Review: Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia A. McKillip

Author: Patricia A. McKillip
Title: Dreams of Distant Shores
Format/Source: Paperback/library 
Published: June 2016
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Length: 274 pages
Genre: Fantasy of all sorts
Why I Read: Author highly recommended; book spotted at library
Read If You’re: Looking for some fresh creativity grounded in traditional fantasy 
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Patricia A. McKillip has been on my radar since I read wonderful things about her work by Lianne. I added a couple of McKillip’s book to my TBR way back in 2014, thinking she’d be worth getting around to some day! I didn’t have plans to get to her in 2016. When I spotted this title while browsing the new and noted section at the library, the cover grabbed me and I couldn’t leave it on the shelf. I was in the mood for some new fantasy. This collection of short stories was just what I needed. Dreams of Distant Shores contains seven pieces of fiction (“Mer”, “Edith and Harry Go Motoring” and “Alien” being original to the collection) and a short essay (also original to the collection).

I enjoyed the variety of this collection. “Weird” is perfectly titled, an intriguing piece of weird fiction to open the collection. “Mer” is a fine story about a witch trapped as a goddess then as a mermaid statue in a seaside town, but not my favourite. I enjoyed “The Gorgon in the Cupboard”, a sweet tale about a painter and artists society in Victorian times – not a setting I usually encounter. “Edith and Harry Go Motoring” tells what happened one day when Edith, Harry and their driver cross over a bridge in the countryside and find a strange house. “Alien” may or may not feature aliens. (It’s not the type of story that may spring to mind when you hear that word.) “Which Witch” introduces us to a monster-battling punk rock band of witches (!!). “Something Rich and Strange” comprises the bulk of the collection – I’ll discuss it further below. Most of the stories have semi-open ended conclusions; you receive some closure but could also easily imagine more to the tale. Though I enjoyed some stories more than others, I found all of them to be creative answers to “What if X character did this?” or “What if X setting met Y characters?” I think it’s true that all stories can be formulated in terms of “What if?” but McKillip seems to have a gift for answering that question.
The centrepiece of Dreams of Distant Shores is the novella “Something Rich and Strange”. The final work in the collection, I didn’t realize it was a novella until I was 40 pages in and wondering when it as going to wrap up. Because I anticipated the story to be a third of its actual length, I felt it dragged on at times. Perhaps if I had a closer look at the table of contents I wouldn’t have felt that way! Overall, I loved the atmosphere of the tale – the ocean imagery, the seaside setting, the grey mood. I felt a similar stirring as I felt when reading The Ocean at the End of Lanemake of that what you will. I imagine “Something Rich and Strange” to be some sort of distant adult relative (the theme’s are different and there’s no touch of childhood in “Something Rich and Strange” but something draws the two to my mind). 

McKillip’s creativity also shines through her prose. Here is an author you might read for her style, even if her plots and characters seemed infinitely dull to you. Though their styles are distinct, Catherynne M. Valente and McKillip invoke the same sort of wonder and delight that I find in particular fantasy prose.

Jonah stood inside the mermaid’s song. It was wild and bitter and desolate, a song without words, of spindrift whipped from heaving water washed with colors not even Megan would use; of the cries of battered seals, wind-battered birds screaming over great schools of fish, blind and still, sliding like leaves across the surface of the storm; of the voices of whales and porpoises as they fled the relentless stalking shadows above them that tracked their every move. Brine lashed his eyes, his mouth; kelp torn from the sea bottom tangled around his hands; barnacles and starfish struck him, clung. An empty moon shell, tumbled through the water, caught painfuly over his ear; even I its pale, lovely hollows he heard the mermaid’s storm. (251)

Another aspect of McKillip’s writing that I really appreciated is her ability to make things that would look cool, also sound cool. To clarify – sometimes I read passages in a novel and think, “This sounds like stage directions” or “This sounds like someone just tried to describe the movie in their head.” It doesn’t always translate to the written word. But McKillips manages to write some great scenes, especially in “Which Witch”, that could easily have ‘looked cool’ but read dull.

“A note came out of Pyx that I’d never heard before. But I recognized its power and sod in one of the pins on her vest. The spiral of blackened silver and garnets started spinning, covering the open-mouthed crowd with gyrating red stars. Everybody applauded wildly. I felt the colourful force shoot past me and added something of my own: a shriek of bowed string and a word my mother taught me early on to yell in emergencies. Of course it was the Sprineel G string, and it promptly broke. Liesl added her version to mine, and Madrona walloped a cymbal so hard the reverberations scudded like fast flying golden ripples across the air at the incoming magic. Rune hit the lowest note on the bass while a deep demonic sound came out of his mouth, making the crowd go crazy again.” (110)

The last piece by McKillip in the collection is a short essay titled “Writing High Fantasy”.  I love McKillip’s attitude towards the fantasy genre! I think we will get on well. Here are two points she made that make me think that:

 “I wanted the reader to see the and Morogon lived in and how it shaped him before he left it and changed himself. So I let him talk about grain and bulls; beer and plowhorses, and his sister’s bare feet, before I let him say fairy-tale words like tower, wizard, harp and king, and state his own driving motivation: to answer the unanswered riddle.” (264)

“At its best, fantasy rewards the reader with a sense of wonder about what lies within the heart of the commonplace world. The greatest tales are told over and over, in many ways, through centuries. Fantasy changes with the changing times, and yet it is still the oldest kind of tale in the world, for it began once upon a time, and we haven’t heard the end of it yet.” (268)

The Bottom Line: Dreams of Distant Shores seems to be a solid introduction to McKillip’s work, if you are a first time reader like me. I enjoyed the stories and look forward to delving into her novels. I think I will enjoy those even more.

Further Reading: