Bridge Between Worlds
By Cheryl Morgan
When I heard that Holly Phillips had published a novel my first thought was that it would be a horror or dark fantasy work along the lines of her fine collection, In the Palace of Repose. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I discovered that it was science fiction. Or was it? What do you think?
As The Burning Girl opens, Ryder Coleman is just being released from hospital. She was found in the street suffering from a mysterious fever. They kept her in for a long time trying to find out what was wrong, and whether it was contagious, but finally they have given up. She’s free to go.
The fever was not an elusive thing. It was huge, crowding her body even when it slept, snarling her senses the way a kitten snarls a ball of yarn. (Gutting her memory the way a cat guts its prey.) She could feel it now, prowling through her, slipping color (redstone brown) into her sweating hands, sound (gravel crunch) across her tongue.
Some of the symptoms of the fever are clearly out of a horror novel. Rye’s body is covered in sores, and at times they weep blood. She has little memory of her life before the fever, but chance encounters bring snatches back. There was the alien, Cleände; the enemies who were hunting her; Marky, whom they killed; and Dan Bardo, the renegade cop who was working with them because, well, how would you explain to your boss that your partner had been killed by aliens?
As she investigates her past, Rye discovers that she was captured by the aliens, by Cleände’s enemies. The fever she has is not a fever, it is a weapon. She is a weapon. A weapon with which the government of Nohai plans to conquer Earth, just as they conquered Cleände’s home world of Scalléa.
Amaran spoke, Amaran moved, and the fever recognized an echoing spark that jumped and brightened every time her heart clenched and relaxed, weak and yearning as a firefly calling for its mate on a warm summer’s eve.
Calling to Rye’s fever, as if a firefly could mate with a summer storm.
And slowly it becomes clear. The plot talks of aliens, the fever weeps blood, the women who understand the ways of moving between worlds are called witches. But The Burning Girl is not SF, not horror, not fantasy, at least not wholly so. The Burning Girl is a spy story, a tale of deceit and betrayal. Who should Rye trust: the dissidents from Nohai? Cleände, whose first loyalty is to her own people? Bardo, whose lies come as easily to his tongue as those of Cleände? Or the fever itself?
Ultimately, however, The Burning Girl is not about any of these things, it is about words. It is another one of those novels about which people will complain that you couldn’t see the plot for the style. Phillips isn’t afraid to experiment, to let the rhythm and texture of her words convey description.
Rain fell on the arcwright, a shining heavy rain that lifted a faint mist off the black and silver gleaming hide, a soft silent blur of white above the narrow bone-ridged back and the shadow-sprung ribs and the head with the skull-like muzzle and the gun-slit eyes. Rain fell on the arcwright and ran like rain on a windowpane, raindrops chasing each other into streaks, that streamed like tears across the open black gun-slit star-shot eyes. Rain fell, a shimmer of rain, through a strong slant of sunlight to dance and hiss spray in the arcwright’s shadow, a dark angular shadow like a crooked stain on the white cement paving stones.
I happen to love this sort of stuff. Your mileage may vary.