Edition 29: Book Review: Crow Shine by Alan Baxter
Reviewed by Damien Smith
Disclaimer: I have known Alan personally for a number of years, but this does not mean I will be unreasonably harsh on his work. I did not receive anything other than an uncorrected proof copy of Crow Shine for this review.
Alan Baxter has been doing the rounds of the Australian Spec Fic scene for quite some time now, and regularly pops up in top-class short story publications. With the recent news that his Alex Caine trilogy is going global, it would be easy to forget about Alan’s widely-scattered and occasionally very hard to find shorter works. Crow Shine represents Alan’s first, very attractively-covered, short story collection and gathers together sixteen hand-picked tales from over a decade of works, along with three original pieces.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time reading Alan’s Alex Caine or Balance novels will know one of the things he does very well (and sometimes very extensively) is write a decent fight scene. Given this, I was quite surprised at the distinct lack of gratuitous punch-ons in the collection. It was a stark reminder that writing fighting is only one string to his blood-stained bow. He also has a very real talent for punching a reader in the face with a fist full of raw emotion. His short works explore despair and loss, triumph and tragedy, of choice and consequence. They show that dragons can be beaten, but very often aren’t and incidentally, they have that horrible reputation for a reason.
Perhaps Jo Anderton said it better than I could in the collection’s introduction: “There are spaces in between realms, places that ride the fine line between the gritty and the magical, where every choice we make is weighed, and there is very little light at the end of the tunnel. These are the places Alan Baxter takes us to.”
Of the three original pieces, the titular Crow Shine was probably the closest to what I would expect from Alan. It is set in the American Bluegrass Belt (it’s a place, I swear) and contains a mix of human weakness, a lust for power, an appropriate price for said power and a barely hinted-at supernatural antagonist. Our protagonist Clyde learns a powerful and dangerous secret from his enigmatic Grandpa, walking, and crossing, a line of cursed magic and possibly literal soul music.
The second original piece, A Strong Urge to Fly, was a more Stephen King-style horror tale of a young man trying to cut the apron strings, but who falls afoul of crazy cat ladies and his own concerted efforts to prove his independence by breaking free of rules. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t end well. How it did end, though, managed to catch me off guard.
Finally, The Old Magic tells of the witch Erin, blessed and cursed with an unnatural longevity from the powerful healing magic she is able to employ. She is cursed with a lifetime of watching loved ones grow old and die while she endures. The eventual ending of such an over-stretched existence was not unexpected, however the poignancy and sense of loss really was. A surprising and powerful addition to the collection.
Of the rest of the stories, some I had read and some were new to me, but possibly the most powerful for me (As it was the first time I read it) was Tiny Lives, a flash piece which starkly displays both human frailty and great strength in sacrifice. Additionally, Not the Worst of Sins tells a tail of vengeance and misplaced trust and almost had me laughing out loud when the twist hit.
Having said that, it’s difficult to pick favourites in here as there is a bit of everything; myth and legend, Lovecraftian horror, vengeance, the divine, supernatural monsters, human monsters and botanic monsters (yes really), all with a strong undertone of choice and consequence.
Overall, this is a great and well-paced collection, although one story, Fear is the Sin, a nonetheless enjoyable 1930s piece, did feel a little out of place. Many of these stories are available in free publications, but equally some are only found in now out-of-print works. An emotional, and occasionally violent rollercoaster well suited to any fan of horror and dark fiction, but definitely not for the squeamish.
Crow Shine (Alan Bacter)
Ticonderoga Publications, 2016
Dark Fantasy collection
Being a writer requires dedication, commitment, devotion, diligence, a skin like an armadillo and a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears. By this definition, Damien is most definitely not a writer, although he does occasionally put pen to paper. More accurately, Damien is a lover of the written word in nearly all its forms (you can keep vampire romances) and always feels a little down if he can see over his To Read pile.