This story’s wonderfully imagined central character, is a mermaid who has named herself Essarala, or “seeks the stars.” She is one of many mermaids who dwell “in the deep and dreaming oceans of her world.” But unlike the other mermaids, including her younger sister Kiovasa, Essarala really does long to visit the stars, not just sit on a rock gazing up at them. She gets her chance when traders from off-world arrive. In exchange for a promise to the witch beneath the waves, Essarala gives up her mermaid’s tail for legs and joins the traders on their voyages. After many wondrous years of travel, she finally returns home for a reason much more important than the need to fulfill her promise to the witch. This is a charming story about the competing desire to explore the wider world (or universe) and the joys and duties of home and family. It’s an excellent way to open this special, double-sized issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
There are plenty of stories floating around the world about Faustian bargains and cursed objects. The trope is commonly associated with musicians and artists. So it’s no surprise that in “Obscura,” as the name would suggest, the object in question is a camera which takes pictures of absences.
The fourteen-year-old narrator (it’s never definitively established whether the narrator is male or female,) meets a strange man with a stranger camera, and the stranger ends up bequeathing the camera to the narrator after warning the narrator not to use it on people for fear of what it might show. Humans aren’t so great at resisting temptation, however.
The story showcases Lee’s gift for words. The sentences are rarely long or flowery, but there’s a power in the bluntness, in a single, precise sentence of description. The camera itself is fascinating, as are the brother and sister who bring it into the narrator’s life. However, I found myself a little confused at what, exactly, the camera’s powers were. In a novella or novel, there would be more time to learn by osmosis, but here I would have loved a slightly clearer explanation.
That said, the story is still captivating. It draws you in easily, hooks you just as the narrator is hooked, and its climax and denouement are equally memorable. Well worth a read.
Review of Yoon Ha Lee, “Effigy Nights”, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year series, Vol. 8. Reviewed by Drew Shiel.
I am very much a fan of Yoon Ha Lee’s work. Paper, writing, and perception of the written and thought word are recurring themes through much of his work, so it can be argued that “Effigy Nights” is almost iconic in that regard. This story is written as though a reality in which words, when treated in particular ways, form objects and people, is normal. But it would be unfair to say that it’s written prosaically; instead it is poetic, personal and epic at one and the same time. There is something about it of a Middle Eastern feel, as suggested by the echo in the title of One Thousand And One Nights, but there are aspects of other cultures drawn in as well. It is a story about stories.
Recommended for those who can cope with a little surreality, who don’t need all the rules laid out, who can extrapolate, who think about the words on the page and the intrusion of text into the world.