How To Traverse Terra Incognita, Dean Francis Alfar
I can’t remember why exactly I picked this up, ages ago, but it’s an interesting sampling of stories from a writer from the Philippines; at first, I expected the stories to all be around a theme in the sense of being set in the same world, but while they all explore unknown worlds in some way, they aren’t linked one to another. I wasn’t specially wowed by some of the stories — in a way, I expected the endings they had, despite the sense of them being intended to be clever/surprising. They were definitely competently written, all of them, and some of them were more than competent, but I didn’t really get drawn in or mesmerised by the words in any of the stories.
The range is interesting, and given that I did enjoy the collection while not finding it exceptional, I’m going to put the author’s other anthology on my list — Goodreads reviews suggest people, in general, preferred Kite of Stars.
Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang
I’ve been meaning to read Ted Chiang’s stories for ages, since his work is clearly adored by a lot of writers I admire and whose taste I trust. And I wasn’t disappointed at all: there’s a reasonably formal feel to the writing in these stories, something careful and precise, and for me that makes them particularly engaging. I guess other people might find that makes them fall rather flat, but to me it added to the poignancy.
My favourite stories of the bunch, by far, were ‘The Tower of Babylon’ and ‘Story of Your Life’. The others explore some interesting ideas, but those two interested me the most. ‘The Tower of Babylon’ is just a fun what-if — what if the Tower was real? What if the world was shaped differently to ours? And also, what kind of expertise and building would be needed to make this tower? How long would it take, and how would people cope? Examining all of this fascinated me, because Chiang obviously thought it through.
‘Story of Your Life’, well. I’m not sure how Adams and Renner’s film Arrival is going to deal with it, because for me the whole point is the narration, the calm regret and acceptance of the narrative voice. I’m not sure about the idea of language working that way (i.e. the different perspective to time being an aspect of the language, not of the structure of the aliens’ brains, and one which is transmittable to another species). But emotionally, the story really works, and of course it also leaves you wondering about the aliens, about what exactly they intended, what they wanted from humanity, and whether they got it.
A Winter Book, Tove Jansson
A Winter Book is a collection of some of Tove Jansson’s less famous writing — i.e., this isn’t the Moomins. Instead, this is a selection of short stories written throughout her life, many of them autobiographical or otherwise revealing. The stories are generally quiet set pieces, often with vivid images at the centre — the girl rolling a stone home; the girl throwing her torch onto an island of floating ice and lighting it up, but too scared to jump across…
‘Quiet’ is definitely the word that comes to mind most; the prose (even accounting for translation) is unassuming and relatively down to earth. Things are just so.
The writing isn’t bad, but it’s not the sort of short story writing I actually really enjoy, though at times it can be done really well (thinking Raymond Carver).
The Heart of Aces, various
The Heart of Aces is a collection that’s almost more interesting/important to me because of the theme than because of anything about the actual stories within. Asexual representation is a big thing to me, because for a long time I was all kinds of confused about why I wasn’t interested in other people the way my peers were, why I didn’t want the same things in a relationship, etc. The only times I did come across it were in stories about trauma, and then it was something to be got over; not something that you can just accept. And that’s the nice things about the stories here. Each one of them accepts asexuality as a valid way of living a life that can still be whole and fulfilling, and even shared with a romantic partner. Sometimes you have to compromise or go out on a limb, sometimes things don’t match up quite as well as you’d hope, but all the same, these stories say it’s possible.
(And oh, my relief that I don’t think a single character in these stories calls not wanting sex “unnatural”, or anything like that. Look, I don’t feel naturally feel physical attraction — if anything, if I did, that would be unnatural for me, even if it might maybe be achievable with drugs or something. It’s just not the way I’m built, and that’s okay.)
The stories in the collection are a little shaky; one of them I just found plain unreadable, while others were very basic. There are a couple of sweet ones in there, though. I do wish that there was a bit more representation across the board — a cisgendered, straight, asexual couple would be great to see, or stretching the definition of ace a bit, an aromantic character — but there is one story with a trans character (albeit the POV character takes a while to switch pronouns correctly), and a realistic range of what the characters in the stories are interested in. I wouldn’t really recommend the stories, except that there’s so little out there that’s tailored for asexual people. If you feel like you really need to see something that does touch on that, you might enjoy picking up The Heart of Aces.
Toad Words and Other Stories, T. Kingfisher
If you’ve been following my reactions to T. Kingfisher’s longer retellings, it’s probably no surprise that I enjoyed this collection of short stories. Despite the stated belief that she can’t write short stories, this should make it very obvious that she can: with wry humour, with tenderness, with care, with cleverness. Each of these stories has its own spin on the original fairytales; each has its own voice and shape, and sometimes it goes quite far from the original — but always in a way that I really enjoy. For example, the talking boars in ‘Boar & Apples’, which is a skewed retelling of Snow White.
If you’re not reading T. Kingfisher yet, this would make a good introduction; there’s plenty of bang for your buck here, because the stories give you a taster of all the author’s talents (rather than being a single story like Bryony and Roses or The Raven and the Reindeer). Mind you, it’s not like the other books are very expensive either; I totally recommend going for it and having a binge, if you enjoy fairytale retellings.
