White Cat, Black Dog by Kelly Link
The vast majority of story collections by their nature vary in relative strength from piece to piece. I’m always happy when I fully enjoy more than half of the stories and thrilled if that hits three-quarters. Well, there are seven stories total in White Cat, Black Dog (2023), Kelly Link’s newest collection in which she brings her trademark style to a series of retold fairy tales, and of the seven I only disliked one, while the others ranged from really good to great. If I carry the one, multiply by pi, and solve for X, I’m pretty sure that’s better than three-quarters. So yeah, thrilled.
Though these are retellings, one certainly needn’t be familiar with the source material to enjoy them. I recognized most but not all and didn’t feel any sense of loss for those that were new to me beyond the enjoyment of seeing an author’s originality in bringing a classic tale brought into a new environment. Pretty near the full panoply of fairy tales makes it appearance: talking animals, quests, family relationships (fathers and sons, stepmothers), barriers to true love that need to be overcome, curses, talismans, and more, though rather than the usual woods and cottages we get suburbs and mountain towns and non-straight love and airplanes and sci-fi settings. And as noted, they nearly all work.
My favorite, though it’s tough to pick amongst two or three, is probably “The White Road”, set in a post-apocalyptic world through which the titular road travels, walked by mysterious and ravenous creatures who can only be deterred by the presence of a corpse. It’s a wonderful set-up that Link perfectly exploits to its fullest potential for tension, suspense, and emotionality. “The Game of Smash and Recovery” was another highlight, this one set in a science-fictional universe albeit one that is highly localized. It’s an odd situation (based on Hansel and Gretel), and it takes the reader a bit to get their bearings, especially as it makes use of familiar words (Handmaids, Vampires, and such) for things that aren’t all that familiar. While one might assume the oddness and far-future setting could create a distancing effect, the story packs a surprisingly powerful emotional punch. Finally, there’s “Skinder’s Veil”, about a grad student who takes over a house-sitting job for a friend called away for an emergency. The owner of the house has but two rules: let in anyone who comes to the back door and never letter Skinder himself in. The queue of characters tromping up to that back door makes for a wonderfully playful tale, one full of whimsy but never overly so.
The only story I didn’t care for was “The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear” which has a horror tinge to it that was fine but which felt meandering and surprisingly flat; otherwise the rest, while not quite as strong as the three above, were all quite good and enjoyable in their own fashion with their own strengths. What remains consistent through all of them is Link’s craft: a wry voice, smooth prose, smart dialogue, an eye for the just-off detail, a startling turn of phrase or use of word choice, and a sense that she sees the world slightly differently than the rest of us. All of which makes a new Link collection something to jump into and revel in.
Gotta read this one.
I’m reading this right now. I remembered that I’d read “A Game of Smash and Recovery” before (in Strange Horizons). It was a standout then, and it still is.
I agree with you about “The Girl Who Didn’t Know Fear.” The horror notes were perfect, but I kept sliding off the story’s surface.