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In the Palace of Repose, Holly Phillips, Prime Books, 2005, 203 pp.

In the Palace of Repose is a collection of short stories, nine in total, and seven of that number are original to this collection. The book is labelled as fantasy, but it could just as easily be called science fiction or mainstream -- I'll talk more about trying to define stories as slippery as this. And Phillips's work here has gotten a great deal of attention; is this buzz justified?

On the basis of the title story, I would have to say yes. The story is absolutely stunning, but a description makes it sound the exact opposite. The main character is a bureaucrat, Edmund Stonehouse, and the main struggle appears to be Stonehouse's efforts to maintain funding for his department. How could this fantasy, never mind interesting?

For one thing, Stonehouse is in charge of an unusual department, the palace of the title. Inside the palace is an entity known as the King, who was deliberately trapped there hundreds of years ago; Stonehouse has to venture inside the evershifting dreamscapes to make sure that the chaotic powers of the King will remain in check. Shockingly, one day Stonehouse finds a young human girl inside the dangerous confines of the palace. Who is this girl? And will Stonehouse be able to make sure the girl is okay after the Special Branch has grabbed her?

A second thing in the story's favour: the tone of the writing is quite sharp. The bureaucratic infighting and the backstory of the King are both written with great care, precision, and necessary moments of flair. Phillips mixes the pseudo-Victorian flavour of the story with some sly fantasy. I also liked that the story had a logical ending, one that satisfyingly wraps up the story intellectually as well as artistically.

After such an opening piece, it would be hard for Phillips to live up to this standard. The stories that follow are not as vigorous as "In the Palace of Repose," but they have their interesting features. And the selection is definitely diverse.

Up next is another story that struck me, "The Other Grace." It's not a genre piece, strictly speaking, although it's strongest at portraying a sense of alienation (one of the feelings that science fiction is known for). Grace wakes up one day, walking along the road -- instant amnesia. She doesn't know who she is, where she is, or the names of the people around her. But she is her own person, and she can't figure out why the people who say they are her family keep expecting her to go away and the other Grace to return. It's an intense mood piece.

"The New Ecology" is about urban and mechanical clutter coming alive, and the haunted woman who somehow seems to be in touch with these new organisms. A girl named Millie (short for Millennium) travels from town to town, trying to escape the effects of awakening the Small Ones, and sometimes the Larger Ones, and what they accidentally do to other humans. She's also being stalked by a man she calls the Nerd; after confronting the Nerd, Millie finds some information about others like herself. It makes for a touching ending.

Some of the stories in In the Palace of Repose will frustrate those with a preference for a strong narrative, and "The Woman's Bones" is the clearest epiphany-style story in the collection. Rather than letting us know what happens next, this story cares most about the internal state of its main character. The title refers to an archaeological dig; the main character is a translator who has the impossible task of communicating between the Westerners who want to dig and the locals who want to protect ancient secrets. Which side will win out in the translator's heart? That is the more important question in this story than what exactly will be found in the dig site.

"Summer Ice" is a gentle post-collapse story, if such a thing is not a contradiction in terms, and interesting technically, with an artistic moment to cap it off. "By the Light of Tomorrow's Sun" shows Phillips's range; it's a down east story about the boy who goes back to his maritime family. She also shows her range in "Variations on a Theme." Two musically inclined women are connected across time in some way, and both are at a British-style musical academy.

In the Palace of Repose has two other stories. "Pen & Ink" is about a girl who is trying to track down all of the paintings by her father, and there's also a disturbing character only known as the curator involved as well. "One of the Hungry Ones" is about a girl named Sadie trying to get by in a nasty urban setting.

The stories here are a healthy mix of genres and approaches. Two stories in particular, "The Other Grace" and "The Woman's Bones," have virtually no genre or speculative elements at all. Other stories, like the title story or "The New Ecology," make the most sense within certain genre traditions. And despite the mix-and-match of genres, Phillips's stories all have a similar feel and consistency marked out mainly by her excellent prose. I didn't care so much how each story might be categorized as I was reading; Phillips made me care about the people and the events no matter what the story was about. That's a high point for any writer.

Last modified: July 17, 2005

Copyright © 2005 by James Schellenberg (

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