Completed 5/14/2016, reviewed 5/15/2016
“Bitter Waters” is a collection of short stories with the common theme of water, from the ocean to islands to the human body, which is 60% water. The author also intended it for his gay male readers. All the stories deal in some way with relationships between men, and all have some speculative fiction component. I liked the book, and the stories are really well constructed. But this is another case where the prose is so grand it gets in the way of the story telling. I often got so distracted by the long runs of descriptions and similes that I lost the gist of the story. I like good prose, but sometimes it can be too much. In several of the stories, this was the case.
The book can be divided up into different sections; the first part was about mentorship, relationships between young men and older men. My favorite story in this section was about a enuch and dwarf who steal out of the castle for a night at the public baths. They have a sexual relationship even though they are the playthings of their mistresses. Another story that was notable was about a boat that is basically a male brothel. It comes across another boat with a dead woman and an abandoned child and the captain tries to solve the mystery.
The second section is about Quin, a dying man and the people around him who are taking care of him. It is never stated what he is dying of. That’s left up to your imagination. Being gay, my first thought was HIV, but that isn’t necessarily the case. And the Quin in one story is not necessarily the Quin in another story, but he has the same basic theme, he’s gay and dying. Or perhaps he’s the same Quin, but in parallel universes. The story here that stuck with me was about Quin sending his caretakers out to find the body of a young man he had killed years ago. It’s chilly and creepy.
The last section is about Sailor Martin. Again, he’s not necessarily the same Martin, but perhaps he is, over several centuries or in parallel universes. My favorite story here was a particularly gruesome tale of Sailor Martin talking with a widow whose son was a cannibal. It was short, taut, and horrifying.
My favorite story didn’t quite fit into any of these sections. It was about a man who comes back after travelling the world for 30 years to find his childhood home being rented out by a vampire with a lair of vampire boys.
There’s a lot to like about this book. The stories are very inventive and interesting. I just found it hard to get past what I felt was over-descriptiveness. Perhaps if I was in a different state of mind reading it, I would have given it four stars. Instead, I settled on three.