"The Five Loves of Ishtar" by Kaaron Warren is a story spanning thousands of years in the Mesopotamian region. Told from the perspectives of a series of Ishtar's washerwomen — each the daughter of Ishtar's previous washerwoman — it focuses partly on the men in Ishtar's life and partly on life generally at that time. From a god to Gilgamesh to kings, Ishtar's loves are broad and at times it seems her life revolves around them. At times war is her central concern and her army.
I liked the younger Ishtar, before she grew quite so jaded and belligerent, when she was still unsure of herself and cared at least a little about others (which is an ironic statement if you read the story). It was interesting to watch her and her concerns change through the eyes of a succession of servants.
What I also found interesting was how this story served to showcase the broadness of Warren's writing abilities. "The Five Loves of Ishtar" is very different to her other work that I've read; not only vastly different in setting to Through Splintered Walls and Slights, but also different in tone, theme and types of characters. It makes me excited to see what sort of writing I will encounter from her next.
"And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living" by Deborah Biancotti is similar in tone and setting (modern Sydney) to the stories in Bad Power but with Ishtar, rather than superheroes, of course. It follows Adreienne, a detective given an unusual set of homicides to investigate. Of course we know the supernatural origins of the bodies — since Ishtar has to show up at some point — but it was still a compelling story. I enjoyed watching Adreienne slowly uncover the truth. The extra characterisation Biancotti throws in, particularly around Adreienne's sister, was a nice touch that added depth to the story.
Interestingly enough, it was this story that convinced me to classify the collection as horror. Going in I was definitely expecting fantasy and dark fantasy elements, but when Warren's story wasn't as horrifying as some of her other work I assumed the collection overall might not quite count as horror. It does.
"The Sleeping and the Dead" by Cat Sparks is a post-apocalyptic tale set in a world with not much left in it other than sand. Doctor Anna is the protagonist and works at a fertility clinic in a desert with only strange death and sex worshipping nuns for company. There don't seem to be many men left in the world and when a few stumble upon the clinic, Anna and the nuns set out to find their leader.
My favourite aspect of this story was all the allusions to earlier events, particularly to Ishtar's roots. It relies on knowledge of the previous stories more than one would expect from an ordinary collection, but in this context it works beautifully. I enjoyed having more of an idea of what was going on than Anna did most of the time, and watching her come towards her own realisations.
Overall, this is a strong collection. I like what Morrigan (the publisher) have been doing with themed collections (see also Grants Pass and The Phantom Queen) and I think Ishtar is an excellent example of how communal story-telling can work to great effect. I recommend Ishtar to fans of dark fantasy and horror.
4 / 5 stars
First published: 2011, Gilgamesh Press (an imprint of Morrigan Books)
Format read: ebook on my Kobo and iPad (yay for not DRM)
Source: Purchased from Smashwords
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian Horror Reading Challenge