The Cutting Room, ed. Ellen Datlow
Received to review via Netgalley
I mostly requested The Cutting Room because I know Ellen Datlow is a majorly respected editor of anthologies, and the idea of a themed anthology based on the silver screen… well, it did appeal, even if horror isn’t really my thing. Unfortunately, that turned out to be only too true, and also I didn’t really understand the point of some of the stories. There are definitely some standouts, though, and some amazingly written ones, and clever ones which turn things around.
‘Cuts’ was pretty good, even if I kind of expected the twist at the end; ‘Onlookers’, also. Genevieve Valentine’s story is interesting, and though I thought Peter Straub’s story was too self-conscious, it was well written. ‘Tenderiser’ was tense and breathless, though I wasn’t always following the reasoning 100%.
On the other hand, ‘Ardor’ for example just read as one big mess to me. Others just cut off, or just weren’t memorable, or just went for this big gory image for kicks. Just not what I connect to or am interested in.
Still, it was interesting to explore some stories like this, and look into some new authors. I don’t think I’ll pick any of them up on the strength of these stories, but it is nice to get a bit of variety.
Word Puppets, Mary Robinette Kowal
Received to review via Netgalley
Word Puppets is a collection of short stories written by Mary Robinette Kowal, arranged — if we can trust the alleged Patrick Rothfuss’ introduction — in the order they were written. I always think that’s a fascinating way to read an author’s work, because you get to watch their skills develop, their interests change, etc. This particular collection comes with an introduction written by Pat Rothfuss… which is a little suspect because in a little game they had on twitter, Kowal was better at being Rothfuss than Rothfuss was.
If that confused you, don’t worry; I think it bent more than a few brains.
As a whole, in any case, it’s an entertaining collection. There were one or two weaker points, where by my personal lights the twist was just a little… I saw it coming. ‘For Solo Cello, op. 12’, for example. And looking at the list of titles, there’s some where I can’t figure out which story they were, which you can attribute either to my terrible naming or perhaps less than memorable/well-matched titles/stories. ‘For Want of a Nail’, what was that one… ah, the one with the conflicted AI.
Still, for the most part I think Word Puppets is a strong collection, solidly entertaining, and what’s also nice, it has a wide range. Fantasy, various kinds of spec-fic, different settings, older protagonists… And it’s definitely quite different to her Regency/fantasy novels (which I do enjoy, but it’s nice to see Kowal taking on other frontiers). I enjoyed most of the stories, and I think particularly ‘Chrysalis’, ‘Body Language’, ‘The Lady Astronaut of Mars’ and ‘The Consciousness Problem’. Some of them really are sticking in my head, to be thought about later — so that’s a good sign.
Binti, Nnedi Okorafor
I keep meaning to read Okorafor’s work, but Who Fears Death was a bad fit when I picked it up, and my copy of Lagoon has gone AWOL. Which left this as my introduction — maybe not a bad thing, because it’s fairly bitesize, without being truncated. I wasn’t sure what to think of it until I was talking with Robert from my book club, though, where he noted that at the start of the book, things begin to happen due to Binti’s merit. She gets herself into university, and she’s brave enough to leave her family and set out into the unknown. After that, though, it’s luck: she couldn’t know that the things she took with her would be useful, had no idea how to make them useful, and basically just happened to survive and do well because of her background.
It feels almost like message fiction: sometimes, someone from an unprivileged background can make good because they bring new tools which other people wouldn’t consider. That’s not a bad message, and the story and world-building is reasonably entertaining… but. The conflict essentially ends by 20% in — after that, Binti no longer has to rely on her own resources. She just happens to have the right things with her.
That’s a bit of a simplification, but it does weaken the story for me. It starts off strongly, and the world is interesting — Binti’s people, the way things are set up, the aliens — but then… I began to feel as if it would turn out okay because Binti was special somehow. Having a special protagonist who is insulated from harm makes suspense and intrigue difficult.
The Fox’s Tower, Yoon Ha Lee
This is a lovely collection of microfiction, which often teasingly looks over the edge at poetry in the imagery, the choice of words, the spare precise nature of the prose. It’s a collection of fable-like stories, some of them more familiar than others, all of them given their own little twist. There were a few that didn’t really strike me, but microfiction is a very difficult art, and I think Yoon Ha Lee does an amazing job with the form. Each word has to be necessary — done. Each image has to evoke a picture, an emotion, a perfect still moment — done.
I also liked that gender is not a major thing in these stories. It shifts. Someone is referred to as someone’s son, and yet the pronoun is ‘they’. It’s noticeable at first because people don’t usually do it, but I quickly got used to it, and it’s a part of the narrative voice. (Some characters are ‘she’ or ‘he’; it also depends on the character, the story.)
I know Yoon Ha Lee has a sci-fi book deal with Solaris, and I’m definitely looking forward to that on the strength of this.
