Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Microreview [book]: The People in the Castle, by Joan Aiken

Are they strange enough?


The People in the Castle: Selected Strange Stories, out from Small Beer Press, is a new compendium of Joan Aiken’s stories from throughout her long career. The collection showcases Aiken’s storytelling skill, while also emphasizing some of her recurring themes: small cruelties, deserved punishments, loyalty, and the bonds of love (which we see across a wide range of spectrums—familial, romantic, friendship, and even pet-human).

I’ve long been a fan of Aiken’s work and was looking forward to this collection (which, Small Beer Press should be lauded for: Aiken’s work seems to have fallen away and their push to get it back into the world is a good one). The first two stories “A Leg Full of Rubies” and “The Portable Elephant” set my expectations even higher. They are lovely fables, filled with gorgeous sentences and, even in their strangeness, the emotions ring true.

However, as I delved deeper into the collection, I felt myself getting somewhat bogged down. Too many of the stories feel so similar to the last (not in subject, necessarily, but in tone and voice) that they began to blend together. This feels like a collection not to sit down and read-through (my preferred mode for story collections), but rather to pick up on occasion and read the next story and then set down for a bit before tackling another.

Of the stories in the middle, the ones that stuck out to me were the ones that Aiken wrote about bonds between animals and humans (something Aiken has always written beautifully about): from the strange “Humblepuppy” to the heartbreaking and lovely “Lob’s Girl,” both of which pulled on my dog-loving heartstrings.

I also was pulled in by the stories which held promised threats and darkness within them. I appreciate that Aiken seemed the opposite of sentimental. When she goes dark, she usually lets that darkness pervade the piece. This can be seen clearest in stories like “Old Fillikin” and “The Man Who Had Seen the Rope Trick.”

In the end, though, this is ultimately a collection that starts and ends strong (the final story “Watkyn, Comma” is deeply affecting). But, the middle just doesn’t hold up as well as those end-pieces. Is this an problem with the compendium itself? That there were just to many stories to include, so that none got enough breathing room? For people coming new to Aiken, I might suggest one of her other story collections (such as The Monkey’s Wedding). Still, for fans of Aiken this collection might be just the thing if you wish to savor her work over a long period of time. A story here and a story there. A great storyteller, such as Aiken was, would probably appreciate a reader parsing out her tales like small sweet treats.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for celebrating Aiken’s work, +1 for the absolutely exquisite story “The Portable Elephant” 

Penalties: -1 for feeling somewhat repetitive with story choice

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 “a mostly enjoyable experience”

POSTED BY: Chloe, speculative fiction fan in all forms, monster theorist, and Nerds of a Feather blogger since 2016.

Reference: Aiken, Joan. The People in the Castle: Selected Strange Stories [Small Beer Press, 2016]