This anthology has a theme – and it’s generally a theme it’s handled quite well. Shadowed Souls are people who do not stand neatly in black and white morality and definitely straddle that uncomfortable grey shadow zone (ooooh title reference).
Firstly we have Cold Case by Jim Butcher with a story from the Dresden Files series. And if anything this is the story that defines the meaning of the book.
I like the exploration of Molly, now one of the younger Winter Queens with all the power and moral ambiguity of the Winter Court. The Winter Court has always been savage and dangerous and vicious – by design. It’s the bulwark against terrible outsider evil, it’s a court that has been built to fight an eternal, brutal war against monsters. The Winter Court is the very essence of dubious morality; of using monsters to fight monsters
I also like the how we go some way to explaining the rather bizarre horniness of the Winter Court. After all, Winter =/= generally mean sexytimes (except in Canada when hockey is cancelled). The bleak idea that Winter fae are super horny because of the war – because of the need to constantly breed because the war inflicts atrocious attrition on them is horrifying, bleak and very much in line with the theme of the court and the book.
So we have Molly, a character we know is a good and ethical and moral now with a whole lot more power and urges she has to learn to control – and having to do some really terrible things and make some really terrible choices for The Greater Good. Which is all the harder because Molly is a child of one of the Knights of the Cross, a man so good he gave literal demons multiple chances to repent. That’s a hard path to follow. We see both the good – upholding her duty to her people – and the terrible, her having to enforce the rules and sacrifices of the Winter court. And it is brutal. I love it
I am less thrilled with HOW Molly’s sexualness is portrayed here. So, yes, the Winter Court is horny, we know this – but in Molly this is interpreted by lots and lots of flirting. Which is fine, flirtiatious and sexually charged female characters are not a problem: but when Harry had the Winter Mantle he wasn’t sexually flirting – his thoughts were creepy and outright pushing for rape. It’s a stark contrast between male and female sexuality – especially when Molly also comes with a celibacy contract. And, yes, the story of sacrifice and suffering inherent to the Winter Court is powerful – but the backstory sets it in dubious light.
We do have a latino mage and several Native American supernaturals who play a decent role in the book
Sleepover by Seanan McGuire
While the opening story defines the theme of the book, I don’t see this book as fitting into the theme. The protagonist is a succubus but not inherently or unduly evil nor forced to make evil choices. She is coerced into a mission – but the mission is to rescue a child. That’s not morally ambiguous. And while we have a definite misunderstanding about why that child went missing, again there’s no real grey area so much as just a complete misunderstanding on the part of the humans as to how these beings work
I do love the whole concept of the world created – so much so that I think this book would be an absolutely awesome lead in to a new series so we could look at the Lilim and the Bogeymen and the culture and societies that are there that people have completely gotten wrong. If this is an excerpt of a longer series, count me in because the introduction of the main character and the world building definitely has me hooked
Also, lesbian protagonist who nods at LGBT cultural milestones without being defined by them – definitely here for this.
If Wishes Were by Tanya Huff
Oh painful nostalgia! This is a book series I absolutely loved and it ended and I wasn’t ready to let go and now it releases a short story to invoked and tease and I’m just going to sit in a corner and cling to it for a little while. I liked the Victoria Nelson series, it had issues, but I really really liked it. And Vicki is always an awesome character, tough and capable without all the ridiculous tropes that so often accompany that with power creep and rebel without a clueness. I liked her and this was a great story from her world – Vicki investigating, a djinn with some very tricky wishes which I like (because they were very very tricky indeed) and some POC experts and contacts along the way.
Did it fit the brief? I think so – partly because Vicki is quite an edgy character and not overly given to being sympathetic or fluffy. But also because of the temptation that underpins this story – her lover is vulnerable, hurting and reminding vampiric Vicki of his mortality – there’s a lot of temptation there and a lot of excellent thinking of her motives and wants.
Solus by Anton Strout
Unlike the previous three, this isn’t an author I’m familiar with and I’ve just realised that this book is part of a larger series
I’m in. A psychometrist gets major points for being a unique protagonist (albeit not entirely) with extra support from me by not twisting this power into a new special super power. I like the difficulty and complexity of how it is depicted. I love the idea of a Department of Extraordinary Affairs Bureau (since such organisations tend to be viewed as the enemy in the genre rather than something the protagonist is part of unless it’s revealed as corrupt and our hero has to tear it down). I like the mix of the mundane office complaints (poor training, bureaucracy) next to the magical.
As to the theme? I think that’s supposed to be carried by the protagonist’s moderately shadowy past. It’s a bit small potatoes in a genre so replete with vampires who can’t help but kill things but it works. Thematic or not, I’m looking this series up and adding it to my to-read pile.
