This collection of nineteen fantasy short works, edited by Peter Beagle, is definitely worthwhile if you like speculative short fiction. Many of them left an impact on me, and a few are true standouts. These stories are by relatively new authors in the speculative fiction genre and are all fantasy; otherwise there’s no discernable overarching theme.
These stories have almost all been published previously over the last seven years, and several of them are Hugo or Nebula winners or nominees. While a dedicated reader of online short fiction can find many of these short works in free online magazines, it’s convenient to have them gathered together in one volume with other stories that aren’t as readily available.
A brief summary of the short stories, novelette(s) and novella in The New Voices of Fantasy and my ratings:
4 stars: “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong. A disturbing vampirish story with an Asian main character, lesbian overtones and highly evocative language. Nebula winner.
4 stars: “Selkie Stories are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar. When selkie women find their sealskin and go back to the sea, what about the children they leave behind? I appreciated that it explored a different point of view without minimizing the selkie women’s initial lack of consent. Hugo and Nebula nominee.
2.5 stars: “Tornado’s Siren” by Brooke Bolander. A tornado falls in love with a young girl, following her with devotion over the years. I don’t know, it just struck me as kind of a one-note story, with a few too many strained similes (“The sidewalks sweat like her father after a jog.”)
3 stars: “Left the Century to Sit Unmoved” by Sarah Pinsker. Every once in a while, people who dive into a pond in Shay’s small town never resurface, and their remains are never found. We never do find out why people keep disappearing, but the question Pinsker is really concerned with is, why do people still jump in?
5 stars: “A Kiss with Teeth” by Max Gladstone. Vlad the vampire is married to a human (in fact, the woman who was originally hunting him down!). They have a young son, and Vlad tries to live like a regular human, denying his darker self and powers. It all starts to break down when his son starts having problems at school, and when Vlad starts meeting regularly with his son’s teacher … who starts looking incredibly appealing as a victim. One of my favorite stories in this anthology, for its wry look at the question of what it means to be yourself.
5 stars: “Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon. When Grandma Harken’s grandson catches a jackalope woman by stealing her skin and partially burning it, it’s up to her to try to fix things. Vernon’s writing in this story is fantastic, evoking a Native American-inspired mythology and mixing in humorous but sharp observations about human nature. I’ve read this short story at least five times and adore it more each time. Nebula winner.
4 stars: “The Cartographer Wasps and Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu. A fable-type of story about intelligent wasps and bees with political overtones. Nebula and Hugo nominee.
2.5 stars: “The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate” by A.C. Wise. This is a humorous manual advising witches on the best way to get a house (buying, taming, breeding …). It’s a more complicated process than you might think! Cute, but a little weak and one-note for me. No plot.
3.75 stars: “The Tallest Doll in New York City” by Maria Dahvana Headley: One February evening in 1938, the Chrysler Building gets the romantic itch and takes off for a walk to go flirt with the Empire State Building. A sweet and warmhearted fantasia of a story; again, not a whole lot of plot.
4 stars: “The Haunting of Apollo A7LB” by Hannu Rajaniemi: A old spacesuit, haunted by the spirit of the astronaut who once owned it, takes its new (and illicit) owner for unwanted excursions. This is a deeper and more thoughtful story than I expected from the initial premise.
4 stars: “Here Be Dragons” by Chris Tarry. A couple of medieval con men, who made a good living for quite a while pretending to save villages from nonexistent dragons, are now having a difficult time settling down with the wives and kids. It’s told from the point of view of one of the men, who sees his friend’s and his own personal shortcomings, but tries to justify (or at least explain) their behavior. It’s amusing in parts, but also sobering and even appalling.
4.5 stars. “The One They Took Before” by Kelly Sandoval. Kayla feels a compulsion to check out want ads that speak of magical portals, faerie queens and mysterious disappearances. As the pattern builds up, it gradually becomes apparent why.
2 stars. “Tiger Baby” by JY Yang. Felicity has a disappointing job and an isolated life, but deep down she’s certain that she’s really a tiger, and one day will morph into her true majestic tiger self. This one didn’t quite work for me.
2.5 stars: “The Duck” by Ben Loory. Another fable type of story, this one about a duck who falls hopelessly in love with … a rock. Told in a deceptively simple fashion, it has some nice insights into friendship. Sadly, this duck just didn’t particularly rock my boat.
4 stars: “Wing” by Amal El-Mohtar. A lovely and very short story about books, and secrets, and people who truly understand you. There’s an intriguingly mysterious element in the small, thumb-sized book that the girl wears around her neck.
3.5 stars: “The Philosophers” by Adam Ehrlich Sachs. This work is comprised of three separate but thematically related stories, just a couple of pages each, about fathers and sons. They’re oddly whimsical and philosophical tales, reminiscent of stories by Jorge Luis Borges. Originally published in the New Yorker magazine.
