Karen Russell is so freaking good. Her latest short story collection, Orange World, contains eight masterfully written… weird fiction tales. Technically, one could classify them as fantasy or horror or science fiction, but these stories more rely on atmosphere than tropes. So, no vampires, dragons, or anything like that – well, there is one zombie – but still a series of strange occurrences that turn reality on its head and told in absolutely beautiful prose.
Dedicated fans many recognize Russell’s stories from The Best American Short Stories series, but unfamiliar readers should find her bizarre turns as fresh and interesting as anything found in the pages of Analog or Fantasy and Science Fiction. Russell chooses not to inhabit genre-laden worlds, but rather to take modern and historical life and provide a curveball. A Nebraska rancher reminisces about his failures as a father and parent while growing a powerful cyclone in his backyard “The Tornado Auction.” If “old man with three daughters” doesn’t already scream King Lear for you, then the old rancher howling at the wind certainly as he triumphs in one final screw-you to aging and ungrateful families should. The title story, too, hits home with particularly dark humor. In “Orange World,” a new mother makes a deal to breastfeed a demon in exchange for protection for her baby, and while that sounds terrifying, this portrayal of first-time motherhood ricochets off every bit of advice that parents receive.
Since each of these stories has been so well polished and crafted, it’s hard to find any real flaws with any of them. Russell’s mastery of the short story shows in the way she takes her time with each word. Her writing never feels rushed. However, sometimes the story can get lost in her characters’ dreamy meanderings. “Black Corfu” and “The Gondoliers” in particular, indulge themselves with a slow burn of a pace, and receive comparatively little in the way of denouement. “The Bad Graft,” too, stalls as the couples’ relationship does, leaving the line between a plot or character driven story. However, the exotic landscapes that they infest do repay some of the investment in the end. Each story’s world initially appears mundane, but as the story progresses, unfolds into a grosteque landscape befitting the bizarre characters who inhabit it.
Orange World and Other Stories may be the largest short story collection out there, but it’s certainly among the most powerful. Russell presents high quality weird stories, but disguises them as slices of everyday life. As a result, her quirkiness hits exactly the right notes with precision. An excellent introduction to one of the modern masters of short fiction.
Four out of five stars
Favorite quote: “They call it empty, which isn’t true at all, but an error of perception that must result from the absence of tall buildings, groaning subways, or any clustered trees to wall off sight lines.”
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