This is a set of three novellas, set in very distinct times, about the goddess Ishtar. Despite having the same theoretical focus, the three vary greatly in tone, style and actual focus. There are, nonetheless, a couple of clear threads that link them. The first is, of course, Ishtar herself. This is no Botticelli-esque Venus, no whimsical romanticised Aphrodite; all three authors present an Ishtar who is very clearly goddess of war and goddess of love/sexuality, and who embodies the struggles that each of those aspects brings – not to mention the way they work together. Coexistent with this is an attitude towards men that could perhaps be described as contempt, although that may be too harsh; disdain may be closer. Aside from Ishtar, the three stories are all categorised by a general sense of dread, of pessimism and darkness. These are not cheery tales.
I love a fiction book that comes with a bibliography, and Ishtar does just that. I suspect most of the research went into Kaaron Warren’s opening story, “The Five Loves of Ishtar” – although looking at the titles of the articles I can see resonances with the other two stories as well. Warren, though, in opening the set, has the task of placing Ishtar within her original context: ancient Mesopotamia. I know only a little of the history of that area; it certainly feels to me that Warren has captured the sense, if not of the historical area itself, then of how the area might have perceived itself in myth <i>and</i>history. Because Warren sets Ishtar within a place that feels real, where the gods and heroes do walk the earth and do interact with mortals. And she tells of Ishtar and her five loves through five generations of washerwomen, at once a domestic and lowly, yet also incredibly intimate, position. Ishtar’s loves come and go, from Tammuz the Green One in 3000BC to Ashurnasirpal in 883BC. There are some similarities between the five: jealousy, and a love of power, and a lack of understanding of Ishtar herself. To some extent, though, the men are just there to be foils to Ishtar – to provide evidence of time’s movement, since Ishtar changes little; to give Ishtar a canvas on which to act. Ishtar’s involvement with women is of great moment, and I think reveals more of Ishtar’s self. Her interactions with women giving birth, and with her washerwomen, shows a complex character that isn’t entirely comfortable in the world, but doesn’t really know how else to be. There are poignant moments of vulnerability (a goddess concerned about her appearance? unsure of whether she wants a child?), as well as startling moments of horror (the casual brutality of death and war, the creation of a horrific army). This is a complex story as befits a complex character and a complex history, too. Warren does it justice, and sets up the next two stories beautifully: after all, if this is Ishtar in the far ancient world, what might she be like today, let alone in the future?
Deb Biancotti has the task of placing Ishtar in the modern world, and actually for much of the novel Ishtar is not a physical presence; she is a rumour, a hidden force, a menacing shadow. “And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living” takes place today, in Sydney, and is essentially a police procedural. Adrienne is a detective, and she has a rather nasty case to work on: several men found dead, with their bones smashes to smithereens, who all appear to have been sex-workers. Just the sort of trend that gives police headaches – especially when the cause of death is almost impossible to explain. In searching for clues, Adrienne reconnects with an old friend who used to be involved in the sex workers’ union; meets a priest and a gigolo-cum-witchdoctor type; and comes across a rather odd goddess cult, who are waiting for their goddess to reappear. All of these people give tantalising clues as to what might be going on, where ‘tantalising’ can also be synonymous with ‘frustrating’ and ‘hair-pullingly-ambiguous’. The reader, of course, might have some idea of what is going on – surely Ishtar has to turn up or be involved at some point – but that really doesn’t make a difference to the story itself. Adrienne is a powerful, compelling protagonist, into whose personal life the reader gets just enough insight to understand that while policing is of fundamental importance to her, it’s not quite all she is. She verges on manic sometimes; her determination and dedication is by turns admirable and somewhat frightening. The supporting cast is solid: Steve, her partner-in-policing, is different enough to riff off, with a family to be concerned about and a bit less narrowly focussed; Nina, the prostitute, is the old friend who can say pretty much anything to Adrienne and provides a wildly different perspective. This novella is the most straight-forward of the three, because of its police procedural nature; there is a mystery which must be worked out, and it seems bizarre and unlikely but then clues fall into place. It is the easiest and least demanding to read (which is by no means a slight on Warren or Sparks, or on Biancotti either), but don’t assume that makes it pleasant. Or that it has a nice ending.
One mythological, one mystery… and a post-apocalytpic tale on which to end. Cat Sparks rounds out the set with “The Sleeping and the Dead.” It starts in a blasted desert with a mechanical bull going mad, and really just continues in that trend. Exactly when and where this story takes place is unclear; I presumed it was Australia, but it doesn’t have to be, and it’s sometime in the future of Adrienne’s Sydney – probably within a generation, but that’s just my guess from a few hints here and there. The focus of this story is Doctor Anna, who lives in said desert with a bunch of very weird, fairly crazy nuns with a seriously disturbing ossuary. When one day some men come calling – well, crawling like dehydrated possibly-hallucinating men are wont to – things change; whether it will be for the better or the worse depends entirely on whose perspective you take. Where Warren’s story has an ancient world annals feel to it, and Biancotti’s is a straightforward novel, Sparks’ piece at times feels something like a dream. The narrative is basically straightforward but the links don’t always immediately make sense; and Anna’s obsession with Thomas doesn’t entirely make sense; and time doesn’t always seem to flow in the proper, ordered way it ought. The place of Ishtar in this story is the least obvious of the three; it does make sense towards the end and, credit where it’s definitely due, Sparks does a good job of tying her Ishtar back to Warren’s. I’m not sure how deliberate that was, since I have no idea how closely the three worked in developing their stories, but it certainly felt cohesive.
This is a really impressive set of stories, and they are most definitely worthy of the award nominations they’ve been receiving. I expect this to be a collection that I keep revisiting and, perhaps especially in the past and future Ishtars, I expect to keep finding new nuances and details cleverly hidden away. It would have been so easy to sanitise this goddess and make her palatable; I am so glad Warren, Biancotti, and Sparks had the vision to be true to what I think is the general vibe of the original mythology.