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EP157: A Small Room in Koboldtown

2008 Hugo Nominee!

By Michael Swanwick.
Read by Cheyenne Wright (of Arcane Times and Girl Genius).

First appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, April/May 2007.

That Winter, Will le Fey held down a job working for a haint politician named Salem Toussaint. Chiefly, his function was to run errands while looking conspicuously solid. He fetched tax forms for the alderman’s constituents, delivered stacks of documents to trollish functionaries, fixed L&I violations, presented boxes of candied John-the-Conqueror root to retiring secretaries, absent-mindedly dropped slim envelopes containing twenty-dollar bills on desks. When somebody important died, he brought a white goat to the back door of the Fane of Darkness to be sacrificed to the Nameless One. When somebody else’s son was drafted or went to prison, he hammered a nail in the nkisi nkonde that Toussaint kept in the office to ensure his safe return.

He canvassed voters in haint neighborhoods like Ginny Gall, Beluthahatchie, and Diddy-Wah-Diddy, where the bars were smoky, the music was good, and it was dangerous to smile at the whores. He negotiated the labyrinthine bureaucracies of City Hall. Not everything he did was strictly legal, but none of it was actually criminal. Salem Toussaint didn’t trust him enough for that.

Rated PG. Contains dark, seedy places and dark, seedy characters, only a few of them alive.

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Comments (34)

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  1. LG says:

    I’m having trouble enjoying the story through the poor audio quality. There’s a sort of over-compression/warbly effect going on. Any chance of a re-master on this one?

  2. I thought the audio wasn’t up to the usual quality of Escape Pod as well. However, I did finish the story and absolutely loved it. Anyone know if Swanwick has written more in the same setting?

  3. [...] Escape Pod #157 – A Small Room In Koboldtown, written by Michael Swanwick and read by Cheyenne Wright. Image via Wikipedia [...]

  4. DaveNJ says:

    Same problem with the sound, although it might simply be the reading. The accents seem off, and the reading just isn’t up to snuff. The story itself is good, but it’s very difficult to listen to.

  5. Blaine Boy says:

    I guess I had the same problem with sound: I couldn’t quite distinguish the voices very well and I kind of got mixed up with the characters (the accents made the characters more real, Cheyenne Wright is a very good reader). It’s a cool story, not as great as some of the others, still it is Hugo worthy (again just not as worthy as the other nominees). Reminds me of the Mur Lafferty story City Talkers where Toussant has the ability to get information from the city itself. All in all, a good story: simple, short, pleasant, understandable sci-fi. I just wish it could inspire some deeper thoughts. Please, sir, I want some more.

  6. sorry about the audio — I must have pulled the jiggery-poke when I should have just pushed the widget-kabob. My bad.

  7. Sushma says:

    I really enjoyed this one. Had a great atmosphere, good characters, and what’s not to like about sci-fi noir, especially when it’s got to do with city politics. I could see the Philadelphia or Baltimore of the future in the story. I liked the reading too, though the accents were a tad off, and the audio quality got some getting used to.

  8. Jeremy –

    Swanwick has written a number of stories in that setting. His most recent novel, The Dragons of Babel, is set in the same setting, and in fact is, I believe, a fix-up, which includes this story. (It definitely includes one of his recent stories, if not this one as well.)

    These are also set in the same world as his novel The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. See my interview with Swanwick for more information:
    http://www.scifi.com/scifiwire/index.php?id=48092

  9. Howie Feltersnatch says:

    Bad audio quality, a bad reading with poor enunciation and bad accents, and a bad plot that tries way to hard. Here’s a hint: Taking a fairly banal hard-boiled detective story, and then throwing every possible N’awlins/voodoo/occult reference possible into it does not give you a cool, edgy, award-worthy story. It gives you a trite, overwrought, forced mess.

    If you haven’t listened to this yet, it basically follows this form:

    “Toussant d’la’Bourghainhe and his ogre assistant stepped out of the taxi driven by a dwarf. They entered dark gym, after paying the zombie at the door, and bought a drink from the fairy bartender.” Then 500 similar sentences just like this. And then some stuff happens, only we hear about it second hand, and then wraps up with a naive discussion of dirty politics.

    The best part of the story was the end. Because it was over.

  10. TurboFool says:

    I actually really enjoyed this one. Contrary to others, I found the reading very enjoyable, although the audio quality at the beginning made me question whether I’d be able to understand it all.

