By: Rachel Caine, Delilah S. Dawson, Jennifer Estep, Kelly Gay, Kevin Hearne, Mark Henry, Hillary Jacques, Jackie Kessler, Seanan McGuire, Kelly Meding, Allison Pang, Nicole Peeler, Rob Thurman, Jaye Wells
When I first saw this anthology I leaped to request it – so many of the authors included in it are the authors I already read and already love, a collection of stories by them was definitely something I was sure I’d be able to devour in seconds, loving every word.
I preface the review with this to make it clear that my expectations were very very high – perhaps too high given my oft mentioned dislike of short stories. This left me feeling a little disappointed.
Firstly, on the book overall I was impressed by the unity of theme, short story compilations by different authors can feel very disjointed as you are buffeted from epic story to laughing comedy to heart wrenching tragedy that makes them almost impossible to read in one sitting because they’re so different. While the writing style of this book was, obviously, very varied the overall theme not just of Carnivals but of something sinister, dark and something pretty creepy was generally well maintained throughout. I don’t know if it was intended or if the authors just find carnivals as creepy as I do – but nearly every story had a strong sense of the creepiness, the alien and the outsider about them that helped keep the whole book together as a coherent whole which I appreciated.
In terms of the stories, the ones by the authors that drew me in were very much their style, but also nothing special and didn’t form much of a useful addition to their own stories:
Kevin Hearne’s The Demon Barker of Wheat Street, was a fun ride with characters I’ve come to know and love. Atticus, Oberon and Granuaile are always immensely fun romp around a Carnival, fighting evil with humour and flair with odd moments of depth and emotion to it that so characterises Kevin Hearne’s work; it’s good but not his best, lacking in style or real relevance to the world he has… if you’re not a fan of the series already you’re going to be a little lost reading this one – and a little Spoilered as well, which is a bad choice for a short story, I think.
Jennifer Estep’s Parlor Tricks, is much the same. If you know her world and her characters then it’s a great read, a nice continuation and nice to see Gin in some semi-downtime. If you don’t know her world then you’re probably going to be more than a little lost as the full weight of her massive Ashland world is thrown at you. As a fan and a current reader of her series, I enjoyed it while still feeling I wouldn’t have missed anything if I hadn’t read it. That’s a good thing in the sense that I don’t want my series to depend on me tracking down anthologies, but bad in that I left the story feeling I hadn’t gained anything.
Seanan McGuire’s Daughter of the Midway, the Mermaid and the Open, Lonely Sea, surprised me in that it didn’t seem to be related to any of her actual series. While I liked this story, I also felt that it was the only one that didn’t fit the overall theme of the book, though I quite liked the subversion of finally presenting the Carnie’s point of view and taking their otherness that had been so pushed through the rest of the stories and making that a strength rather than the sinister nature that had been pushed so far. It was an excellent close to the book.
Notable others were Painted Love by Rob Thurman, it was the first story in the book and did a very good job of setting up the dark and sinister theme; the fantastic and the other, the evil and the cruel, the hidden threats as much as the hidden wonders. It was an excellent choice for the first story. But, as far as the story itself goes, it didn’t work for me. It had a nice twist ending but to make that work it forced a lot of character interaction that didn’t make a lot of sense and some very stilted descriptions. The story also had an over-wordy, over-introspective style that I’ve never particularly cared for. It did really set up the sense of the other – in ways that go beyond the simple supernatural creatures we’ve already known - and definitely laid the groundwork for the creepy, the evil and the sinister
Mark Henry’s The Sweeter the Juice, stood out to be for so many levels of uniqueness. A zombie apocalypse – with a twist of other marauders as well – a completely new take on the hazards of a dystopian and post-apocalypse world. For the world alone it would have been worth a read. But the protagonist is also a trans woman, which is really damn rare in any media and almost non-existent in dystopians. It covers a lot of issues really well – after all, in a post-apocalyptic world, a trans woman wanting to transition still wants to transition, the zombies don’t change that. But she still has the extreme problems of prejudice, poverty and being at the mercy of an often hostile and highly patronising medical establishment. We have her desperation and often being at the mercy of hostile or indifferent agents while having to jump through hoops and pass tests that are no-one’s business.
The negative side is there are also a few prejudices and stereotypes thrown with a sense of comic relief around the edges that warred with the darkness of this story – probably the grittiest, darkest and most sinister of the whole book.
