If two-time World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer's first short story collection, City of Saints and Madmen, failed to convince every single one of its readers of his singular speculative genius, his second collection, Secret Life, will surely convert the rest. As stylish as it is surreal, this collection is -- as indicated by the mind-blowing jacket painting by Scott Eagle -- a work of art to be savored again and again.
The sheer diversity of this collection is remarkable. With settings ranging from 13th-century Cambodia to a microcosmic office building and from Spanish-ruled Peru to a postapocalyptic Earth, these stpores are anything but predictable. Noteworthy entries include "The General Who Is Dead," an eerie narrative about a Korean War soldier stationed in an abandoned city surrounded by the corpses of 40,000 Chinese soldiers frozen in death. The last true descendant of the Inca emperors lies on his deathbed in "Ghost Dancing with Manco Tupac," as he recalls leading a conquistador into the mountains decades earlier in search of the lost treasure of the Incas. The gold-obsessed Spaniard finds riches beyond his wildest dreams -- and an unexpected gift. "Corpse Mouth and Spore Nose," a new Ambergris tale set in VanderMeer's signature realm, pits a detective searching for a missing girl against a fungal foe of "sporrific" proportions.
Speculative fiction neophytes who have yet to experience the imagination of Jeff VanderMeer owe it to themselves to do so as soon as possible. Secret Life, a collection of 23 wildly palatable literary appetizers, is the perfect starting place. Paul Goat Allen