How Long ’til Black Future Month?, by N K Jemisin

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 27, 2018

Summary: N. K. Jemisin is one of the most powerful and acclaimed authors of our time. In the first collection of her evocative short fiction, which includes never-before-seen stories, Jemisin equally challenges and delights readers with thought-provoking narratives of destruction, rebirth, and redemption.

Spirits haunt the flooded streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow South must save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

Review: It’s no secret at this point that I absolutely adore Jemisin’s work. She writes the most amazing stories that grab you and don’t let you go, pulling you along and making you hungry to see more layers of the world unfold before you. When people say she is a master of the craft, they’re not exaggerating.

But most of my experience with her work has been long fiction rather than short. It was with great curiosity and pleasure, then, that I eagerly tucked into How Long ’til Black Future Month?

Usually I rate anthologies and collections as less than 5 stars, because inevitably something won’t be quite to my taste, and that’s just part of the process. But seriously, there wasn’t a single story in here that I didn’t enjoy, or didn’t make me feel something, or in some cases, prompted discussion with people who hadn’t even read the story yet! (Seriously, in Red Dirt Witch, a story about a mother protecting her child from making bad deals with a fey, and also discovering that sometimes you have to make way for the people who can build a better future than you can, there was a line about how fey don’t go to Alabama much because of all the iron oxide in the soil. That prompted some research about the red soil on Prince Edward Island — also high in iron oxide — which led to a discussion with my partner about how the fey are linked to artistic creativity and how both of us feeling artistic drained and dead while living on PEI was hypothetically related to the way fey creatures couldn’t be there for long.)

That’s probably an average Saturday night conversation for us, honestly…

L’Alchimista was a fantastic story that left the reader in no doubt of the similarities between cooking and chemistry (and thus, alchemy), and I was left with a burning desire to know more about the future adventures of the characters, because the door was left wide open in that regard. Cloud Dragon Skies seemed like an exploration of science versus spirituality, and the relative “correctness” of either and both at the same time; it’s all about interpretation, and I kind of loved that. Non-Zero Probabilities looked at a world where superstition and belief, luck and ritual, all had tangible effects on the world, and I love reading that kind of story in general.

Valedictorian was one of those stories that left me with some conflicted feelings at the end. There was a lot about it that hit close to home for me. Academia was basically what I lived for for a while, and I was often near the top of my class… until depression hit in late junior high and early high school and I just stopped giving a damn. Pushing to be the best was, for a while, all I had for myself. I didn’t fit in, I didn’t really have many friends, and good grades were the only way I could convince myself and others that I was worthwhile. It wasn’t until later on in life that I began to really understand how some people would rather have seen me put less effort into school and more effort into almost anything else, because that would have made me more normal, made me fit in more with my peers. Not because I would have found something else to be passionate about, but because I would have been just a bit less of a freak that didn’t belong. Zinhle’s realization that when push came to shove, nobody would fight for her to stay, nobody would recognize her potential and her uses and all the things she could become, and they would just let her be taken away because that was just how things were done… It felt very familiar. I didn’t grow up in a dystopian world where the bottom 10% of achievers (plus the top achiever) were taken away by outside forces, no, but there was still much about this story that hit hard for me, and I suspect probably hit hard for a lot of people who, at some point in their lives, defined themselves by the good grades they got.

And then there was The Narcomancer, which was actually the very first thing I had ever read that Jemisin had written. It was years ago, I think it was on tor.com at the time, and it was before I knew anything else about the author. I thought Jemisin was a man, because unless an author had an obviously female name, I just kind of assumed they were male at the time. (The ploy of writing under one’s initials only is apparently pretty effective after all!) But this was my introduction to her work, and once I’d finished reading it, I had to sit and let it all sink in for a time, let the story and the hints of a larger world wash over me, and when the storm cleared, I knew I wanted more. I heard about a novel she’d written, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (reviewed here, but be warned, this is a very old review…), and I knew right then that I had to read it. The Narcomancer was the story that got me hooked to begin with, and it was wonderful to read it again after all these years and to remember the feelings that came along with the first reading.

If you’re a fan of Jemisin’s work, you need to read this short story collection. If you’re not a fan of her work yet, you probably will be after reading this. She constructs her stories and worlds on levels that I can only hope to aspire to as a writer, and that I appreciate immensely as a reader. Some of her stories remind me of Jo Walton’s short stories, as a matter of fact: they both seem very capable of turning idle thought experiments into brilliant pieces of fiction that entice and engage the reader, and How Long ’til Black Future Month? is a shining example of Jemisin’s skill with the written word. You’re doing yourself a great disservice if you choose to pass this one by.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Shards and Ashes, edited by Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong

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Armstrong’s website / Marr’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 19, 2013

Summary: Gripping original stories of dystopian worlds from nine New York Times bestselling authors, edited by Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong.

The world is gone, destroyed by human, ecological, or supernatural causes. Survivors dodge chemical warfare and cruel gods; they travel the reaches of space and inhabit underground caverns. Their enemies are disease, corrupt corporations, and one another; their resources are few, and their courage is tested.

Powerful original dystopian tales from nine bestselling authors offer bleak insight, prophetic visions, and precious glimmers of light among the shards and ashes of a ruined world.

