Ok, standard disclaimer that I seem to have to write every time I review a collection of short stories – I don’t particularly like them. I am not a fan of short stories, I’m not fan of stand alone stories that aren’t part of a larger series and I’m not a fan of collections of stories that aren’t related to each other
Now, this is a collection of short stories, none of them are from series, and none of them are related to each other. There’s also 19 short stories in this book. I tend to lose interest in any collections of stories that go over 10. I don’t think there’s even really a uniting theme – they’re all by the same author and they’re all speculative fiction, but that’s about it
In other words, I started this book trying very much to like it because I’d heard good things – but fearing that I was going to hate it simply because of my own dislike of short stories.
Thankfully, I loved it. Most of it anyway
It started really well with The Easthound. I loved how this really creepy story of a dystopia led by children really managed to pack a lot of world building in through without any real infodumping – the lack of adults, the fear of growing up, literally starving themselves so they wouldn’t age, the horror of being children with no adults to look after them and how that permeates how they react to the world. They’re children trying to survive – and the way they look at the world is childlike, almost a terrifying game of survival.
I think this sense of the creepy works really well in many of the stories – Old Habits. It’s take on ghosts and what they hunger for is chilling and a truly terrifying view of a horrific afterlife without being s dramatic and gory as so many others
The Smile on My Face was amazing fun and an awesome look at body issues and self-worth with a dash of mythology and a whole lot of getting behind someone and cheering her – and a great scene of battling against rape and sexual assault without graphic depiction of victimisation – it’ strong and awesome all through. I especially like how, despite their being a Mean Girl, Gilla still reaches out to her in clear solidarity (even if it is also an excellent snide put down) because even a Mean Girl would need someone to believe her if she were a victim. On the other end of the scale, Emily Breakfast was also a fun little story (with a large number of LGBT characters and my only brief issue is the only real characterisation was distinctly sexual in nature) that wasn’t as creepy or intimidating as some, but who can be against dragon chickens? More thoughtful was Shift which not only completely took a Shakespearean story and brought out a whole new idea from it – but then had several shifts and complexities that made this story (and it’s apparent antagonists) much much more fun than I imagined and, again, very thoughtful.
I don’t even begin to understand Herbal. I really don’t – but I still found it immensely cute but still have to express my bemusement. Similarly I found Snow Day bemusing and fun – but I have to add extra praise for presenting adventurousness and wish to remain at home as EQUALLY VALID and powerful choices.
Flying Lessons I understand all too well – it’s sad and enraging and awful – and so carefully not filled in with detail which, in some way, actually makes it more stark and awful: seeing this through the incomplete and hurt understanding of a child.
I shouldn’t, but I just love the concept of Blushing Bride and I can say absolutely nothing about it without spoiling it, but it made me very very very gleeful in all the wrong ways
Some stories, to me, just begged for more development, not because what was there wasn’t good enough, but because it begged for more to come because the concepts were so excellent.
Soul Case is one I kind of feel that way yet not. The world setting – building on the concept of Marronnage, in the Carribean with escaped slaves managing to build their own community had such a lot of potential to be developed especially with the excellent mythology based on POC culture. But I think the power of it, the idea that even when committing an atrocity for the sake of good still has dire consequences: it’s done an especially subtle and implied way that really doesn’t WANT developing further. Similarly there’s A Young Candy Daughter which just begs for more development of a child god and their mother – but at the same time not developing it leaves us free to think it through on our own and consider the implications of it.
Delicious Monster with it’s excellent world building, Indian mythology, gay characters and world setting with some very interesting characters (even our main character’s complex and not always perfectly depicted internalised homophobia) begged – SCREAMED – for more development! And it wasn’t a case of handing it over to the reader for more thought – I just wanted more of this excellence.
While Men Sell Not Such in Any Town goes the other way – it needs no more development at all and I can chew on this and questions from it forever.
There were some that didn’t work as much for me. The story I liked the least is Ours Is the Prettiest, ironically because it is actually part of a larger series – one I haven’t read and, at the same time, is obviously absolutely huge. I liked a lot about it – the context, the large number of LGBT characters, I loved the idea of adding POC to an established world and widening that canon. I loved how it overtly took one of the most overt Urban Fantasy tropes we have (a character described in somewhat ambiguous terms) and made it a clear declaration of this character being Black (rather than fandom’s habit of declaring even very clearly defined characters as white). It also had an excellent twist on the assumptions we make about relationships which I really liked.
