Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Underwater Ballroom Society edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent

The Underwater Ballroom Society edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent is a themed novella anthology in which every story features some sort of underwater ballroom. It might sound like an oddly specific idea to pin an anthology on, but it works well, with the wide variety of underwater ballrooms dreamt up by the authors.

Would you rather dance beneath the waves or hide your smuggled magic there? Welcome to a world of sparkling adult fantasy and science fiction stories edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent and featuring underwater ballrooms of one sort or another, from a 1920s ballroom to a Martian hotel to a grand rock 'n roll ball held in the heart of Faery itself.

This is a long book and it took me a while to get through it (with a few minor breaks). For all that it contains only ten stories, most of them are quite long (hence novella anthology) and the book is quite weighty overall. The stories take us from fairyland, to steampunk Mars with a variety of secondary and primary world fantasies in between.

Of course, I enjoyed some stories more than others, for all that the anthology as a whole was of high quality. I started listing my favourite stories, just now, and stopped when I realised that list would be more than half the book. You can certainly get the gist from my reviews of individual stories below. By the way, if you've been following my blog, you'll have seen some of those reviews before, but the last few have not appeared before, so don't accidentally skip over them.

This was a fun read and I enjoyed being introduced to several new authors whose other work I am now interested in tracking down. If the idea of underwater ballrooms intrigues you, this is absolutely the book you should be reading. If you are ambivalent about underwater ballrooms (as I admit I was) then this is still an excellent anthology of fantastical tales.


The Queen of Life by Ysabeau S Wilce
A novella about rockstars and fairyland, death and fame. I found the opening a little too slow, as it took a while to set the scene and establish sufficient backstory so that what felt like the “real” story could start. When that came, it was an interesting journey into fairyland filled with deception, glamour and a corgi steed (sort of). I enjoyed the second half of it more than the first.

Twelve Sisters by Y S Lee
I like subverted fairytales and sequels to fairytales, as this one is. After the events in The Twelve Dancing Princesses (which I haven’t read and that made no difference to my enjoyment of this story), the youngest princess endeavours to save her oldest sister from an abusive relationship and also, as their father lies on his deathbed, to save the country from a malicious king. A great read.

Penhallow Amid Passing Things by Iona Datt Sharma
This story took a little bit to get into its stride, but I enjoyed it once it did. Smuggling, a brief lesbian romance, and fading magic are the elements that make up this story. The world was well constructed, for all that we only saw a small part of it. I find myself wondering whether there are other stories set there.

Mermaids, Singing by Tiffany Trent
I really enjoyed this novella. It’s set in Victorian London and follows a weredog from another world and a half-Chinese British girl from this one. The depth of world building is excellent and the story balances the weird fantasy elements with the more mundane well.

A Brand New Thing by Jenny Moss
A story set in the late 1920s about a neuroatypical girl, her disapproving family, books and something magical. I really enjoyed it and was delighted by the book references and metaphors. I was also pleased with the happy ending.

Four Revelations from the Rusalka Ball by Cassandra Khaw
Not a novella; actually a fairly short story. Much shorter than I expected. But on the other hand, about the level of surreal that I’ve come to expect from Cassandra Khaw. The title pretty much says it all.

Spellswept by Stephanie Burgis
This novella is one of the longer stories included in The Underwater Ballroom Society and is a prequel to Snowspelled, which I read as an individual volume last year. It’s set in a world where politics are run by women and men — as the more emotional sex — are left to deal with learning and using magic. My first impression of this world was that it wasn’t sufficiently gender-flipped enough, particularly with women still wearing dresses. However, in Spellswept we see more clearly that the balance in society is quite delicate and men have more power that it might seem on the surface (and certainly more than most women in the real-world Regency period did). Anyway, I enjoyed this novella a lot and found the story and continued exploration of the characters delightful. Spellswept and Snowspelled both stand alone and can be read in either order. I enjoyed knowing what would happen to some of the characters in the future (and hence some of what had to happen in Spellswept) but that certainly wasn’t a requirement for enjoyment.

The River Always Wins by Laura Anne Gilman
An underwater club dance floor more than a ballroom per se. Humanoid supernatural creatures going to the club of their youth one last time on its final opening night. It didn’t really work for me from the start and certainly the revelation at the climax didn’t pack enough punch, for all that the lead up was done well.

The Amethyst Deceiver by Shveta Thakrar
A secondary world, Victorian-flavoured story, featuring racism, magic fungus and something like a heist. I liked it, particularly the protagonist and the concept.

A Spy in the Deep by Patrick Samphire
This novella was clearly a sequel to something, but, aside from a few reminders of a past adventure (which tipped me off), stood alone quite well. The setting was a steampunk Mars during distant Napoleonic wars. If you think that sounds like something I’d hate because it’s so implausible, fear not the setting was sufficiently divorced from reality to amuse me rather than annoy. (There’s really no other way to put an underwater ballroom on Mars.)
The protagonist, Harriet, is a member of British Mars Intelligence and in this story has been set her final practical exam. She is to retrieve a package under cover of a distant and socially significant ball. Her mission is complicated by the presence of her policeman brother in law and a murder. It was an enjoyable read and has made me curious about the other books/stories with the same setting. There is a prequel about Harriet and apparently a few other stories about other characters with the same steampunk Martian setting.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: April 2018, Five Fathoms Press
Series: No, although some stories are individually parts of series
Format read: ePub
Source: Review copy provided by editor

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