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‘Lost Places’ Review: An Eclectic, Delectable Blend of Fantasy and Reality

4 Stars

Cover of Sarah Pinsker's "Lost Places."
Cover of Sarah Pinsker's "Lost Places." By Courtesy of Small Beer Press
By Arielle C. Frommer, Crimson Staff Writer

A ballad about a man with an oaken heart. A retirement community that is not what it seems. A pond that seems to swallow people whole. Sarah Pinsker’s second anthology of short stories, “Lost Places,” features all of these deliciously eerie scenarios and more while grounding them in poignantly human themes. The Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author weaves a compelling narrative that touches on identity, community, nature, memories, and art through an original blend of fantasy, magical realism, science fiction, and modern storytelling.

While a few of the stories in the collection are merely decent, many will surely stay with the reader long after putting the book down. Pinsker conjures up fantastical imagery of magicians in castles in “The Court Magician,” forests that feel alive in “Science Facts!”, and a city bursting with sound in “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise.” Each story captures a distinct tone, but the characteristics of Pinsker’s writing — an innovative premise or clever twist, complex (and often sapphic) characters, and hauntingly beautiful prose that makes a scene feel all the more atmospheric — tie the stories together.

Pinsker excels with her eerie, realistic fiction that incorporates magical elements — with vivid natural imagery that evokes a sense of wonder and ambiguous endings that shrouds the story in an aura of mystery. “Left the Century to Sit Unmoved” is about a pond that mysteriously swallows people whole, captivating readers with an atmospheric, mournful tone. “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” initially has a more modern feel as it follows an online chat board’s analysis of a mysterious ballad, but it quickly spirals into a world of cryptic lore and ancient secrets unearthed with dire consequences. “Science Facts!” follows a group of young campers who stumble upon a hidden world of trees and find the bounds of their own world stretched into unimaginable new realms. The prose and narratives of these three stories are all beautiful, mysterious, and speak to humanity’s yearning for the sublime.

Any reader is bound to find something to enjoy in this collection, which features a diverse set of stories across the genres of dystopia, fantasy, horror, and realism. For example, “The Court Magician” and “The Mountains His Crown” are set in fantasy worlds, where castles and magic and cruel kings abound, while “That Our Flag Was Still There,” “Everything is Closed Today,” and “Escape from Caring Seasons” are all set in a modern, dystopian world.

Pinkser uses these dystopian stories to convey a political or social message, which she achieves with varying degrees of success. “That Our Flag Was Still There,” set in a bizarre world where a person is chosen daily and hoisted on a flagpole, interrogates powerful topics such as democracy, free speech, and service to one’s country with clever insight and a unique premise. “Escape from Caring Seasons,” which follows an elderly woman’s escape from a retirement community that is much more nefarious than it seems, is both a window into the life of a senior citizen and an ominous portrait of the future of artificial intelligence, but it felt almost as if it belonged to a larger narrative that could not be fully told within the scope of a short story. “Everything is Closed Today” — which follows the aftermath of a global catastrophe in a not-too-subtle reference to the Covid-19 pandemic — suffered from the same issue of being too brief, in addition to having a less imaginative premise than her other works. The endings of both stories are somewhat unsatisfying due to their short length. Nevertheless, these stories were intriguing and will surely prompt the reader to think critically about the themes each story touches on.

It’s possible that these dystopian works fall flat only in comparison to the best stories in Pinsker’s anthology, which feel entirely self-contained, existing in their own perfect bubble. “Remember This For Me,” “A Better Way of Saying,” and “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” are excellent examples of fully fledged narratives that captivate readers from start to finish and demand nothing more. “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather,” especially stood out due to its clever premise, chilling prose, and deft unveiling of the narrative — it’s no surprise that this story was awarded both a Hugo and a Nebula Award, two of the highest honors in fantasy and science fiction writing.

Pinsker is truly a jack of all trades, even dabbling in historical fiction with “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise” and “A Better Way of Saying,” which are both set in New York around early- to mid-20th century. These two stories were both utterly dazzling — the former an abstract and beautifully written meditation on music and nostalgia, and the latter a brilliantly constructed tale about a man with the power to speak words into reality. The two stories also featured some recurring characters — the only two in the entire anthology to do so — which is a satisfying Easter egg for sharp-eyed readers. One can hope that Pinsker might consider exploring the world she built in a longer form, perhaps someday even in a novel.

Besides this sense of beauty and longing, many of Pinsker’s best stories have another element in common — nature. Many of her short stories involve their characters becoming one — sometimes figuratively but often literally — with the natural world around them, whether that be the trees in “Science Facts!”, a pond in “Left the Century to Sit Unmoved,” or a grassy hill in “Two Truths and a Lie.” “The Mountains His Crown,” while about destroying nature rather than returning to it, nevertheless echoes sentiments of environmentalism and respecting the land we occupy.

Aside from the potent forces of nature governing many of her stories, Pinsker also explores a multitude of abstract ideas: the individual’s power and sense of self within and against the collective, the power of art and music to echo through history and live on in memory, and the dissonance of reality and imagination and the fascinating ways they intertwine.

In “Lost Places,” Pinsker expertly moves through dystopian landscapes, fantasy worlds, and gritty realism to craft a collection that explores the depths of the human experience. With stories that will resonate with readers long after the book has been put down, Pinsker explores the lost places that one cannot help but linger in across space, time, and memory.

—Staff writer Arielle C. Frommer can be reached at

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