Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Moscow But Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia

Moscow But Dreaming is a collection of Ekaterina Sedia's short stories. Most of the stories were previously published in various magazines and anthologies and two, marked with an asterisk in the list at the end, are original to the collection. I hadn't read any of the stories before, though I have read Sedia's novel The Secret History of Moscow, which I quite liked. Several of the stories in the collection are in a similar vein.

Moscow But Dreaming contains twenty-one short stories, with an average length of about thirteen pages — on the shorter side, with nothing approaching novella length. I made some comments after finishing each story which originally posted in the progress report thing on goodreads to help me keep track and that I've reproduced below. (Don't expect anything overly deep from a half-sentence about each book, though.)

I would class the stories included in Moscow But Dreaming into three rough categories: stories set in Russia or the Soviet Union, non-Western fairy tales, and stories with more present-day Western settings. Of course there is some overlap, particularly if you feel foreignly about Russian fairy tales (which I don't). In general, my favourite were the Russian-flavoured stories; they resonated most with me and, as someone who grew up as much with Russian folklore as with Disneyfied Grimm and Andersen, felt both familiar and rare. Many of Sedia's stories are about mundane tragedies, everyday difficulties of lives that have rarely been easy. The result is generally sad tales of lives made better or worse by small magic. Or big magic, out of the main character's control, as a means of escape.

Some stories that stood out were "Citizen Komarova Finds Love", which started off unsurprisingly, but then took a surprisingly gruesome turn and, like many of Sedia's stories, ended sadly, as it also began. "You Dream" is written in a more unusual style — second person — and is a story where now, long after reading it, the Muscovite setting stands out most strongly. "The Bank of Burkina Faso" was one of my favourite stories and one of the few to have a happy ending (not that most of it wasn't sad). It didn't take me where I expected to go and it even featured the Moscow subway dogs (wiki, although google for more exciting news story renditions). I liked the idea in "By the Litre", of being able to imbibe souls and not have it be something terrible and evil. The main characters aren't monsters, they just stumbled upon a way to remember other people's memories and what's wrong with that, if the alternative is nothing?

"Chapev and the Coconut Girl" was about an AI scientist from Lithuania working at MIT. I enjoyed the description of her being other (foreign) and lacking a shared cultural history with those around her. I think this was one of the longer stories, so there was plenty of space for the character to develop. The way she romanticises both Chapaev — a hero of the Red Army — and a folk tale from her mother's travels to Bali was fascinating. Both figures were well outside her time and experience and yet she made up elaborate back stories (or front stories in the case of Chapaev who she fantasised didn't die as presumed) while refusing to get to know many of the people around her. She was one of my favourite characters to appear in this collection.

"There is a Monster Under Helen's Bed" and "A Play for a Boy and Sock Puppets" are both set in the US and feature troubled children. Helen's story, told in part from her adoptive mother's point of view, was tragic in a no-win way and the ending wasn't what I was expecting. The play, although not strictly a play per se, was told from the sock puppet's point of view and was very touching.

Of the non-Western fairytale type stories, my favourites were "Munashe and the Spirits", an African morality tale with overt magic but beginning and ending in the contemporary real world. And, although it had a moral, I hasten to add that it wasn't preachy. And "The Taste of Wheat" in which the fantastical element was a bit uncomfortable — rats turning into babies — but the narcoleptic main character seeing Buddha in her dreams appealed to me.

I also really enjoyed the last story, "A Handsome Fellow". Although I read it most recently and hence it's difficult to gauge how memorable it will be, I have a feeling the final scene will stay with me. A teenage or young adult girl working to keep her mother and young brothers alive during the Siege of Leningrad (WWII).

My least favourite part of the collection was the introduction by Jeffrey Ford. I didn't read it in full when I started the collection because I got bored and wanted to get to the stories (happens with most introductions for me). Reading it afterwards, it rather annoyed me. I suggest skipping it altogether. But then, I don't entirely get introductions to collections. I'd much rather read about what the author thinks of the stories or how it came into being (blame Asimov for that).

In my recent review of Cracklescape, I compared Margo Lanagan to Sedia. It's only fair that I now point out that if you're a fan of Lanagan, giving Sedia a go would be a good move. I strongly recommend this collection to people looking for fantasy stories that are a bit off the beaten path. I've no doubt that the fairy tales will seem exotic to many readers. Anyone with a passing interest in Russia or the Soviet Union will probably find something to like in Moscow But Dreaming. Fans of sad stories (of which I sometimes think there aren't enough in the fantasy genre) will enjoy this collection. If you enjoyed the setting and vibe of The Secret History of Moscow, I strongly recommend this collection.

5 / 5 stars

A side note: it was hard to choose a rating for this; I didn't love every but I loved enough of them to rate it up (and I wanted to put it on my favourite books side panel, which is what 5 star ratings are all about).


My notes on each story as I read it in italic, extra comments while writing this review added in plain text. Stories original to the collection are marked with *
  1. A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas 
    • Loved it. Lyrical, whimsical and involving the moon.
  2. Citizen Komarova Finds Love
    • Haunting
  3. Tin Cans
    •  Creepy, tragic and a bit unpleasant to think too much about
  4. One, Two, Three
    • An odd story, I can't decide if it's more or less sad than those that went before it.
  5. You Dream
    • A strange story about misremembered sadness. Also in second person.
  6. Zombie Lenin
    • Another odd story. Dreamlike and sort of about mental illness. Also, the title is pretty great.
  7. Ebb and Flow
    • Reads like a re-imagined Japanese fairy tale. One of the most overtly fantasy-ish stories so far.
  8. There is a Monster Under Helen’s Bed
    • Heartbreaking. Rather ambiguous ending.
  9. Yakov and the Crows
    • Another sad, odd story. Bird element brought Secret History of Moscow to mind.
  10. Hector Meets the King
    •  Short and a bit confusing. Not one of my favourites. Greek mythology-flavoured.
  11. * Chapaev and the Coconut Girl
    • One of the (slightly) longer stories. I liked it.
  12. * The Bank of Burkina Faso
    • A hopeful story and a cute explanation for emails similar to Nigerian scams.
  13. Kikimora
    • A Russian fairytale to escape the aftermath of perestroika. Which is also a nice lesbian love story.
  14. Munashe and the Spirits
    • An African fairy tale of the moral-having type
  15. By the Liter
    • Souls drawn into beer after death. Cute. Short and sweet. I can't think of any other soul-consuming main characters that aren't evil monsters.
  16. A Play for a Boy and Sock Puppets
    • A tale of a sentient and sad sock puppet. Also an autistic child. I wanted to hug the sock puppet by the end.
  17. The Taste of Wheat
    • Another fairy tale type of story, this time Buddhist. And with narcolepsy.
  18. Cherrystone and Shards of Ice
    • A sort of steampunky fantasy with zombies and magic. One of the longer stories. The most ordinary fantasy story (in the sense of not being a fairy tale nor magical realism). I liked it.
  19. Seas of the World
    • Another story about people turning into animals and vice versa. Although it occurs to me that statement is less meaningful when I haven't pointed out each instance of transmogrification.
  20. End of White
    • The white army had retreated to a village on the edge of their land; the Crimean peninsula. But of course, it isn't an ordinary village.
  21. A Handsome Fellow 
    • The siege of Leningrad and a vampire-like creature living among the starving. Heartbreaking.

A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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