3.5 stars: “My Time Among the Bridge Blowers” by Eugene Fischer. An explorer-scholar takes a journey to visits a remote, isolated people who have the ability to breathe air that solidifies enough for them to temporarily walk on it. This people, known as the Bridge Blowers, are very leery of visitors, since their society has been deeply damaged by colonial practices. It’s like reading a more enlightened Rudyard Kipling adventure, and what the narrator unknowingly reveals about himself and his prejudices is telling. However, I wasn’t a fan of the inconclusive ending. This is the only brand new story in this anthology.
4.5 stars: The Husband Stitch by Carmen Maria Machado. A disturbing, sexually explicit and well-written take on the old horror folk tale about the woman who always wears a ribbon around her neck. Machado weaves in urban legends and some meta aspects, where she addresses the reader directly. This is a strong and overtly feminist novelette that takes a dim view of men generally. Nebula nominee.
4 stars: The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman T. Malik. This novella begins as a folk-type tale of the old days, involving a dispossessed Pakistani princess and a jinn who lived in a eucalyptus tree, as told by a Pakistani grandfather to his grandson. It evolves into mind-bending metaphysical science fiction with cosmic implications. Nebula nominated novella.
I’d already read a few of the stories featured in The New Voices of Fantasy before picking up my review copy, but I was genuinely looking forward to re-reading those works, since all of them were easy 4- or 5-star ratings from my perspective. Various elements of “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” “The Haunting of Apollo A7LB,” “Jackalope Wives,” and “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” have stuck with me long after their initial reading, and I’m not ashamed to say that I think “A Kiss with Teeth” is wonderfully, sweetly romantic.
When it came to the stories I hadn’t read before, the results were more of a mixed bag for me (as they seem to have been for Tadiana, as well). I’ve discovered a new favorite horror story in “The Husband Stitch,” while “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” was rich in poetry, allegory, and science. “Selkie Stories are for Losers” was charming and fresh, “The One They Took Before” hints at a fae-touched world that I’d love to see in subsequent stories, and the ending of “Tiger Baby” definitely took me by surprise. “The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate” was cute, and put me right in the mood for Halloween. “Wing” is brief, but contemplative and poetic, while “Here Be Dragons” provides an insightful portrayal of a restless father’s inability to embrace happiness.
“The Tallest Doll in New York City” is a fun bit of fluff and 1920s slang, and though there isn’t much plot, the emphasis here is on having a good time. “Tornado’s Siren” had an inventive motivation, though the language was a little over-wrought at moments. “Left the Century to Sit Unmoved” is an interesting examination of why people might jump into a pond from which they might not climb out of, but didn’t do much with its thin veneer of fantasy. I appreciated the tweaking of a typical colonialist narrative in “My Time Among the Bridge-Blowers,” though I would have liked to see the characters and ideas explored a little more, in order to fully tap its potential. “The Philosophers” made more sense as a set of very brief linked stories than they do individually, examining the complex relationships between fathers and sons, but no particular moment of twist of phrase in these three stories really stood out and made me take notice. “The Duck” reads like a forgotten Aesop’s fable, and it’s decent, but it’s not much deeper or more challenging than “friendship is nice.”
Overall, The New Voices of Fantasy does a great job of selecting a wide range of authors within the vastness of the fantasy genre, and provides readers with some perspectives and talents that they might not otherwise encounter.
I really liked The New Voices of Fantasy, and a good few of the stories inside are stand-outs for me — not just in this anthology, but in the general sense of short fiction I’ve read. This volume is also itself a kind of time capsule, which really fascinates me. It will always be called The New Voices of Fantasy, but — because time works the way it does — these voices won’t always be new. Even now, reviewing this in 2019 when it came out in 2017, some of these authors have gone on to be nominated for awards (multiple times in some cases), write longer fiction, and foster the development of even newer new voices. I think in even a few more years’ time looking back at this collection will be interesting for those fans of speculative fiction with a completionist streak, and I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. So, for posterity, here are my thoughts on The New Voices of Fantasy:
“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” by Alyssa Wong, 5 stars
This Nebula-winning tale is an incredible opening to the anthology. Wong has deftly crafted a story that doesn’t suffer for its short format — I was surprised more than once by the way this story unfolded. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
“Selkie Stories are for Losers,” by Sofia Samatar, 3 stars
I was torn about this non-standard selkie story. While I liked the themes it explored, I found it difficult to dig into the characters and — as I’ve said many times — I am a reader who focuses on characters. So, this story wasn’t the strongest for me, but I think that’s more specifically about my taste — I can see this one being a standout for someone else.
