This is an interesting collection of stories, some short, one almost a novella, and all with a theme of the hero meeting creatures out of the myths and legends of obscure European localities. The stories excel in their language and the descriptions of the locations rather than complex storyline or clever plot. Thus, while they may not be for everyone, they are a good read. I recommend them.
“Imbibing History” is the story of a woman stranded in the Carpathian Mountains in distant Transylvania. She finds her way to a rundown castle shunned by the locals and inhabited by a very old count. The ending seems inevitable but this woman is not ordinary and the conclusion not what you’d expect. It’s very well written if somewhat slow in its descriptions and language.
The next story is “Journey’s End”. It shows an incident in the life of a woman who specialises in trading books. She is waiting for a man who owes her some money but instead meets a woman who is also waiting for the same man. The trader invites this other woman into her home and discovers that she is the female anthropomorphic incarnation of death. The story is evocative and interesting as the proponents review life and death.
“On the Feast of Stephen” describes a group of friends who experiment with waking the legendary king living under the hill in the Czech Republic. To their surprise their efforts succeed and the ancient Good King Wenceslas appears. Even though this is not meant to be a story with a strong plot, it ends too weakly to really appreciate it and the descriptions are not so enjoyable. It’s okay to read but it’s not particularly engaging.
“Under the Waves” is a bit more interesting. Two boys, one a master and the other his servant, are best friends. Together they visit a pond inhabited by a sprite and the three form a strong friendship. But when the servant is called up to fight in the war, the friendship is challenged and the master cannot stand the thought of their group ending and so he must make a difficult choice. The description of the trio is atmospheric and enjoyable but the ending carries on for too long and finishes on an anti-climax.
In the future, a president who ignored the ecological consequences of his actions has been declared to be an international criminal. In this story, “Poorly Formulated Questions”, an investigator has been sent to find him and bring him to justice. They debate the actions and consequences of his policies before the final show down. The debate is mildly interesting but the ending is too weak to really entertain. This is not one of the best stories.
The final, and arguably the best story, is “Queen of Sumava”. It is set in mountains bordering the newly formed communist bloc just at the start of the Cold War where a hero of the revolution enforces the border with a practical and sensitive touch. The Communist Party send a female colonel to inspect and challenge the border guards but her training is based on propaganda and is thus impractical, as she soon discovers to her cost. This story has the best plot and keeps the tension up, although the ending still carries on too long.
Overall, the book as a whole is more about language and description than plot or storyline. So, it won’t appeal to everyone, but I do recommend it to those who want to think a bit more and just take the time to enjoy the telling rather than exiting stories with clever endings.
Review by Wayne J. Harris