At the Mouth of the River of Bees collects 17 of Kij Johnson’s stories, the bulk of which have been published over the course of more than two decades. The book includes a few of the adaptations of Heian-era Japanese myths that Johnson is known for, including the Sturgeon Award-winning ”Fox Magic.” It also features the World Fantasy Award-winning “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss",” two Nebula Award winners (“Spar” and “Ponies”), and a bevy of Nebula and Hugo finalists. Johnson is so decorated, and some of her stories so widely linked on the Internet, that it’s likely genre readers have seen one or two stories from this collection already.
Kij Johnson is a strong craftswoman, and that is no mean feat. A line that is natural, effective and easy to read seems as though it must have been correspondingly easy to write. But muscular prose and strong narrative construction such as Johnson’s are hard-won, the work of long whittling and smoothing. The collection’s design is as elegant as the writing; the typography and cover illustration complement the content.
For its aforementioned virtues, I didn’t like this collection as well as I feel I should have. These stories resist reductive, simplistic themes, but they also seem to resist all forms of pin-downable purpose. It’s difficult to guess what about a particular story made Johnson feel she needed to write it. The stories are well-written at the line and scene level, but you can’t sink your teeth into them, can’t love and hate and discuss them.
The contents of At the Mouth of the River of Bees vary widely in length. There are longer stories, 22 pages plus, some of which could be considered novellas. These engaged and held my attention, were pleasant to read, and sometimes lingered with me after I finished them. Of the shorter stories, some are well-realized (“Chenting, in the Land of the Dead” and “The Empress Jingu Fishes”), some are evocative (including “At the Mouth of the River of Bees” and ”Wolf Trapping”), and some seem to peter out before they run their short courses, perhaps because their rather flimsy conceits are just as soon exhausted as stated (such as “Names for Water” and “Schrödinger’s Cathouse”).
The worlds Johnson creates, such as Ping from “The Horse Raiders,” and the ones she invokes, such as feudal Japan, are fleshed out with such details as the stories call for. She doesn’t indulge in touristy exoticism with these depictions; she puts in the research and developmental thought that her settings require to function.
Johnson’s stories, at least as represented in this colle...read more