“Tornado’s Siren,” by Brooke Bolander, 4 stars
I think at this point it’s safe to say I am a Bolander fan. Every story of theirs I come across I like, and often love. This story is so odd. I liked the dream-like quality of it — the idea of a tornado not only following someone through life, but literally following someone out of a kind of love? This story reflects to me the strange side of speculative fiction, and I enjoyed this foray into that feeling.
“Left the Century to Sit Unmoved,” by Sarah Pinsker, 3.5 stars
Sometimes when people go swimming in a deep pool in a small town, they disappear entirely. But people keep swimming there anyway. This story is a small-town supernatural mystery that asks questions beyond its premise. I was hoping for more of an impactful ending with this story, but otherwise really liked it.
“A Kiss with Teeth,” by Max Gladstone, 5 stars
I love this story, and I’ve talked about why before.
“Jackalope Wives,” by Ursula Vernon, 5 stars
Another Nebula-winning story, this one was incredibly impactful for me. I felt for the characters throughout the story and was genuinely worried about how it was going to end. This is a stand-out for me in this anthology.
“The Cartographer Wasps and Anarchist Bees,” by E. Lily Yu, 5 stars
When I first read this story, I immediately put down the anthology to find it online so I could send it to friends and insist they read it. This story made me think about systems and fiction differently.
“The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate,” by A. C. Wise, 4.5 stars
I was delighted by the whimsy of this story. I read a certain tongue-in-cheek-ness about it. I think I am finding that stories that state fantastical things as matter of fact are fun and engaging to me — I like that transportation to a someplace where magic is delightfully common-place. This story made me smile throughout.
“The Tallest Doll in New York City,” by Maria Dahvana Headley, 5 stars
Another story with a certain sense of whimsy that I found utterly intriguing. I’ve never been to New York City, but I don’t think my lack of knowledge hurt my reading of the tale. I loved how the people of New York, and even the people in the buildings going for a stroll, reacted to the situation at hand.
“The Haunting of Apollo A7LB,” by Hannu Rajaniemi, 3.5 stars
I’ve already talked about stories that remind me of how strange speculative fiction can get, and this is no exception. When an antique space suit goes for a walk, some late-night soul searching and historical context are explored.
“Here Be Dragons,” by Chris Tarry, 1.5 stars
Unfortunately, this story didn’t work for me. It follows two medieval ‘dragon slayers’ who have made a tidy living conning villages out of money. They then find it difficult to settle down with the wives and children they hardly ever saw when they were traversing the countryside. I didn’t care for their justifications of their terrible behaviour.
“The One They Took Before,” by Kelly Sandoval, 5 stars
Kayla keeps a vigilant watch for articles or personal ads that talk about faerie realms. As the story unfolds, the pieces of context fall into place to illuminate her choices. I loved this story from beginning to end — the focus on Kayla and her thoughts, the slow realization of what’s going on, and then the surprising ending amounted to one of my favourite stories in the anthology.
“Tiger Baby,” by JY Yang, 2.5 stars
In this story, the main character is convinced she’s really a tiger rather than the human she appears to be. What ensues is a weird tale with a surprising (to me) ending. Unfortunately, this story didn’t congeal into a cohesive ‘something’ for me — it felt like it was missing something integral.
“The Duck,” by Ben Loory, 2 stars
A duck falls in love with a rock. Take it or leave it, I wanted to leave it.
“Wing,” by Amal El-Mohtar, 3 stars
This story is deeply intriguing throughout, but that’s a little of why I liked it but didn’t love it. I liked the questions I had for this story, I liked the language, and I liked the themes through to the end. However, the thoughtfulness and the intriguing premise served to make me interested in how the story could end, and then the ending felt like a bit of a non-ending in that all the questions I had remained, but the story was over.
“The Philosophers,” by Adam Ehrlich Sachs, 2 stars
This story is really three short stories that all concern philosophers and father-son relationships. I was very intrigued by the first of the three stories, but the other two didn’t keep my interest at all. The three of them are also the most loosely speculative stories in this anthology.
“My Time Among the Bridge Blowers,” by Eugene Fischer, 4 stars
I was fascinated by this story from the outset. I felt that it portrayed an often-glamourized relationship between colonial researchers and indigenous groups they other-ize with their work. I enjoyed how this story dealt with the subject matter and the speculative aspects of the story.
The Husband Stitch by Carmen Maria Machado, 4 stars
I have learned that there is a certain subset of people who all remember reading the deeply disturbing story of a girl who wears a green ribbon around her neck at a formative age. Well, get ready for round two, because this story takes that creepy tale to a whole new place.
The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman T. Malik, 4.5 stars
The final story in this anthology is one I’ve read and reviewed before (non-spoiler: I liked it).