Many small press books never show up in bookstores, unable to compete with the larger publishers. This means that sometimes a reviewer receives an almost unknown work of a quality which can only lead to mad cackling and the smug glee of finding undiscovered treasure. And I’ve been walking around with the special joy of knowing a great secret since opening Scott Badger’s excellent compilation of original fantasy, The Peddler and the Cloud.
The tales are brief and tightly self contained, with wildernesses lurking in their short span. My own favorite is David Gerrold’s “The Green Man,” a tale of magic or madness or possibly both, which offers the reader several answers to every question raised in the tale without committing to any of them. It’s a technique that could easily be annoying, but here, done very well, it works to be almost as intriguing as the Green Man’s spell. The single page “Karina” is another gem, dancing almost into the realm of narrative poetry while delivering a layered tale of enlightenment. The title story by Scott Badger makes spiritual enlightenment into an all consuming quest, subtly loaded with the sort of irony only visible to an outside observer. “The Peddler and The Cloud” can be a hopeful journey or a grim warning depending on the mood of the reader, and has the imponderability of a Zen koan.
Three extraordinary tales out of eight is a good ratio for almost any short story collection. Even more impressive is the lack of single faulty story. “Heir To The Nameless Goddess” is the longest and most disappointing story, unable to unify itself after scattering across its wide allotment of pages. Even this is still a fine read, aside from the strange prevalence of typos so unusual in the rest of the book; it’s just an oddly truncated tale, like a prologue without the attached novel. And it’s surrounded by excellent tales like the hopeful, surreal “Soul of Su- Malja” and the dark mystery of “The Mask He Wears.”
The Peddler and the Cloud is one of the best original short story collections you’ll find this year or for many more, and at only ten dollars or less, one of the most affordable. Hunt it down online, or get your local bookstore to do the work. It’s a secret worth sharing.