Elements – a collection of twenty-one speculative fiction short stories – is the work of Suzanne Church, an Aurora-Award-winning Canadian author. The introduction to the collection (provided by Sandra Kasturi) certainly sets the bar high for what one might hope to find between the pages of this hefty volume – in fact Kasturi borrows one of Church’s own phrases. Elements is, she writes, “better than a hell sandwich”.
This is high praise indeed, and I turned to the first story with proportionately high expectations. “Coolies” is the fast and dirty tale of a future war, in which specially-trained medics rove the battlefield retrieving organs for transplant from dead and dying soldiers. It’s an undeniably cool and readable concept, and it definitely ensures that Elements hits the ground running – but ultimately I wasn’t quite sold on the emotional core of the story. The family connection on which much of the tension is built is sketchy at best. That said, however, the sheer momentum of “Coolies” was enough to sweep me along without really worrying too much about it.
I had similar feelings about the stories that followed. Each one is fiercely original, and packed to the rafters with wild ideas and frantic action. This is speculative fiction at its most speculative. We whirl from an android descending from orbit to integrate with a clan of tribal people, to a series of tales set in a “Couch Teleportation” universe filled with ghoulish and absurd aliens, to a clubland-dominated tale that oozes with pheromones, designer drugs and consumable songs. Church has more ideas than you might find in a dozen novels, and she realises them with an almost-joyful ease.
At the same time, the characters who populate these fantastic worlds never quite felt as real or important as the ideas and settings that surrounded them. Too often I would read a story and be blown away by the elegance and cleverness of the idea, but left completely cold when it came to the journey of the characters who I had been following. It felt a little as though they existed merely to open a window onto the world they inhabited, rather than for any particular personal drama of their own.
Similarly the prose itself veritably flies along, tearing through dramatic events with barely a dent to its inertia. Sometimes this works well – when you’re caught up in one of these exciting tales, you want very little to get in the way of finding out what happens next – but sometimes it seemed as though description or detail had been sacrificed simply to keep things going. So, while rattling along through a climactic scene, you might come across a sentence which describes an important action only as a “brief but perceptible response.” All well and good, but what response is a reader to imagine here?
The stories in this collection are so wildly varied that there is little to tie them all together other than their imaginative and speculative natures. However – as you might expect from the title – the elements are a strong theme throughout. From “Courting Ice”, in which a conjurer of ice and a conjurer of fire share a forbidden romance, to the darkly magical focus on rain and water in “Storm Child”, you’ll find earth, air, fire and water woven throughout these stories. Church also imbues other materials with elemental qualities – tattoo ink and pheromones in particular are rendered as particularly fundamental elements.
I found myself enjoying these stories more with each one I read. Although I rarely bought into the plight of the characters involved, the exploration of so many new worlds and so many brilliant ideas was a delight in itself – and every so often a story hit home and genuinely resonated with me. “Gray Love” for example is brief and simple, but manages a very effective twist at the end that made me feel for the narrator in a way that the other stories did not. By the time I closed the book on the final story I was thoroughly disappointed that there was not another universe to explore.
Elements is an action-packed, ideas-centric collection of speculative fiction. Despite some parts of it leaving me cold, it was a fun read. While it might not seize you by the heartstrings, it will at the very least set your imagination ablaze.
Christopher Frost is a writer from the North of England. He works as a copywriter for a charity, and in his spare time writes book reviews.