The Empire of Ice Cream
Golden Gryphon Press
Publication Date: 04-01-06
300 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 06-11-06
Reviewed by: Terry Weyna © 2006
Jeffrey Ford is a master of short fantasy. His short fiction fills two indispensable collections published by Golden Gryphon Press, 'The Fantasy Writer's Assistant' and, now, 'The Empire of Ice Cream'. Every story in these volumes makes you want to sing, or to cry with pleasure and sadness, or to sigh in pure admiration. No wonder many of the stories in 'The Empire of Ice Cream' were nominated for and/or won an award or two. My reaction to this book is easily boiled down to two words: more, quickly!
The title story is about a fascinating psychological phenomenon: synesthesia, in which the subject can taste shapes, see the color of music, and hear numbers. I've always wanted to experience synesthesia myself, but apart from the fact that I associate numbers with colors, I haven't a hint of it. The protagonist of "The Empire of Ice Cream" doesn't fully know whether it's a blessing or a curse, but for many years during his childhood his parents treat him as if he is mentally ill, dragging him from doctor to doctor, keeping him from interaction with his peers, and generally treating him as an invalid. When they finally learn from a competent psychiatrist that their son has synesthesia, and what it is, and that it's essentially normal but rare, they lose interest in their child. Still, all those years sheltered from life have unloosed a talent in him: he can play the piano like a prodigy, and decides to devote his life to composing. But his real story begins when he first tastes coffee ice cream and his synesthesia shows him something far different from a shape or color or texture in the taste. This story is a masterwork.
"The Annals of Eelin-Ok," was first published in 'The Faery Reel: Tales from the Twilight Realm', edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow. When I first encountered the story there, I was utterly charmed – and transported to childhood days at the beach, memories in which my mother and father were young, the water was clear and when swimming to the big float was a major accomplishment. This tale of the fairies who live in sand castles, who live their whole lives before the tide comes in, is told in an elegiac tone; it is made of late August evenings and sand gritty in your bathing suit, the end of summer merely days away. This tale won the Speculative Literature Foundation's Fountain Award, given to a speculative short story of "exceptional literary quality," and it deserved it.
"Boatman's Holiday" is a story of Charon, the figure on the outskirts of Hell who ferries the souls of the dead across the River Acheron, The River of Pain. What does such a figure do on his once-a-century holiday? What secrets does he learn wherever he goes? What does he do with what he learns? This dark story is one for writers and theologians, for philosophers and poets.
"A Man of Light" is a mysterious story about an artist who does his work with light rather than paints or marble. No, he doesn't paint light; he uses light as his medium, creates warp and weft from the particles and waves, makes buildings appear to hover above their foundations and creates of himself nothing but a bobbing head. His story of how he learned to manipulate light is one that curves back in on itself as if the power of thought were a black hole from which nothing can escape.
Another Windling and Datlow anthology, 'The Green Man', gives us another glorious fabulation, "The Green Word." This rather sentimental fairy tale – even though it doesn't have any fairies in it, it partakes of that world in its tone and sensibilities – is a satisfying tale of death to tyrants and the freedom of innocents. It is violent along the way, as it should be; the Brothers Grimm would have been very happy to have written such a tale.
Ford seems to have an enduring interest in the power of words. In "The Weight of Words," words are tools just as light is a tool in "A Man of Light": used to have effects that are beyond explanation. It is both fascinating and frightening to think of the enormous effect words can have, in the right order, in the right font, in the right size and shape and context.
The longest story in the volume, "Botch Town," puts one in mind of Robert McCammon's 'Boy's Life' or Dan Simmons's 'Summer of Night'. It is a coming of age story, complete with the Mr. Softee truck selling ice cream, a cellar lit by a single bulb, and a return to school that weighs heavily on the children. The star of the story is Botch Town, a piece of plywood on a pair of sawhorses that was originally intended to serve as the foundation for a model train layout, but which becomes a scale model of the neighborhood, and then strangely seems to mirror – or does it create? – what happens to friends and enemies alike. It's also the memoir of a child becoming a writer, translating his neighbors into words, events into syllables.
The making of a writer is a preoccupation of Ford's. "The Fantasy Writer's Assistant" is an earlier work on this subject, and many in this volume are also so concerned: "The Weight of Words," "Boatman's Holiday," and "Coffins on the River," a negligible story at the back of this book. It appears, too, in "Jupiter's Skull," where words are events, where they coerce action, where they force love. Ford speaks in "The Weight of Words" of "the wonderful burden of words," a phrase that rings of truth to anyone who deals with words – all of us, if we are willing to face up to the burden. Have you ever wondered why artists so often entitle their works "Untitled"? Or why the surrealists gave their paintings such extraordinarily strange titles? Have you ever pondered why "God" is "The Word"? "The Weight of Words" makes you ponder such mysteries.
This excellent collection is one that cannot be missed by anyone who seeks out superb fantastical writing. The author's notes for each story add to the reading experience, and provide insight into the mysteries of Ford's language magic. These stories will linger in your mind long after you have read them, and their images and phrases will invade and enrich your dreams.