Review: In every dystopian novel, there are countless characters who do things that aren’t worthy of a full book, but are no less interesting to read about. Sometimes authors come up with dystopian settings or concepts they’d like to play with but that can’t really be expanded into a full world as is. And quite frankly, I think an anthology of dystopian stories is a great idea. As burned out as I can get on YA dystopian fiction, I admit that part of that burnout is due to the stories often being transparent until they get ridiculously convoluted. Or else being an idea that is interesting in its own right but when stretched out to novel-length, becomes tedious and pondering. Short stories are a great way to get around this, and even people who feel that the genre is on its way out can find a fair bit to enjoy within a book that takes us to multiple different dystopian worlds to explore multiple different ideas.

Of course, as with any anthology, stories can run the gamut between meh and amazing. So it is with this one too, unsurprisingly. But there were still a few memorably stories in here that I feel are worth pointing out.

Veronica Roth’s Hearken takes place in a world where not only is bio-terrorism a sadly common occurrence, but also certain people can hear songs of life and death with the aid of a special implant. Everybody has such a song, from the moment they’re born until they die, as we all have life and death in our existence. These musically-inclined individuals can play and record the song of someone’s life or death, as requested, a sort of musical record of some of the most existential concepts we really have. The story focuses on Darya, her difficult childhood, and her life leading up to her decision as to whether she wants to focus on songs of life or songs of death. It’s an interesting concept that Roth played with here, and as I mentioned earlier, I doubt it’s one that could fill an entire novel, but it certainly made for a decent short story.

Margaret Stohl’s Necklace of Raindrops was one that I have mixed feelings about, if I’m being honest. The story takes place in a world where life is measured by beads on a necklace. The more beads, the longer your life will be. But people “spend” beads for memorable experiences, like skydiving, or trips to interesting places. A person’s life is a balance between being long and being interesting. You can live for a long time if you don’t spend your beads, but the question is whether such an uninteresting life is really worth it. Taken literally, there are so many logical problems with this story that I don’t even know where to begin. Who decided this? How does the bead system work? Do the spent beads go to someone, who redistributes them? Who decides what experience is worth what cost? And so on. But taken symbolically, it’s a lot more interesting. Stohl writes a metaphor come to life, and to hell with the logistical conundrums! While I like knowing the ins and outs of how a dystopian world is supposed to function, sometimes those details get in the way of a good story, and I commend Stohl for experimenting like this.

Carrie Ryan’s Miasma is set in a world filled with sickness and death, and medicine as we know it has failed. To keep contagion from getting out of hand, there are old-fashioned plague doctors wandering the streets, their bird-like masks hiding more than just their faces but some deeper agenda. They bring with them animals that can sniff out disease like prey. The protagonist, Frankie, knows her younger sister is sick but uses tricks to keep her from being taken away, like bathing in scented water to mask the smell of illness. Pleasant smells, after all, are believed to keep away the evil disease-causing miasma, similar to very old European theories on disease. Of all the stories in this anthology, this was the one I most wanted to see more of. More of the world, more of the characters, more of the deeper plot that’s hinted at as the story goes on. A lot of the others were one-shot short stories, but this one feels like there could be so much more to it, and I’d love to read that.

The other stories in the collection were okay, but none of them really made an impression on me the way these three did. There were plenty of big name authors here to catch your attention if you’re a fan of YA novels (Melissa Marr, in addition to co-editing this collection, also wrote a story for it, as did Kelley Armstrong), but I’ve read surprisingly few of those authors myself, so that wasn’t what pulled me in. I was looking for a quick read and some interesting ideas. This book certainly was a quick read, and there were some interesting ideas indeed, but there were also a number of pretty predictable ones. Definitely fine if that’s what you’re looking for, but I think I went into this book expecting something else. It wasn’t bad, not at all, but it also wasn’t something that made a particularly deep impression on me, aside from a few of the stories. As I said, if you’re a fan of the authors whose stories are included here, or you’re a fan of YA dystopian stories in general, then this anthology might be right up your alley, and I encourage you to check it out if you’re able to. But if you don’t fall into those categories, I don’t think you’ll find too much here that will appeal to you. So, mostly for YA and YA dystopia fans, I think.

 

Strangers Among Us, edited by Susan Forest & Lucas K Law

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Forest’s website/Law’s page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 8, 2016

Summary: There’s a delicate balance between mental health and mental illness . . .

Who are the STRANGERS AMONG US?

We are your fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and lovers. We staff your stores, cross your streets, and study in your schools, invisible among you. We are your outcasts and underdogs, and often, your unsung heroes.

Nineteen science fiction and fantasy authors tackle the division between mental health and mental illness; how the interplay between our minds’ quirks and the diverse societies and cultures we live in can set us apart, or must be concealed, or become unlikely strengths.

We find troubles with Irish fay, a North Korean cosmonaut’s fear of flying, an aging maid dealing with politics of revenge, a mute boy and an army of darkness, a sister reaching out at the edge of a black hole, the dog and the sleepwalker, and many more.

After all, what harm can be done…

Review: I was thrilled to hear about this anthology, and yet disappointed at the same time when I realized that it wasn’t exactly getting much advanced attention, especially when social reform and visibility for those with disabilities are hot topics on so many lips these days. Maybe it’s because the book’s primarily Canadian, I don’t know, but either way, I haven’t heard nearly as much as I’d hoped about this anthology, and it’s a damn shame because it’s a great collection filled with powerful stories from some amazing authors.

And with Strangers Among Us shining the spotlight on mental illness and society’s outcasts, well, let’s just say that it has some material that hits pretty close to home.

