed it does, but the stories also span a good swathe of the genre, from fairy-tale to suburban horror via nautical ghosts and twisted myths. The style is elegant, and the ideas are original and very varied.

The problem with beautiful writing, however, is that it does not necessarily make for easy reading, and I found the first few stories in the collection quite hard to engage with - rather like a delicate crystal goblet that you admire on the shelf but would never actually use to drink out of. The dense and luscious prose requires quite a lot of work from the reader, but is definitely worth the effort (though someone needs to tell Ford's editor the difference between "illusive" and "elusive") - once you get to grips with the style, the stories are real treats.

Picking a favourite couple of stories from the bunch is not difficult, but I'm very surprised by my choices. I normally dislike novellas, but by far the longest piece in the book, Botch Town, is one of the best, a strange tale of dark deeds in a run-down suburban neighbourhood. And I normally hate ghost stories, but The Trentino Kid, set amongst the treacherous tides of the offshore clam-beds, manages to be both atmospheric and genuinely chilling. Also worthy of note is Boatman's Holiday, a Pratchett-free take on the journeys of the Styx Ferryman on his day off.

Probably the morning commute is not the best time or place to be reading this book, but for anyone not half-asleep and willing to devote the effort, this is highly recommended.



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