At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories

By Kij Johnson

(Small Beer Press, $16, 300 pages)

Who is this author?

What kind of background prepares an author to let her imagination soar into worlds of fantasy? In the case of Kij Johnson, her resume includes running bookstores, being a radio announcer and engineer, editing cryptic crosswords and waitressing in a strip bar. Eclectic enough for you? You can add to that list being an assistant professor of writing at the University of Kansas, as well as Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction there. Johnson has won the Sturgeon, World Fantasy, Hugo and Nebula awards for her stories and is the only author to have won Nebula Awards three years in a row. She also is the author of two novels, “The Fox Woman” and “Fudoki.”

What is this book about?

The 16 stories in this book often have animals as characters, and Johnson reminds us that humans are animals, too. Even the titles are intriguing, such as: “At the Mouth of the River of Bees ,” “Schrodinger’s Cathouse,”  “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles,” “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change,” “My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire” and “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss.”  Many have appeared in such anthologies as “The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror,” “Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year” and “The Secret History of Fantasy.”

Why you’ll like it:

Johnson has a magic touch, creating stories that are fantastical but relatable, mystifying yet compelling. Some are set in what seems to be Japan; others in present-day America. Some draw on classic mythological tropes: a fox becomes enamored of a man and employs her magical wiles to capture him; a woman dies and becomes a bird. Johnson makes her stories powerful by employing her own magic: beautiful writing, clever ideas, enthralling imagination.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “In her first collection of short fiction, Johnson covers strange, beautiful, and occasionally disturbing territory without ever missing a beat. Several tales take place in mythical Japan—or a place very much like it—featuring fox spirits in “Fox Magic,” a prophetic empress who acts as a tool of the gods and lives outside of time in “Empress Jingu Fishes,” and a cat carrying stories on a long journey in “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles.” Others, such as the title story, are made stranger by their familiar contemporary settings. Her young heroes in “Ponies” and the previously unpublished “The Bitey Cat” are particularly intriguing for both their innocence and their loss of it. Johnson’s language is beautiful, her descriptions of setting visceral, and her characters compellingly drawn. These tales, most collected from Johnson’s magazine publications, are sometimes off-putting, sometimes funny, and always thought provoking.”

Says “In the story called “Fox Magic,” which Johnson created out of her research into the nature of the fantastic in Japanese culture, the unfolding of the story — about a vixen who falls in love with a feudal nobleman and bewitches him into thinking she is a royal personage who has fallen in love with him — comes in bursts of events that I found bewitching in themselves, as when the she-fox first begins her campaign to cloud the man’s mind and win his love:

“The fox-path was long and wandering. We walked along it until we saw lights. ‘Home,’ I said, and took his hand and led him the last few steps. He was lost in the magic then, and didn’t notice that he had to enter my beautiful house by lying belly-down in the dirt and wriggling under the storehouse.”

“In this highly anticipated collection from the Nebula, Sturgeon, World Fantasy, and now Hugo Award-winning Johnson delivers a broad range of stories to appeal to most sf fans. Ancient Japan, modern Seattle, quick moments in time, vast multigenerational epics, all are covered in this intensely varied volume. Whether they feature a young girl trying to make sense of her parents’ divorce (“The Bitey Cat”), a man whose wife becomes an extinct bird upon her death (“My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire”), or an exploration of possibilities (“Schrodinger’s Cathouse”), the stories are original, engaging, and hard to put down. Two standouts include “Fox Magic,” Johnson’s award-winning story of a fox who falls in love with a man and uses her magic to ensnare him, and the transcendent title tale of a woman who follows a river of bees through the American desert with her dying dog. VERDICT Johnson has a rare gift for pulling readers directly into the heart of a story and capturing their attention completely. Readers who enjoy a touch of the uncanny in their reading will love this collection,” says Library Journal.

“Johnson’s writing whispers of the fantastic, sneaking up to surprise the reader with emotional connections in worlds sometimes dark and lonely. This is the other hallmark of these stories: the desire for connection,” says

When is it available?

Johnson’s book is buzzing on the shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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