The Color Master is a collection of short stories by Aimee Bender, published in and named a NY Times Notable Book for 2013. She has written several other award-winning books, particularly the lauded The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Bender writes what some call “weird fiction” or “surrealism,” but I am going to place her solidly in the “speculative fiction” genre because many of her stories take essential elements of fantasy and weld them onto other genres. In this collection, her stories range from two and a half pages to thirty pages, so they are all fairly short, nothing bordering on the novella length.
I have selected four stories that stood out to me, and they are reviewed with a little more depth further down, but overall I give the collection 4 stars. The stories were all well-written and intriguing, posing new ideas and questions with her fusion of fantasy and reality, but many of them are easily forgotten as we move on to other books. Three stuck with me as being exceptionally good: “Tiger Mending,” “The Color Master” (the titular story), and “The Devourings.” I would absolutely recommend buying the book just to read those three stories.
This story is a problem, I think. It’s the shortest one (two and a half pages), the first one in the book, and it’s not very good. A girl who refuses to eat apples but spends all of her time in an apple grove inspires everyone the first-person narrator knows to eat apples. They (the narrator and an unknown number of acquaintances) switch to eating only apples, then somehow decide to “devour” the girl who doesn’t eat apples. They rape her, she leaves the orchard, and the narrator and his friends stop eating apples because they feel guilty, waiting for her to return. Maybe I am missing something, but I’ve read the story three or four times, as short as it is. I really don’t understand this story, and not in a good way.
Tiger Mending: 4
“Tiger Mending” is the story that makes you feel good about sticking with the book after you have read “Appleless” and been disappointed. The narrator and her sister go on a mysterious trip to Malaysia, where they are blindfolded and taken to a mansion. The sister discovers she has a special talent for mending the tigers that come to the mansion. Why do the tigers need mending? Because they are unpeeling. The people living at the mansion spend their days sewing the tigers back together, because someone has to. I absolutely adore this story. The concept, the characters, and the writing are satisfyingly complex. I do take a star off for the narrator, who is the least interesting character in the story. The narrator is abrasive and confused, and I think the story could have been more successfully told from the sister’s point of view. Even so, it was excellent.
The Color Master: 5
It’s nice to read a story that tells you exactly why a collection was published. Wow. This is where the real magic of the book is. The narrator works in a mystical dyer’s shop, where a team of dyers use traditional dyes alongside rocks, bird feathers, and opal shavings to color fabrics to imitate the sun, the moon, even rocks. Of course, it’s not just a catalog of how the narrator makes some things certain colors. The narrator, an apprentice, becomes the color master and uses that magical mastery of color to impact regional politics and save a princess. This has to be one of the most memorable stories I have read in my life, and has earned every one of the five stars I give it.
The Devourings: 5
Perhaps the most direct fantasy story, “The Devourings” is reminiscent of Shrek, but grown up and a whole lot cooler. A human woman married to an ogre, who accidentally eats their half-ogre children when the woman tries to help some human children not get eaten themselves, copes with her failing marriage and complex feelings for her husband. A strong female protagonist, questions of loyalty and love and belonging, the emotional turmoil of losing one’s children, and even a magic cake dealing with an existential crisis, this one has it all. And the husband isn’t even a bad guy, despite eating their children and being an ogre who kills humans! Five stars for the last story of the book? Absolutely.
The Color Master isn’t a perfect collection. It has its dud and it has its mediocre stories, but “Tiger Mending, “The Color Master,” and “The Devourings” are what makes this book an incredible read. The stories I haven’t mentioned, I rate pretty consistently at 3 stars, which is to say that they are good—not exceptional, but not of poor quality or poor concept. I sincerely wish “Appleless” had either been put in a different part of the book or omitted altogether, but maybe you will feel differently. Buy it, don’t judge it by the first story, do let me know how you like it and which stories were your most and least favorite. I think this one is definitely worth reading.