Steph’s post the other day got me thinking. I know how I read short stories – straight through, cover to cover, unless I enjoy a story so much that I want to linger in the world and therefore put the book down for a while to bask in the narrative in my mind before continuing – but why do we read short stories?
One of the main reasons I’m drawn to an anthology is because it has a story by an author whose writing I admire. Megan Whalen Turner’s short stories set in the Thief world are published at the back of the books in that series, bonus material, but if they weren’t, I would immediately pick up any anthology with a story from Eddis or Attolia in it; as the matter stands, I immediately pick up any anthology with a non-Eddisian tale by Turner. (Side note: “The Baby in the Night Deposit Box” by MWT is absolutely fabulous.)
Ergo, primary motive for reader: to read more of a beloved world; to find out detail and backstory for characters already known; to read more by a particular author.
That said, there’s always at least one story in an anthology by a new (to me) author that utterly delights. Here are a new or rediscovered short stories that I enjoyed:
“Egg Magic” by Louise Marley (Firebirds Soaring) – the dust and warmth of farm and family draw the reader right in. Tory’s difficulties at school are present without intruding into the main site of struggle: the family dynamics. The conflict between Tory and Rosalie is wonderfully done, with the reader able to see what both daughter and step-mother want without sacrificing empathy for either. Tory’s relationship with her chickens forms a contrast with her fantasy of her queen mother coming to take her away.
“Court Ship” by Sherwood Smith (Firebirds Soaring) – I wrote about Smith’s other post-Crown Duel tale a few weeks ago. Elantra, the protagonist of “Beauty,” is an interesting mixture of self-pity and plucky practicality (outdoor survival skills and combat training), and while I enjoy the story I also find that I’m a bit old for her initial attitude to resonate with me (not so old that I have forgotten what feeling left out and inferior felt like, though). My reactions to “Court Ship” are even more mixed. On one hand, I love that Smith draws attention to the immense courage and willingness to adjust or even completely alter your expectations of what you will do in life, and intentionally hone new skills suddenly required in that new life that falling in love outside of your own station/social position takes – more specifically, the courage to act on that love, instead of letting it fade away, or rejecting it outright. (This is also a strong theme in Smith’s adult fantasy Banner of the Damned.) On the other hand, the budding romances were completely predictable (amusing, but I knew upon meeting each character what would happen) and the “rival” for our protagonist never developed character beyond being an unpleasant foil for Risa. There was infinite space for Jasalan to be a character with conflicting motives and desires and even conflicting personality without reducing her to pointless snobbery and ambition. The early characterization of Jasalan suggested more complexity than she ended up with, and the instant enmity between her and Risa was disappointing. This is the fatal flaw in what is otherwise an enjoyable story. Granny, for whom Risa is named, is fantastic, and I’d like to see more of her.*
“Something Worth Doing” by Elizabeth Wein (Firebirds Soaring) – I don’t know why I read Wein’s books. Every single story of hers that I have read has made me cry. And yet her writing is so vivid at bring the people of other ages alive as people, real living people without fates or grand destinies, living the best they can while they breathe. This story is set in the first world war in England. When Theo’s scamp of a younger brother dies without having done anything really worth doing, as he had intended to, she decides to make a memorial for him: to give him a reputation and a name that would be remembered with honour. She takes his place as a pilot in the war effort. Wein’s strength is in giving the feel of how a nation – a people and individuals – change under pressure, and her ability is as apparent in this short (32 page) story as it is in her longer novels.
“Little Dot” by Diana Wynne Jones (Firebirds) – probably my favourite short story by one of my favourite authors. Narrated by a cat with all the accompanying attitude, the focus remains on feline life and their relationships with their humans. Little Dot knows her place, and makes sure everyone else knows it, too; but when an interloper interferes, Little Dot is stricken with the idea that she might be a bad cat, the way her enemy is a bad woman. Meanwhile, a fiercer enemy prowls the hills, playing with and killing domestic animals, and Little Dot’s wizard is not having much success in finding this Beast.
“Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case” by Garth Nix (Across the Wall) – I like this story for obvious reasons: it is set in Ancelstierre after the events of Abhorsen and tells how Nicholas Sayre moves to the Old Kingdom permanently. Which is to say, it gives a few details about Lirael and Sam as well as Nick. Ancelstierre is based on England in the 1920s (I think), which gives it both a familiar and a fascinatingly different air; the social norms and expectations are not at all the same as they are today, which renders even the “normal” (England) appealingly strange.
“Three Roses” by Garth Nix (Across the Wall) – a fairy tale on love and loss.
“The Sixty-Two Curses of Caliph Arenschadd” by Patricia C. Wrede (Book of Enchantments) – I’ve mentioned this story before. It has the most moving description of running in dreams that I have ever read. Biking at night is like that, too – it’s just you and the night air, the wind and the smell of trees, and the road speeding beneath you as you pedal swifter and ever swifter, heading home.
“Cruel Sisters” by Patricia C. Wrede (Book of Enchantments) – a logical, emotionally-true look at a folk ballad that has over twenty two English variants – and that’s not counting the Scandinavian versions.
And finally, one anthology: “Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Lost Adventures” – I read this before I’d even watched the tv series, and read it again now that I have. The stories have more significance now that I know the context. As with all anthologies, a few stories are not up to par, but on the whole, Avatar fans will find a few more laughs and a few awwws (or *snort*s) at the tales, which are set between the official (tv) adventure in all three seasons: Water, Earth, and Fire.
* Another thing I admire in this “Court Ship” is Granny’s past and present, and the lack of a single correct path. Granny could have married a prince, but did not; readers who have met the prince and his princess in Crown Duel will know that they are a good, solid couple; Granny describes the princess as “an excellent woman, I hear.” Both women have the readers’ empathy, and are admirable for different things. None of the characters involved are broken-hearted, nor were lives thrown away on regret (Granny also marries and has a family, and ends loving her ship and life at sea best of all). There isn’t the sense of “should have” and loss, but of possibility; of potential rather than limitation. Granny is one of the best grandmothers in fiction that I can think of.