Meredith Ann Pierce,
Waters Luminous & Deep
(Viking, 2004)

Seldom is a book as aptly titled as Meredith Ann Pierce's Waters Luminous & Deep. Even the subtitle, "Shorter Fictions," is precise: the eight pieces within the book range from the short, atmospheric vignette "Night Voyage" to the novella-length "Rampion" and defy the categorization of short story. Four are previously unpublished; four have appeared in venues as varied as a Witch World anthology and a picture book. Together they draw upon fairy tale, dream, Arthurian legend, Celtic myth, fable and folklore -- eight distinct fantasies united by the theme of water in its myriad forms.

As with Pierce's previous young-adult fantasy novels, Waters features an abundance of dreamscapes rich in imagery and sensory detail, unusual protagonists, strange creatures and a faint, underlying melancholy. The collection opens with a somnambulistic prelude, "Night Voyage," which, in blurring the lines between dream and waking life, is a perfect gateway to the seven longer stories that follow. The first and one of the best, "The Fall of Ys," is the basis of the cover's striking image of a girl walking between parted waves toward a shadowy form on the horizon. The story itself is a subtle, powerful reworking of an old Celtic legend in which a king throws his daughter into the sea while escaping the wreckage of his island kingdom. Pierce examines the placement of the king as the hero of the story and suggests a very different scenario: a mercurial, selfish king, an unkept promise, an innocent daughter and a riddle with more than one answer.

The two that follow are nicely done as well. "Where the Wild Geese Go" has a folksy, Scandinavian feel and beautifully vivid images. The tale was inspired by a series of illustrations by Jamichael Henterly, and although these are not included here, the tale was actually first published as a picture book collaboration between Pierce and Henterly. "Icerose" is more high fantasy in feel, with a Narnia-esque ice queen and the accompanying problem of eternal winter. Its strength is not the originality (or lack thereof) of its premise, but the crisp, wintry imagery Pierce envelops it within.

At "Rafiddilee," however, the deft writing and the memorable images falter. Written at the age of 14, it is a self-professed cautionary tale marred by awkward pacing and faintly purple, overwrought prose. At nearly 70 pages, it's much too long. Nor is "The Sea-Hag," Pierce's rather forced attempt at a humorous, salty, pirate tale, much better. None of its characters or settings are more than caricatures, and although the tale adopts the plot of "Gawain & the Loathly Lady," a hero less deserving of a happy ending than the caddish youth of "The Sea-Hag" would be hard to come by.

The final two pieces return to more familiar territory: "Frogskin Slippers" is a charming mix of several fairy tales and an interesting twist on traditional fairy abductions. The feminist (but not obnoxiously so) "Rampion" is closer to earth, grim in its refusal to shy away from unpleasant realities, but easily the most solid of all the stories in setting and character -- perhaps the only story in which a strong sense of character is really developed.

Ostensibly for the young-adult crowd but suitable for any fan of lyrical, dreamy fantasy, Waters Luminous & Deep covers a broad range of subjects and proves Pierce to be a skilled and diverse fantasist. Her thoughtful, pithy introductions to each piece are a welcome addition to the collection; and though some would have been more effective had they allowed their stories to speak first, all provide an interesting look into Pierce's mind and creative process. Despite the less impressive stories in the collection, those who like Pierce's writing -- or have Robin McKinley (particularly Imaginary Lands and Water) and Patricia McKillip on their shelves -- will find Waters Luminous & Deep to be right up their alley. One word of caution, however: the emotional resonance Pierce achieves in her novels is mostly absent in these shorter and often more distant works: deep and luminous they may be, but the reader who ventures into such waters may find them a bit cold for comfort.

by Jennifer Mo
16 September 2006

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