Book Review: Dark but for the Stars by Nathan Crowder

dark but for stars book coverSeveral months ago, I happened to be on twitter while Nate Crowder was discussing the release of his then-new short fiction collection. I can’t find the original tweets anymore, but I believe he said something to the effect of, how lucky am I to have a job where I can write stories about deer people?

Well. I immediately put the brakes on. “Deer people!?” I said, bursting with envy. “Why didn’t I think of that!?”

So we got to talking. He described his project, a horror/sci-fi short fiction collection with hints of Lovecraft. I bemoaned that Amazon’s publishing program demanded exclusivity to its devices and that I’d never get to read it, and, well, the long and short of it is that he was kind enough to grant me a review copy.

Then student teaching crept up on me, in addition to a whole host of other classes I hadn’t realized I needed to take. Before I knew it, this blog and all its pending reviews effectively got shelved. Now, in the aftermath of that dubious adventure, I find myself chasing monstrous dust bunnies out of the corners of my life, trying to situate myself to pursue writing more seriously. Which means making good on a few promises.

Sorry, Nate. I promised you a review about a thousand years ago, and somehow never posted it.

Dark but for the Stars, available exclusively on Amazon, is an eight short story collection of variably flavored science fiction. It varies from Lovecraftian horror in “Bethlehem’s Grove” (otherwise known to me as The Deer People One), to a vaguely nostalgic urban fantasy. In its best moments, it is thoughtful and melancholy. At its worst, it’s a little predictable in construction, though not in overall concept. In general, though, the individual stories are quick reads, well-edited, with interesting character and world-building.

What Crowder excels at is taking those imaginative science fiction elements and playing them against aspects of horror to reveal a deeper, more unexpected thoughtfulness. Take “Fists of Felt,” for example. To be perfectly honest, I almost skipped it. Something about a gritty noir piece starring Muppets had me imagining that god-awful episode of Angel. I didn’t understand why, of all things, it had to be puppets. Couldn’t this story have been told with human beings in some kind of run-down cabaret theater? And yet, by the end of the story, I was completely wrapped up. What had begun as utterly ridiculous had somehow become truly existential, using a frankly absurd device to explore things like comparative theological metaphysics, and Despair. I say this as someone who once pursued a philosophy major and sat through long lecture courses and debate forums on this very subject.

My personal favorite in the collection might actually be “The Last Dragoon of the Inland Empire.” (Not the deer people one! Surprise!) I almost want to describe it as a nostalgia piece. Set in a vaguely familiar, almost-modern fantasy California, it reads like a love letter not only to an idealized past but also to the state itself. Love letters to California are, in my experience, not uncommon with Western writers (or artists or musicians or directors). As a product of the Philly ‘burbs who has never actually been there, reading these is always an interesting exercise in secondhand wistfulness. In this case, the world-building was, frankly, so interesting that I found myself disappointed that it wasn’t a whole novel. Something about familiar fae creatures tanning under palm trees, blood sacrifice, and the looming specter of fast food franchises killing magic really got me. The story is well-conceived. The plot is well-paced and complete. But I still want more! Honestly, there’s so much urban fantasy out there, but nothing like this. It’s like Holly Black meets American Gods, minus the unnecessary showmanship of celebrity.

In the interest of full disclosure, there’s one story I didn’t read, because the description sounded a little similar to one of my own projects, and I didn’t want to take chances. So if you like space stuff, go ahead and read “Odd Jobs” and tell me what you think of it. I’m looking forward to picking it up once I’m not planning my own space fantasy!

Overall, if you have access to (or are willing to install) Kindle books, and have a taste for short fiction, I’d recommend this one. The stories are short and easy enough to read in one quick sitting, bright and entertaining enough to see you through, but thoughtful enough to keep you thinking. While I would have liked to see some of them (like “Bethlehem’s Grove”) go a little further to meet their potential, I have very little meaningful criticism.

Nate, if you’re reading this, I hope your next publication is an “Inland Empire” novel!

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