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Book Review: Crow Shine by Alan Baxter

“This is a strong short fiction debut from a real writer, and one well worth your time.”

Australian author Alan Baxter has been carving out a name for himself in the dark fantasy field with his novels, most notably the Alex Caine series, so it’s a good time for Ticonderoga Publications to put together his premiere short fiction collection.

The stories in Crow Shine are a mixed bag in terms of geographical and historical setting–in the darkly entertaining Not The Worst Of Sins there’s a weird Western, and a pirate story (Arr!) in the form of The Chart Of The Vagrant Mariner, while Fear Is The Sin takes place in the theatre world of Depression-era America, In The Beat Of A Pale Wing, Baxter offers us a hard-boiled noirish crime story with supernatural overtones, and there’s even a story about a monstrous plant in Reaching For Ruins, though the premise sounds like a jolly pulp-fiction romp, rest assured it isn’t. Familiar horror tropes such as the vampire, the fallen angel, and, in the short but poignant The Fathomed Wreck To See, the siren all appear, each given an original and personal twist.

A number of the stories are set in the US, and one, A Strong Urge To Fly, in the UK, but Baxter’s at his best–perhaps most at ease–when on his Australian home turf. Punishment Of The Sun and In The Name Of The Father could easily have played out as dull, hackneyed fare, but come alive in Baxter’s handling, and it’s due in no small part to his deft use of the Australian Outback as a setting.

Of the US-set stories, the novelette The Darkest Shade Of Grey stands out; at its heart is the deftly-drawn figure of alcoholic journalist David Johansson, cursed with supernatural abilities; struggling to repair his broken life, he’s drawn to investigate the bizarre mystery that those abilities reveal. Equally good, in a very different way, is the brief, to the point and poignant Tiny Lives, in which a Thai emigre to the US uses the only skills he has to raise money to save his daughter’s life, but at a cruel price.

In this story, Baxter draws on his background as an author of urban fantasy to offer a varied palette that presents more than simple scares, as he also does in Roll The Bones and All The Wealth In The World, a meditation on memory and loss.

The title story is another American tale; when Clyde’s bluesman grandfather dies, Clyde keeps his backwoods moonshine still running, and by drinking the brew he finds his musical gifts become the equal of the old man’s. You may well guess where this story’s going quite early on, but it’s none the worse for that. And it underlines one of the key themes of the collection: nothing is for free, there’s a price to be paid for anything worth having, and sometimes what you get in return doesn’t come in the way you expected or wanted.

Shadows Of The Lonely Dead and The Old Magic both deal, in their different ways, with women who possess extraordinary powers. In the first, a hospice nurse draws the pain of the dying in her care into herself. It’s a wearing process, though one she bears with strength and grace, but it’s not until she begins a relationship with the gentle and emotionally-scarred Jake that she understands the true purpose of what she does; having paid the price, she at last realises what she’s bought.

Erin in The Old Magic, on the other hand, uses her titular skills to achieve near-immortality, living for centuries and raising family after family. Her immortality isn’t a curse, but the price it exacts is ultimately of loss–those loved ones who don’t die are lost to her through emotional distance. And yet Erin goes on, without regret, determined to continue and to live in spite of loss, treasuring what she’s had and what she still possesses.

It’s something of a truism that a collection should begin and end with its strongest stories, and Crow Shine ends with its best: The Darkness In Clara, another of Baxter’s Australian tale. Clara has been Michelle’s beloved partner for over twenty years, and the mother of their adored son, Paul. And then, out of nowhere, she kills herself. Why? Michelle’s anguished determination to solve the riddle leads her to Clara’s smalltown childhood home, a rundown place full of bitterness and small minds. Clara’s memory is reviled there, because of what happened in the past–events that ultimately drove her from her home to live in the city, where she met and fell in love with Michelle. It’s a heartfelt, wrenching piece, and the grieving Michelle is a powerful and vital protagonist that we wanted to meet again.

Crow Shine isn’t a perfect collection (assuming such a thing even exists); none of the stories here are poor, but a few–such as Old Promise, New Blood–are just okay, with nothing to set them apart from a dozen other such tales you’ll have read. Baxter’s never short of original ideas or clever riffs on familiar genre staples–his short-short Mephisto tells a familiar tale with succinctness and panache–but sometimes his prose doesn’t quite have the polish and focus that would bring them most fully to life. But there are far more hits than misses in this book, and when he hits the mark, you damned well know about it. This is a strong short fiction debut from a real writer, and one well worth your time.

SIMON BESTWICK

Publisher: Ticonderoga Publications
eBook: (296pp)
Release Date: 11 November 2016

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1 comment

  1. Steve Boseley

    Just came across your site. As a horror/ dark fiction author, it’s good to meet others with a similar interest!

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