In her introduction to Matthew Johnson’s new collection of short stories, Helen Marshall refers to the “perfect language” writers dream of: “Here is a writer who … can make something new,” Marshall says of Johnson. “Here is a writer who isn’t afraid to speak.” With such an effusive introduction, it’s difficult not to enter Irregular Verbs with heightened expectations. Is Johnson really “one of the very best science fiction and fantasy writers that you’ve never heard of”?
It doesn’t take long to agree with Marshall’s assessment – this is, indeed, a writer who fearlessly invents and innovates. That said, readers expecting to find a consistent theme or singular, overarching style won’t easily be able to pin Johnson down. His ability to flit between voices, styles, and perspectives – from pulp-fiction gumshoe to historical fantasy to paranoiac storytelling – results in a collection that spans a remarkable range of characters and ideas. Johnson’s strength resides in his willingness to adapt and explore.
The title story takes place on the fictional Salutean Isles, where the population speaks a rapidly evolving language. The author sets a delicate pace here, curious and mournful, building an entire language and community in a short space without compromising density or detail. One of the collection’s most evocative stories, “Beyond the Fields You Know,” gets its sticky fingers into your head and leaves its prints long after. This story of a war-torn land run by strange animals and populated by lost boys – sort of a sick version of Narnia – is truly unsettling.
“The Wise Foolish Son” and “The Dragon’s Lesson” are also standouts. “Let me tell you a story – no, you have not heard it before; it is not one of our stories, but was told to me by one of the Dead Men,” the nameless narrator begins in the latter story, which reads more like folklore than speculative fiction. This, ultimately, is what Johnson has accomplished with Irregular Verbs: he has created a new mythology – new lore that feels as familiar as it is daring and fresh.