Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Nanoreviews: Into Shadow, a Collection of Amazon Short Stories

A collection of short fiction stories examining hidden and forgotten things, in which seven authors give us stories of characters wandering into places and spaces that others cannot, or will not, and risk the darkness as the price of their hidden knowledge.

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 LÄ™ina’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

Unsurprisingly given the title, this is an intensely creepy story of mediums and murder. We follow a couple of fraudulent mediums wanting to pull yet another scam... and yet the story isn't quite what it seems. In this world... there is magic? Maybe? And yet the mediums are still fake? It's a story that tugs at the edges, throwing you off with details that don't conform to your expectations, even as much of it does. Between this and the great and immediate way Vo has conjured the atmosphere, it really packs a punch in terms of the creepiness.

It's also a story happy to leave much unsaid, in the traditions of the best magic and mystery. We don't really need to understand the world, or why what happens happens. We just need to inhabit it for a little while, and enjoy passing through it, experiencing this little window into a bit of strangeness. This works particularly well because there are threads cast outwards, rooting it in contexts before and after the moment of the story, hints of background and backstories to the characters and places, we just never need them to be fully explained, fully spelled out. It's a story completely content to be as it is and do what it needs to do with a deft, light touch and I enjoyed it enormously.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

by Tamsyn Muir

Somehow, we get even creepier, in a world of moving gangster dens and decomposing ghoul dancers and undercover cops. Muir has made sure all the nastiness of organised crime is definitely kept in her story, and then added an extra layer of zombie nastiness as delightful icing on the cake. Definitely this isn't one to read alone, late at night.

Amy Starr is an undercover police officer, trying to worm her way into the good graces of a mob boss. She gets taken on as a bodyguard and keeper for the boss' big secret - a ghoul who can dance, and think, and respond to conversation. Which makes her dangerous. The ones that can think are the worst. We follow Amy wrestling with her curiosity about the ghoul, her need to know more, while balancing her superior's need to destroy something - someone - so very dangerous.

But even in such an un-right world, something else is off. And it takes the whole story to get us there, in a twist that is genuinely twisty and well managed, but leaves the story ending hanging on possibilities and wondering. It's brilliant, solid work and entirely worth being creeped out by.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

The Candles Are Burning
by Veronica G. Henry

With a sharp twist, for all that The Candles Are Burning is still about death and mystery as the rest of the collection is, the focus here is far more on the living human experience than the darkness itself, and that makes the experience of reading it, while not exactly a light one, a contrast in tone to the previous two stories. It is far more about a woman grappling with the loss of her husband, the precarity of her life, and the strangeness of the things happening to her, than those strange happenings themselves.

It helps also that our main character, Maggie, is an intensely pragmatic, practical woman, even in the face of shuddering, portentous candles and spectral visions, and it grounds the tone of the story far closer to the real and the living. She's a pleasant person to follow and live in the thoughts of, and it is easy to feel for her instantly, even before the drama of the story truly begins. She's a woman who doesn't want to leave her home for the dubious promises of a better life elsewhere, at least not without proof. She's a woman trying to do right by her daughter, persuade her husband to be sensible. She's a woman trying to live even while haunted by spectres of death, and so she burns bright through the story.

That being said, I think this is one that could have done with being a little longer. The mystery is great, and well played out for the most of it, but the wrap up feels sudden when we get there. Everything is neat and tidy, but could have done with that bit more space to breathe, and get us there a little more naturally and gently. And that would have just given us more time with Maggie.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Out of the Mirror, Darkness
by Garth Nix

Alas, a weaker story than many of the others to close.

We follow Harper, the general fixer, scary man and solver of extremely odd problems at a mid-tier film studio in old Hollywood. Two of the stars of their current film have fallen mysteriously ill, and particularly seem to be unable to tolerate bright light. He suspects something paranormal at work, but the mysterious secretary to the big boss, knower of many things, isn't around to answer his questions, and so he must investigate, and perhaps figure out how to keep things together on his own.

The premise is fine, and interesting enough, but the problem comes with both the character dynamics, and the ending. Garth Nix loves a weak man/strong woman pairing (whether romantic or otherwise) and this is no exception... but because we spend most of the story with just the weaker half, it feels incomplete. We just get to watch him flounder somewhat, though more competently than many of Nix's men manage. But then, when the strong woman does turn up? She's the deus (or I suppose dea) ex machina, and so the tension that's been building for the whole of the story just dissipates instantly. There simply wasn't the space to manage both the worry and foreboding in her absence and give any level of drama and mystery when she shows up. It makes this feel very much like something that exists in a larger universe - if she were a familiar character making a cameo, she'd make far more sense - or something shorter than it was intended to be. There are simply too many threads surrounding her.

And then there's her character in general - she knows all the answers, but we never know why, and not in the enjoyable sense of a story well done that leaves you wanting more. We feel short-changed by her, and her swift resolution of events. The ending of the final story of the set is an abrupt cut-off, and it unfortunately undercuts so much of the good work the rest of the stories have put in to build such a lovely, coherent and creepy collection.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10