‘Of Dawn’ by Al Robertson – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club
‘Of Dawn’ was originally published in Interzone #235.
From the second paragraph of this story, I knew ‘Of Dawn’ wasn’t for me: “A bus rumbled past outside, and the floor shook gently. For a moment, she imagined a god passing by – a drift of shadow that might have been wings; a soul borne away, to cross a dark river.” That is Sarah, letting her imagination run wild as she arranges her brother Peter’s funeral. He was killed in Iraq but absolutely nothing is made of this except to position him as a modern soldier-poet. Not only is Peter a poet but Sarah is a musician and ‘Of Dawn’ is one of those depression works of art about works of art:
Peter returned obsessively to early twentieth century composer Michael Kingfisher, to the aftermath of warfare in the former Yugoslavia, to Salisbury Plain and the deserted village of Parr Hinton; to images of a skinless man, walking through the nearby woods, at once leading him into knowledge and foreshadowing his own future. “An angel satyr walks these hills,” Peter had said, quoting Kingfisher.
Kingfisher is Michael Kingfisher, a Twentieth Century composer of Robertson’s invention. The angel satyr – horrible phrase – is Marsyas, a figure from Greek mythology. You can probably guess where this is going. Sarah develops an obsession with Kingfisher and discovers that Marsyas may be more than a just myth. Thankfully Robertson at least makes no attempt to play this ambiguiously, although there is a painful low point where Sarah unconvincingly mistakes a man in a red tracksuit for a flayed satyr.
In some ways it is the classic Interzone fantasy story of the pre-Andy Cox era: a lot of depictions of the English landscape, the intrusion of a fantastic figure, a supposed focus on psychology, hints of madness. Robert Holdstock and Ian R MacLeod were suggested as examples of the type on Twitter and there are many more. In the Nineties, it seemed like Interzone used to publish a story like this every month.
So they are overly familiar and Robertson’s is not even a good particularly good example. It is too long, is further slowed down by clods of research (real and imaginary) and is told in strained, overblown language throughout:
Verdancy suffused the television screen as the programme built to a climax. The camera explored ash-grey Stonehenge. Red ribbons shook and bells jangled as six men danced together. Sunset blazed through trees, a fire in the deep woods. Tumuli humped like whales in the green. Between each shot, colour bloomed across the screen like so much spilt paint.