Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review of "Extraordinary Deviations" by Raven Kaldera

The most imaginative fiction often defies easy classification, and this strange, eclectic, dazzling, haunting, weirdly lyrical, sometimes disturbing collection of short stories must certainly be among the most imaginative and original books to appear in recent memory. Challenging at every level, intellectually engaging and consistently diverting, Raven Kaldera’s Extraordinary Deviations stubbornly defies convention as well as any casual attempt to pigeonhole its contents.  

So, in which corner of a circular reading room would you put Extraordinary Deviations? Would it be shelved under High Fantasy, sci-fi or erotica? Historical? Paranormal? Horror? Neo-paganism? Genderqueer? It’s the kind of exercise that would drive an obsessive compulsive pedant mad. But sanity seems a small price to pay for the thrill of discovery, the pure narcotic rush of sudden illumination and deep insight to be found here. These eight well-crafted short stories bend genre and gender with equal virtuosity, running a sublimely eclectic gamut of mood and voice, time, place and theme, drawing on everything from ancient Greek and Norse mythologies to the far-futuristic limits of speculative fiction, virtual reality and quantum theory, which, in the end, seem an awful lot like magic. In some ways, this suggests a kind of closed circle; the same forces which have been at work since the beginning of time have not gone away, but are simply known by other names, manifested in new, more relatably-sophisticated guises and forms for each successive eon.  

Kaldera revels in the divine fluidity of gender. (If there is a unifying theme in the collection, this is probably it.) The gods may take whichever form they choose, after all. Theophany has almost always been portrayed as a very private, intimate phenomenon, whether it’s the constant horny-god-on-cute-mortal bed-hopping in the Theogony of Hesiod, Zeus impregnating Danäe in a mystical shower of gold, Odin seducing the maiden Gunnlöo to obtain the Mead of Poetry, or the angel-like nephilim referenced in the sixth chapter of Genesis, mating with the daughters of mortal men (a myth masterfully explored in Madeline L’Engle’s 1986 YA novel, Many Waters), the gods (and god-like) have always been a busy lot, though their trysts aren’t always purely celebratory. More often than not, these encounters come with a hard lesson, an insight into the nature of humanity and the divine itself. Kaldera picks up the thread of this tradition in his opening story, Only Fate, which transposes the ancient theophany narrative into the realm of dystopian-future sci-fi. And again in Lover of the Whore of Babylon, a mysterious god-like entity temporarily possesses human bodies to gratify the narrator and its own BDSM fantasies:

Whatever it is that walks in her flesh is big, bigger than her, a small, crop-haired butch. It seems to tower over me. He or she? I can’t tell. I can only stare, mesmerized, pinned like a butterfly on a paper . . . “I’m going to take you now,” says the Presence riding Devi’s form. The voice is deep, hollow, caressing in an overly familiar way that would make me bridle if it came from a human being. He—at least I think it may be a he—squats over my face, opens my mouth with a pinch at the sides of my jaw that makes me squawk in frightened indignation, and cuts off my squawk with a single thrust of that rubber cock inside my mouth . . .

That’s the thing about bottoming to an immortal, I suppose. They never run out of shapes. At least with him it’s not swans and showers of gold. Just my kind of lovers . . . his children. His beautiful children. Be careful when you look them in the eye, when you mock them. Any of them could be Him, staring out at you . . . and then you’ll never be the same again.

In Opening, Kaldera vividly imagines an alternate fantasy-verse constructed from Norse shamanic ritual, with a magical genderqueer twist. This is one of the most effective tales in the collection, along with (my personal favorite), Gallae, set in the frontier region of Dicia in the ancient Roman Empire, a richly researched and satisfying historical narrative, sometimes disturbing in its graphic descriptions, but powerful and deeply satisfying in its execution and resolution. Kaldera does not turn away from ugliness or blink at imagined deformities, as, indeed, he does not shy away from the honest appraisal of life in all its profound connectedness, its glittering splendors as well as its pain and filth. But with what captivating lyricism he portrays it:      

I whip him until he is a mass of welts, until his tattoos stand out like repousse work on an ancient stucco wall, painted with the delicate trickles of blood from the barbed wire. The stigmata of sacred perversion, all over.  

The author proves equally adept at punk-inflected sci-fi with a tinge of terror (Thief of Dreams), neat erotic horror-thriller (Jack-a-Roe), High Fantasy (One Hundred and Twenty Two Petals), and even humorous, graphic novel super-hero parody (Bridge Over Shifters Chasm), each with a unique perspective on gender and the nature of intimacy. This is virtuoso storytelling, short literary erotica at its best; pure mind-expanding pleasure, transcending genre. Enthusiastically recommended!

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