Of course, not all the stories were 100% to my taste, but that always happens, especially with short stories — I’m picky. It’s a strong enough collection that I think what appeals to me less could well be someone else’s favourite.
(My favourite story was ‘Loathly’; though it doesn’t explicitly reference Arthuriana, I enjoyed this take on the Loathly Lady a lot.)
The Terracotta Bride, Zen Cho
The Terracotta Bride is a short story/novella set in a very particular sort of afterlife: a bureaucratic one, in which people live (er, death?) very much as the living do, though they rely on the offerings of their descendants for money, food, and whatever else becomes necessary. So the saying that ‘hell is other people’ is literally true, especially for the protagonist of the story. It’s a pretty un-Western setting, and Cho expects the reader to keep up. Like this bit:
There were so many other dangers to contend with — demons promoted from other courts, furiously upstanding and eager to hurry on the cycle of rebirth. The eight thousand terracotta warriors who had been buried with an emperor, now lost. Left masterless, the warriors roamed the tenth court, looking for trouble. And worst of all, the dead. In hell, as in every other world, man was man’s greatest enemy.
The story follows a woman who has been married off by a family member to a rich man, because he wanted to manipulate another of his wives. Then there’s the Terracotta Bride herself. I don’t know what other people expected from this story; I didn’t really expect it to go quite in this direction, although it felt very appropriate. The ending is lovely, just right: even if you didn’t expect the exact direction of the story.
It’s a little bittersweet, but hopeful too. It really works.
The Bread We Eat in Dreams, Catherynne M. Valente
If you’re a fan of Catherynne M. Valente’s work, then you probably know what to expect: prose that touches poetry at times, often an influence of Japanese folklore, strange dream-like logic… This is a wide-ranging collection which includes some stories I read elsewhere, or could’ve read elsewhere, like the Fairyland novella about Mallow. The writing is generally beautiful; that’s never really something I doubt with Valente. The choice of stories is also generally good, even though I have encountered some of them in multiple other collections.
It’s probably most worthwhile for the pretty cover and for people who either haven’t read much Valente and want a sampler, or people who read everything she writes and don’t want to miss anything.
Confession: I mostly skipped the actual poetry. I prefer the lyricism of Valente’s prose to anything about her poetry.
Liars and Thieves, Karen Maitland
I might’ve benefitted from reading this closer to when I read Company of Liars, as it took me a while to remember who the characters were and what exactly was going on — and I still can’t quite remember how it fits in. It’s basically like a missing chapter from Company of Liars; nothing essential, but some characterisation stuff and a little bit more of the world, and the dangerous situations travellers faced.
It’s not a great or vital addition to the world, but if you enjoy the characters and their interplay, you might want to pick it up. It’s readable, just not special.
The Paper Menagerie, Ken Liu
Received to review via Netgalley
The Paper Menagerie is a collection of stories by Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award winner Ken Liu. Some of the stories deal with issues of Chinese-American heritage, and one in particular goes into a lot of detail, in a very interesting documentary format, about events in China during Japanese occupation, issues of experimentation, and then through the lens of spec-fic, history and who owns it, who controls it, how we can interact with it. Some of the stories are quite long, and come with footnotes about how they originated or further sources if you’re interested in the story.
There was nothing I specifically didn’t like about the stories, in general; one or two were weaker, others stronger. I was surprised that I felt ‘The Paper Menagerie’ to be a little… trite, given the awards and praise it has received, but it does evoke the feelings well. There are some moments where that comes out very strongly in Liu’s stories: there’s one story which uses a lot of descriptions of Chinese food and culture, and I could almost taste the dumplings, the rice, the vegetables, when reading that one. For the most part, though, I felt like Liu’s voice was very even in tone; I didn’t feel passionately one way or the other about quite a few of these stories. I felt like there were a few obviously great stories, and others that were entertaining enough but definitely not as strong.
I’m interested to read The Grace of Kings, Liu’s novel, and his translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem; I’d like to see how Liu’s voice comes across there and how it flavours a work in translation. I’m not put off Liu’s work, just not quite enthused about it.
The Collectors, Philip Pullman, read by Bill Nighy
I don’t think I knew when I picked this up that it was part of the His Dark Materials world, but it doesn’t really matter that it is. It does add another dimension if you can identify why certain things go together, but it works as an atmospheric creepy story, too. Especially as read by Bill Nighy — I don’t often read something only as an audiobook, but this seems very much designed to be an audiobook. The action is almost entirely in dialogue.
The feeling of the story… it’s something like Neil Gaiman’s style, now I think about it. And it feels more like Clockwork, of Pullman’s work, than His Dark Materials. That’s not a criticism, despite the fact that Clockwork is aimed at a younger audience. I think both capture something creepy and bring it across in just the right number of words.
For an audiobook I got for free, this is definitely worth the half hour’s listening. Especially if you are a fan of Pullman in general.