Welcome to the first instalment of “You should be reading,” which examines a single author, the thematic undercurrents of their work, and a selection of their fiction. For our inaugural post, we’ll be taking a look at Megan O’Keefe, who very recently released her debut novel STEAL THE SKY.
My first exposure to Megan’s work was the absolutely gorgeous Of Blood and Brine, which was published by Shimmer Magazine in May 2014. It’s an amazingly tactile piece. Most stories are concerned with visual imagery, but Of Blood and Brine places a far greater emphasis on the other senses, particularly smell.
And yet the woman wore no scent. She was nameless.
Even the dead smell, Child thought, then shook herself. This was business. Whatever had urged this woman to go out into the world without a name was none of her concern.
The writing is sharp, clean but also decadently, viscerally rich. Child, our protagonist, is working at her mistress’ shop when a stranger walks in, demanding that Child create a specific vial of perfume. Despite her misgivings, Child consents. The woman leaves and we’re left to breathe in mystery.
Why are name smells here? What world operates on currency composed of gold and silver ropes? Is indentured servitude an acceptable practice? Is Child being abused? More importantly, why is that perfume so important? O’Keefe succeeds in imbuing the scentless woman’s demand with incredible gravity, without ever once resorting to ham-handed explanations.
But that’s not what I’m in love with. I’m enamoured of the visceral descriptions, some of which are grotesque:
The red glare of the sun cast the pale beige granules in eerie, pink light, as if blood had been spilled across them and then diluted by the waves. Beak-pecked carcasses of sea creatures lay along her path, their poisonous flesh bulbous with tumors even after those few birds who could stomach them had picked them over.
While others pull at me with a bone-deep yearning:
At the base of the scent of the sea was the brittle bark of the trees which ringed it. Warm, dry. Overlaid with the overwhelming crush of the water itself; a cool, menthol middle mingled with the wet vegetal aroma of aquatic plant-life. But there was something else above it all, something that took those two meager elements and made them say sea. There was brine, metallic iron, and the air itself, crisp as if lightning had just struck. Both aromas too ephemeral to bottle.
A subtle tale of vengeance and family, Of Blood and Brine is a delicate offering I’m not going to spoil, so I’m going to take a moment to jump to O’Keefe’s other short fiction offering.
The Fight Before Christmas is a piece of flash fiction that blends Old West sensibilities with a reimagining of the Santa’s workshop. Here, elves are feral beasts that can only be tamed by antiviral medicine. Not all of them enjoy sanity, preferring delirium to presumed subjugation. I won’t spoil it too much for you, given how short it is but it’s a fun romp that made me go over it a second time, curious to pick out details I might have originally missed.
More importantly, though, The Fight Before Christmas represents a clear reason to be excited about Megan O’Keefe’s STEAL THE SKY, which has con men and shapeshifters, revolutions and a plot to steal a whole goddamned airship. If Of Blood and Brine left you thinking that O’Keefe’s work might lean towards a literary delicacy, The Fight Before Christmas should reassure you about her potential to write fantastic action scenes.
If you’re still not convinced, she was also first-place winner for Writers of the Future competition, which should tell you loads about her talent, damn it.
And now, a few words from Megan about who she thinks you should read:
“You should read Patricia A. McKillip. Full stop.
I first fell in love with her stories when I discovered Ombria in Shadow sitting on a bookshelf in a now defunct Barnes & Noble back in 2002. The art drew me in immediately - her covers are always lush and gorgeous - but it was her prose that held my interest. Prose that made the cover appear bland by comparison.
I carried that copy of Ombria in Shadow around in my bag until the corners were dented and the spine was scraped. I rarely abuse my books, but this is one I wanted kept close to hand so I could reread it any chance I got. I started to arrive to appointments a little early, just so I had an excuse to sit and read a moment.
Now I know what some of you may be thinking; lush prose? bah to that frippery! But allow me to assure you that when I say McKillip’s prose is beautiful, I mean also that can be sharp and dark and biting. She layers metaphors as easily as she layers the cities of Ombria, and if you have a love of strange cities and dark pasts then this is the book for you.
My next adventure with McKillip was Alphabet of Thorns, and I loved it almost more than Ombria. From there I moved on to her trilogy, The Riddle-Master of Hed. I fell straight down the McKillip rabbit hole; devouring any book of hers I could get my hands on. I scrounged up an old, tattered copy of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld in a used bookshop, and went on the hunt for any back copies of magazines that claimed to contain her work.
If you love small stories with great heart, character-focused adventures rich in myth, and worlds both beautiful and strange, then McKillip may just be an author you’ll fall in love with, too.