Bookburners: Badge, Book and Candle, Max Gladstone
Received to review via Netgalley
I like the idea of this serialised novel business; I’ll be checking it out again when Ellen Kushner’s Tremontaine world gets a serialised outing. But Bookburners didn’t really grab me; it doesn’t help that the file that ended up on my Kindle was a mess, of course, with the formatting all over the place, but there was nothing special about the style or set-up, as far as I was concerned. It’s a fairly typical urban fantasy opening, and there’s just not enough to hook me and keep me following it through the serial format.
It’s cool that this isn’t a damsel in distress or ‘fridged’ woman plot, that the victim and motivating factor is in fact a female cop’s brother. And there were some pretty cool details about the world-building, like the idea that demons (essentially) can get into you through anything that links one person to another, like a book. But… not convinced to subscribe and follow this particular story.
Curran POV Collection, Gordon Andrews
This one is just a bunch of vignettes from the point of view of Curran, the love interest of Kate Daniels, written by just one half of the husband-wife team. It’s less textured and Curran’s POV surprised me a little — the tone didn’t seem right for the big lion guy, some of the time. It’s kind of funny and it fills in a couple of gaps, but it’s not necessary to read this to fully understand what’s happening in the books. I did like the light it shone on Curran’s previous partner, Myong, though.
Not bad, but I definitely prefer Kate’s point of view and the format of the books. The missing scene format just isn’t satisfying for me.
Pretty Monsters, Kelly Link
Kelly Link’s writing is gorgeous. These stories don’t all have the same tone or theme or setting or anything like that, but they do have that writing style in common, and it’s great. I’m not actually very good at liking short stories — I like developed characters and longer plots — but these are, for the most part, pretty enjoyable. ‘The Surfer’ was, if anything, a little too long for me, because most of what happens is character development.
I was surprised to realise I’d read both ‘The Wizards of Perfil’ and ‘The Constable of Abal’ before; I’m not sure where I read them, but it must’ve been an anthology. They’re probably my favourite of the two for language, setting and worldbuilding — and unsurprisingly, they’re the most secondary-world-fantasy of the bunch.
I was less sure about the alternating stories of ‘Pretty Monsters’; I think I’d have to read them again to really get the whole plot. There’s a great atmosphere with all of these, though: creepy, subtly wrong, and sometimes wry and funny as well.
Daughter of Necessity, Marie Brennan
I don’t normally review short stories and such, but this one caught my eye and I love the cover, so why not? It’s available to read online, for free, here; it’s not a long read, not even really a retelling, but a glimpse behind the scenes. A clever take on a piece of mythology we often take at face value. It answers one simple question.
Why does Penelope weave and unpick a funeral shroud for her husband to delay the suitors?
She’s a clever woman, and this puts her in an active role, taking a hand in her own fate and even her husband and son’s fate. The passive woman of the Homeric epic steps aside to reveal a woman who takes her own fate into her hands.
It helps that the writing is lovely. I can’t pick out a single line or passage: it’s mostly simple, with some of the imagery and phrasing from translations of Homeric verse, maybe a bit of Ovid. It hits just the right note. I do kind of want more, just because I really like the way Brennan interprets the story.
Mammoths of the Great Plains, Eleanor Arnason
I still need to read A Woman of the Iron People, which is the main work I’ve been recommended by Arnason. But I thought I’d read this on Scribd, since it was available and I find the Outspoken Authors series generally interesting. I was less interested in the interview and essay, though it’s interesting to know where Arnason comes from (in many senses!) and what her preoccupations are. I’m not sure how much general interest the essay has; certainly, if you’re not fond of non-fiction, I can’t imagine you’ll appreciate it.
The story itself is interesting: it’s alternate history, where mammoths survived into the last couple of centuries, and where humans drove them to extinction with hunting and tourism. The background of the Native American characters and customs was particularly cool, especially given the educated and successful Native American women at the heart of the story.
The contemplative tone is a bit Ursula Le Guin-ish, which I think Arnason says herself — and the structure, too, with the story within a story. It’s quite a slow narrative: not about things happening, so much as things that have happened, about the power humans have for good and bad (but usually bad) over our environment. I don’t know enough about Native American culture and belief to judge that aspect of the story: to me the ecological, intimate link with nature stuff seemed a little like an idealisation, more of the ‘noble savage’ persuasion than realism, but it doesn’t do so in a negative way and, like I said, I don’t know enough to judge.
Third Time Lucky, Tanya Huff
I’ve wanted to get this collection since it came out, so no surprises that I read it as soon as I got chance. I love Huff’s collections of short stories: they’re bite-sized, sure, but there’s enough there to get your teeth into. Especially in this collection, which is a group of stories about the same character/world: Magdalene, the most powerful wizard in the world. I loved that she is literally the most powerful wizard, and that Huff chose to deal with that not by making her less powerful, but by making her essentially her own worst enemy. (Which is particularly true in the last story.)
I like that Magdalene is lazy, indolent, sensual, sexual — and none of this is particularly judged by the stories in any kind of “teach her a lesson” way. She still does what needs to be done, she still cares about the people around her, and she doesn’t care to boast about her. That would take effort.
In fact, arguably the only “lesson” in these stories is that she must accept herself, whole and entire, the good with the bad. Not a bad message at all, if there’s going to be one.