Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories from The Merry Sisters of Fate

I'm not exactly sure how I missed the Merry Sisters of Fate when it was running; I feel like I saw mention of it, and possibly read a story or two, but missed out on what many other readers experienced. (I think I had a critique partner who followed the group on livejournal.)

Reading The Curiosities, which collects some of the stories, is both a treat for readers and writers. In addition to the fantastic and diverse stories featured the reader also sees notes from the author and her critique partners. If you learn by studying the work of others, as I do, reading this collection is a course in how to write short fiction. The notes about the things the authors enjoy/struggle with in their own writing and what they admire about the work their critique partners do is a fabulous insight into their process (and a reminder of the value of having the right-for-you critique group.)

The stories vary in length, and because they come from a larger body of work some are technically stronger than others. They each do a thing well, but the gems of the anthology do multiple things well.

Included are stories written from the same prompt (King Arthur), showing that three writers will always write three different stories, and a discussion of how the individual authors treat writing prompts. Each story is enjoyable for different reasons and reading them together—as they are presented in the collection—shows how they divert as well as how they echo.

It's also intriguing to see the seeds of novels-since-released planted in the stories and the bones supporting the individual author's body of work in the tropes that appear again and again.

A favourite story from each of the authors:

"Puddles" by Tessa Gratton: A beautifully sinister story where the magic concept is elegantly delivered, and the reveal changes everything without the story exploding into something different. It's our world but if you peel it back it's so very strange underneath. By pivoting it turns what looked abrasive into an act of caring. (But I would read an entire novel of "Thomas All.")

"Rain Maker" by Maggie Stiefvater: Genius behaving badly. Ok, no. It's also how quickly and concisely Stiefvater characterizes everyone in this so that you get sense of who they are even if they never say a word. But mostly, it's the utterly perfect last line. (A single line that shows instead of tells the growth of that character.)

"The Madness of Lancelot" by Brenna Yovanoff: A tightly-structured story that uses a repeating hook to create the cadence of an old ballad. It's emotionally frank, but somehow surreal. (Yovanoff's stories juxtapose beauty in ugly worlds. They are often violent, but I never find them off-putting.)

Friday, April 03, 2015

Tessa Gratton's The Apple Throne

Tessa Gratton's The Apple Throne is an excellent example of how to end a trilogy. Throughout The United States of Asgard novels and novellas, the narrative view point pivots so we see characters from inside and out; we get angles off the side and around the back. As Gratton ties the final knot of the story that began with The Lost Sun, she reveals the whole of the world. All of these threads of fate we've been following become a web.

Soren Bearstar, everyone's favourite berserker and best friend, is the central thread connecting the first two novels and novellas, but in The Apple Throne we learn it's Astrid who holds the world together.

This novel explores power, strength, and the different forms they take. It is about how people who believe different things can live together without compromising their individual needs. It's a book about choice. Consent.

Astrid, who took up the role as Idris, Lady of the Apples, is a mortal goddess who offers the apples of immortality to the Asgardian pantheon. These apples must be "freely given," and therein lies the truth of The Apple Throne. Each time Astrid makes a choice, the text respects it. Reinforces that her choices drive the narrative.

Astrid is kind, but she is not weak, because this is a book that understands the strength of kindness. It contrasts it against the strength of power in Signy and the strength of determination in Eirfinna. By representing the different ways we can be strong, The Apple Throne reinforces that we can choose our strength and our way of doing battle. It does not say one is better than the other, so much as remind us that they are all options.

Varied representation is something that The United States of Asgard has always done well. Both visible and invisible minorities exist in Gratton's series—in a natural way that is about whom the character is or will become through their arc. These are people, not checkboxes. Their moralities are varied, as are their relationships. I appreciate stories about these complexities; it's easy to be friends with someone whom you agree with all the time, but it's often more rewarding to be friends with someone you don't.

One of the things I love about Amon is he is selfish and kind of an asshole, but that doesn't automatically make him a villain. He's Amon. He just is. (I also love Sune Rask, and I've cast Chris Evans as him in my head.) This ability to be more by choosing to be yourself echoes all through Gratton's series, from Soren choosing to be the Sun's Berserker to well, spoilers. Incredibly satisfying spoilers.

We are a world of headlines and clickbait, so it's important we have stories that fight against over-simplifying political and personal conflicts. Stories that say something, succinctly and on the page, without it feeling like a command. The Apple Throne gives us a view of a world conflicted as our own, but says we can find our way through it. If we don't like the paths being offered, we can forge better ones.

Much like The Goblin Emperor and The Just City or The Raven Cycle, Gratton's The United States of Asgard books put kindness back into the world. I cannot recommend them enough, and now you can read them all.


Thank you to the author for providing a copy of The Apple Throne for review.