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John Howard and Mark Valentine
Secret Europe
Exposition Internationale / Ex Occidente Press
Bulgarian Hardcover Limited Edition
Publication Date: 02-01-2012
190 Pages; $160
Date Reviewed: 06-04-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  General Fiction  Fantasy

The power of a well-invented world to transport a reader into a different place and time is often seriously underestimated. 'Secret Europe,' a collection of short stories by Mark Valentine and John Howard is an astonishing work of fiction that effortlessly displaces the world we know with the world created on the pages we read. By virtue of strong, character-based storytelling, subtle prose and genuinely inventive strangeness, Valentine and Howard create a version of Europe that is not ours, but partakes of that which we know in such a manner as to be more powerful than what is real.

Ambiguity is one of the literary methods of choice that both writers use in the stories you find here. We're given a provincial perception of the matters at hand in stories like "The Silver Eagles," in which coins created for a new nation help define that nation. The edges of history that brush up against these coins don’t quite jive with what we know, but they are familiar enough for us to build a vision of what transpires in the story on a personal level. The world we see through the narrator's eyes is both familiar and fantastic. The focus on character and the ambiguity of locations and dates allow the both writers to avoid the reductive feel of alternate history. 'Secret Europe' is far more mysterious and exotic than any "what if" scenario.

Though there are two writers at work in 'Secret Europe,' there's an amazing consistency to the prose, which has the timeless feel of the best work by Jorge Luis Borges. The stories are compelling and easy to read, but dense with atmosphere. Works like "The Other Salt" have hints of unease that shoot through gorgeous descriptions of landscape wrought with emotion. No matter what is happening here, not matter what the story, the writers manage to crank up the intensity without ever managing to sound histrionic. Simply put, the prose in 'Seceret Europe' casts a spell.

While the short story form is often a vehicle for ideas and action, Valentine and Howard, who have plenty of ideas, hold them in the background in favor of characters and perception. The result is that the stories — and the collection itself — have an emotional heft that drives not just reading, but re-reading. It's hard to imagine not reading works like "The Hunting Castle" or "A Lantern for Carpathia" twice. 'Secret Europe' creates a world so meticulously imagined, readers will want to return to the stories in fact and not just in memory.

Presentation is a key element of the appeal of 'Secret Europe.' The book looks like an artifact of the world in which it is set. By making the setting mostly in the recent past, the writers have wisely given themselves the means by which to write stories that are in fact timeless. But the physical book itself earns its high price tag, with a huge presentation, impeccable printing and top-notch design. To the degree that it is entirely hermetic, the design is all of a piece with the rest of the work.

With a limited (first) edition of merely two hundred copies, it seems likely 'Secret Europe' will go quickly out of print. It's sort of a shame, as it is quite easily one of the best books any avid reader could hope to buy, own or read this year. Those who own it and read it will quickly understand just how appropriate it is that it go out of print, though, at least, until, like the encyclopedia in Borges' "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," copies begin to pop up mysteriously in what was once the EU, there to create a new history for the current failed empire. Between these covers, the fall of one Europe and the rise of another is a thing of beauty.

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