Nicole Peeler’s The Inside Man was probably my favourite story of the whole book. We had a nearly all POC cast, a massive supernatural world and it did an excellent job of hinting at the greater series it was part of without overwhelming us with minutia. The characters are fascinating with their own strengths and weaknesses, bounce off each other well and spoke of a long ongoing relationship without having to info dump on us. It was a perfectly written short story and really intrigued me about the series
Allison Pang’s A Duet with Darkness was also a story I liked a lot – with a number of POC and a fascinatingly different world; the myriad of creatures and how they work, a completely different world building from anything I’ve seen with lots of hints but no overt info dumping to an extent that it overwhelmed the plot. The main character is interesting – not perfect or even all that likeable because of her arrogance, but still with a lot of potential. Like with The Inside Man I am intrigued and it’s put this series on my radar
Which brings me to Kelly Meding’s Freak House as the third story in this book that made me curious about their wider world. A combination of hidden and open supernaturals, a legal and police system that was both ill-equipped and unwilling to deal with the wide supernatural world; a comment on people who fall through the cracks, a couple of POC and an interesting, pretty different but not overpowered main character. It was actually something I have said before never works – a short story prequel to a series that really makes me want to dive into the whole series.
There were a few stories that made me vaguely interested in their worlds but didn’t quite hook me in. Jackie Kessler’s A Chance in Hell was interesting with the quest to take over hell and the various denizens represented but there wasn’t enough there of the world to pull me in. There were hints, but the author was a little too sparing with their world out of fear of infodumping, I think; I’ll probably pick up the series, but I’m curious, not intrigued. I think that too much has happened in the existing story arc for me to catch up on. Much the same applies to Hell’s Menagerie by Kelly Gay in this case there was a lot more information but I think that too much of it was relevant to the story. I have a feeling that the series these stories are from are several books long and these short story occurs after some of the later books. Too much has happened for me to be comfortable jumping in. Of course, if I were familiar with the worlds and the authors, I think I would have liked them a lot more.
Recession of the Divine by Hillary Jacques didn’t pull me in at all. I like Greek mythology but too much of what was there could easily have been swapped out for any woo-woo, the Greek names felt pasted on more than immersed in the plot. Not enough world building or development on this one
Rachel Caine’s Cold Girl had an excellent and chilling portrayal of abusive relationships from the inside, including so much of the thought processes that go into excusing, ignoring or just not seeing the abusive treatment. But the story and world presented were both weak and hollow with little explanation or development. It had some interesting twists but ultimately wasn’t something that fascinated me. Jaye Well’s The Werewife was similar in that it dealt with some real world problems – a broken marriage between 2 incompatible people which is neither saved by woo-woo nor saved by coming together and defeating the woo-woo. While intriguing I think it’s a story that needed more length and depth, rather than presenting 2 partners with incompatible differences, instead we got the long suffering husband and the hectoring, nagging, cruel and even, to go all Shakespearan, shrewish wife. This particularly sits awkwardly because the villain has “rescued” a number of women from abusive relationships, each with their own poison pill and faustian bargain – but by linking the Werewife’s unfulfilled relationship with outright abusive one feels off. I would have liked the villain to be developed more as well, or at least had the end fight be more of a battle and less of the husband wailing on this woman and her being thrown to a wolf.
In Delilah S Dawson’s The Three Lives of Lydia I’m not entirely sure what it was about and while I think that was the intent of the author, to increase the level of mystery, alien and otherness by leaving the whole doubt; that sinister feeling of not knowing what’s real or not real. And there is a strong sense of that. But equally there is a sense of a “and then I wake up” ending. It needed more, maybe more ins and outs of the worlds to truly establish that doubt between real and not real, the protagonist’s mental illness or a genuine other world and just to explore the issues raised.
I was surprised that the authors that hooked me into this book weren’t the stories that I enjoyed the most; part of that is a minor disappointment but also a pleasant surprise because it means I found some gems.
There were a large number of POC in the book – more short stories included POC than not (sometimes only as side-characters like A Chance in Hell but often much much more). The Sweeter the Juice had obvious – and very rare – GBLT inclusion, but it was the only story that did. There are a number of female characters, of course, in these books – but there’s also an astonishing amount of female victimisation. 8 of these short stories are all about or contain elements of rescuing a woman and a couple deal outright with murdering rapists (albeit ones that get their comeuppance). There’s a lot of strong women as well, and certainly a number of women doing the rescuing so there is balance there.
The overall feel I had from the though was one of LENGTH. That sounds awfully shallow to say a book was too long for me, but it was. 14 separate short stories is a lot for a book; and so many of them were dealing with large, very established worlds that there was a lot of info dumping as well, to play catch up making for a very wordy, very long book that felt like mining at times
To read this, I would suggest that you be familiar with most of the authors and their worlds already. The short stories read far better as people who know their worlds than as introductions to them. As introductions, too many of these stories are established for this to be your starting point. Secondly, I would suggest reading them in chunks, I don’t think this is a book, despite the unified theme, that you can comfortably tackle in one long sitting