Sunday, 17 April 2016

Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales From Shakespeare's Fantasy World

Monstrous Little Voices is a novella anthology, containing five somewhat interlinked novellas written by Jonathan Barnes, Emma Newman, Kate Heartfield, Foz Meadows and Adrian Tchaikovsky. They are more or less set in the world of some of Shakespeare's plays, but extended beyond what happens in the original play, and tweaked so that all the referenced plays actually happened in the same world of fairies, magic and politics.

Mischief, Magic, Love and War. 

It is the Year of Our Lord 1601. The Tuscan War rages across the world, and every lord from Navarre to Illyria is embroiled in the fray. Cannon roar, pikemen clash, and witches stalk the night; even the fairy courts stand on the verge of chaos. 

Five stories come together at the end of the war: that of bold Miranda and sly Puck; of wise Pomona and her prisoner Vertumnus; of gentle Lucia and the shade of Prospero; of noble Don Pedro and powerful Helena; and of Anne, a glovemaker’s wife. On these lovers and heroes the world itself may depend. 

These are the stories Shakespeare never told. Five of the most exciting names in genre fiction today – Jonathan Barnes, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Emma Newman, Foz Meadows and Kate Heartfield – delve into the world the poet created to weave together a story of courage, transformation and magic. 

This was an interesting read, even when the stories touched upon Shakespearean plays I was not very familiar with. My favourite story was definitely the opening one, "Coral Bones" which extended the story of The Tempest beyond where the play ended and included some neat genderfluid characterisation. My second favourite story was probably the closing one, "On the Twelfth Night", mainly for the way it played with narrative by writing in the second person. That story would not have really made sense without all the stories preceding it, however. I was particularly impressed by how the later stories seemed to be aware of events in the earlier stories. An excellent feat of narrative planning.

I definitely recommend this anthology to fans of Shakespeare and fans of fantasy fiction generally. And theatre. These novellas push Shakespeare's plays into new territory, giving them some modern sensibilities without literally modernising the settings. As always, individual comments on the stories are below.

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"Coral Bones" by Foz Meadows — What happens after The Tempest. Miranda has left the island, but the real world did not bring her as much joy as she hoped. Luckily, she still has Ariel, the genderfluid fairy who helped raise her and keep her sane. This was a very strong start to the anthology, which had me wanting to come back for more every time I had to set it aside. The main story is neatly intertwined with flashbacks to the island, which serve to build up our understanding of and sympathy for Miranda's relationship with Ariel. In the meantime, we also see quite clearly Miranda learning about herself and the world and, thanks to Ariel's influence (or really, just her presence from an early age), questioning her place and identity in it.

"The Course of True Love" by Kate Heartfield — This novella involves some of the characters from Midsummer Night's Dream but mainly focused on a hedge witch (well, a wyrtwitch) who stumbles upon a prisoner of Titania's and ends up helping him out. This wasn't a bad novella but I just didn't love it as much as the previous one, which set the bar quite high. I suspect if I'd read it in isolation without the comparison, I would have enjoyed it more. As it was, it was well written enough, but didn't push the envelope like "Coral Bones" did.

"The Unkindest Cut" by Emma Newman — A young woman is fated to marry her love in an alliance that will end a war. But even though it has been foretold, nothing is straightforward when Prospero is involved, or the cursed knife from Macbeth. Not a bad story, but I thought it ended a little abruptly. I didn't dislike the ending, but wouldn't've minded seeing more, or more immediately before the end. (Also, it was a depressing ending, which I wouldn't have wished upon the main character. :-/ ) It was a nice touch to have the Miranda from "Coral Bones" appear and I am impressed with the planning that must have gone into this anthology.

"Even in the Cannon’s Mouth" by Adrian Tchaikovsky — I felt a bit lost during the middle of this story. I think it might have been because of the more theatrical/script-like scene changes the author used. It took me a little while to get used to paying attention to them properly. That said, I liked the version of Macbeth that appeared in this one (and had sort of been mentioned in earlier stories, but not nearly as clearly). I especially loved the ending as it involved Macbeth. Not to be too obvious with the spoilers, but a favourite loophole-fail is resolved. I also got the impression that this story was leading into some sort of climax in the last story...

"On the Twelfth Night" by Jonathan Barnes — This last story was fascinating in many ways. It did sort of tie up some of the weirder elements of the plot brought up in the previous story, but that wasn't what really made it stand out. Usually, it was written in second person... and (very minor spoiler) the second person was Shakespeare's wife. Not quite the wife of the Shakespeare that we know, though, but rather a non-playwright from a parallel universe. I found it quite a compelling read (especially compared with the previous novella, which did not hold my interest). Unfortunately, for readers who might have picked these novellas up individually rather than in the collected volume, I'm not sure that this novella would work as well as a standalone. But it does make an excellent conclusion to this anthology.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2016, Rebellion
Series: No, unless you count Shakespearian as a series
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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