Jeffrey Ford,
The Empire of Ice Cream
(Golden Gryphon, 2006)

After reading the opening half-dozen stories in Jeffrey Ford's collection, The Empire of Ice Cream, I was ready to write an unequivocally enthusiastic review. Unfortunately, a few of the tales in the middle of the book just didn't click with me and I began to rethink my approach. Then the book turned another corner and I was once again fully engaged in Ford's storytelling as the collection drew to a close.

In any assemblage of stories by an author with significant breadth to his writing, there are sure to be some works that don't appeal to a given reviewer. If I find myself enjoying everything in a collection I try to ask myself whether it may be a sign that the writer hasn't challenged himself sufficiently. Such is not the case with Ford. He's an author who aims high and thereby produces some remarkable fiction.

And so I return to my earlier enthusiasm for The Empire of Ice Cream. This is a gourmet assortment of flavors. No bland, air-infused, ice-milk confections here. There's a story about the fanciful creatures that inhabit sandcastles during the brief period between construction by a child and destruction by the tide; a story chronicling a well-earned holiday in hell; and a story of a pair of synesthesia-inflicted artists for whom "the aroma of new-mown grass was circular and the sound of a car horn tasted of citrus."

This is a group of tales with great creative range; the plots strike off in wildly divergent directions. But there's also a consistently high standard to the writing. The sentences flow, easily and beautifully. There's a relaxed playfulness to the language, suggesting that Ford revels in the textures of words, that he pays careful attention to the interplay between his sentences.

Consider the following sequence, from "Coffins on the River," describing the artistic benefits of smoking pot: "When you're a true artist, there's nothing that will goose the muse like a strategic hit or two. All it takes sometimes is half a bone to break the alabaster vault, and then the treasure comes spilling out -- handfuls of vision, truckloads of inspiration."

Ford's fiction has a poetic quality that functions as a clever disguise to the dark visions lurking in his plots. Terrors manage to sneak up on the reader while they're busy savoring the beauty of Ford's storytelling. And so the succulent sentences above lead on to a kidnapped child and a desperate, hastily conceived plan to kill her abductor.

Of the 14 stories included in The Empire of Ice Cream, the one I liked least was the only piece written specially for this collection. "Botch Town" struck me as a rambling, rather unfocused narrative that never quite arrived at its destination. At more than 80 pages in length, it contained some wonderful scenes -- the stranger in the white car hunting the protagonist and his little sister on Halloween night is contrasted against the terrors the pair face if they're caught by kids out to steal their candy and attack them with "Nair bombs" (balloons filled with hair-removal cream). But the individual moments never coalesce into a unified piece of fiction and the story falls a bit flat as a result.

Thankfully "Botch Town" is the exception not the rule, and the reader is more than adequately compensated for its shortcomings by the strengths of such stories as "The Weight of Words," a World Fantasy Award nominee, and the title story, which won the Nebula Award for best novelette. In addition, The Empire of Ice Cream features an afterword to each piece in which Ford provides some insights into his writing process. The whole package is a treat -- surprising in its plot twists and turns, engaging in its complex characterizations, alarming in its casual terrors -- a book I feel comfortable recommending to any fan of quality short fiction.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
25 November 2006

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