Category: Short Stories

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall

Cover image for Seven Stones to Stand or Fall by Diana Gabaldon by Diana Gabaldon

ISBN 978-0-399-59342-0

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall contains seven works of short fiction set in the world of Outlander, including two that have never been previously published. The stories stretch across the span of the main series, filling in gaps here and there. The earliest story is a prequel set in 1740, covering Jamie Fraser and Ian Murray’s time as mercenaries in France. The latest recounts the story of how Roger Wakefield was orphaned during the London Blitz. The pieces range in length from long short story to meaty novella, and deal largely with secondary characters.

Diana Gabaldon is a very detail-oriented person, and her introduction helpfully contextualizes all of the stories, providing information about where they fit in the series timeline, which characters they deal with, and where they were originally published (if applicable). Given that the main series now stretches to eight books, and with several Lord John books on the market, this introduction will prove crucial for folks like me, who have not read the other books in a while.

For my own sanity, I threw over the arrangement of the novellas in the book, and used the information provided in the introduction to read the stories in chronological order. (If you’d like to do this as well, the order is: Virgins, A Fugitive Green, The Custom of the Army, A Plague of Zombies, Besieged, The Space Between, and A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows.) This had the distinctly beneficial effect of allowing me to keep events and people relatively straight, and also bracketed the book with the two stories I was most interested in reading. The only downside to this order was that things got a little Lord John heavy in the middle, with three stories in a row based on his exploits.

Although many of these stories were originally published in anthologies where they would theoretically be read as standalones, many of them make most sense in the context of the series as a whole. However, my personal favourite in the collection was A Fugitive Green, one of the two original stories, and one which I think stands alone better than many of the others. It recounts the exploits of Minnie, a teenage forger living in Paris with her English father, who brought her into the family business. Readers of the series will know that Minnie eventually finds herself married to an English lord, and A Fugitive Green reveals just how that unlikely event came about.

Given the range of the timeline and characters covered in Seven Stones to Stand or Fall, it is unsurprising that the stories vary widely in tone and content. Some touch more on the supernatural elements of the series, and others are more pure historical fiction. Lord John’s stories tend towards military exploits and mysteries. In short, there is a little something for everyone, with the caveat that I don’t think this is how I would recommend introducing anyone to the world of Outlander. The main series is a much better place to start.

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All Hallow’s Read: Troll Bridge

Cover image for Troll Bridge by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran Original Story by Neil Gaiman

Adapted by Colleen Doran

ISBN 978-1-50670-008-3

“It is good for children to find themselves facing the elements of a fairy tale. They are well equipped to deal with these.”

A young boy in rural England follows an abandoned train track until he crosses under a bridge. There he meets the troll, who declares that he will eat the boy for daring to enter his domain. But the boy is clever and strikes a bargain with the troll, promising to return to be eaten later, after he has lived more of life. After all, someone who has read books, and flown on airplanes, and seen America must be tastier than a little boy who has done none of these things. But as he grows up, the boy becomes desperate to renege on his bargain.

Troll Bridge is a graphic novel based on Neil Gaiman’s 1993 short story of the same title. This new edition from Dark Horse was adapted and illustrated by Colleen Doran. Gaiman’s original story can be found in his short story collection Smoke and Mirrors. It is a dark fairy tale that—in the manner of many Gaiman stories—is about children, but not for them. The boy starts out clever and beguiling, talking the troll out of eating him immediately. But that survival instinct takes a dark turn as he grows up and goes to ever greater lengths to avoid being consumed. The little boy who seems resourceful to escape the troll becomes the kind of teenager who describes his first love in terms that make your skin crawl:  “I fell for her like a suicide from a bridge.”

Doran’s work suits the atmosphere of the tale well, equally capable of capturing the fairy tale and the gothic. Some sections have distinct comic-book style panels, but Doran also incorporates large illustrative spreads that suit the fairy tale vibe. Her troll is grotesque and monstrous, and the colours of the illustrations become progressively darker as the boy grows up and innocence recedes. In fact, this is Doran’s second crack at Troll Bridge; in an interview with Comic Book Resources, Doran discusses making an initial pen-and-ink attempt at it in the 1990s.

A creepy adult fairy tale about a dark coming-of-age, Troll Bridge is a perfect fit for an All Hallow’s Read.

All Hallow’s Read is an initiative by Neil Gaiman to encourage readers to share scary books at Halloween. Learn more at:  http://www.allhallowsread.com/

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Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures

Cover image for Bloodletting and Miraculous Curesby Vincent Lam

ISBN 9780385661447

“Her family, she said, was modern in what they wanted for her education, and old-fashioned in what they imagined for her husband.”

Four young medical school students start out on the road to becoming doctors, sure of their nobility of purpose and their calling, the real and trying rigours of the medical profession still ahead of them. Ming, Fitz, Sri, and Chen come from different backgrounds and have different career paths awaiting them. In a series of twelve interlinked short stories, Dr. Vincent Lam takes the reader behind the scenes of the medical world, from medical school to residency to the emergency room and the operating room. He also draws on his experience in international air evacuation medicine and his knowledge of influenza pandemics to create richly detailed fictional accounts.

