Thirteen Ways to Water by Bruce Holland Rogers

Tuesday, 10 May 2005 03:52 Matthew M. Foster
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Image“Thirteen Ways to Water”
“Half of the Empire”
“Whalesong”
“How Golf Shaped Scotland” 
“In the Chief’s Name” 
“Heart of Shanodin”
"A Common Night"
“The Brass Man Who Would Sink”
“Ever So Much”
"In the Matter of the Ukdena"
"Twas The Night Before Global Economic Integration"
“Okra, Sorghum, Yam”
“How The Highland People Came To Be”

Thirteen Ways to Water
is a collection of essays on military history.  Actually not, but it is difficult to pick up the austere volume, flat green with a prominent photo-like helicopter, and not think I’m about to delve into thirteen ways that flight has changed warfare.  Of course there’s also a cat on the cover, but that didn’t help in setting my expectations properly, that is, for a collection of slipstream and high fantasy. Sometimes, covers are unfortunate.

Multi-award winning author Bruce Holland Rogers' first short story collection is thematically oddly balanced, starting off on a serious note and then drifting into light-as-a-feather fare.  His style in all cases is concise, almost Spartan, both in the language that he uses and the tales that he weaves.  But he manages to vividly portray his enchanted forests, faraway fishing villages, and even ghost-filled Vietnam, at least to the extent that the story requires.  There’s no waste in his writing, and little elaboration, but he doesn’t miss anything important.  The book is filled with stories, the type that might have been told around fires thousands of years ago, or around family camp stoves now. 

While there are thirteen stories, the title is not descriptive of the volume, though water does pop up a surprising amount of the time.  Ignoring the spine, you’ll find the words “and other stories” hiding below the primary label.  “Thirteen Ways to Water” is the first and strongest story.  In this 1998 Nebula winner, a Vietnam vet, only partially at peace with his world, is asked to help another vet who is lost in pain and distant memories.  This is the story that will stay with you when you have slipped the volume onto a high shelf.  It was an interesting choice for a Nebula award as it takes a bit of effort to see it as even slipstream and I would classify it as a mainstream psychological work if dark forces forced me to (or if I had to make a list of recent non-fantasy stories). 

“Whalesong,” about a woman’s apparent calm acceptance of a death and the odd noises she hears, is another serious entry, delving into grief and loneliness, and has about the same claim to being fantasy as the title story.  “A Common Night” rounds out the heavier pieces, taking an Alice in Wonderland approach to a man watching his wife die.  Primarily told in verse, it will entertain those who enjoy unambiguous poetry.    

The rest of the book is much less emotionally demanding, being made up of fables, fairy tales, and high fantasy.  “Heart of Shanodin,” “The Brass Man Who Would Sink,” and “How The Highland People Came To Be” belong to that last category.  Dark knights travel through magical lands, spell casters are all around, and the gods are closer than anyone should really want.  Reading these felt like a non-interactive Dungeons and Dragons game (I’m betraying my past with that statement), which shouldn’t be surprising as two of them first appeared in a Magic: The Gathering anthology.  It’s hard not to enjoy these, but I can’t imagine a need to rush back to them.

“Half of the Empire,” “Ever So Much,” and “Okra, Sorghum, Yam” are fables, either retellings or new ones from Rogers’ mind.  Here, unassuming youths solve puzzles due to their virtue, and bratty princesses get their comeuppance.  Exactly the ticket for an evening of reading to the kids, I couldn’t recommend these for a lone adult.       

“In the Chief’s Name” is another fable, this time placed in modern Washington.  Revolutionaries fight by destroying property, and do it in the name of Chief Seattle.  It turns out not to be a good idea to change the world using the words of a dead man unless you’ve cleared it with his ghost.  This is the weakest offering, as it looks at a problem in far to simplistic a way for adults, but has nothing of interest for children.  

"In the Matter of the Ukdena" is a wonderful non-story.  Rogers creates an alternative world where Native American culture dominates what we call the Americas.  All of it is interesting, but it is the notes for a story, not a narrative.  I was left feeling that I’d been cheated out of a plot. 

My favorites of the lighter stories are the most airy: "Twas The Night Before Global Economic Integration" and “How Golf Shaped Scotland.”  In the former, Santa foolishly adopts unfair labor practices.  The later is a Kipling-like “Just So" story.  Neither will cause me to dwell on social, political, or ethical issues, but they made me laugh, which is quite sufficient.

Thirteen Ways to Water and other stories is not a deep and meaningful collection as a whole, though it has a few weightier stories.  It’s mainly good-old-fashioned fluff tales. 

Publisher: Wheatland Press
Trade Paperback: 218 pages
Price: $16.00
ISBN: 0970421044