The princess story — its title is “Cold” — is here. This delicate young woman marries a desert prince who, fearing she’ll melt in the staring sun, builds for her an underground palace made of spun glass. A story titled “Dragons’ Breath” is about enormous wormlike creatures, shades of “Dune,” that slide down a mountain, sucking down unlucky goats and duck ponds and flattening the houses in their path.
“Heavenly Bodies” is about a singer named Lucy Furnix and a tycoon named Brad Macmamman. Lucy, or her avatar, is turned into a glowing “skywoman” with “softly heaving breasts” and “harem pants” who fills the night sky. The world gawks. This kind of thing is bound to give Grimes and Elon Musk, and their couple’s counselor, ideas; at least until Lucy is ripped apart by more venerable heavenly bodies.
“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” is about a middle-age woman, a “narratologist” named Gillian, who uncorks an antique-shop bottle and, shazam, finds a handsome genie in her hotel room. The genie does Helmut Kohl and Donald Duck imitations, makes fresh figs appear and grants her three wishes.
Their lovemaking — “Gillian seemed to swim across his body forever like a dolphin in an endless green sea, so that she became arching tunnels under mountains through which he pierced and rushed, or caverns in which he lay curled like dragons” — is for the ages, and sounds very good when read aloud to pan flute music.
Other stories fly a bit closer to earth, though rarely do you sense you’re reading about beings you might care about, or that anything at all is at stake. They’re top-heavy, forced in a hothouse.
There are many stories within stories. If such stories were good, they wouldn’t be inside a different one. While reading, I frequently glanced at my wife across the room and made that brilliant new international hand signal that means “help me.”
A human theme does emerge from this book. Byatt is a perceptive writer about aging, about what it’s like to feel like you’re disappearing, like Homer Simpson into that hedge, from the brighter world.