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.
The State of the Art, Iain M. Banks
The State of the Art is a collection of short stories, some of which relate to the Culture novels and some of which don’t (or at least, don’t overtly). I actually wasn’t much impressed by Iain M. Banks as a short story writer, it seems: the best of the stories was the titular story itself, which is both a Culture story and rather longer than the other stories in the collection, which gave it more space to interest me, and more space for him to set up the kind of story that’s grabbed me in his novels.
There’s nothing wrong with the stories per se, but they didn’t grab me at all (with the exception of the one already mentioned and ‘A Gift from the Culture’). Where I was interested was when it was closest to Banks’ other SF work, but otherwise the stories seemed fairly unremarkable. There are some interesting bits of humour; wry looks at staples of the genre.
I’m hoping that’s not a reaction to Banks’ work in general, as I know I did enjoy several of his Culture novels and I was looking forward to reading the rest. Perhaps he just isn’t to my taste as a short story writer.
Tempting the Gods, Tanith Lee
I keep thinking I haven’t read any Tanith Lee, but I think this is my third now. She has an interesting writing style: lush, rich, layered. Insinuating. I’m not always a fan of the darker themes that seem to run through her work (I disliked White As Snow because of the rape theme, for instance), but I can’t deny how lovely her writing is. Sometimes it’s a little too much, like a cake that’s too dense and too sweet. It reminds me a bit of Catherynne M. Valente’s work, though more solid.
As you can tell, her language is tactile, sensual; you can’t help describing it as a physical thing.
Some of these stories were just right for me, though. I loved ‘Death Loves Me’, ‘After I Killed Her’ and ‘The Lady-of-Shalott House’, for instance. She does enchantment so well, weaves the plots of her stories so carefully that you can almost see the solution before you get there, and yet it doesn’t feel predictable. Just right.
Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman
It’s difficult to rate a book of short stories, for me. They can be so different from each other, so that one is totally to your taste and another is not. Throw in some poetry too, and there’s even more opportunity to leave people cold (I don’t know many people who aren’t picky about poetry). So the good, first: this is pretty typically Gaiman’s work, wry and dark and twisted, rich with implications and things lurking in the shadows. His stories all flow well, so that it all leads logically on to the ending (which is not to say that the endings are predictable, though familiarity with Neil Gaiman’s imagination might give you a pretty good idea).
The bad: I did find it a mite too familiar. That might partially be because I read the introductions to each story first — always something of great interest to me, but it does flavour how you’re going to experience the story. Secondly, Neil Gaiman’s poetry pretty much doesn’t do it for me. And thirdly, the opinions on “trigger warnings”, from which Gaiman took his title, were… fairly typically as though he had not actually discussed them with anyone. I’m a big advocate for them, and I think most quibbles against them are nonsense; sure, life itself doesn’t have trigger warnings. And? Why should that stop us from giving other people notice when we can? “Here be bad things” is something, but triggers are so different for different people… Stick a label on the story like you do nutrition information on food: not everyone will read it, but those who can benefit from the additional knowledge and preparation. And not “this product may contain nuts, soy or dairy products”, but “this product does contain nuts” or “this product was manufactured in a factory which also processes nuts”. Actual, precise information about common triggers. It’s not going to cover every eventuality, and we can’t pretend it will, but it would make sense to try.
And not just by saying “these stories end badly for at least one person in them”.
All in all, that sounds very critical. I did enjoy reading the stories, though, and I think Gaiman does clever things with the form. I’m just a bit too used to his kind of cleverness.
Prickle Moon, Juliet Marillier
Prickle Moon is a collection of short stories, most of them previously published but five of them new, and I knew I’d have to pick the book up someday because of that hedgehog on the cover. I love hedgehogs; just yesterday we rescued one from our garden which seemed too small to be out, and sent her off to a carer to spend the winter. Last winter we did that with a couple of hedgehogs; one of them died, but the second lived and was even strong enough to make a break for it. He tunnelled out with some friends and is now living under someone’s decking!
So mostly I got this for the title story, Prickle Moon, because I love my hedgehogs. Like most of the stories in this collection, it’s bittersweet; woven with loss and hope, awful tasks and finding your way through them. Some of the stories are fairytale retellings — Rapunzel, Baba Yaga — and some are new stories very much styled as fairytales, with very familiar motifs. Some of the stories are oddly modern, which jars against the more traditional and more fantastical ones. Marillier’s good at putting her characters into awful situations which require compromise with their morality, and then making it work out so that it isn’t so bad after all. She’s good at grief, and especially healed grief — the kind of grief you learn to live with and live in.
The collection also includes a Sevenwaters story. I haven’t read that series, so it took me a little while to get into it and pick up everything that was going on, but the joy in the ending, the hope, is not something you need to have read Daughter of the Forest and the other books to understand. Though, right now, I’m definitely in the mood to read more of Marillier’s work.
Legion, Brandon Sanderson
I reread this novella to remind myself of the character(s) and the exact events in it in preparation for reading Legion: Skin Deep. I remember loving it a lot the first time; this time, maybe because I was already familiar with the character of Stephen Leeds, it didn’t work quite as well for me. I ended up focusing more on the plot, which is relatively silly — someone compared it to Dan Brown, and actually, I can kind of see that. The plot itself isn’t that important, though; it’s how the characters deal with the problems, and how Stephen’s multiple aspects work together and how they manage to affect the real world. I think the refreshing part is that Sanderson doesn’t try to fool us any with going back and forth on whether the Aspects are real; he starts off right away with the premise that they’re not.
I’m not totally sure that Sanderson got the diagnosis for Stephen right, though. There’s nothing wrong with Stephen’s perceptions, he just parcels them out between his ‘Aspects’ and deals with everything in that fragmentary way — he talks about being schizophrenic, and yet he still knows where to draw the line between reality and his delusions. Despite the fact that he says he doesn’t have a multiple personality disorder, that seems nearer to the mark to me.
Anyway, looking forward to the sequel, although it worries me slightly that people mention it going deeper into science-y stuff. As you can see from my doubts about Sanderson’s medical research, I’m not convinced by his attempts to pin this down too firmly. He’s famous for his fantasy worlds, and deservedly so; I’m happy with contemporary fantasy, and yet very similar science fiction that doesn’t adhere to what we understand of science drives me bonkers.
Irregular Creatures, Chuck Wendig
Irregular Creatures is a collection of Chuck Wendig’s short stories. Someone recently compared his work to Stephen King’s, and I can see where they’re coming from: there’s something robustly readable about all of it, and the fantasy/horror aspects are all handled in a matter of fact sort of way. I can’t remember how King handles narrators, at this point, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find similarities there.
I think someone also mentioned a sort of cheerful vulgarity, and there’s that, too. Sometimes I find that uncomfortable, e.g. in ‘Mister Mhu’s Pussy Show’; it’s really not my kind of thing.
Mostly, the stories are fun, very readable, sometimes completely fascinating in their bizarreness. Chuck Wendig is an author I follow because I know he writes solidly and prolifically, and always has ideas I want to see played out.
Must get round to reading more of his Miriam Black books…