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Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Emperor of Dreams. The Lost Worlds of Clark Ashton Smith. Gollancz (2002)

This is a collection of superb fantasy stories by Clark Ashton Smith, carefully crafted, beautifully written and drizzled with gallows humour they are a dark pleasure. The selection is thoughtful and inspired, the stories are uniformly excellent, still there are a handful of stand-outs. The Empire of the Necromancers uses one of Clark Ashton Smith's frequent themes, necromancy, magic used to revive the dead to slavery is a sharply satisfying way. Two necromancers use their magic to revive the long dead of an ancient empire in a deserted city, the arc of the story is a joy, it concludes with utterly satisfying brutality. On the other hand The Seven Geases has a undertow of wintry humour that gives force and bite to the story of the harsh results that come from interrupting a wizard. Humour is much more lighter and more significant in the The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles which has a lot of fun with the old idea of a carefully planned robbery that does not quite go to plan. The best story in the collection, it has a depth and mournful compassion beyond the others, is Necromancy in Naat, a superbly crafted story that finishes with a melancholy fall that cuts to the heart.
The language used in these stories is very striking, Clark Ashton Smith has a marked preference for archaic and unusual versions of words, this does not disguise the meaning, it gives the stories an slight stiffness which serve them well. Atmosphere is of critical importance and the ornamental language adds greatly to it, it allows for a great range of suggestion and colour, to pile up description without overwhelming the story.
These are superbly structured short stories, they are tight and careful without ever seeming less than generous and complete. The action can be widespread or closely confined, in every case it has the required room to grow without ever wandering.The stories are bursting with telling and striking turns of phrase that set a scene or establish a character with precision and astonishing economy. Clark Ashton Smith has managed a remarkably difficult feat, he has written precisely overwrought fantasy stories and provided a luscious feast for the reader.

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