There is no feeling quite like reading a Beth Cato story, and it’s time more people experienced the sensation. The ones found in Red Dust and Dancing Horses would be a great place to start; they are intense, heartfelt epics in miniature, often focusing on the relationships and people at the heart of broader, more overtly magical events. Cato’s (Breath of Earth, The Clockwork Dagger) stories transform everyday interactions of people into the fantastic, and make the fantastic feel deeply personal, drawing us into her elegantly crafted worlds, where we encounter robots, soul-transference, hockey, and even the occasional near-apocalyptic event.
The collection is divided into five sections, each with its own theme, from stories about human relationships with animals, to a series of scenes marked as “a sampler pack of apocalypses.”Within each section, stories are arranged with a certain connective tissue, with elements in later entries calling back to earlier ones, if only in small glimpses. Each tale takes a deeply personal focus, as Cato tends to zero in on the people (and sometimes, not people) in the midst of larger conflicts, feeling for those caught up in circumstances beyond their control. The collective result is a vast tapestry of relationships—between humans, animals, robots, soul vessels, and sentient houses, all sharing common ground, but each standing on their own.
The scale of the storytelling on display will occasionally make you step back and take a breath, as you realize you are witnessing but moments against a bigger backdrop. In “Blue Tag Sale,” a girl converses with the soul of her grandmother, which lives within a blue glass vase; “The Human is Late to Feed the Cat” considers the last moments between a cat and her human owner amid an apocalyptic viral outbreak. In Cato’s capable hands, these small snapshots of time take on a feeling of grandeur; everything from a pick-up hockey game onboard a space station (“Minor Hockey Gods of Barstow Station”) to a fight with a house’s toilet gnomes (yes, toilet gnomes, in “Toilet Gnomes at War”) is delivered with the sincerity and weight of something grand.
That intensity lends itself to an abundance of heart. In the post-apocalyptic “The Sweetness of Bitter,” a mother fights to get her simulacra child admitted to a facility where she can be fixed; it’s easy to feel for Margo as she tries to keep the cheerful, fabricated vision of her daughter safe from harm, and get her the help she needs. “Minor Hockey Gods of Barstow Station” begins with a sense of melancholy but builds into something triumphant as its heroes achieve a kind of bittersweet victory, melding the two emotions into one. From an astronaut adrift in space with only a cat for company to a woman who transfers the souls of horses into wooden bodies so they can live on, this collection is filled with people you won’t soon forget..
In short, the stories in Red Dust and Dancing Horses are intense, sincere, and unusual, revealing their creator as a truly versatile talent, spanning fantasy, science fiction, horror, and all the subgenres in between. At the very least, it’s the rare book that will make you cry while reading about a fight between giant robots.