There are various cunning stratagems that a publisher can employ in order to get me to read their book. One that is fairly infrequently employed, but highly effective, is to fill the book with stories about my favorite goddess: Ishtar. If you add to that by having all of the stories written by Australian ladies whom I happen to know, that’s another big plus. And then if you get a story from the book nominated for the Shirley Jackson Awards, well, how can I resist?
Ishtar, then, is a short anthology of three novellas. All of them feature the goddess Ishtar. The first story, “Five Loves of Ishtar”, is by Kaaron Warren and is set in the remote past when our heroine was still worshipped. Our award nominee, “The Dead Shall Outnumber the Living”, is by Deb Biancotti and sees Ishtar return in triumph to present day Sydney. And finally Cat Sparks provides “The Sleeping and the Dead”, which is set in a near-future, post-apocalypse Australia. I’ll have more to say about each story shortly, but first a few words about the star of the show.
We don’t know a huge amount about the religion of the ancient Mesopotamians, but enough of their writing has survived to give us an introduction to their pantheon. Crucially we have the Book of Gilgamesh, and the Descent of Inanna into the Underworld. Both of these stories feature the Sumerian goddess Inanna. As was the case with Greece and Rome, the Sumerian pantheon was passed forward to the Akkadians (Assyrians and Babylonians) with a number of cosmetic changes. Inanna became Ishtar.
As is generally the case with young goddesses, Ishtar’s provenance was love. However, she was no simpering Aphrodite. Ishtar was one bad-ass goddess. Indeed, she was also goddess of war, and rode into battle standing on the backs of two lionesses. And she had a bad reputation with the men. When she tried to seduce Gilgamesh he turned her down on the grounds that all of her previous lovers have come to a bad end when she tired of them. Some versions of the Descent into the Underworld story tell of Ishtar murdering her husband, the farmer god, Tammuz.
Kaaron Warren’s story does a fine job of introducing us to this distinctive personality. Kaaron has chosen to do this in a very clever way: though the eyes of Ishtar’s washerwomen. Because the goddess is immortal, the story of her lovers (including Tammuz and Gilgamesh) stretches through many centuries. The washerwomen are mortal, but Ishtar arranges for each to be succeeded by her daughter. The relationship between the wealthy, arrogant goddess and her poor mortal servants is very nicely done.
Eventually, however, mankind loses interest in Ishtar and her fellow deities. The power of the gods wanes, and they vanish from our world. But they have not forgotten us, and they are always looking for a way back. Guess who is the first one to succeed? Deb Biancotti introduces us to Adrienne, a Sydney policewoman tasked with investigating a very unusual serial killer. Someone is murdering male prostitutes, and Adrienne’s enquiries lead her to a mysterious religious cult worshipping a long-abandoned goddess.
So far so nutty, but it soon becomes obvious that Ishtar really is back. And she hasn’t picked on Australia because it is a hot bed of neo-paganism. She has chosen it as an easy starting point for her conquest of the planet. She fully intends to have the whole place subdued by the time any of her fellow deities gets back. What’s more, she has an army. This is a wonderful story, and I’m not surprised it is picking up award nominations.
Well, the use of the trans character is a bit of a cliché, but I’m prepared to be generous here because I loved the story so much.
Deb never finishes the story of Ishtar’s return. The best horror stories always leave it to the reader to imagine what happens at the end. But by the time of the Cat Sparks story it is clear that the world has been through a pretty rough time. Australia is left in a sort of Mad Max scenario with small groups of survivors eking out an existence as best they can. If the planet is to recover, it needs fertility. That means that it needs Ishtar and Tammuz, if they can be found. The story is most notable for a coven of adorably nutty and extremely dangerous nuns.
One of the things I really like about this book is that it was planed as a whole. Each author knew that she was writing a part of Ishtar’s story, and that she would need to take account of what her colleagues had written before her. It is a lovely project, and I’m delighted that it has turned out so well. It is, I think, the sort of thing that only a small press would ever do. I’m glad that people are around who are willing to do such things.
Now if only I could persuade them to let me stock the book in my store. Sadly there are all too many small presses who just don’t reply to my requests to do business with them.
Possibly I should have a quiet word with my goddess. She’s good with threats.
“If you do not give me the Bull of Heaven,
I shall smash the gates of the Netherworld down,
I shall bring up the dead to consume the living,
I shall make the dead outnumber the living.”
Ishtar, from The Book of Gilgamesh
Told you she was bad-ass. Then again, she does have a tendency to go over the top. Let’s leave destroying the world to fiction. These Aussie ladies do it so well.
Update: And now you can buy the book from my store.
Buy this book from:
The Book Depository