Short stories have never been a favorite of mine. I much prefer to read novels since they allow more time to get to know the characters and become immersed in the story. However, Storm Constantine is a favorite of mine and has been ever since I read her Wraeththu novels, which are my favorite books along with Sarah Monette’s The Doctrine of Labyrinth series. So I eagerly dug into my copy of The Oracle Lips, a numbered (and signed!) collection of short fiction by Storm Constantine. Although I still prefer the Wraeththu novels, many of these dark stories also appealed to me. Constantine has an incredible way with words and I love the way she tended to end stories on a haunting, ambiguous note.
The Oracle Lips is a very lovely book with a forward by Michael Moorcock and a blurb on each work by the author. It contains twenty-three fantasy and science fiction short stories and one poem. Several stories are related to the worlds in Constantine’s novels, including one set in the Wraeththu universe and three about the Grigori.
As with all collections, the tales vary in quality. The earliest work, “Curse of the Snake” is very dense with too much background information and not enough interesting events for a story of its length. Throughout the book, the writing tends toward density and lush, atmospheric descriptions, but with this particular story it was too much and it lost me. As much as I love Constantine’s gorgeous writing style, I preferred the stories that had a better balance of description and dialogue.
My favorite of the bunch is “Sweet Bruising Skin,” a dark version of the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” Constantine always felt that a girl with skin that bruised that easily was rather creepy and wrote a disturbing tale of a prince who would not settle for less than the perfect woman. His mother asks her sorcerer for a princess who will attract him and soon thereafter a mysterious young lady shows up one day claiming to be royalty. When the validity of her statement is questioned, the prince’s mother declares the the highborn have particularly sensitive skin and if the woman awakens bruised after sleeping on a stack of mattresses with a single pea underneath, she is indeed a princess. The stranger is so black and blue in the morning that she appears badly beaten. As time passes, the prince’s mother begins to realize there is something very sinister about the young woman and determines to discover what her sorcerer is hiding. The tone was at times light with the mother’s pompous narrative as she relates the story to another and at times it was very unsettling.
There is a great deal of diversity throughout this collection ranging from the everyday world and contemporary fantasy to mythical fantasy settings to Egypt and archeology to distant planets and aliens to computers and cyberpunk. Common themes include identity, self discovery, gender, and obsession (both romantic and religious) and are handled very well throughout. Constantine does an excellent job of showing infatuation taken too far. I particularly enjoyed how events played out in “Angel of the Hate Wind” when a man wanted a woman so much that he summoned an angel and asked for the her love. Although his wish is granted, the end is extraordinarily tragic.
Constantine has some great opening lines that set up the story and hook you at the same time. The following are some of the first sentences that I found particularly compelling:
We were sitting on the edge of Celestial Alley just watching the night go by, when the girl out of time walked past, looking for a moment to keep. (“The Time She Became”)
Sheila met the woman she should have been in the ladies wash-room at Euston station. (“The Oracle Lips”)
Donna can feel computers dreaming; they reach out and touch her mind, or so she says. (“Immaculate”)
You can waste a lot of time being in love with people. (“Fire Born”)
The stories are imaginative, fantastic, and beautifully written, yet they cannot compare to the excellence of the Wraeththu novels even though they share similar themes. This is largely be due to my preference for character driven stories since short stories do not allow for a truly in-depth study of the people within. While Wraeththu shares the same lyrical prose style, it has much more emotion since there is time to get to know the characters, who are each very unique individuals with well-drawn, real personalities.
The Oracle Lips is an eclectic compilation of dense but mostly well-written speculative fiction stories that tend to set a dark, haunting mood. It is a great collector’s edition for fans of Storm Constantine, but I’d suggest first time readers begin with the first Wraeththu book, The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit.