By Cheryl Morgan
American Fantasy is not a publisher that many of you will have heard of. They donít do a lot of books. But I have reviewed one of their works before. It is a little chapbook called A Walking Tour of the Shambles, by Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe. That should immediately give you the impression that these are discerning folks. And so when they offered me their first book in two years I figured Iíd better take a look.
The company is run by Bob and Nancy Garcia, and many of you will be familiar with Bobís work because he is the resident book designer for Old Earth Books. That means heís responsible for, amongst others, the superb-looking edition of Chris Priestís The Separation that had people so impressed at World Fantasy. Bob has also been asked to design the new range of books from ISFIC Press (see the review of The Cunning Blood elsewhere in this issue). A Walking Tour was a little book with some nice cartoons that was certainly eye-catching, but Invisible Pleasures by Mary Frances Zambreno is much more traditional-looking. It has a very attractive cover by Douglas Klauba, and one you should look closely at before you buy it.
Why does she say that? Well, the back cover blurb talks about Ms. Zambreno writing young adult novels, and about her appearance in anthologies edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Jane Yolen. Yolen provides the introduction to Invisible Pleasures. And if you donít look too closely at Klaubaís cover you might expect you are going to get a book full of fantasy stories aimed at women.
Of course that is partly true. Some of the stories in Invisible Pleasures ó the ones about Jennet the Iberian ó are very much sword & sorcery tales. One of them was published in Dragon Magazine. In addition Ms. Zambreno has a PhD in Medieval Literature. There are two stories set in Saxon England, and a Robin Hood tale. Most of the rest of the book, however, is horror. At which point you suddenly remember that in the bottom right of Klaubaís cover, barely visible in the dark, are some very nasty-looking bats.
The good news is that all of the stories are eminently readable, and even the horror stories are actually aimed at women readers. I particularly liked "The Ghost in the Summer Kitchen", which is about a teenage girl forced to care for her family after the death of her mother, who is visited by the ghost of a younger girl who wants to learn how to cook. It has a twist ending that I think Peter Straub or Joe Hill would be envious of.
Other stand-out stories include "Choices", which is about how a Saxon woman opts to put an end to a family feud, and "Last One Out", in which Zambreno plays a nasty trick on a vicious rapist. Some of the other stories are a little lightweight, but I read all of them all the way through, which regular readers will know is unusual for me with short fiction. If you are prepared to accept the mix of styles that Klaubaís cover, properly viewed, suggests, then you should find this book entertaining.