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Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales From Shakespeare's Fantasy World Kindle Edition
"Children of Blood and Bone"
Tomi Adeyemi conjures a stunning world of dark magic and danger in her West African-inspired fantasy debut. Learn more
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Though the five novellas can stand independently of each other (I’ll review each separately below), the collection as a whole has a linear chronology and a shared narrative background — political turmoil and looming war in the Mediterranean, centered on the Medici family — and some of the same characters and plotlines are threaded in and out of multiple tales. The stories do vary somewhat in quality, but nowhere near as much as is typical in my experience with anthologies. There’s nary a weak one in the bunch, just ones I prefer over others, making this an easy recommendation.
Finally, with regard to the general collection, I should probably deal with the question of whether you need to know Shakespeare in order to enjoy the tales. But to be honest, that’s a hard one for me. Being an English teacher, and someone who has not only read these plays but taught many of them multiple times, it’s all but impossible for me to put myself in the mindset of someone who doesn’t know them well or at all. There’s no doubt that knowing the plays will add a richness of emotionality and humor to the stories, as when a character notes that she knows exactly why Friar Lawrence left his hometown or when Benedict talks of how much he loves his wife’s sharp wit. And even knowing the stories, the many political entities, alliances, and enmities can get a bit bewildering, meaning those coming cold will probably be even more lost. That said, one of the reasons Shakespeare is still performed, filmed, and read (and enjoyed) today is because his themes and subjects are pretty timeless, and those same themes run throughout the collection: betrayal, the hunger for power, love, transformation, grief, regret, one’s role in the world, magic, the temptation of evil, the allure of the fantastical. And while those alone should suffice for readers unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s work, the author’s have also updated many of them for a modern audience, dealing for instance with issues of gender identity and particularly of female agency.
Coral Bones by Foz Meadows
Miranda, who has long been suffocating in her marriage to Ferdinand, takes advantage of a life-threatening failed childbirth to fake her own death (with the help of Ariel) and leave the “brave new world” of men, a much more stifling world than she’d expected, for a hopefully more free life amongst the faerie. She is introduced to Puck by Ariel and joins him on his penitent walk (no faerie roads for him) to Queen Titania’s court, where she’ll ask the Queen to take her own, though such a request does not come without risk. As she and Puck journey, the story flashes back periodically to revisit Miranda’s time on the island with Prospero, offering up a much darker version of their tale than Shakespeare did.
The theme of Miranda seeking her own way in the world, a journey that began back on the island, is a compelling one, as is the joint theme of a desire to be freed of social restraints of gender identity, even if Meadows at times is a bit too on the nose with them. They works better when we come to them a bit slant, as when Ariel early on asks Miranda if she loves Ferdinand and Miranda replies, “Compared to what,” leaving the reader to imagine Miranda alone on that isle save for her father and with no knowledge of men or women, of the various forms of relationship between them or of the constraints placed on women by society. I preferred those moments over the bluntly laid out explanations, though those are written well enough. Similarly, I felt Meadows overdoes it a bit with some of the revelations of what occurred on the island, as if not trusting that Miranda’s desire for an agency of her own was not compelling enough. The story would not have been harmed at all for loss of that subplot and I’d argue even strengthened. That said, the story is well told, well constructed, and Miranda’s ultimate goal one any reader can empathize with.
The Course of True Love by Kate Heartfield
Pomona, a none-too-powerful witch is heading home when she comes across a strange walled garden that turns out to be the prison of Vertumness, an envoy from Oberon to Pomona’s master Duke Orsino who was waylaid by Queen Titania due to an old grudge. The ambassador’s absence has set the region abroil, with Oberon accusing Orsino of murdering his envoy and Viola suspecting Don Pedro of setting it all up to force Oberon into the war between mortal states. Pomona is a wonderful character — older, strong, with a bit of an edge to her as well as a bittersweet sense of time having passed her by. I quite liked how this story began, and its general development as Pomona and Vertumness interact, but it wrapped up a bit too quickly and neatly for me, albeit in a familiar Shakespearean marriage-story sense, so I guess one can’t complain overmuch.
