A Feast of Sorrows – Angela Slatter

“My father did not know that my mother knew about his other wives, but she did.”

I’ve said it before, but the book world does seem rather overflowing these days with retellings of fairy tales, or fairy tale-esque stories. Luckily the latter category is far more interesting, and is largely where this book falls.

As the title suggests, these are rather downbeat stories. And gruesome! I know the original Grimm tales etc were far more brutal than the versions we tend to hear, but even at that this collection is dark – definitely not for children, with rape, betrayal, abandonment, murder – all the usual and more – going on! That said, there’s something satisfying when an evil sister or cheating husband gets their comeuppance, and that happens in a few of these stories.

I wasn’t massively impressed to start with – my first thought was rather that Ursula Vernon aka T.Kingfisher does this kind of thing far better, particularly as I’ve read her retelling of the Blackbeard story so recently and I think I prefer it to the version presented here, even though it’s got a nice twist.

However, after a slightly bumpy start I really started to enjoy A Feast of Sorrows, and settled into the rhythm of the author’s voice. The work becomes more original, but always with those dark and less-than-happy overtones. Another commonality to the stories – even before they start referencing each other in a shared universe kind of a way I largely liked – is that all of the leading cast are female. I don’t think I’d wholly spotted that until I was done, but indeed, this is a book of strong female characters with nicely three-dimensional personalities – hurrah!

By the end of the collection I was thoroughly enjoying it, although the cross references to each other made it feel a bit like I was reading an episodic novel more than a collection of short stories – which is good and not great at the same time. It does mean that some of the tales blur into one another for me, so I’m not sure I have a favourite. Perhaps the wonderfully titled St Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls, which includes knowledge-stealing and assassination and some wonderfully nasty teachers!

Recommended? Yes indeed, although maybe not if you’re in need of cheering up!

NetGalley eARC: 299 pages / 14 short stories
First published: 4th October 2016
Series: short stories
Read from 3rd-10th September 2016

My rating: 7/10

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Drowned Worlds – anthology

Short story collections, especially in the speculative fiction genres, can be difficult beasts. Drowned Worlds, however, gets past some of the limitations and trials by setting out a theme: what happens after the ice caps melt and sea levels rise?

An array of options are explored over the 15 short stories, from colonizing other planets to dystopian horrors to more or less life as we know it, with y’know, more water.

To be honest, most of the stories haven’t left great impressions individually, but as part of a themed anthology, it’s the range of options and approaches that really gelled for me. In one story, scientists make the ultimate sacrifice to save the species reliant on now-destroyed coral reef; in several, tourists flock to the drowned cities of the past; and in one, the tourists come to a sticky end 😉 Ancient Inuit myths make an appearance, alongside new myths forming in the Arctic. We get glimpses of new kinds of living arrangements, from floating garbage islands to cities encircled by giant flood walls. Mostly, we also get to see a lot of humanity, changed or not by the new state of the Earth.

I’d also suggest that by having this shared background, the accessibility of the stories was much increased. With spec fic, the short format often makes it difficult to get up to speed with the concept presented before the story is over. Here, knowing even just a little bit going in gave you that slice of background to get started.

My favourite story was actually the last, Catherynne Valente’s The Future Is Blue. We are told that the narrator, a young woman, must allow people to spit on her, attack her, and call her names. The course of the story then jumps back to her childhood on a giant floating island of garbage – a brilliantly sketched out environment – to explore the life people now lead as well as slowly revealing the cause of the narrator’s position. It’s not a cheery story, really, but the structure and build up to the reveal appealed to me.

Kindle: 289 pages / 15 stories
First published: 2016
Series: short story anthology
Read from 3rd-14th July 2016

My rating: 6/10

The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year volume 10 – various

Short story collections are tricky beasts to review, as you want to capture the whole book as well as the highs and lows of the individual stories. The speculative genre, too, is a tough one for the short format: great that you can explore ideas, briefly, but at the same time it can be hard to contain a huge chunk of imagination in short form, leaving the reader either a tantalising glimpse or just not enough immersion.

Fortunately, this lives up to its name of being a ‘best of’, and thus there are no turkeys here. Which isn’t to say I loved every story, but in terms of experiencing some fantastic writers and a wide variety of topics and styles, this hit lots of buttons.

We open with Neil Gaiman’s wonderful Black Dog, which I’d read previously in his Trigger Warnings collection but is so bloomin’ brilliant that I happily read it again. Of course, not every story is going to come with the background of a full novel (American Gods  which I am now itching to reread!) giving it roundness and weight, which made it all the more difficult to get into the next few stories. There were several in a row which I found rather too bleak (e.g. Alastair Reynold’s A Murmuration) and depressing (City of Ash by Paolo Bacigalupi) for me – but these are relatively minor disgruntlements, of course! 🙂 One of the ‘problems’ – and joys – of collections like this is that it can offer things to suit many tastes.

As for my own taste, perhaps it should be called into question given that this year’s Nebula Award winner, Alyssa Wong’s Hungary Daughters of Starving Mothers, is a notable inclusion here – and not one of my favourites! That title goes to the penultimate tale, The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman T Malik, which – possibly because it’s longer than many of the others – really does conjure up setting and emotion.

Other tales that grabbed me include Catherynne Valente’s The Lily and the Horn, briefly sketching a dark fantasy world where dinner parties stand in for war, Greg Bear’s mindbending take on quantum theory in The Machine Starts, and The Deepwater Bride by Tamsyn Muir, which put me in mind of Charles Stross meets Neil Gaiman – excellent mix! Ian McDonald’s Bontanic Veneris surely needs a stand-alone volume displaying some of the fantastical – well, ok, impossible! – papercut botanical drawings used so effectively to intertwine with his story, told with remarkable non-straightforwardness for the short format.