But this world is clearly huge and drew upon a lot of world building I haven’t read and it felt very much like I’d started a story not so much half way through, but four or five books in. I felt like I missed half the story –no I feel like I missed about nine tenths of the story.
I wasn’t a big fan of Message in a Bottle; it had an interesting concept of art and time travel as well as looking far beyond our narrow concepts of what art and what is powerful. It’s a nice analogy for what cultural creations we consider worthy. However, I found it vaguely abstract and the actions of the main character to be extremely bewildering even as he made some excellent points on mythology and his own Native American ancestry. It was a deep thinking story, though – like most in this book. This is certainly an anthology to make you think. While, Left Foot, Right didn’t seem to have as much thought, it was excellently creepy and sad but that seemed to be its main purpose.
A Raggy Dog, a Shaggy Dog is eerie and in any other series I’d praise it, but, again, it didn’t engage me too much, same with Whose Upward Flight I Love. Not that they weren’t good stories, but their neighbours in this book outshone them too much. They suffered from being good stories among excellent stories
Nearly every protagonist and most of the other characters are POC as well – not only are they all POC but they contain a lot of culture and mythology separate from the usual western fare. There’s also some very nice bonus elements like the inclusion of Ours is the Prettiest and repeated references to issues like historical plundering in Message in a Bottle, colonisation in Soul Case. It’s not just a huge number of POC characters or even POC protagonists – but their cultures, experiences, history, beliefs and traditions are also very much part of their stories. It’s not just an adjective or brief reference (not that every POC has to be an avatar of their race, but it’s still good to see a collection of stories where race is so very relevant without it being, expressly about race).
There were also some nice touches of deeper issues – fetishism and self-hatred in Shift. There’s a lot of depth and thought there that is excellent with the hugely racially diverse book
Several of the protagonists are also women with some surprising strengths – from the surprises in Shift (we thought the enemy was clear… but it was far more complex), and a lot of body image challenges in A Raggy Dog, A Shaggy Dog, and The Smile on My Face as well as very complex relationships in Ours is the Prettiest. There’s a lot of very different women with a lot of empowerment and none of the omnipresent girl-hate. It’s powerful, it’s sadly rare and it’s an overall excellent depiction
In the early stories of this book, I was leery of its LGBT content. The Smile on The Face had no LGBT characters but still felt the need to include the word f@ggot - and this is a terrible context – because it doesn’t show that that word is a horrendous slur, but instead more that it’s terrible that a straight guy is being accused of being gay. Worse this is countered by basically throwing gay as an insult back at the guy using the slur. Old Habits has a gay protagonist but in a jarring out of place moment, he decides to have the most stereotypical, completely out of character comment about a woman’s clothes. And, again, we get the completely unchallenged use of that slur. It was jarring and unnecessary and it made me look at the stories that followed with a lot of wariness.
However, later on we had a surprising number of LGBT characters that were pretty well written – with Ours is The Prettiest, Emily Breakfast and, especially, Delicious Monster. In fact, while I was really irritated at the beginning of this series and completely celebrating it by the end! Yes I went from mentally composing a “burn this homophobic bullshit with fire and the vengeance of a thousand swinging axes!” to “some excellent LGBT portrayals especially considering the paucity in the genre”. No, the excellent depictions don’t make the terrible elements palatable, but still they are excellent
But, yes, my short story dislike did kick in. By the end of the book I was kind of losing interest. There’s just too many for me to remain engaged. I reached the end of about the 9th story and realised the book was STILL GOING. So my advice, as with every anthology every ever gives to me, is to not sit down and read it in one block. These stories are not related so don’t try to read them all together.
I think reading them separately would also be a good plan because these stories are thinking stories. You don’t just read and enjoy. You read, you sit and think and get lots of food for thought. Each story needs to be read once, then read again, then sit down and thought about for an hour, then maybe discussed with other readers. There’s such a lot of nuance and thought in each one that makes this whole book a gem, despite my usual dislike of short stories.
What this book REALLY does well is use a story to elegantly consider a scenario and then not expressly explain it – but invite us to explore it. The game starts then Nalo Hopkinson hands the ball to us and invites us to set the final score – I really like that. It doesn’t make for easy reads but it does make for a powerful and fascinating one.