The Unkindest Cut by Emma Newman
This one I thought was the weakest of the tales, though it is still pretty good, focusing on Lucia de Medici’s attempt to discover why the destiny her seer mother prophesied for her has suddenly gone dark and/or off the tracks. To learn what has happened, she must journey to a cave for another prophecy, enter Prospero’s tower, and interact with Macbeth’s deadly (and perhaps sentient) dagger. There is a darker edge to this one and a sense of underlying remorse that worked well, though I personally thought the ending marred a bit by the portrayal of Prospero. But that’s a pretty subjective response.
Even in the Cannon’s Mouth by Adiran Tchaikovsky
This was my favorite of the collection, a wonderfully rich, evocative, and sophisticated story that brings together a host of characters (including several of my favorites) and more than the others plays with structure (always a plus for me) and on several occasions even breaks the fourth wall. There’s magic, political intrigue, betrayal, redemption, humor, suspense. And the character of Macbeth, which in a nod to theater folklore is not to be named, is absolutely gripping. Loved this story.
On the Twelfth Night by Jonathan Barnes
This is another strong entry, probably my second favorite of the five. Barnes takes a risk with choosing to go with a second person POV and to focus on Shakespeare’s wife, and both decisions pay off. The story is nicely impressionistic, metafictional, and does a nice job of illuminating the darker side of creativity.
My only complaint beyond the minor quibbles noted above is that the last story leaves several plot strands and characters dangling a bit. A sixth story wouldn’t have been a bad idea, especially given the quality of these five. But as I mentioned in the more general part of the review, the collection as a whole is an easy one to recommend. Even if you aren’t a Shakespeare fan, you’ll enjoy these stories, but those who are fans of the Bard will find this to be a rich feast.
A tale told through five different shorter stories, and by the hand of five different authors. “Monstrous Little Voices” picks some of Shakespeare’s plays (“The Tempest”, “Macbeth”, “Twelfth Night”…) and extrapolates on their themes and characters. Gender identity, the roles a gender may impose on a person, one’s decision to shake off those shackles and keep living without a care for the shape they’re in, the bravery of women acting “like men” (to the dismay of said men, poor creatures!)… More than once are those explored, while all the stories gather around a plot of impending war and intrigue, under the watchful eyes of fairies with their own agendas, and deities with shady plans as well.
There are a lot of cameos and cross-references here, and not knowing the works from which they sprang would lead to missing on quite a few good parts, so be prepared to brush up your Shakespeare before diving into this collection, and to know who we’re talking about when mentioning Miranda, Puck, Paroles or Helen—not to mention those characters who allude at yet other sources… much like Shakespeare himself found inspiration in various sources as well. And so, many, many times, the five tales entertwining here do so with their faire amount of echoes.
The first, second and third were clearly my favourites, both for their plots and for their themes. “Coral Bones” is the story of Miranda’s journey, after she left her island and realised that life among men, abiding by laws written for Man by men, was nothing to write home about. I particularly liked her take on gender, on wanting to be “human” and “oneself” above anything else, of not agreeing with those for whom gender should define one’s behaviour and ways of thinking. And this story definitely shows her as more resourceful and cunning than one would think. “The Course of True Love” was ripe with magic, metamorphoses, questioning about one’s true nature—and seeing older people at the heart of romance was extremely refreshing, showing that love can be born anywhere, anytime. As for “The Unkindest Cut”, I liked its self-fulfilling prophetic contents, and how it played on twisting words and visions; its end is bittersweet, full of dark promises… but here, too, showing another female character who’s determined to take her life between her hands (in an interesting twist, considering how blank she was at first, when all she wanted was to marry The Man).
On the other hand, I admit I didn’t care much for stories #4 and #5. “Even in the Cannon’s Mouth” felt too disjointed, a feeling made stronger as the story sometimes shifted to present tense. Finally, “On the Twelfth Night” tied the other stories in a way that somewhat made sense… but I have such a hard time with second person POV that trudging through those last pages wasn’t too pleasant (it’s even more jarring when the “you” is actually named, and isn’t “you the reader”—this just doesn’t make sense).
Conclusion: the first three stories were the root of most of my enjoyment here; I wished it had been the same with the others. 3,5 stars.
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Although I wasn't particularly crazy about reading Shakespeare when I was in college (and still not a fan of...Read more