It’s getting difficult not to mention more – all – of the tales here, containing such fantastical elements as talking rhinos, possessed Christmas trees, as well as more ‘commonplace’ themes such as first contact, AIs, and colonising other planets.

Whatever your taste in the ‘out there’, there’s something here to appeal. The short story format doesn’t always get much love, but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing what a range of talented authors could offer in such contrained packages.

NetGalley eARC: 624 pages / 27 stories
First published: 2016
Series: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, volume 10
Read from 14th May – 15th June 2016

My rating: 8/10

Cruel Crown – Victoria Aveyard

“As usual, Julian gave her a book.”

Cruel Crown comprises two short stories, Queen Song and Steel Scars, both prequels to the novel Red Queen, which kicks off the series of the same name.

The first, Queen Song, was my favourite by far, telling the story of Coriane, the King’s first wife. This chilling little tragedy is hinted at in Red Queen, and it was quite fascinating to hear the full dark tale. It also gives more background into Elara, a key player in the main novel.

The second tale, Steel Scars, didn’t impress me as much. It’s told by Farley, as she takes her first mission command as part of the Red Guard. There are hints as to why she joined, but not really the same character exploration, I felt, as the first tale. Starting before the events in Red Queen, it covers the period up to Farley’s introduction in the main novel. It also fills in a bit of back/side story between that and the end of the novel, but still felt rather slight and uninvolving. I also really disliked the ‘memo-style’ communication – I’ve always found it hard to slow down my reading enough to pay attention to such ‘to’ and ‘from’ type things, so find them irritating.

Overall, then, I’d give the first story 6/10 and the second maybe 4. For fans of Red Queen, these are nice little additions to the background, but nothing you have to read for the main narrative.

The version I read also included a sizable chunk of preview of the next book in the series, Glass Sword.

NetGalley eARC: 208 pages / 2 stories
First published: 2016
Series: Red Queen, prequels 0.1 and 0.2
Read from 19th-22nd April 2016

My rating: 5/10 for the pair, but the first one is definitely better than the second.

Monstrous Little Voices – anthology

“The revels in the fairy court of Oberon are, it’s said, less glamorous than those of his wife’s bower, but more wild.”

Subtitled, ‘New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World’, this collection of short novellas takes characters from Shakespeare plays and continues their stories, expanding the world(s) of the Bard. You don’t need to be familiar with the plays, but you’ll undoubtedly get a lot more enjoyment out of this if you are – certainly, the gaps in my own knowledge were shown up in a couple of the tales.

After a brief, scene-setting prologue, we kick off with what turned out to be my favourite, Coral Bones, by Foz Meadows. This picks up with Miranda’s tale after the events told in The Tempest – and, in my opinion, rights a few wrongs done to the character! But that’s a secondary concern to the story, which takes the magical-to-mundane of the play back to the magical – loved it!

I’ve only relatively recently begun familiarising myself with Shakespeare’s work (via the live broadcasts in cinemas) beyond what I was taught at school, so there are still several plays I’m unfamiliar with. These gaps in my knowledge really showed here, with a lot of less-than-familiar (to me) characters. Adrian Tchaichovsky’s story in particular seemed to be trying to cram as many in as possible, and to be honest this didn’t really work for me – if you knew who they all were, that might be different, but I was finding it a little cluttered.

What makes this volume really interesting, I think, is that the stories aren’t entirely stand-alone: that is, they seem to follow on from each other. I’m not sure if this is true (did one author pass their tale to the next?) or if the brief each was given, or the editing, makes it seem that way.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I love the idea of taking a body of work and giving it a shared ‘universe’, and then expanding on that. And I really love some of the ‘what happened next’ ideas, especially where they bring the original story more up to date for a modern audience. I’m already looking forward to a reread once I’ve seen a few more of the plays!

Kindle: 240 pages / 5 novellas
First published: 2016
Series: Monstrous Little Voices (1-5)
Read from 31st January – 14 February 2016 (arc from NetGalley)

My rating: 7/10 – really enjoyed it, but none as much as the first story

Dragons at Crumbling Castle – Terry Pratchett

“In the days of King Arthur there were no newspapers, only town criers, who went around shouting the news at the tops of their voices.”

The sad demise of Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the wonderful Discworld books, there was a small flurry of collections and other works released in the period leading up to his death – with hindsight, the timing makes it hard to imagine that he wasn’t aware that the end was near and undergoing a sort of ‘clearing the decks’, perhaps.

Three books of shorter fiction were included in this: A Blink of the Screen, collected short fiction (2012), A Slip of the Keyboard, collected non-fiction (2014), and this, Dragons at Crumbling Castle, a collection of work aimed at young readers, and first published in a small newspaper back in the 1960s. It seems, perhaps, an odd choice of material to resurrect, hence my opening comment (which is less cynical than any hints re marketing, tbh!).

The age and humbleness of the story origins is worth bearing in mind when reading, I think: there is something a little twee about many of them, but it’s a quaint old-fashionedness, mainly stylistic, rather than actually dated in feel. They are the sort of nonsense (in a good way) yarns that one might spin for a small child (if, of course, ‘one’ had the talent of PTerry!). There’s also an early story of The Carpet People.

The book also contains many illustrations, which weren’t best-served by my elderly e-reader, by Mark Beech, whose work here reminds me of Quentin Blake, perhaps – no bad thing!

Despite taking my time reading it, the stories are all short and quick to read. The audience is mostly likely to be Pratchett completists, but the material really is for kids.

Kindle: 352 pages / 14 stories
First published: 2014
Series: none
Read from 3rd January – 11th February 2016
My rating: 6/10