I received an Advance Readers Copy of this book. All opinions are my own.
This is an eccentric and stylistic collection of short stories. All but one have a historical setting and the voice and style of story-telling feels like they could have been written a hundred years ago too. The majority of them also centre around the natural world, whether that’s a telegraph operator in the remote jungle or a daring female balloonist. Along with this, the stories have a very physical feeling, evoking the reader’s senses.
The opening story “Death of the Pugilist, or the Famous Battle of Jacob Burke & Blindman McGraw” is a Regency-era tale of a working class young man who rises to fame as a boxer. Mason doesn’t shy away from the violence and dirt of this time and situation, instead focusing on the gritty details that highlight the inhumanity of those surrounding this young man. Physically powerful but at the mercy of others, young Burke is perhaps as much of a victim as those he battles into submission.
Many of the other stories are set around a similar time, including “On Growing Ferns and Other Plants in Glass Cases, In The Midst of the Smoke of London”, a story where the literal air around the characters is what is destroys them, particular a young child whose mother is desperate to save him.
“The Miraculous Discovery of Psammetichus I” is set in Ancient Egypt but fits in with the other stories with his historical tone and its focus of Psammetichus’ search to understand the world around him. This is a recurring theme throughout the stories – the struggle of humans versus nature. Their desire to conquer and their inability to do so. Throughout the collection, characters come up against their own shortcomings or lack of power over the natural world.
The one story that doesn’t seem to fit is “For the Union Dead”, which stands out for both its modern day setting and its first person narration. While the story is fine on its own, it feels out of place in this collection. At the same time, the title story of this collection has both of these features and yet fits in seamlessly, featuring an insane narrator, obsessed with cataloguing the world on God’s behalf.
This is the first I’ve read from Daniel Mason and while overall I enjoyed these stories, I’m not sure his style and voice would be sustainable at a novel length. That said, he has written novels so perhaps he does know what he’s doing.