Lately, it seems that every time that I click on Locus or search through the usual suspects on the Blogosphere, that I encounter Jeffrey Ford's name. It might be for a story of his being published in some upcoming anthology, or perhaps a recommendation on a website for readers to read his excellent trilogy of stories that star Cley the Physiognomist. Sometimes, I'll read a glowing review of his Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque or his recent 2007 Nebula Award-nominated novel, Girl in the Glass. The guy is prolific and based on what I have read of his works, he is a very talented writer.
But until I decided to purchase his 2006 short story collection, The Empire of Ice Cream, after learning it was up for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Collection, I never had read more than excerpts of any of his short stories. After recently completing a read-through of the 14 stories contained in The Empire of Ice Cream, I regret that I had procrastinated in reading them, as these are some of the more moving and well-written short stories that I've read in quite some time.
Although these stories were written over a period of years, there are some common characteristics that the stories share. In particular, I noticed that the narrators tend to have this sense of wonder, as if the world they are experiencing is totally new and unexpected to them. After reading many cynical and self-referencing stories over the years, this is a refreshing change of pace.
But without a gripping story told with a measured pace, the stories would mean little. However, although it's been almost a month since I read it, I can still see visual images such as that of the title story, where the narrator "smells" a new world with each fragrant whiff of coffee that floats to his nose.
Or perhaps I ought to spend some time discussing the novella "Botch Town" that is also up for a WFA for Best Novella this year. It is one of the cornerstones of this collection and it is, as Ford himself says in the story notes, a homage of sorts to the town where he grew up and to the various people, good and not-so-good alike, that he came to know during his time living there. This story in particular "lives" in the sense that one can connect with the narrator, empathize with what is going on, connect the supporting characters with people we've known growing up, all with a style that makes it feel both comfortable and mysterious at the same time.
As a whole, The Empire of Ice Cream reads very fast, as it was very difficult for me to read just one or two stories at a time. No, I wanted to read them all, to embrace them as old friends, to just reflect upon the emotions that reading these tales invoked in me. This was a damn fine collection from one of the more criminally-overlooked authors of the fantastic out there today. Go out and buy this ASAP.
Summary: The Empire of Ice Cream is a 2006 collection of short stories from 2002-2006, most of them reprints from earlier anthologies, that is up for consideration for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Collection. Ranging from nostalgic whimsy to something a bit darker and almost sinister, these fourteen tales are superbly-written, with the title story and "Botch Town" (itself up for a WFA for Best Novella) being the two firsts among equals in this collection. Might be one of the favorites to win in this category. Highly, highly recommended.
Publication Date: April 2006 (US), Hardcover.
Publisher: Golden Gryphon Press