The following review of 'Ardent Clouds' appeared in Strange Horizons:
"Ardent Clouds" by Lucy Sussex is an extraordinary piece of fiction about the consequences of obsession which feels, in comparison to the nostalgic tone of the Stoddard story, utterly modern. Bet is a "groupie for danger," a documentarian who gets her kicks chasing volcanoes. Spider, a European professor and theorist of volcanology who is confined to a wheelchair, is Bet's source for information about which volcanoes are going to erupt next, and while rarely questioning the source of Spider's uncanny knowledge, she trusts it completely, going wherever he tells her to go. This particular story sends her to Chillipepper, a volcano in South America, where she engages with a motley cast of characters in her efforts to film the actual eruption. While the plot itself is only functional, personal narration is beautifully layered and the reader ultimately engages most strongly with the nuances of Bet's character.
The ardent clouds of the story's title are more commonly known as nuee ardente: fast-moving, often incandescent, clouds of hot ash and other material produced by a volcanic eruption. We are first introduced to the idea of this cloud as Bet recounts the story of Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness to the eruption of Vesuvius:
I thought of how Pliny the Younger had stayed behind but nearly got killed anyway. He saw a terrifying black cloud, torn as if by giant lightning, with massing flames at its centre. It sank down from the volcano, onto the sea, and rolled the twenty miles across the bay. Darkness came with it, like a light going out in a closed room. Ash began to fall on young Pliny, a teenager, and his mother. They thought the world was ending. (p. 61)
Unsurprisingly, Sussex draws parallels between the idea of the ardent clouds and the effects of Bet's obsession on other areas of her life. Bet's unrequited love interest falls victim to tragedy at the story's climax, and she is forced to consciously consider her prior actions: "Could I ever look through a lens again, after filming the fiery death of someone I had only just begun to realise I loved?" (p. 74) The ardent cloud as a literary device, then—the fiery remnants of an eruption—serves to foreshadow the harsh post-traumatic reality that Bet must face as she reevaluates her life in the wake of disaster.
By the end of "Ardent Clouds," Bet is attempting to construct the narrative of what exactly had happened to her—"What was the best form for my truth?" (p. 74)—and she imagines an alternate ending to her experience, one that offers more closure. Earlier in the story, Bet hears a retelling of a fable involving a Catholic priest, Don Nestor, who "cut a deal" atop the volcano with "a god, woken from a long sleep, hundreds of years, and mad as hell to find that in the meantime all his temples had been razed" (p. 65). On first appearance, the relevance of this fable to Sussex's larger themes seems to be to highlight the question of accountability for history and our ever-shifting relationship with the sacred, but it becomes more poignant by the end of Ardent Clouds" as Bet argues for her imagined end to her story: "... then consider Don Nestor and the volcano, the tales told inside and outside the church. Both have equal validity" (p. 75).
"Ardent Clouds" is a short story of the highest order, and its inclusion in this volume is a brave choice by Ellen Datlow because of its apparent lack of a speculative element. The source of Spider's mysterious knowledge could perhaps be supernatural, but this possibility is never explored—nor does it really need to be. Some stories are just /worth reading/, regardless of the forum.'
|Last Updated on Thursday, 05 February 2009 07:41|