Bite-size Reads: Opulent Syntax

Book cover: Opulent SyntaxIn 2022, I set myself the multi-year ‘challenge’ of reading the anthologies on my shelves. I’m starting my 2023 bite-size adventures with Opulent Syntax, Neon Hemlock’s latest anthology of speculative fiction – a gorgeous collection of tales by Irish writers.

Where This Dreaming Isle positioned itself as ‘rooted in the British Isles’, Opulent Syntax is all about the writing. Certainly, these tales of folklore and futures are all set in Ireland, but the geographical context is secondary to the glory of Irish words – prose, poetry and that beautiful realm where the two mingle.

Experience: Cave Hill – Anna Loughran

The anthology opens with a poem, which left little impression on me at the time – feeling fragmentary, incomplete, riffing on an interesting idea without context or closure – but which I found I wanted to revisit after reading some of the stories.

The Last And Fatal Light – Samuel Poots

How far would you go to make the world a better place? And who do you think you would be making it for? A closed-minded councillor is given a candle that changes reality to suit his narrow views, but as he uses it more, his daughter and her secret girlfriend begin to remember snatches of the possibilities that he has snatched away from them. This opening tale is full of threat and prejudice and frustration as stolen futures mount up and the councillor must decide what he is willing to give up – and preserve – to complete his devil’s bargain. This feels like such a hot button theme as so many cultures clash (often along generational lines) over what we want our futures to look like and who gets to make that choice.

hotBooley – Natasha Calder

Welcome to near future Dublin, where the issues of the present have been dialled up to eleven and have a dubious solution. You should be so lucky to be able to afford to rent a flat with four friends. To put the same roof over your head night after night. Not to live out of a backpack. Not from that kind of generational wealth? Never fear, hotBooley will have a bed for you tonight, probably. Welcome to capsule sleeping, the ‘answer’ to Dublin’s overpopulation problem and your way out from under your mother’s thumb. With its consideration of what transient living, corporate (lack of) scruples and inability to save does to derail a lifetime, hotBooley hits hard, a bleak, cynical vision that is ultimately with neither hope nor answers, just a payload of existential rage that demands better. Brilliantly done. 

Lament Of The Last Wolf Of Ossory – Méabh de Brún

A change of gears from speculative dystopia to the liminal existence of an Irish werewolf, lost to a blur of years and blood as she awaits the next appearance in her life of the woman she loves. In this story, immortality is a curse and if romance isn’t dead it isn’t for want of two undying lovers trying to kill it. Lament invokes the painful devotion and despair (if not the black comedy) of Only Lovers Left Alive (what, you didn’t know about that time Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston played vampire lovers? You’re welcome) – the result is poetic and hungry and oh so lonely. 

Artemis – Yves Donlon

A different sort of love is front and centre here as Artie come to grips with the recent death of her grandfather and tries to honour his last wishes. Across the Burren limestone, long lost species are being introduced to the wild at the cost of barring people from their ancestral home. Artie’s dark, driven journey across a landscape that was haunting by day when I journeyed through it feels as mythic as it is evocative. This is a beautiful tale of grief and connection to the land, to the past, to the dead.

Don’t Mention The Rhino – Fergal McNally

Given the exceptional standard of the stories so far, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by this thin fairytale in spite of the immediate goodwill generated by its title. This absurdist take on a familiar trope feels telegraphed almost from the start, and I would have been far more interested if it had explored and then what rather than crash stopping as if it had done something original or profound. 

Making Way – Elaine McIonyn

CW: suicide

In this dark tomorrow, 52-year-old Louise has promised to kill herself so that she can gift her Irish citizenship to a refugee living offshore. There are solid themes here around border control, peer pressure, sacrifice and betrayal – and I appreciated the ending – but the prose didn’t quite work for me and the subject matter (killing yourself to make way) leaves me deeply uncomfortable. Literature should challenge us from time to time, but I would have appreciated a content warning here – this was not a theme I was expecting to casually walk into and I would have been grateful for the option to pick and choose when I engaged with it.

Bleed Through – Rien Gray

Another tale of love and loss, this time wrapped up in the promise of resurrection – of sorts – for those who pilot giant mechs. This navigates some of the stages of grief, inhabiting the fault lines of love, duty and conscience. It’s quite sweet, but it was less successful for me than the earlier stories in the anthology (although that may have been in part because I was still reeling from Making Way).

While I preferred the stories I read in the first half of the week to the latter three, Opulent Syntax is devastatingly good. I found myself in awe of the craft (both literary and editorial) as story after story (okay, yes, except the one about the rhino) sliced through my defences to pierce my heart or bruise my soul, yet rarely left me without a warm glow of hope for humanity (hotBooley being the notable exception). The quality is as high as the soul is rich, with melancholy the theme that twists through stories often driven by an inability or unwillingness to escape the past.While I’ve struggled to read in January, Opulent Syntax was inviting and rewarding as I could treat myself to one or two stories and then let them sit with me rather than steaming through several in a row.

I’ll be returning to this anthology in February to read and share my thoughts on the second half.

Many thanks to publisher Neon Hemlock for sending me a review copy.