I’m honestly not quite sure of how to review Jo Walton’s 2018 collection of short stories, Starlings. As a fiction read, it left me greatly wanting, with many of the stories (there are also poems and one play, but more on those later) feeling undeveloped, slight, and too one-note, so that most frequent reaction was “nice idea, but …” with the “but” mostly signifying a response that really wasn’t a response. And so what’s the problem, you might be thinking. You didn’t respond to most of the stories; give it a bad review. Which is a nice idea, but …
And here’s the thing. Each story is followed by a brief afterword explaining where the premise arose, or what Walton’s intentions were, or where it was published (or not) or how much she was compensated (or not) or any mix of those. And in these afterwords, Walton often shares that this story was, well, “one-note,” or the start of something that was left, um, “undeveloped” or that it was an experiment in form or mode, an exercise of some sort. Most times that I negatively critique a story for lack of development, or characterization, or for feeling too much like it was just an experiment, it’s because it’s presented as having those things or being more than those things. That’s not the case here. At least, I don’t think it’s the case. So yes, as an anthology of short fiction, for me Starling failed in that I didn’t react much or at all to many of the stories: they didn’t linger, I didn’t respond emotionally, they didn’t provoke much thought, I wasn’t compelled by plot or character. But …
As an entry point into a writer’s process, as a craft-book-that-isn’t-really-a-craft-book-but-could-be, I kind of liked Starlings. I liked how she offers up a series of writerly questions: how might one write a POV from an inanimate object, or how might I enter a clichéd tale in a different or subversive way that hasn’t itself become a cliché? Can I mash up some people/characters and find a way to make it work, say Jane Austen and Cassandra of Greek myth? Or Godzilla and Shakespeare? Many of the stories didn’t do much for me, but the playfulness of the writer’s mind did. But …
That isn’t to say none of the stories worked for me. “Three Twilight Tales” is lovely and rich in tone and style, with gorgeous language use. “Jane Austen to Cassandra” is one-note/one-joke, but Walton nails the voice. “On the Wall” is that inanimate POV — a magic mirror in a classic tale — and it has a strong start, an OK middle, and a strong close. “Escape to Other Worlds With Science Fiction” was a solid if not overwhelming tale set in an alternate history, but Walton does a nice job with structure (with a nod to John Dos Passos).
My favorite parts of the collection outside “Three Twilight Tales” come in the one play in the book — “Three Shouts on a Hill” —a jaunty metafictional ride that is funny and has a good close, even if the play as a whole went on a bit long for me (ironically, when my major complaint with most stories was their slight nature). The other stories were either solidly entertaining but, as noted, didn’t do much or linger at all, or were relatively pedestrian, or were so slight that I was surprised they were actually published (or not surprised that they were not). Finally, the closing poems were a mixed bag for me, though poetry being so selective I won’t say much beyond that save I loved the Godzilla/Shakespeare cycle and quite liked “Hades and Persephone.”
So what to say? I can’t give the usual reasons for recommending a fiction book here. But in the end a review comes down to: does one think a book is a “worthy” read, is it “worth” the reader’s time. Thinking of it that way, then Starlings is a surprisingly easy book to recommend.
I enjoyed Starlings quite a bit. I went into the collection thinking it might be a good place to start with Jo Walton’s fiction, as I hadn’t read any before — after all, a collection is many stories all in one place by one author, so I thought I’d be able to get an idea of if I’d like to read more or not. I have my answer to that question, and it’s a yes.
Not all the stories were stand-outs for me, but many were. This collection is perhaps the most aptly described as a collection of ideas: and some of them are fantastic. My favourites (and the ones I would recommend to others) are:
“Turnover” (This one is my very favourite — the conversation here about art and destiny and choice was explored in a completely new way to me, and it has stuck with me the most.)
“The Panda Coin”
“On the Wall”
“A Burden Shared”
All of the stories I’ve highlighted can be found online in publications like Tor.com, Lightspeed Magazine, and Strange Horizons (linked above), but those editions do not include the author’s notes that Starlings does — so if author’s notes are something you really love, Starlings is the best place for you to find these stories and many more.
Overall, I liked this collection, and it has sparked an interest for me in other work by Walton.
~ Skye Walker
I think Walton is extraordinary at describing why a thing works or it doesn’t, so a collection of her own work, with discussing of why it worked or didn’t would suit me right down to the ground. I will have to get this one. I think Walton is a global treasure.
Since you write plays, did you read the play in the book with a different sensibility at all?
Color me intrigued! Walton’s really good at writing about craft, so I’m definitely looking forward to reading this. Thanks, Bill!