Some background – I’ve struggled with mental health issues pretty much since hitting puberty. A diagnosis of depression and poor treatment of that when I was a teenager kicked off the whole thing. Throw in a batch of neuroatypical issues as I grew older (obsessive-compulsive tendencies, Tourette syndrome, social anxiety, other things that put me squarely on the autism spectrum, and an unpleasant dose of psychotic depression — also called depressive psychosis), and yeah, it’s no surprise that awareness of mental health issues is important to me. I could go on at length about how all this has affected my life, but I know that’s not really what you’re here for. You’re here for the book review. But I wanted to make it clear that I have experience with being one of society’s outcasts myself. I know what it’s like to doubt your sanity, the very essence of yourself, and I know what it’s like to face discrimination from others over said issues. It’s not fun. The more awareness that can be raised about what mental illness is actually like, the better.

Plus, I’m all about trying to share Canada’s great literary talent. This entire anthology is written by authors who are Canadian or who have a connection to Canada; some of the stories are set in Canada, which is a nice change of pace when the majority of what I see in SFF takes place in the US (or what used to be the US) when it’s set in this world.

So Strangers Among Us focuses on issues just like that. They’re all written by authors who write speculative fiction, and indeed most of the stories sit under the genre headers of fantasy or sci-fi, but not all of them. One rather memorable story is about a man who cannot leave his apartment, who spies on people through a payphone, learning about their lives and fantasizing about heroically saving an abused woman, until the time comes when he is pushed beyond his agoraphobia and steps outside to actually do so. Nothing fantasy or sci-fi about that, but it was a strong story nevertheless, and it definitely earned its place among all the others.

There were a couple of stories that dipped into the old well of, “People see things that aren’t there, only wait, those things actually are there and that person’s really special!” A dangerous well to dip into, really, since there have been so many stories done in the past that almost present that as a handwave to mental illness, downplaying what many people actually suffer through in the attempt to provide some sort of supernatural reason why these people aren’t ill, just misunderstood. The stories that did that, though, did it well, I’m happy to say. One, which blended multicultural mythologies in a school setting, legitimately did feature a character who could see things others couldn’t, but that story didn’t seem to tackle mental illness so much as it tackled the idea of being deliberately outcast from ones peers. Another, in which a young Irish girl could see fay and was later diagnosed as schizophrenic, of course turned out to be schizophrenic, but the story didn’t say that schizophrenia isn’t a real condition. It absolutely is. It’s just that some people get misdiagnosed with it because that’s what fits the pattern of modern human understanding.

There’s a sense of both fear and hope in each story. Fear of the unknown, the things we can’t understand, the things that seem different; hope for a better experience and for better understanding. The little boy who can’t speak and would probably get a diagnosis of autism were he not living in a secondary world, he’s sold like an object and overlooked as being too stupid to understand, until someone hurts him and the things and people dear to him and he gets his revenge, however subtle and historically overlooked that revenge may be. The thread of mental illness that runs through generations of family, tearing apart relationships as a sister feels excluded and ignored by those around her as she sees how that commonality brings others closer together. A dystopian future in which the imperfect are Culled, either killed outright or else just cast into the wastes beyond civilization, only to find that there’s a future out there, and people who are accepting and accommodating of those who aren’t what society deems normal. The person who has no bionic upgrades or implants, referred to as a dog, is the only person awake to repair damage to a spaceship, and he’s forced to wake up someone whose upgrades are offline in order to assist him, forcing that person to be thrown into his unaugmented (and, by that society’s standards, pitifully disabled) world. There’s the idea that mental illness can strike at any time, to anybody, and it can change your life, but in every story there’s a repetition of the idea that it doesn’t mean you’re down for the count. You can contribute. You can make a difference. You can maybe make all the difference.

It’s rare that I find an anthology that I like every single part of equally; there’s nearly always one or two stories that just don’t resonate with me the way the others do. And this is no exception, really. There were, I think, two stories that just didn’t do it for me, though objectively they were still quite good. They just weren’t to my taste. Some stories took a little while to get going, but I ended up liking them in the end, more than I expected to. And I can’t deny that the subject matter they tackled was important enough to keep me reading each one even when I wasn’t enjoying them as much as I’d enjoyed others.

Overall, I’d say this was a fantastic collection of short stories, and one that’s absolutely worth reading, even if mental health issues aren’t a pet passion of yours. The publisher donates a portion of the profits from this book’s sales to mental health initiatives, too, which is a wonderful bonus, and it makes me doubly glad that I was able to get my hands on this and be able to spread the word about it a little bit more. It’s an important collection, a great one to dive into, and that uplifting thread of hope that ran strong was, to be perfectly honest, what I needed during a stressful time. Definitely check this one out if you can; it’s worth it, and you won’t be disappointed.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 8, 2016

Summary: A publishing event: Bestselling author Ken Liu selects his award-winning science fiction and fantasy tales for a groundbreaking collection—including a brand-new piece exclusive to this volume.

With his debut novel, The Grace of Kings, taking the literary world by storm, Ken Liu now shares his finest short fiction in The Paper Menagerie. This mesmerizing collection features all of Ken’s award-winning and award-finalist stories, including: “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” (Finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards), “Mono No Aware” (Hugo Award winner), “The Waves” (Nebula Award finalist), “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” (Nebula and Sturgeon award finalists), “All the Flavors” (Nebula award finalist), “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” (Nebula Award finalist), and the most awarded story in the genre’s history, “The Paper Menagerie” (The only story to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards).

A must-have for every science fiction and fantasy fan, this beautiful book is an anthology to savor.

