Sunday, April 26, 2015

Short Stories

Bah, anthologies.  I devoured them by the bucket in high school; short stories are a great way to consume a ton of fantasy very quickly, without the level of investment required for a novel.  I own SO many volumes of Sword and Sorceress! (And why didn't Dorothy J. Heydt's character Cynthia ever get a novel of her own?  A crime, I declare it!)

But I was not as discriminating then, and I've had so little patience for anthologies lately, because I can't bear to skip around and not "officially" finish them, but I also can't bear to read my way through the parts that are either outright blah or just not for me.

So those are my prejudices going in, and the reason that I didn't absolutely love Kaleidoscope, an anthology of diverse YA science fiction and fantasy stories edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios. I've never read an anthology--even an all-star one!--that was not uneven. 

Some of the stories were great! Some were kind of thin.  Actually, "thin" is probably my biggest complaint--I don't know if it's that the stories were particularly short, or because some of the authors didn't have a good instinct for YA, but some of them felt phoned in, either being all setup/worldbuilding with no incident, or just being kind of generic.

And generic is what it shouldn't have been, because the great thing here is the broad representation you have in this volume.  The point of this book is to see characters you don't see nearly often enough--a superhero with one hand, a girl in wheelchair fighting to break a curse, tons of non-white, non-straight characters having the usual fantasy adventures.

I think that the stories that did this best were my favorites--Faith Mudge's "Signature," about a girl who finds out that she and the owner of the bookstore where she works have both entered into deals that might be too much for them, was one of my favorites.  Priya Gowda is in a wheelchair, and her story is informed by her traditional family and the limitations the world sets on her, but there's far more to it than that.  "Chupacabra's Song," by Jim C. Hines is a really touching story about a girl on the autism spectrum who has a way with animals that may be more magical than her vet father realizes.  "Kiss and Kiss and Kiss and Tell", by E.C. Myers, is about a girl whose schizophrenia and meds interact with the new popular party drug in unexpected and upsetting ways. 

These are stories that do the best task of storytelling--take a character, with all the details and subtleties that make them human--and put them into a situation that requires them to face it.  Each one is shaped by who the character is and what they are trying to do, and they're all especially exciting and moving, because they do such a wonderful job of expanding around these things.

But then there's Garth Nix's "Happy Go Lucky," in which a high school girl from an elite stratum of society suddenly finds out that life isn't fair when she's stripped of her privileges.  Reading it reminded me very powerfully of the Twitter feed @dystopianYA, because there is nothing here to make it stand out.  Sure, Jean's parents are both dads, and she's dark-skinned, but this is not meaningful to the story in any way.  Really, there's nothing here that doesn't look exactly like Matched, or Divergent, or any of a hundred other utopia-is-really-dystopia books on the shelf.  Someone tapped Garth Nix for a story and he ripped one out in a couple of hours. 

There were plenty of other stories that were not much more than the sum of their blurb: "Cookie Cutter Superhero": when you get a chance to go into the Superhero Machine and turned amazing, do you want them to make your body "normal?";  "Krishna Blue": what if a gifted artist developed the dangerous skill of consuming colors from the world around her?; "Double Time": if you could go back in time five minutes, would things really be better?  (The last one, at least, was a nice little story about a figure skater with an overbearing mother.  Maybe it was a little simplistic, but it was actually pretty charming.)

Okay, so not bad.  But these were light, quick reads--I might say that they were very YA, but that sounds pejorative.  Really, they're focused around being a teenager, which is great, but many of the stories spend more time spelling out their fantastical concept, rather than speaking to me.

But of course, this is always going to be the anthology problem.  If I was thrilled 1/3 of the time, entertained 1/3 of the time, and deadly bored 1/3 of the time, is that a good read?  In a novel I'd have a firm opinion on that, but in an anthology, who knows?  I'm certainly in the minority in walking away disappointed, and let's admit that I haven't read an anthology in years, at this point.  And I love very much that this book made room for characters who don't show up nearly often enough.  I just wish that these characters would show up all over the place, so I could have more of the ones I loved.

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