I was initially sceptical of Bibliotheca Fantastica, the recent anthology of short stories published by Dagan Books. The collection is, to put it simply, a book about books. Each of the twenty stories to be found between its covers involves a book, tome, scripture, scroll or tablet of some kind.
Don Pizarro’s introduction does a good job of touching on some of the reasons why books are such a potentially interesting subject – yet it still left me the tiniest bit unconvinced that it would be anything but a dry and interminable read. Thankfully this was not the case. The stories ranged widely, and included some stunningly original takes on the concept of a book.
In fact each story was so wildly unique and intriguing that I don’t feel there are many general comments to be made. Instead, I’ll provide a miniature review of each of the individual stories.
Garry Kilworth – “The Secret Atlas”
A lively and imaginative story that sets up a fantastic concept. After a point though it feels like it gets a little lost and then rushes to a conclusion when it does at last think of one. Enjoyable and wonderfully unusual nonetheless.
Andrew S Fuller – “The Crimson Codex”
I don’t think I really understood this story. There’s a drifting spaceship, a sect of monks, distant memories and a codex. A sense of loss comes through very strongly at the end, but I still felt quite puzzled as to what I was being sad about. If asked to describe the plot of this story to someone, I honestly don’t think I could.
David Sklar – “The Philosopher’s Nectar”
One of the strongest stories in the collection – an absolute standout, and with a very original take on the definition of a book. It’s short, sweet and stuck with me long after reading.
Megan Arkenberg – “The Gallery Of Vespasian Marat”
A description of a gallery that gradually reveals a story. Absorbing and contemplative, but a touch static for my personal tastes.
Lydia S Gray – “The Book Of Doors”
A dark and powerful story that begins in a very innocous way. The descriptions here are beautiful, and the descent of the narrator (a young, semi-innocent girl who discovers and is corrupted by a book of magic) is masterfully orchestrated. It remains believeable even when all around supernatural horrors are occuring.
Michael J DeLuca – “Other Palimpsests”
A bookish mystery – a struggling PhD student tries to decode a page left over by his late grandfather. The main mystery never fully resolves, and yet it makes for a thoroughly compelling story.
Ray Vukcevich – “The Go-Between”
Another confusing story that I don’t feel I fully understood. Packed with time travel, metaphor, multiple worlds and dragones, it’s nevertheless impressive for its scope and for the vivid writing.
Yarrow Paisley – “Lynx”
One of the least book-related stories in the collection, “Lynx” is a very impressive little tale about a cat. The surreal lurks on the margins of this story, and repetition is used to stunning hypnotic effect.
JS Bangs – “The Typographer’s Folly”
A very neat, well-written story about a typographer’s quest to make a living copy of a famed calligrapher’s work. Follows the classic format of a quest story, but puts a new and bookish spin on things.
AC Wise – “The Book Of Her”
A lyrical, inventive piece in which the narrator attempts to write himself the perfect partner. More of a prose poem than a story, it makes a very engaging read, while still remaining high on the mystery.
Todd T Castillo – “Where Love Is Written”
A story told from the perspective of a book as it changes hands over the course of many years. I wavered between thinking that this story was a little corny, and being genuinely moved by it. An anthropomorphised book is a pretty saccharine concept, but it says something for the authors skill as a storyteller that I remained hooked until the end.
George S Walker – “Cathedral Rising”
The most action-orientated story of the collection. A cracking, fast-paced read with a unique feel to it. Left a lot of questions unanswered at the end, but was nevertheless immense fun.
Ursula Pflug – “The Dreams Of Trees”
A short, quiet rumination on remembering and forgetting. A very calm story to follow on from the manic action of “Cathedral Rising”. Wonderfully-written and with an undercurrent of sadness.
SJ Hirons – “Pages Torn From ‘Eminent Phantasists: A New Edition’”
I found this story very hard to get into. It takes the form of a number of extracts from a book about the fictional genre of “phantasy”. Each excerpt tells the story of a different phantasy author. It was an interesting idea, but left me feeling mostly nonplussed.
Michael Skeet – “Read Me”
A story set in the Cofucian town of Fusang, in which a young thief enters the house of a scholar in order to liberate a mysterious scroll. An entertaining read with hints of humour.
Trevor Shikaze – “The Fox And His Book”
A neat little fable about a fox and some moles who love to read. It was an enjoyable story in its own right, but I got the sense that it was straining to make an analogy with the rise of eBooks over paper books.
Amber Polo – “Egyptian Holiday”
A short little story revolving around the relationship between Cleopatra VII, Queen Of The Nile and Ptolemy Alexandria, Royal Librarian. At times it tends towards humour, and at times is quite poetic. I got the impression that it couldn’t decide quite what it wanted to be. In the end it provides some unique flavour, but didn’t stick with me for long.
Tina Connolly – “Paperheart”
A short, poetic story, woven through with myth and magic. After the death of his wife a librarian named Eldred finds a connection with a woman whose body is a living scrapbook. Mysterious and sad, this is an excellent little story.
Colleen Anderson – “The Book With No End”
Another story which features a rather unusual kind of book. Starts innocently enough, but quickly becomes dark and deeply unsettling. A lovely complement to “Egyptian Holiday” and “The Book Of Doors”.
Gord Sellar – “The Rite”
A splendidly authentic-sounding story about a musical composition which has strange and malignant powers. Blends the real with the unreal seamlessly, and makes a fitting crescendo the collection.
Together these twenty stories make a dizzyingly varied collection. My initial worries that Bibliotheca Fantastica might be a dry or dusty read were completely unfounded. If you fancy getting hold of a copy to read the stories above for yourself, then have a look at the website of Dagan Books, where the Bibliotheca is available in both printed and electronic forms.
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.