Review: Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings made waves when it was released, and with good reason. And even before that, he caught my attention with the occasional short story I read in other anthologies. So when I heard that a collection of those short stories and more was being released, I knew it was going to be something I’d have to get my hands on.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Only 2 of the stories were ones I’d read before (Mono no Aware, and The Paper Menagerie), so all the rest were new to me, and all of them were freaking brilliant. Even rereading the two I’d previously read didn’t feel in the slightest bit stale, which is a sign of a great story. Seriously, I would reread this entire anthology again, not just a couple of stories from it!

Most of the stories have a connection to East Asian culture, mostly Chinese but with a bit of Japanese thrown in now and again, and so it’s impossible to come away from this collection without having a greater appreciation for the world beyond the West, and the history that goes along with it. Liu dips not only speculative futurefic here, but also looks back into history and mythology, making for an impressive variety of stories. All the Flavours turned out to be one of my favourites in the entire collection, which surprised me, since at first I thought i was going to be either one of the ones I’d already read, or else The Perfect Match for its not-at-all-veiled criticism of modern online interconnectivity. But All the Flavours dealt with history, mythology, and touched on uncomfortable racism that isn’t entirely of the past. It’s probably the longest offering in the book, but it’s absolutely worth reading.

This is one of those rare times when I can safely rate a collection 5 stars instead of the usual 4 that these things usually end up. All of the stories here are top-notch, the content wonderful and fantastic and speculative. The stories are thought-provoking, inspiring, and they spark curiosity (to which end Liu has also kindly provided info about articles and books that inspired some of the more sci-fi stories). For all this review has ended up being short (there’s only so much praise I can heap upon a thing without essentially ruining the plot of multiple stories), what it amounts to is that this collection is absolutely worth reading, and your SFF collection will be poorer without it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Falling in Love With Hominids, by Nalo Hopkinson

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 11, 2015

Summary: Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, Skin Folk) has been widely hailed as a highly significant voice in Caribbean and American fiction. She has been dubbed “one of our most important writers,” (Junot Diaz), with “an imagination that most of us would kill for” (Los Angeles Times), and her work has been called “stunning,” (New York Times) “rich in voice, humor, and dazzling imagery” (Kirkus), and “simply triumphant” (Dorothy Allison).

Falling in Love with Hominids presents over a dozen years of Hopkinson’s new, uncollected fiction, much of which has been unavailable in print. Her singular, vivid tales, which mix the modern with Afro-Carribean folklore, are occupied by creatures unpredictable and strange: chickens that breathe fire, adults who eat children, and spirits that haunt shopping malls.

Thoughts: I’d never read Nalo Hopkinson before this book. Or so I thought, until one of the stories seemed very familiar; turns out I’d read Old Habits in some other anthology, and I remembered it being one of the ones I’d really enjoyed.

But really, I didn’t even need to read that far to know that I was going to enjoy this collection of short stories. The first story in there, The Easthound, was an interesting take on werewolf lore, combined with a hint of zombie apocalypse. The quality continued two stories later with Message in a Bottle, which was an odd look at time travel and the future of humanity, combined with the trials of mundane adulthood and child-rearing. The Smile on the Face was a really great look at empowerment and overcoming teen social pressure, especially when it comes to appearance and unwanted advances. Emily Breakfast was, well, hard to describe, because it seemed so mundane at first, with a guy losing one of his chickens, only when you get a little further you see lines about chickens being descended from dragons and you realize that this isn’t taking place in the familiar reality we’re all used to. Blushing was just chilling, a very disturbing piece of prose.

A Young Candy Daughter was a good take on the idea that God might be one of us (just a stranger on the bus), only most of the time in such explorations, God is still a white guy in his prime. Or a white woman. But here, you’ve got a little brown girl who has these divine powers and is still in the process of growing up and learning that there’s more to saving people than what a child’s mind can comprehend. It’s not written from her perspective, or even the perspective of her mother, but from a stranger, a Salvation Army Santa Claus who sees the girl fill his coin bucket with food that the hungry can take to feed themselves. It was surprisingly powerful, and while it seems to be one of the stories that didn’t resonate well with other reviewers I’ve seen, I really enjoyed it.

Interestingly, there are many stories in Falling in Love With Hominids that don’t seem to have much point. They’re snippets, scenes rather than stories in the way I’m used to thinking of them, but although they were a few that didn’t really appeal to me, I liked to see that done. Whose Upward Flight I Love features workers trying to restrict trees from flying away. Soul Case involves a woman giving up her life to defeat invaders. Small things, with no real point, per se, but sometimes stories don’t have points. They really are just scenes, ideas, and once you get that down that’s all that needs to happen. It doesn’t need to go anywhere else. From a writing standpoint, I thought this was wonderful, because it shows the value in those little ideas that come to our minds but only stay for a moment and never get elaborated on. From a reading standpoint, though, they do come across as fairly random, without purpose, and often without much story.

Still, I enjoyed some of them.

As a counter to that, though, there are some stories here that I would love to see expanded as novellas or full-out novels, because there’s so much potential to the short story. Message in a Bottle and Delicious Monster are the two that come to mind instantly for this, because there’s so much to them that goes unsaid, so many questions and what-ifs about them that I want to see more. The Easthound, too, to a degree, though that one still works so perfectly a short story that expansion could possibly ruin it.