    It quickly grew on me, and I enjoyed the overall environment. It was a relatively typical detective story, but with twists that could only occur in this setting, with these unusual characters and phenomena. This made it just unique enough for me not to complain that the plot was unoriginal.

    Honestly, I was left wanting to hear more stories set in this world. Maybe/maybe not with these specific characters, but the overall setting was just detailed enough to make me feel like there are more stories to be told and more of the world to explore. In particular, the politics. I liked this angle, but there wasn’t enough. Supernatural, voodoo-inspired worlds are nothing new, but I liked the idea of getting a view of such a world’s political system. What are the major campaign issues? What sorts of favors are being passed when black magic’s all around? What’s the average lifespan of a politician when your enemies have so much access to dark arts?

    Overall, a solid B+ for me.

  11. Jake Grey says:

    Mixed feelings about this one. The setting felt a little forced, but the story was pretty okay and the characters were well-drawn. Not Swanwick’s best, but not the worst thing I’ve ever listened to either.
    The audio sounded fine to me, by the way; either there was some technical issue at our host’s end that’s been resolved in the last few hours or my sound setup is well above average.

  12. Pete says:

    This story got me thinking. Not about the story itself, but about interpretations of stories when presented in audio format. I kept thinking “If I was reading this story, would these characters have these accents in my imagination?”

    And I think the answer is no. I’m not saying the narrator was at fault or anything, it was just that for me personally, the accents felt somehow ‘wrong’. I personally didn’t pick up on anything that placed it in whatever southern area those accents are from (I’m from the NE personally). I’m not saying it wasn’t there; I may have missed it.

    As to the story itself, my reaction was “Meh”. But then I’m a PodCastle listener too and had just finished Hotel Astarte which was also a fantasy-mixed-with-real-world story. I might have been more receptive to this tale if I’d heard it at a different time.

  13. Lucianno says:

    I liked the narrator (and the accents). Thought it was a pretty good story, too.

  14. Sushma says:

    In response to Howie, I kind of get what you are saying. I felt this was short genre fiction, so you dispense with the requirements of the genre- murder, cops, detectives. What was good was the evocation of the grimy city and its layers of compromised relationships.

  15. Vance M. says:

    Couldn’t listen to the entire podcast. Something was off with the delivery and the story itself. I really, really tried, but about 1/3 of the way through I just lost interest and turned it off. That is something that is unusual for me since I’ve listened to just about all of the others with the exception of maybe 1 or 2. I’m sure this weeks will be awesome nonetheless.

  16. Both the story and the reading seem really good, but since I lose about every tenth word due to crappy sound I can’t listen to it.

  17. I also had some issues with the sound, I had to fiddle about with my radio to make it audible wihtout hurting my ears. I thought the read was a little over the top, but I am very envious of that voice; I wish I could make my voice sound like that.

    I really enjoyed this spin on the locked room murder, although I saw the ending coming from quite a ways off. I think I would have enjoyed the story more with a slightly straighter read though.

  18. Storman_Norm says:

    I didn’t think sound was that bad. I had to turn it up, took .5 seconds, no biggee. I liked the accents. The story itself was just okay. Took awhile to get into it. If I was reading I mighta’ put it down. Seemed more of a mystery with a tacked on speculative element.

  19. Scott says:

    I think overall this was enjoyable. I love Cheyenne’s readings but his voice is sooooo deep and my iPod apparently doesn’t handle Bass well that I have to listen extra close. I loved the accents and enjoyed what was basically a hard boiled det. story with cool twists on horror standards. I enjoy genre bending mashups.

  20. Josh says:

    I feel compelled to admit my own stupidity here: before listening to the into, I never realized the s at the end of Gardner Dozois’s name was silent. Oops!

  21. Alex says:

    The burden of a good genre fiction has, in my opinion always been on the setting, and this story laid on the setting pretty thick. As a nominee for a Nebula awards this story is interesting and revealing because the composition is formulaic. The plot is almost arbitrary and involves the main character only incidentally. The characters are variations of pre-exhibiting archetypes borrowed mainly from noir (the ethnic beat cops, the neighborhood boxing gym, the aristocratic detectives). This story does not contain any of the thought experiments employed in recent stories such as “Schwartz between Galaxies” or “The Big Guy”. Nor did I think it provided a truly novel character or idea such as in “This, My Body”. This story’s nomination reinforces the Sci-fi/Fantasy fan bases’ love for minutia, and open ends. The minutia, in that the details ethnic subsets, and the other worldly politics was all novelty this story had to offer, and open ends in that the story provided a fantasy world into which we may play out our own stories. It read like the introduction to an RPG source book.
    All that being said I enjoyed the story. I have read all the Phillip Marlowe novels and couldn’t tell you who did it in any of them. But I can tell you how Marlowe likes his coffee, how he sizes up a cop, and what bases for integrity in his book. This story is of the same grain, you don’t go for the plot you go for the scenery.

