The Garden by Tomi Champion-Adeyemi
The only thing I have previously read by Tomi Champion-Adeyemi is Children of Blood and Bone, of which I was not enormously fond - for all its great setting, I often found the characters a little weakly drawn and the plot tending to the obvious. The Garden could have been written by an entirely different author. It’s magical realism in tone, following a woman on a trip to Brazil inspired by the contents of a journal belonging to her mother, and the conversations she has with her guide along the way, digging into his and her own beliefs about the world and the supernatural, and what she’ll find when she reaches the mysterious garden she’s searching for. It’s told in a mixture of prose and poem, and really puts you into Lęina’s strange perspective, showing you a world fracturing into greater strangeness as she follows her journey onwards. Almost all of the story is in the conversations she has with Angelo, her guide, or just with herself, and so it feels incredibly intimate, and was well suited to the audio version I listened to.
It's a lyrical, strange little story, that's doing a lot of interesting things. It doesn't always quite pull them off, and is suffering a little from the short form, but well worth the time and interest regardless.
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10
Persephone by Lev Grossman
Following on from The Garden, Lev Grossman’s contribution to Into Shadow is a little disappointing. Where Champion-Adeyemi was playing with prose and poetry and an interesting character study, Grossman’s Persephone is far more a typical urban fantasy sort of vibe. It’s a perfectly fine example of one, but I feel like it was let down a lot by the form, simply because, for me, much of the appeal of an urban fantasy type narrative comes from exploring a world that lies within or alongside or under our own, and the juxtapositions and contrasts or ideas you get thrown out of the two together. When you have so little space as this, you cut the reader off from a lot of the time spent in that world and discovering it, and so you just don’t give them the opportunity to love it in the way a full-length novel might.
Aside from that – and in some ways that’s a good aside as I was genuinely left wanting to know more about the world – it’s well done. There’s a mystery at the core of the story, and how it develops is very well paced. It also has that spareness and economy that allows a short form story to really do a lot in its little space, and a lot of implication that relies on the reader making jumps of intuition or logic to try to figure things out. I finished it thinking “oh I wonder” and “does that mean…” and “so did she just…”, and those questions lingered with me after, which for me is a sign of a story well told... if it then goes on to give you the answers to those questions, or leave you in a position to ponder them more thoughtfully. Ultimately, I think it would have been much better told in a full length novel, so it ended up being relatively middling for me over all, despite feeling like a decent story start.
Nerd Coefficient: 5/10
The Six Deaths of the Saint by Alix E. Harrow
By contrast, The Six Deaths of the Saint was a phenomenal story, and one that took its size and form and used them to make itself better, not less. It is exactly what it needs to be and no more, and manages to pack a huge emotional punch for its very short size.
It follows a poor girl, young and ill, who sees a vision of a saint and is led to follow her prince, to fight and to kill. And then it becomes something… else. Something wider. A story about stories, and patterns, and change, and the things we don't notice that are right in front of us all along. It's dreamy and drifty and has that slightly indefinable quality of the fairytale or legend - very much deliberately in this case evoking Arthuriana - that speaks to something at the level of the mythic. It's sad, hopeful and bittersweet in equal parts as well as glorious, and really manages to give you that full arc of a satisfying story in just a few pages.
It’s also one where sharing almost anything about the actual details of the story would ruin the sheer delight of it, so I’m going to leave it there, and end with an exhortation that you should read it because it is simply beautiful.
Nerd Coefficient: 10/10
What the Dead Know by Nghi Vo
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10
Undercover by Tamsyn Muir
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10
The Candles Are Burning by Veronica G. Henry
Nerd Coefficient: 6/10