Words In: Saffron and Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand

I first read the lead-off story in this collection, “Cleopatra Brimstone,” in the anthology Poe’s Children (edited by Peter Straub). This story of a young entomologist who moves to London in the aftermath of rape was the best thing in Straub’s anthology and turns out to be the best thing in Saffron and Brimstone too. That’s not at all to say the rest of this collection is lacking.

The very best fictional narrative has the feel of true personal history, enough to inspire the reader to check the writer’s bio and figure out whether or not certain events from the story really happened. That’s how most of these stories felt to me, like places I have seen, and like true life events a storyteller has conveyed to me half-reluctantly and with some sadness. Every story overflows with lush imagery and vivid details. The stories may not be connected by character or events, but a kind of quiet melancholy hangs over them.

It’s always interesting to see a writer shift focus in terms of genre and subject matter. Here, as in her novel Generation Loss, Hand generally tones down the fantastical elements more common in her earlier work. The stories feel exotic, even when nothing impossible or otherworldly is happening. Perhaps her greatest strength is the ability to convey a lifelike sense of place, and of events which might have truly happened. Though in my own reading I tend to enjoy the otherworldly and fantastic, I’m hesitant to say I wish Elizabeth Hand would write more in that direction. Whatever the degree of fantasticality in these stories, Hand’s use of language is so elegant and her characters and situations so engaging, I’ll gladly read whatever she chooses to write regardless of genre considerations. Here, as in Generation Loss, she does something that feels very real.

Highly recommended for those readers who enjoy lush prose and human-focused stories with an otherworldly feel even if they take place in our own world. Readers with a preference for more overt genre elements, as well as those wishing for a greater focus on plot rather than character, may enjoy this less than I did. As for me, this book on top of Generation Loss are enough for me to elevate Elizabeth Hand to among the top handful of authors whose work I’ll explore with most eagerness. From here, it’s on to Waking the Moon or Winterlong.

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