Peacock in Hell by Kat Richardson
The odd thing about this book is I don’t think it is part of a series, but everything about it feels like it needs to be. In fact, Solus was much better as a standalone book than this one. This felt like I missed a lot of the preamble and when I reached the end of the book there was definitely a sense that we weren’t done here. There’s a lot of references to people, history, organisations, gifts, creatures and magic systems without a lot of foundation or explanation. And though that makes for intriguing hooks (if there were more to hook into) and pulled me in with a sense of greater world, it didn’t engage me a great deal as there was too much a sense of the nebulous about it for me to go all in. We did have a POC being rescued by a skilled female character – but I think I want this book to be taken, expanded and made into a full story.
On theme – well we’re breaking a soul out of hell, so that’s fairly shadowy. But the protagonist feels a lot more coerced into doing something not-all-that bad rather than a whole lot of moral ambiguity.
Eye of Newt by Kevin J Anderson
Ok, this is definitely part of a larger series and the theme doesn’t even come close to this story. For all this story is dealing with the monstrous all around and has a zombie protagonist and serial killer chefs, grey morality isn’t in it. This whole book and, presumably, the series it’s from is a comedy – and it’s silly and kind of hilarious. Zombie and ghosts, monsters doing a reality show cook-off and an actual animate newt looking for his eye.
It’s funny – but, perhaps it’s trying too hard? Like it’s cramming in as much of the ridiculous and silly as possible that it feels crammed and a little incoherent. It was amusing and fun but I didn’t feel overly tempted to reach for the whole series
What Dwells Within by Lucy A Snyder
This is definitely a book in a larger series but I am looking this one up. This book hit an excellent tone of referring to a rich and full past history without making it essential knowing. I was told exactly as much as I needed to know to understand what is happening, while still realising there’s so much more to know that I wanted. The hints of a greater world and of this protagonist having such a rich and involved history that I definitely want to be involved in.
Moral ambiguity? I’m not seeing it – woman with very dangerous and highly destructive abilities but I don’t know if we’re seeing a lot of grey areas. Her choice isn’t difficult, she’s tempted but not that much and the wonderful twists of the plot don’t require too much focus on her powers. There is some note
On the whole I like this story – and will probably check out the full story – but despite everything I said I think this one is just too much part of a greater series to stand alone. There’s just too much there in huge amounts – I definitely want more, but this book was readable but still had too much underneath.
Hunter, Healer by Jim C Hines
This is another book I’d definitely like to see more of if it were part of a greater world. But if it isn’t it still really works. I think the hints we had nicely encapsulated Julia’s involved and difficult past and her definite moral determination now. I love how we nicely get to see the breadth of the world and Julia’s amazing place within it – as a healer for all – without a great deal of examination and exploration of the details – the snap shot alone lets us grasp the whole
She’s also an Asian woman
I would say though that this is perhaps the opposite of a grey morality, perhaps. We have someone who was forced to do something truly terrible in the past and is now adamant about not only making up for that and atoning – but equally determined to make the right choice now even though a much darker choice would be easier. Which I think may touch on the theme after all
Baggage by Erik Scott De Bie
This is a definite fun story – with a woman of colour who is also a bisexual woman (we also have a very stereotypical Gay Best Friend as well, sadly). I think I definitely want to expand her history – but it’s not necessary for this story which is a definite bonus. And I absolutely love how this story develops, the lovely clues and the final reveal was so excellent because it was so perfectly bread crumbed. That was some really nice writing, with lots of supporting world building without going so far as to getting off topic or needing more. It was neat, it was fun, it was crafty, it was good
Sales Force by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
This one was excellent and harsh. I don’t think I’ve read a story that was this utterly brutal about grief. Utterly, uncompromisingly brutal. This was not pretty grief or idealised grief. This was grief with rage and claws and no damn softness at all and it was raw in its realness. It makes me want to both look up more books by the author and almost fear doing so.
This reflects the whole story – this isn’t soft, this isn’t neat and when you find a soft landing, a happy ending, a gentleness then it’s a lie. A brutal, evil lie that can only be responded to in the most brutal, uncompromising ways
This story epitomises the theme of the book – morally grey and stained red. Brutal.
Impossible Monsters by Rob Thurman
This book struck me as a bit rambling. Maybe it’s part of a larger series but I felt there was a lot of world building tapped on that just wasn’t especially needed: like his boss being peri or his history or so much more. There was a long ramble to basically get to something that needed neither the ramble nor, specifically, the supernatural element
We have a brutal monster who lives in a very predatory mindset and sadistically hunts down other monsters. Yes, it’s morally grey, but there’s not really much there besides that. Sure the protagonist definitely portrays a moral greyness which is definitely well portrayed – not so much an immorality as an amorality: a being to whom human thought is alien. But it’s not that original and throws in harsh elements as much to be edgy as convey the brutalness that Sales Force managed so excellently. Maybe it needs the padding of the story around it
In the end, there were no bad stories in this anthology. Not at all –which makes it an excellent pick to begin with. We have some nice moments of diversity but it’s not well maintained across the stories. Nor, especially, is the theme – but it also introduced me to some authors I am definitely going to pursue which is a definite win and the ultimate purpose I think. This was one of the good ones.