Hopkinson does some beautiful things with the art of writing, her imagination is without bounds, and she challenges both readers and writers to go beyond what we see as the status quo. The book is filled with characters of colour, with LGBT characters, with characters who, one way or the other, are memorable and real and get to take part in some amazing stories. From this collection, I definitely want to see more of her work; she is without a doubt an author to keep an eye on!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: volume 9, edited by Jonathan Strahan

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Editor’s website| Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 12, 2015

Summary: DISTANT WORLDS, TIME TRAVEL, EPIC ADVENTURE, UNSEEN WONDERS AND MUCH MORE! The best, most original and brightest science fiction and fantasy stories from around the globe from the past twelve months are brought together in one collection by multiple award winning editor Jonathan Strahan. This highly popular series now reaches volume nine and will include stories from both the biggest names in the field and the most exciting new talents. Previous volumes have included stories from Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Cory Doctorow, Stephen Baxter, Elizabeth Bear, Joe Abercrombie, Paolo Bacigalupi, Holly Black, Garth Nix, Jeffrey Ford, Margo Lanagan, Bruce Sterling, Adam Robets, Ellen Klages, and many many more.

Thoughts: As with any multi-author anthology, there are stories I enjoy more than others, stories where I feel the quality shines above the rest or where it just appeals to me more. I feel both that this should go without saying, and that I should mention it each time I review such a book, so that people don’t feel that I’m rating every single story 4/5 stars. Some are 5s, some are 3s. That’s the nature of the beast.

But I think it’s pretty safe for me to say that of all the SFF anthologies that I’ve read, this is the one I’ve enjoyed the most. In part because it seemed this collection really saw which way the winds were blowing and made a fantastic effort to include a huge amount of diversity in its writers and characters. That isn’t to say that there were no straight white males featured here. But there were a large number of stories with either authors or characters who were decidedly nonstraight, nonwhite, or nonmale. And it was wonderful to see, because with such a balance, you really start to get the feeling that fantasy and science fiction can and does encompass the vastness of human potential, and can be applied to and enjoyed by people who aren’t in the dominant social group in the West.

There were just so many amazing stories in here! Paolo Bacigalupi’s Moriabe’s Children is a creepy cautionary tale involving krakens and escaping from danger. I could read Kelly Link’s The Lady and the Fox half a dozen times over and love it every time. Holly Black’s Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind) was a wonderful exploration of expectations and surprise, and was really entertaining to watch the story unfold. Joe Abercrombie’s Tough Times All Over was fun, though the ending wasn’t that big a surprise once you got into the flow of the narrative. Greg Egan’s Shadow Flock was a technological thriller that I would really love to see expanded, because it was so tight and fast-paced and hinted at a lot going on in the background. Rachel Swirsky’s Grand Jete was a heartbreaking look at whether a transplanted personality is a whole new person or just a continuation of the original person, and at what point those two things differ. Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Devil in America was horrifying in more ways than one, with its take on racism and the price of magic. Michael Swanwick’s Tawny Petticoats was just hilarious, and gave me a few moments where I had to chuckle aloud while reading. And Theodora Goss’s Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology was insightful and full of thought-provoking content about creation and culture, as can be implied from the title.

And K J Parker’s I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There… My introduction to Parker’s work left me wondering what people saw in his writing, which was good but not so good that I figured it was worth the hype I’d seen it get. However, in his short stories, I’ve found some wonderful things, this most definitely being one of them (it was one of the major highlights of he anthology), and I think again that I really ought to give his novels another try, and that maybe I just started with one that really wasn’t as good as the others anyway.

Those are the best ones in the anthology, I think, and that’s well over half of them. The others were definitely good, too, but now and again there was just one that wasn’t to my taste, so my enjoy of them was an issue of personal preference rather than the quality of the content.

There’s straight-up science fiction, there’s urban fantasy, secondary-world fantasy, horror, just about everything a lover of speculative fiction could ask for in a Best Of anthology. It’s one to keep on the shelves, for sure, and one that I’ll likely revisit in the future so that I can dip my toes back into a dozen or more great stories and worlds. Strahan’s name tends to be associated with some of the best SFF anthologies, such as this one, so from the get-go you expect something that’s full of top-notch stories. He doesn’t fail to deliver on that promise. While I didn’t get introduced to as many new-to-me authors as I have in past anthologies, I have no doubt that I experienced some of the best of what genre fiction has to offer.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Doll Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow

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Editor’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 10, 2015

Summary: The Doll Collection is exactly what it sounds like: a treasured toy box of all-original dark stories about dolls of all types, including everything from puppets and poppets to mannequins and baby dolls. Featuring everything from life-sized clockwork dolls to all-too-human Betsy Wetsy-type baby dolls, these stories play into the true creepiness of the doll trope, but avoid the clichés that often show up in stories of this type.Master anthologist Ellen Datlow has assembled a list of beautiful and terrifying stories from bestselling and critically acclaimed authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, Seanan McGuire, Carrie Vaughn, Pat Cadigan, Tim Lebbon, Richard Kadrey, Genevieve Valentine, and Jeffrey Ford. The collection is illustrated with photographs of dolls taken by Datlow and other devoted doll collectors from the science fiction and fantasy field. The result is a star-studded collection exploring one of the most primal fears of readers of dark fiction everywhere, and one that every reader will want to add to their own collection.

Thoughts: Dolls. You either like them or they creep you out on some level. Miniature humans in plastic or porcelain, they have a place in just about everyone’s lives. At some point in your life, you probably owned a doll, whether it was some collectible item you put on a shelf and admired from afar, or a hand-sewn ragdoll that was loved to death over the years. They’ve touched us, as individuals and as a culture. And The Doll Collection takes us on a spine-tingling ride through numerous short stories all about them, but with one proviso: no stories about “evil dolls.” It’s a fallback. The doll possessed by a malicious ghost demon or that steals the soul of is owner or some such cliché. There’s none of that here. All stories involve dolls in some way or another, and all are creepy, but there’s no fallback on old and tired themes, and that gives this collection a wonderfully fresh and original feeling.

