The first story in At the Mouth of the River of Bees features an itinerant stage magician whose pièce de résistance involves dozens of monkeys disappearing (teleporting out of?) an empty bathtub … at which point I was immediately sold. I don’t read a lot of short fiction – unless it’s Robert Silverberg compiling all my favorite fantasy authors into one volume, in which case I am always game – so the gear-shifting of getting myself re-invested in each and every story all over again tended to throw off my rhythm. Some stories were easier to get into than others. I found that the super short ones, like two or three pagers, slotted seamlessly into her overall authorial vision – but they wouldn’t really make much sense if you didn’t have the entire book for context? Nobody is going to be anthologizing the My Little Ponies story. Or the one where the first-person narrator endlessly fucks an alien inside of an escape pod in order to stave off insanity.
But to return to why I liked the piece with the monkeys. Johnson depicts animals as both companions and protagonists in their own right, but her human characters tend to be enmeshed in a web of sparse rather than dense relationships. In other words they’re lonely. This is facilitated by many of her stories being set in prehistoric or far future eras, where the signature hustle of modern life is absent. The settings vary widely but there is a definite East Asian bent, as I count at least three in feudal Japan. While this is not normally something I would pay attention to, I’ve been reading a lot of glowing reviews of Karen Tidbeth’s Jaganneth, another fabulous short story collection whose Scandinavian source material (in terms of mythology, cuisine) is much remarked upon. And it’s always good to see speculative fiction that doesn’t take medieval European culture for the neutral default. It was admittedly a lot of work plodding through the slower, thinkier parts of this book but one thing I will give her: Kij Johnson knows what she is doing, and while she did not always keep me entertained she certainly kept my brain engaged. (This is not surprising given that she has a trophy case full of Nebulas to her name.)
The standouts, for me, included “Fox Magic,” which is about a fox who falls for a human and invokes magic to entice him to abandon home and hearth for a life with her. All I could think about was OH SHIT TOM RIDDLE’S POOR MUM – predictably it didn’t end well. Infatuations brought about by enchantment never do. What made the whole scenario wrenching instead of merely tragic, however, was that the jilted human wife was a sympathetic if shadowy character, and it was clear that the affair wasn’t just unsustainable because of anything as mundane as magic. Because at the end of the day the fox-wife is just as dependent on the man’s whims as the woman is, and who are we to judge her for using every weapon in her arsenal to hold onto him? Like I realize the ending of the story is overtly optimistic, suggesting that maybe he’ll choose to come back to the fox-life – no beguilement necessary this time – but I don’t read the message as ~love conquers all~.
The other one that tore my heart out of my ribcage and stomped all over it was “Horse Raiders,” which did this by virtue of KILLING ALL THE DOGS within the first three pages. That hurt me more than the massacre of Katia’s entire family, since I only met these people three pages ago so whatever, but dogs are dogs. Katia is the tribe’s dog handler, and she’s trained them to respond to a truly impressive array of commands, everything from dance to look around. Katia’s people are nomads with a rich oral history, though they only occupy one small corner of a planet that appears to have been colonized many millenia ago from Earth. Johnson does some of her best worldbuilding in this piece and I am itching to learn more about what is going on elsewhere, especially in the territories of the Mongol Empire analogue, which we only glimpse secondhand. Anyway the imperials kill everybody except Katia’s three-year-old niece, whom they keep as a hostage for Katia’s good behavior, and they bundle the two of them off for the capital. Also along for the ride: The tribe’s horses, who appear to be miraculously immune from a wasting disease that is making all the other horses in the Empire drop like flies. This being an Empire built by horse-riders, such an epidemic is of serious concern – and pursuing a cure, even a chancy one, is worth killing an entire tribe in order to kidnap their healer. Lying amidst the carnage of her slaughtered family, Katia insists that all the dogs – most of them bristling with arrows – are given the mercy stroke. She finds that the more time she spends with her captors the less she is able to hate them. What they did to her family is beyond forgiving; the problem is that human beings – like horses and dogs – are complicated creatures. Katia sense of helplessness grows as her niece, Mara, becomes attached to a young boy who tucks her in his saddle and tells stories about his sister, who is the same age as Mara. The trajectory towards cultural assimilation is already clear, and Katia wonders if Mara will eventually forget her parents or where she comes from. I’m going to stop here because if I talk more about this story I’m going to start crying, anyway Kij Johnson is crazy good obviously I’m going to have to read her other stuff now.