The Unnamed Country by Jeffrey Thomas

Front cover of The Unnamed Country by Jeffrey ThomasCollecting stories that span science-fiction, fantasy, and realism but are connected by a shared fictional Asian country, Thomas offers both a series of character-driven individual narratives and an engaging gestalt vision of the liminal zone between beliefs and reality.

This collection contains nine short stories set in a fictional Asian country shaped both by religion and cutting-edge technology.

  • ‘Cholukan and the Gods’: Wishing to learn more of the lives of humans without the distortion that surrounds the presence of a god, the Ruby Empress blesses her pet monkey and sends him down to Earth. Thomas skilfully blends universal tropes with the nuances of his own world to create a new myth that feels as if it is part of a centuries-old religious Eastern tradition. However, as with many tales of how things came to be, this one ends with an ongoing state rather than a conclusion, so might frustrate readers who crave a tidy resolution.

  • ‘B-2’: A Western businessman, returning to the eponymous country for the first time since an army posting during his youth, meets a club dancer who reminds him of the girl he left behind when his posting ended and yet is completely different. Thomas weaves together perspectives on orientalism, nostalgia, and divergent cultures with a small cast of detailed characters, creating a story that raises questions about colonialism and prostitution while remaining very much about individuals rather than political messages.

  • ‘The Uninvited Grave’: When a farmer discovers a fresh grave in the middle of his field tradition demands he not interfere with it but his growing anger prevents him just accepting it. Opening with a sort of funerary adverse possession, Thomas paints an engaging tale of one man’s struggle between not offending the spirits he is certain exist and an entirely reasonable sense of offence at someone taking his land.

  • ‘Lucky Triple Seven’: A single mother selling lottery tickets to support her brain-damaged child finds herself pursued by gamblers when a man claims her son predicted his winning ticket. Thomas mixes events that suggest the predictions might be real with clear displays of the lengths people will go to to make reality fit their beliefs, leaving the reader to decide what the truth is.

  • ‘The Unicorn Farm’: When a young concession stand worker is offered a promotion to a stall selling longevity potions she welcomes the opportunity to contribute more to her family, only to discover there is no-one more selfish or determined than someone who will buy or sell more years of life. Blending a fictional species of deer and cutting-edge veterinary surgery with the commoditisation of religious imagery, Thomas creates a story that is neither fantasy nor science-fiction whilst providing hints of some spiritual or technological secret underlying mundane events.

  • ‘Ultimate Nails’: The owner of a nail salon plots to destroy the nail salon opposite her own. Thomas skilfully blends universal images of criminality and venality with the flavour of his invented Asian nation, creating a story that is both filled with gritty tension and raises questions over whether the truth of a belief matters if everyone acts as if it is true.

  • ‘Motherboard’: A young factory worker who believes he can think himself into another, better, world discovers that mysteriously disappearing from work has downsides. Swiftly providing evidence that the protagonist’s journeys are more than him getting lost in daydreams but not confirming the objective truth, Thomas reshapes the classic trope of a traveller from our world being a hero in another.

  • ‘Distinguished Mole’: A doctor whose early dreams of a scientific breakthrough collapsed into mediocrity attempts to graft more esteem onto himself. Thomas takes the universal idea that certain features are luckier, more moral, or otherwise measures of inner worth and asks what might happen if that were combined with advances in gene-editing.

  • ‘Cholukan in Hell’: When the peasant girl he loves is kidnapped by demons, the Ruby Empress’s pet monkey breaks into hell to rescue her. Thomas adds the nuances of his fictional world to the classic trope of a hero voyaging into the underworld, weaving a tale that is both fresh and comfortingly familiar.

Each of these stories can be read separately without—except perhaps in the case of ‘Cholokun and the Gods’—the reader feeling they only have part of the story. However, the secondary details in each suggest depth to events or behaviour in the others.

Thomas hints at more than the underlying connection one would expect of stories set in the same world, though. At first the connections appear mundane and realistic: a character might share a name with someone from the soap opera two characters discussed in a previous story; or events that happen in one story are plausibly the cause or consequence of events in another. This sense of reality being coloured by shared beliefs and stories that was seeded with the opening story grows with the introduction of a soap opera that “everyone” in the country watches. And, when “Motherboard” leans strongly to the science-fiction side of the line, the number of connections to that soap opera make it easy for the reader to feel that it is an in-world fiction as well as a real world one. But as these potential connections between tales that could be entirely mundane and those that are not build, the division of stories into realistic and fantastical that a reader might have created is eroded, leaving the reader to re-evaluate whether mundane events were influenced by the spirits, obscure alchemical theories, or fate the characters believe in.

While this building revision of prior stories into something potentially more speculative creates a more powerful effect than making the pervasive weirdness overt from the start might, it does mean the first few stories provide readers an indication of the skilled prose and characterisation but not the nuances of the world.

Overall, I enjoyed this collection greatly. I recommend it to readers seeking a glimpse of weirdness between accepted reality and the overtly fantastical.

I received a free copy from the publisher with no request for a review.

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