As always, some stories were stronger than others, but impressively, all the stories here were quite strong, and even when I didn’t expect to enjoy them so much due to prior experience with some authors’ works, I ended up surprised and impressed by how much I really did like what I read. Just goes to show that sometimes first impressions can be dead wrong, and I love being confronted with that when it yields new good fiction to read! But there were some amazing stories here, some true gems of the genre!

Seanan McGuire’s There is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold is probably the best example of this, and a stand-out offering in this anthology. Taking beautiful and expensive ball-jointed dolls and turning them into something powerful and ancient and disturbing was a stroke of genius, especially the way she did it, and I would pick up this book for that story alone! Trigger warning: there’s physical abuse from a too-smug [expletive] in this story, so it may well turn your stomach in some places, but the revenge ending was quite satisfying. Beautiful, dark, and haunting.

But Joyce Carol Oates’s The Doll Master? Miranda Siemienowicz‘s After and Back Before? Richard Bowes’s Doll Court? Lucy Sussex’s Miss Sibyl-Cassandra? All amazing stories, all a treat to read! Mary Robinette Kowal’s Doctor Faustus is the very reason that I’ve thought I couldn’t swear allegiance to any gods or demons while acting; you never know what will happen as a result. Pat Cadigan’s In Case of Zebras shows why sometimes the young sees things that adults brush off, and why they should be paying attention.

I think it’s the sheer variety of stories here that really makes the collection shine. When you give people a limitation in what they can write, it forces a stretch of the imagination, forces one to think outside the box, and you can get some wonderful creative and varied stories as a result. That’s the joy of The Doll Collection. Every story may involve dolls, to a greater or smaller degree, but that’s the only thing that connects them besides a general feel of the supernatural or macabre. It’s prefect for a quick dip into many authors’s writing styles, what they can do with words and a connecting theme, and I loved it.

If you buy any one anthology this month, it ought to be this one. There’s very little to be disappointed by and so many things to impress you, whether you’re a fan of dark fiction, the supernatural, or just damn good stories. Datlow worked wonders with this idea and the selection of submitted stories, and the authors pulled out all the stops to make this a fantastic collection. Highly recommended for those nights when the rain is pouring, the wind is howling, and you want a little more tingle in your spine.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Grimm Mistresses, edited by Amanda Shore

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Publication date – February 21, 2015

Summary: REMEMBER THOSE GRIMM BROTHERS? Dark fairy tales that made you leave the light on long before Disney sanitized them? Well, we certainly do! And now the MISTRESSES GRIMM take back the night, five female authors who will leave you shuddering deliciously. Get ready to leave the lights on again with five pieces of short fiction bringing the Grimm Brothers’ tales into the present. Be advised: these aren’t your children’s fairy tales!

Thoughts: Over the years I’ve discovered, bit by bit, that I have a weakness for fairy tale retellings, preferably with a dark element or an unusual twist. So when I was offered a copy of Grimm Mistresses, an anthology of fairy tale horror written by a collection of talented women, I couldn’t say no. It provided me some good and disturbing entertainment during a long bus ride across provinces.

As is true in just about every short story collection, not always stories are equal. Some are better than others. Fortunately all the stories in here are good, and they work well to chill you and make you feel a little bit sickened, bringing forth that perfect horror feeling from the pit of your stomach. Though a warning to those who haven’t read this: let’s just say I agree with Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn when he says that the wrong anthology got named Trigger Warning.

Little Dead Red – Mercedes M Yardley starts off the collection with a take on Little Red Riding Hood, told from the perspective of a troubled mother raising a daughter alone after her ex-husband was revealed to be abusive and thrown in jail. The disappearance and death of her daughter tips her over the ends into a desperate madness fuelled by grief and vengeance, and she does the unthinkable while searching for “the Wolf,” the despicable man who hurt and killed her only child. It’s disturbing, powerfully so, and doesn’t flinch away from some very brutal aspects of reality. While this adds to the story’s strength, it also pegs it as one of the hardest stories to read in the entire collection, and it’s thrown at you right off the bat, no time to adjust to the dark tone. You open the book and BAM, a story about rape and death and wolves in sheep’s clothing and I won’t lie, I actually shed some tears over this one because it was just such a visceral hit. (And I probably would have shed more had I not been on a bus surrounded by strangers whom I did not want to see me cry.)

Nectar – I’m going to be honest. I have no idea which fairy tale Allison M Dickson’s story was based on. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad story, though it probably was one of the weaker stories in the bunch. Largely due to the unsatisfying and quite inexplicable ending. The story starts off with 2 men going on a blind date with 2 gorgeous women, who kidnap them and reveal that they are people from a far-future earth that, for some reason, can only allow women to survive. Seriously. Something in the atmosphere makes men revert to a primal brutal animal state and they don'[t survive long. You see this quite disturbingly when 1 of the men goes into a rage and kills himself by smashing his own face in. The other man, our main character, doesn’t really seem affected by the atmosphere for reasons that are never actually explained. He also shares a bond with the woman he slept with after the blind date, who was ostensibly there to kidnap him and get sperm so that she and other women could get pregnant and continue their race. She apparently feels the same way toward him, since the story ends up her freeing him and stealing a spaceship and them running off together with their newborn son. Not exactly love at first sight, but something akin to it, since she was willing to leave her wife and her entire world behind for a guy she slept with once and bonded with because reasons. The setup was interesting, the premise could have yielded so much, but honestly, so much about the conclusion seems random and doesn’t get explained. It takes a lot of suspension of disbelief, and that rather spoiled it for me.

