Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Bride Price by Cat Sparks

The Bride Price by Cat Sparks is a collection of longish short stories and one novella. If you've only ever seen the cover as a thumbnail, I highly recommend zooming in on the image to the right and taking a closer look. I did not fully appreciate the cover until I opened the ebook and saw it in its detailed glory.

Before I get to talking about the stories, I should note that I didn’t quite read these stories in order. I read “Scarp” first (because it was on the Ditmar shortlist), and then through the rest of the collection from start to finish. Except for "The Sleeping and the Dead", the very last story/novella, which I had read before.

The Bride Price contained a lot of depressing endings. People looking for hopeful, life-affirming stories would be better off looking elsewhere. Here, rather than ending with a flash of hope (as is customary, one could say), a lot of these stories end in what I would loosely term "doom". But not all of them. Above all, these stories are nothing if unconventional. This collection is full of unique ideas and uncharted settings. In new and different ways, Sparks explores what it means to be human and what it means to be a woman.

The introduction, by Sean Williams, captures the spirit of the collection wonderfully. Williams writes:
Cat deftly weaves you through known and unknown, familiar and unfamiliar. Her characters are trapped and desperate. They’re literally dying to escape, even if escape means finding themselves somewhere much worse than where they started. You’ll understand their yearning even if we don’t always sympathise with it. In aiming for the unattainable, or attaining something they didn’t realise they were aiming for, Cat’s characters reveal themselves in the very best and the very worst possible lights.
I couldn't say it better myself.

My favourite story was the first in the collection, "A Lady of Adestan". It was poignant and gut-wrenchingly awful, increasingly so as we learnt more about the setting. "The Bride Price" was also a favourite. Perhaps, now I think about it, I liked these stories best because they did not end as bleakly as most of the others. But on the other hand, I also quite liked "Street of the Dead" and "Seventeen" and I'm not sure I'd call those endings happy. As usual, there is a story-by-story breakdown at the end of this review.

The Bride Price was a varied collection and one I would definitely recommend to anyone wanting to familiarise themselves with Cat Spark's work. There were some stories I really loved in it and some I didn't feel as strongly about, but I think that means there will be some stories for all types of readers to enjoy. There were a slew of post-technological stories, near-future stories and secondary world stories. anyone looking for a variety of settings would do well to look here.


A Lady of Adestan — This is my favourite Cat Sparks story that I’ve read so far. It’s horrifying and poignant and brutal. The main character is visiting her youngest sister, who married a nobleman in the nearby city of Adestan. The customs of the city are very different from those of the plains, where the sisters are from, and noblewomen have even less freedom than usual:
“Dena understood that grand ladies of Adestan were not supposed to speak. When Nadira had accepted master Etan’s offer of marriage, an elegant lady from the Adestan court had presented herself at the family home accompanied by two handsome bodyguards. She had taught Nadira handsign, the language exclusive to high-ranking women in the city of noble stone.”
What starts off seeming like a strange custom, oppressive and inconvenient — a noble lady can’t eat and sign at the same time — gets progressively more atrocious as the story progresses. It was an excellent read about a terrible place.

Beyond the Farthest Stone — A post-technological world with remnants of old technology lying about the place. Most notably, some sort of... Ship? Vehicle? Hybrid? ...called a whale featured, which scavengers for its internal organs/mechanisms, despite the dangers of retrieving them. Not a bad story, but I didn't feel strongly about it.

The Bride Price — A story written in the New Ceres world (which I haven’t read, but I recognised the name). A rich youth negotiates the purchase of a bride and then encounters war-torn refugees who lead him to realise that life is harsh for most people and to question the direction his life is taking. Another enjoyable read.

Street of the Dead — UFOs have descended on the planet and rural Australian families have been told to locate from their homes to new, supposedly safer, towns. Not quite the ending I was expecting. A quick read that I rather liked.

Sammarynda Deep — A fascinating world with a fascinating culture. A tourist searching for someone in a city of rich heritage and customs. Surely writing other, made-up cultures is a particular strength of Sparks's. I really enjoyed this story, but I'm not sure how to say more about it without spoiling the experience.

Seventeen — A future world where old ladies who remember the blitz (so near future?) and live in safe compounds hire grandchildren to come visit them. But when the pretend grandkids turn seventeen, their contracts end. A good story, but a more depressing ending than I had hoped for.

All the Love in the World — In a war-torn post-apocalyptic Australia, a woman ventures out of their protected compound out in search of medicine. A little bleak, but less than expected. Not a bad read.

Dead Low — scavengers in space face danger and unexpected spoils. And there's more to their leader than meets the eye. Not a cheerful book, but not a bad read. Good unexpected ending.

Arctica — A unique world where people periodically fall through a rift in the sky (above the North Pole?) and are then hunted down and killed. Another story (like "The Bride Price") which deals with refugees as both characters and constructs. And another story that does not have — could not have had — a happy ending. I liked it, for all its bleakness.

The Alabaster Child — Set in the same world as "Sammarynda Deep”, but I would not have guessed if it weren't for the place names. A woman travels to a new place, meeting different, troubled (in the sense that no one has an easy life) people along the way. It struck me more as an atmospheric piece than an especially plot-driven one.

Hollywood Roadkill — A bleak story that I found particularly devoid of hope for the characters. Homeless kids living just outside Hollywood in a not-too-distant future. Their lives suck and then suck some more.

Scarp — A post-technological society and teenagers pushing the boundaries. The isolated society was oppressive (although, I suppose not systematically so per se) and very isolated. The ending, the pushing of the ultimate boundary, was not what I expected.

The Sleeping and the Dead — Already read as part of the Ishtar anthology, did not reread.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Ticonderoga Publications
Series: no.
Format read: ebook
Source: purchased from SmashWords
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Aussie Horror Reading Challenge

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