Jessica Reisman’s Arcana of Maps is a short story collection whose themes will be familiar to SFF readers. There are stories of the future, stories of the moment, and stories of somewhen. There are stories with intriguing technology and ones saturated with folklore. What makes some stand out is what they do with these recognizable elements. Reisman elevates them with her writing style and her approach to story completion, altering them in thoughtful ways that can cause the reader to engage with them more deeply.
Reisman is a very good writer; she writes with clarity and evocation. If something seems undefined or subtle it is because she has chosen that expression. While some of the stories contain excessive exposition, others allow readers to imagine what is unwritten. In “The Chambered Eye” we are constantly relayed exposition that chops up the flow of the story, while in “The Arcana of Maps” there is a sinuous, dreamy flow to the story’s words and pacing. Reisman’s ability to switch modes of style, to blend lucidity and impression, is impressive, and works wonderfully in stories such as”When the Ice Goes Out” where perception and desire are navigated deftly. While Reisman adeptly tells the stories, she weaves in nuance and emotion that make the stories more poignant than usual.
These stories are not about building to an ending, but about getting to the point where the reader has garnered enough understanding to make their own judgment. These are stories more focused on the journey rather than the destination. Some of their closures are more pointed than others, but Reisman strives to create moments of assessment rather than neat resolutions. The stories pause, or the story stops amidst a character’s decision or reflection. The SF story “Threads” closes at a point where many stories might still continue on; instead, it leaves the reader to ponder what is to come for the protagonist. What finally happens is less relevant than what the character has felt and experienced to that point.
This could be a source of frustration to some readers, but I found it fascinating, even when it didn’t work well. The ending of “Nights at the Crimea” becomes a bit frustrating, even when you re-read the story for clues to that conclusion. But it still one of the best stories in the collection for its delightful subject and the braiding of mythology into a new cultural frame. Once you allow for the more interpretive, open outcomes, the stories shift from tales to experiences. Even a mystery like “The Demon of Russet Street” becomes a meditation on self and how the world around us shapes us. These stories at their best are powerful episodes for contemplation, asking you, after gently, to ponder what we take for granted and to accept what is new and strange.