This was a total fluke. I stumbled across this collection on NetGalley and was struck by the cover. It’s not exactly my kind of art but it definitely drew me in and made me check out the description. Which in turn made me request the book because Shakespeare and fantasy, plus some highly exciting authors. And here we are, me plus one Shakespearean fantasy collection, although not as in love with the book as I could have been.
MONSTROUS LITTLE VOICES: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World
by Foz Meadows, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Jonathan Barnes, Kate Heartfield, Emma Newman
Published by: Abaddon Books, March 2016
Ebook: 240 pages
Short fiction collection
My rating: 6,5/10
First sentence: “He makes you sleep, you know,” said Ariel, then.
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.
Including an afterword by Dr. John Lavagnino, The London Shakespeare Centre, King’s College London.
Coral Bones by Foz Meadows
I have been a big fan of Foz’ online writings, so naturally I was more than excited to see her fiction. Playing with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Meadows imagines Miranda’s life after the play. Ariel is there, Puck is there, what more do you really need? Oh, you’re looking for a subversive tale that spins Shakespeare’s play around and looks at the story from a different perspective? Well, Foz Meadows got you covered. In beautiful language and with a tone as dark as it is whimsical, hers is the opening novella in this collection. It not only asks “what happened after” but also takes into account questions of gender identity, destiny, and – you know – fairies. I thought that it got a little heavy-handed at the end, but overall, this was a great opening story that made me curious for more of Meadows’ fiction. 6,5/10
The Course of True Love by Kate Heartfield
This was an adorable, well-structured story. Divided into acts, it has everything you’d hope for. An old lady protagonist, Pomona, rescuing a bewitched fairy from an enchanted garden. Feuds between kingdoms, Oberon and Titania preparing for war, magic, and of course romance.
I really liked how this has the appearance of a fluffy story when it really examined much deeper themes. The course of true love may not run smooth and it may also not always hit the young, pretty people of the world. This is about identity and belonging with someone, about keeping long-ago promises and finding your place. Queen Mab makes an appearance, and many other Shakespeare characters are mentioned, but I just felt this was a wonderful standalone story regardless of the Shakespeare connection. I had never read anything by Kate Heartfield before but I definitely will after this. 7/10
The Unkindest Cut by Emma Newman
This story plays with destiny and whether anyone can really defy it, a trope a really love. Self-fulfilling prophecies, fulfilling it by trying to evade it, and so on – it’s something I can’t resist in any kind of fiction, so naturally I was quickly hooked. Lucia de Medici is destined to marry her beloved, which makes her happy not only because she is very much in love but because their wedding is meant to end a long war. But as she follows the instructions that will lead to her destiny’s fulfillment, she has to learn that not all visions are equal, that not every sybil is to be trusted. Things much bigger than her love-sick heart are at stake. Add a dash of Prospero, clever intrigues, and a likable heroine and you have a solid story that doesn’t shy away from putting characters through a lot. 6/10
Even in the Cannon’s Mouth by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My least favorite story of the bunch, this felt convoluted and overloaded, especially in this medium. As a novel, this might have been great, but for short fiction, there was too much going on. Several of Shakespeare’s characers feature here, some in surprising roles, others very much like themselves, only turned up to eleven. I loved that when people say Macbeth’s name, bad stuff actually happens, which is why he is called The Scot. And the very same Scot, creepy as he may be in his original play, has grown seriously dark in Tchaikovsky’s story. The plot itself was difficult to follow, had no real red thread to follow, and its characters were mostly let-downs. Which may well be due to my lack of intimate knowledge of Shakespeare. 4/10
On the Twelfth Night by Jonathan Barnes
This was my favorite story in the collection! In twelve chapters, one for each night, Jonathan Barnes tells a story in second person singular, with “you” being Shakespeare’s wife Anne. But something is not quite right. Even with limited knowledge of Shakespeare’s life, certain things just feel off and not like we learned in school at all. Everything makes sense after a while, though, and it is this unravelling of the truth that was part of the fun.
What I loved the most, though, is that this was the only story that truly felt like “Shakespeare meets fantasy”. Granted, fairies and magical knives feature in most of the stories, but this brings a real speculative element into the mix, one dealt with wonderfully and with emotional impact. The story is well-executed, I found myself caring greatly for the characters, and I loved the ending. 7,5/10
All things considered, this was a good collection, though not an overwhelming one. All the stories are connected to each other but these connections weren’t close enough to really give the sense of a bigger hole. I’m also a bit disappointed that almost all stories merely took Shakespeare characters or stories and spun the tale on, instead of adding something of their own to it. I don’t know what limits the authors were given for this collection and since all tales are connected, I suppose the writers may not have had too much freedom to write what they want. Except for the Tchaikovsky story, which I just didn’t click with, all tales were fun to read, but I’d recommend them more to Shakespeare fans than SFF readers. Had I been more familiar with all the plays alluded to or used here, I probably would have enjoyed the collection more.
MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Pretty good