The Leopard’s Pelt – S R Cambridge’s story was probably my favourite of them all! It starts with a WWII soldier being stranded on a desert island, coming across a telepathic leopard (who may well be a demon) making a deal with him when he gets desperate. Kill her, wear her pelt and don’t wash or tell anyone his name and he can only live by the charity of others, in exchange for getting off the island. If he can’t follow through on this deal, she gets to claim his soul. He accepts. And ends up meeting a volunteer at a hospital, a woman who wants to become a doctor (which, in the 1940s, is impressive and I applauded her on determination alone). They bond, though he runs from her when she gets too close, fearful that their connection will force him into a situation where he’ll lose his soul, intentionally or inadvertently. This is another story where I’m unsure of the source material, the original idea this was a new spin on, but honestly, it didn’t matter. It was so stylishly written, so wonderfully told that it didn’t matter whether I was reading a fairy tale retelling or not. All that mattered was an amazing story told by a very skilled writer!

Hazing Cinderella – This story by C W LaSart made me feel a bit uncomfortable, largely due to the abundance of sexuality in the text. It centres around a duo of mother-daughter… succubi? Witches? A combination of both? They obtain life and youth by draining it from men during sex, which is what leads me to think succubi, but they’re not referred to as such in the text, so I’m not entirely sure. Either way. Most of the story takes place around the daughter, taking over-the-top revenge against her stepsister and her friends, who want to frighten and humiliate her. She responds by killing them. It’s not presented as justified. Merely expedient, cruel people being cruel on both sides of the coin. It’s visually quite impressive, but not a particularly strong story, and it largely stands out from the others due to the sex and gore.

The Night Air – Stacy Turner’s story is probably my second-favourite in the collection, tied with Yardley’s contribution, so this book banked on both sides by quality. (With a second slice of quality smack-bang in the middle. I think that makes it some sort of double-decker quality book-sandwich.) This is a retelling of the Pied Piper story, taking place around a family who has just moved to a small town. There’s some odd behaviour by the locals, which they pass off at first as just small-town mentality coming to light, but it turns out that the “old wives tales” have some merit after 2 of the children vanish into the night, never to be seen again. I admit, part of the reveal at the end stretched coincidence a bit for me, but otherwise this was a solid story, emotional and impressive, and I would definitely read more of Turner’s work in the future.

So over all, this double-decker is worth reading, though it’s definitely a “your mileage may vary” kind of book. There’s some very disturbing material contained within its pages, but then, that’s entirely the point. Fairy tales were cautionary tales wrapped in entertainment long before they were sanitized “happily ever after” tales that most of us have grown up with, and this brings them back to form with a host of talented women at the wheel. If horror is your thing, then definitely grab a copy of Grimm Mistresses while you can, and be prepared to feel some gut-shaking spine-tingling horror while you read.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Myth and Magic: Queer Fairy Tales, edited by Radclyffe

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Publication date – December 16, 2014

Summary: Myth, magic, and monsters—the stuff of childhood dreams (or nightmares) and adult fantasies.

Delve into these classic fairy tales retold with a queer twist and surrender to the world of seductive spells and dark temptations.

Thoughts: I’m not sure whether to call this my usual kind of reading fare or not. On one hand, it’s got a heavy romantic slant, sometimes outright porny, which usually isn’t what I’m looking for in a book and indeed tend to stay away from. On other other hand, it does mix two other elements that I’m very interested in: fairy tale retellings, and a non-heteronormative focus. I figured if nothing else, it was worth giving it a read, so I could broaden my horizons and see more characters who weren’t always straight-by-default.

I wasn’t disappointed. Some of the stories in here were damn good, and I wished a few times that romance was more to my taste because there are a few authors whose writing style and skill with words make me want to see more of what they can do. And it was great to see gay characters get some time in the spotlight, because, as I’ve become so aware of relative recently, this isn’t something that happens spectacularly often. So when it does happen, especially when it intersects with another of my interests, I want to show support and spread the word.

And there are some amazing stories to be found in Myth and Magic, too. A Hero in Hot Pink Boots didn’t go the way I expected, but it was still a good story and an interesting take on Alice in Wonderland in a modern setting. With street brawls and confidence boosters. Bad Girls riffed on the Disney versions of a couple of fairy tales, the sanitized versions most of us know from our childhoods, and made me chuckle a few times at the references. Goldie and the Three Bears was a retelling of, well, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, only with a noir feel and the setting of grimy streets and a pick-up bar.

But my favourite story of all was The Snow King, a retelling of The Snow Queen with a gay male couple instead of siblings, and while there was some dubious consent going on there, it was still a beautifully-written story that I could read a few times in a row and not get tired of.

Most of the stories had a fantasy setting, befitting the original versions of the stories they were retelling, but others were more modern. Some, like Riding Red, seemed to blend the two in strange ways, and I wasn’t quite sure of the setting even though the story itself was otherwise clear. I was surprised that I enjoyed the ones with modern settings as much as I did, given my preference for fantasy. I think that’s a testament to the authors and their skill, really, since any author that can make you enjoy stepping outside of your comfort zone clearly has some talent to speak of.

