Saturday, 12 March 2016

An Alphabet of Embers edited by Rose Lemberg

An Alphabet of Embers edited by Rose Lemberg is an anthology of flash fiction that was funded by a Kickstarter (that I missed) last year. The stories are 500–1400 words long, which ranges up to a little longer than what I would normally call flash, and one of the aims of the anthology was to include diverse voices. On that point, the editor has certainly succeeded. There are also some lovely illustrations by M Sereno throughout the anthology, to enhance the reading experience.

An anthology of unclassifiables – lyrical, surreal, magical, experimental pieces that straddle the border between poetry and prose.

This is an anthology filled with gorgeous writing, multicultural stories, and variety. While there is a certain "feel" to the stories in the anthology, the stories themselves covered a lot of ground in terms of setting and theme. Some of the stories are multilingual, containing phrases in other languages and the modern wonders of ebooks and Google Translate meant that I could look these up as they appeared. Said technology also showed me that I really didn't need to pause in my reading to check these phrases; the stories were not lesser without full understanding.

Having said that, there were a few stories which, for various other reasons, went over my head a little. There weren't any stories that I actively disliked, but there were a few that I don't think I personally grasped. That's more a reflection on me than the stories themselves, however. And there were several stories I liked a lot, which I will talk about in more detail shortly.

What I found interesting about this anthology, and didn't actually notice until I was close to the end, was the way in which the stories were grouped. Similar stories were grouped together in what felt like rolling waves throughout the book. When I first started reading, I thought all the stories would be somewhat surreal fantasy, but before I knew it the tone gradually shifted to more realistic stories, or more science fictional stories, or stories that were both beautiful and horrifying (not necessarily in that order). This sort of grouping could have backfired, but in this case it worked well; the stories didn't echo each other, rather they built upon each other while also pushing the anthology forward.

(Usually, for an anthology, I would write a bit about each non-flash story. However, since this is an entirely flash fiction anthology, I won't be doing that.)

My favourite stories, those that jumped out at me when I read them, or stuck with me after I moved on, were these (bulleted list for ease of reading):

  • “Mistletoe and Copper, Water and Herbs” by Mari Ness — About a woman asking a witch to help her have children, a request delivered not quite how she hoped.
  • “An Awfully Big Adventure” by Nisi Shawl — The youngest of three sisters talking about how she is the brave one, always the one to jump in first. Contains cancer.
  • “Everything Under One Roof” by Zen Cho — A story about a magical food hall and two friends who find their way there.
  • “The Swing, or How to Ricochet According to Sylvia Plath” by Nolan Liebert — Detailing the key days of a life. I found it very emotional.
  • “Dreaming Keys” by Mina Li — A woman who discovers that keys can unlock dream worlds. A story I enjoyed because it was fun.
  • “Telomerase” by Ian Muneshwar — As cancer takes the narrator, their partner loses words. Sad but powerful.
  • “The Binding of Ming-tian” by Emily Jiang — A lovely, horrible story. The description of foot binding made me cringe.
  • “Rhizomatic Diplomacy” by Vajra Chandrasekera — A story of war, aliens and featuring a clone-in-alien-body narrator. One of the most science fictional stories
  • “Wing” by Amal El-Mohtar — A story about a girl with a book around her neck.

An Alphabet of Embers was a gorgeous read that I highly recommend to people who enjoy lyricism in their stories, or surrealism, or just plain like flash fiction and/or very short stories. The shortness of the stories made it easy to pick up and read a bit of this anthology in between other things. It also lead me to finish the anthology more quickly than I expected, when I wanted a break from other things. It also features a very diverse lineup of authors and hence is ideal for sampling new authors and hopefully enjoying them enough to seek out more of their work. I know there were some authors in here that I have been meaning to get around to reading for some time and now I have even more motivation to do so.

4 / 5 stars

First published: May 2016 (March for Kickstarter backers), Stone Bird Press
Series: No.
Format read: eARC
Source: The publishing team

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