  22. pseudoscope says:

    It’s a shame that the audio quality was so off. I think his voice and accent could melt butter if I didn’t have to keep pausing and rewinding to try to figure out what word was lost in some glitch. In the end I think it was a good escape pod story, but that’s the most I could say of it. As a setting, I’d love to hear more stories from this place, but maybe not this one. Come to think of it, I’ve had that reaction to most of this year’s Hugo nominees. It’s too bad because last year’s selection, I thought, was pretty extraordinary and I was happy to hear them read here. Regardless, hearing the nominees on escape pod is still a great way to get a second voice on these stories.

  23. scatterbrain says:

    On one hand, a good story, on the other, completely pointless.

  24. [...] You can hear how Ring Lardner meets Roger Rabbit on Escape Pod. [...]

  25. Audita Sum says:

    I gave up on this one. The narrator was mumbling and stumbling over his words, and the accents weren’t entirely consistent. Plus, hardboiled isn’t my favorite genre, so… yeah.

  26. Don says:

    I agree with #20. While I’m only mildly amused by the actual story, I’m intrigued by the setting.

    This story appears to be one chapter from the new book The Dragon of Babel, the sequel to the novel The Iron Dragon’s Daughter.

    They go on my list of books to purchase.

  27. Inle says:

    Though Swanwick is one of my favorite SF authors, this one is a surprising award nominee–for my money, it’s pretty light fare. Though the fact that it’s apparently an excerpt from a longer work (one that revisits a very interesting world) gives me some relief; Swanwick’s actual short stories have real punch. As to the podcast: the choice of vaguely Southern accents was hit-or-miss with me. “Haint” is certainly a Southern colloquialism, and not necessarily voodoo; I pictured this story in a big, metropolitan city full of strong ethnic identities (namely, Chicago) where country words like haint can take root. Conversely, that allowed me to forgive the forced Southerness in the reading (which was really quite good overall).
    I must take this opportunity, if you listeners out there are intruiged by the setting (and I include Mr. Eley in this), to seek out The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, one of the most inspired, challenging fantasy novels I’ve ever read. To me, it’s become something of a lost classic, which is a crying shame.

  28. V says:

    Interesting, but felt read at a breakneck speed. Especially as a northerner, I have trouble processing accents I don’t hear on a regular basis. The accents also sounded wrong…southerners speak more slowly in my admittedly limited memory.

    I’ll have to read a print version; between the accents and unfamiliar words and speed, I just can’t get this one down by ear, so I can’t comment on content.

  29. JulioTijuana says:

    I really tried to like this story but after 20 minutes I realized I was not really enjoying it and I gave up.

    Not that the reader did a bad job but it would be a nice experiment if Scott Sigler could read this same story to see if listeners find it more exciting.

  30. [...] Swanwick’s fantasy detective/police procedural “A Small Room in Koboldtown” (read by Cheyenne Wright) is set in an alternative world of incidental magic. This is the [...]

  31. Technogeek says:

    The story worked for me when I read it, and it worked again in the reading. Different voices than I assumed, but hey, it’s a city tale and there are enough cues in the story itself to make these reasonable choices.

    Speaking of which: I think the problem folks may be having with “southerners speak more slowly” is that it’s actually intended to be something close to northeastern-inner-city-black (“ebonic”, to use a term which seems to have died) — which is derived largely from from a modified southern dialect.

  32. Ulla says:

    Good for people to know.

  33. cold ethel says:

    i liked it… listened to it a few times before i did it in one sit.. kind of a ghost story/detective story which doesn’t really fit into this venue but… i liked it anyhow.

  34. jared says:

    I liked this story. Sort of a “Dresden files” meets kojak. I liked how the extreme varied amounts of races turned racism simply into a fact of life rather than domethigbto be scorned. It still hurt and it still offensive but it’s much more widespread.