I’m sure some people are surprised to see me rate this collection so highly, given my general dislike for heavy romantic themes. Honestly, if I brought that into play, this book probably would have only been 3 stars. It may have featured some good stories, but in general, they’re not stories that are typically to my taste. But for me to rate the book down because of that would be akin to me buying something from a bakery and then demanding my money back because I’ve never liked bread. I’m not going to fault the book for being something I know isn’t my cup of tea. I knew that when I started reading it. So in trying to be objective, I’m also trying to ignore that part of myself and focus on the quality of the stories, and the stories that were told, rather than the genre they’re told in.

Though while some stories were good, some were less so, and it often came down to characters doing things that made no sense. In Heartless, a character rescues her girlfriend from the Snow Queen and randomly knows that stabbing the Snow Queen with a rose will not only destroy her power but give her the heart she’s lacking. It seemed utterly random and nonsensical, one of those quick ways of ending a story when you have no idea how it’s actually supposed to end. Some stories, such as my favourite The Snow King, featured dubious consent along the lines of, “No, really, you should sleep with me because it’s for the greater good and will save your partner.” Or things that seem right out of a porno, like two people meeting and immediately falling into bed because… a magic harp’s song was making them horny, I think, thought that really wasn’t explained very well in the text, and I’m reading between the lines to even get that far with an explanation.

What you get out of this really depends on what you go in expecting. If you’re looking for some quick stories with gay protagonists and some hot porn-in-prose, then absolutely, this is a book worth checking out. If you’re looking for darker fairy tale retellings, or something with a greater emphasis on story rather than love and sex, then you won’t really find that in Myth and Magic. I prefer the latter to the former, but again, I knew that wasn’t what I was going to get right from the outset, and I’m rating this on what it was rather than what I knew it wasn’t. It’s not a book for everyone. But I suspect those who enjoy romance and a little hot action in their stories will find this collection quite enjoyable.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Dangerous Games, edited by Jonathan Oliver

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Publication date – December 2, 2014

Summary: In a world of chances, one decision can bring down the house, one roll of the dice could bring untold wealth, or the end of everything. In this anthology of all new short stories the players gather, their stories often dark, and always compelling.

The players and the played, this new anthology from Jonathan Oliver (Magic, End of The Road, House of Fear, The End of The Line, World War Cthulhu) brings together brand new stories from an international team of talented authors, each with their own deadly game. This collection is set to include a full house of top authors including Hugo award-winning American writer Pat Cadigan, Brit Gary McMahon, Mexican Silvia Moreno Garcia, plus Tade Thompson, Rebecca Levene and more!

Thoughts: Games are something that just about everyone can relate to in some form or another. Board games, card games, video games, live-action role-playing, the options range on and on. And that’s just a typical sampling of games! Add in things like Russian Roulette, which is technically a game of chance, and you start to see how a concept can go from seemingly harmless to outright deadly.

Which is how it all works in Dangerous Games. Some stories, such as Lavie Tidhar’s Die, make their point very quickly, so you know that the name of the game is really death. (Also, in the case of that particular story, possibly somebody’s own personal literal Hell experience.) Others, like Nik Vincent’s The Stranger Cards or Pat Cadigan’s Lefty Plays Bridge, seem innocent enough at first, though get far more sinister as the story progresses.

There were some true gems in this collection, seriously amazing stories that made me want to find more of what certain authors have written so I can appreciate their writing and storytelling more! Paul Kearney’s South Mountain was an interesting, though somewhat unoriginal take historical re-enactors finding themselves actually in the middle of one of the battles they’ve come to re-enact, but the way the story was told and the detail behind the characters was what made the story great for me. Yoon Ha Lee’s Distinguishing Characteristics is a story that hints at much but says little, presenting a complex world that readers get to see only glimpses of before the story is over, and this is the second time that I’ve marvelled at this author’s ability to world-build like no other! Hillary Monahan’s The Bone Man’s Bride was evocative and raw, creepy in a way that makes you shiver but still leaves you with a shred of hope right to the very end. Rebecca Levene’s Loser may not have had the most compelling writing style, but was told so ambiguously that you think you understand what’s going on until the story’s almost done and only then do you get the revelation that it’s about something else entirely.

Perhaps it was just my perception, but it seemed that the best stories in this collection were in the first two thirds of the book. While the last third wasn’t bad, I felt that there were more stories in that percentage that didn’t have the same level of oomph as earlier on, like the stories there were ones that were definitely good enough to make the cut but held for later on in the book because the earlier stories were ones that definitely would compel a reader to keep going, but later ones were more of a take-it-or-leave-it bunch. As I said, I’m not sure if this was solely my perception and tendency to launch myself into anthologies with glee but soon find myself craving something novel-length again before the collection’s finished, or whether this is something that was felt by other readers too.

But even so, there are no stories in Dangerous Games that I didn’t like, or that I felt were dull or that I’d rather have skipped over. Which is very rare for me when reading a multi-author anthology; more often than not I find at least one story that resonates with me considerably more poorly than all the others. And this wasn’t the case here, so I can definitely class Dangerous Games as being a cut above other collections of its kind, and one that contains some serious talent that deserves recognition. Most of the stories do have some degree of genre element to them, hauntings or secondary worlds or events in the future, but even so, I can see this book having a good appeal to those whose primary interest isn’t SFF but just involves some good stories with a creepy setup and a heavy dash of mystery. Definitely one of the better anthologies that I have read ever, let alone just this year!

(Received for review from the publisher.)