Lam touches on a lot key moments in a doctor’s medical career, from getting accepted to medical school, to the first cadaver lab, to the long nights of residency, losing a patient, and even working during a pandemic. “Contact Tracing,” the story about the SARS outbreak, holds up remarkably well over a decade later, perhaps because it could really be the story of any unexpected pandemic.

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures also touches on important cultural issues. In “Eli” Fitz is called on to treat a patient who he believes to have been the victim of police brutality. He must decide if he is willing to be complicit in helping them cover up the abuse, or if he has the strength of character to stand up to them. In “Winston” Sri is faced with a patient who has had a mental break down. When Winston fails to return to the hospital for follow-up care, Sri has to choose between letting the case go, and stepping outside the usual bounds of the doctor-patient relationship to track down his charge.

For fans of Lam’s 2012 novel, The Headmaster’s Wager, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures also contains “A Long Migration” in which Chen is called on to care for his ailing grandfather. He travels to Australia, where his family depends on him to call them in from around the world in time to attend the patriarch’s last moments. His grandfather, Percival Chen, is the protagonist of Lam’s novel, where he featured as the gambling, womanizing headmaster of an English school in Saigon. But in “A Long Migration,” he is an old man in his last days, considering his life and possible conversion to Christianity.

Lam’s characters are complicated and flawed, fallible humans who have been trusted with unthinkable responsibility, and faced with terrible dilemmas. This adds depth to the rich detail of the author’s own medical experience, making for an intriguing collection.

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Final Flight

Cover image for Final Flight by Beth Catoby Beth Cato

eISBN 9780062411280

“This is sedition, Mr. Hue. We’re not merely subverting the command of a Clockwork Dagger, but Queen Evandia herself. Recollect the so-called traitors we often see hanged near ports. Many of them die on hearsay alone. How will we be judged?”

No sooner had he rid himself and his airship of the troublesome medician Octavia Butler, and the spy Alonzo Garrett, Captain Hue finds the Argus commandeered by the Caskentian government for a secret mission. With Clockwork Daggers and royal soldiers aboard the ship, Captain Hue finds that he has no choice but to fly towards the Waste, bearing a cargo that could change the course of the war. But the further they fly, the less certain he is they will ever return, and worse, the Crown seems to have designs on his bright young son, Sheridan.

Final Flight marks a brief return to some minor characters who appeared in The Clockwork Dagger, and tells the story of a man forced to choose between his loyalty and the lives his obedience may cost. His son, his crew, and the people of the Waste will all pay the price of whatever decision he makes when he realizes the terrible cargo that has been brought aboard his ship. Worse, its presence on board necessitates the removal of the Argus’ aether magi, lest the artifact drive them mad, and so the ship is flying blind into dangerous territory. The calculating Mrs. Starling is also paying an unusual amount of attention to Captain Hue’s fourteen-year-old son, Sheridan, a canny young man who is only a year away from being eligible for conscription into military service. One step out of line could cost Captain Hue the person he loves most, making the stakes of this little adventure extremely high.

The Kindle edition is rather shorter than you initially expect; the second half of the file is a tantalizing sneak peek at Beth Cato’s upcoming novel, Breath of Earth, which is about a lone female geomancer on the eve of San Francisco’s catastrophic 1906 earthquake. But that minor disappointment aside, Final Flight provides one more adventure-filled glimpse into the world of The Clockwork Dagger.

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The Tsar of Love and Techno

the-tsar-of-love-and-technoby Anthony Marra

ISBN 978-0-77043643-8

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2015. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“That morning, the last images of Vaska’s face had been scratched into oblivion with a one ruble coin. That afternoon, I began to paint him into everything.”

From Grozny in the south, through St. Petersburg, and on to Kirovsk in the high Arctic, a painting of a field—a minor work by a Chechen master—connects a Soviet-era censor to a blind art historian, and a Russian oligarch to the granddaughter of a disgraced prima ballerina. A Russian soldier is killed in the field the painting depicts, and his former lover sets out for war-torn Grozny, determined to purchase the piece. In a series of nine interlinked short stories, three of which have been previously published, Anthony Marra depicts the many compromises and disappointments of ordinary Russians as they struggle under Communism, and then continue to struggle once they have thrown it off.

Beginning in Leningrad in 1937, a censor who once dreamed of being an artist is charged with expunging enemies of the state from official photographs and paintings. He is even required to insert the image of a party boss into a painting, defacing the work of a Chechen master. Unbeknownst to his superiors, for every person he disappears, he paints the brother he betrayed somewhere into the background of the photo. It seems as if he will get away with this small act of defiance indefinitely, until he becomes fascinated by the photo of a disgraced ballerina. Decades later and a thousand kilometres away, Kolya returns home from the war in Chechnya to the Siberian mining town of Kirovsk, only to discover that his high school girlfriend has married the thirteenth richest man in Russia, and become a beauty queen and movie star. In Grozny, an art historian blinded by the explosion that destroyed the museum where she worked despairs of ever finishing her dissertation on the censor who painted a mysterious man into all of his works because she cannot afford the surgery necessary to restore her sight.

Anthony Marra takes these many disparate events, and weaves them together into a portrait of the hushed acts of complicity and rebellion that are necessary to negotiate life in Russia. In addition to the pleasure of Marra’s beautifully rendered prose, there is the anticipation of finding the connection between the assorted tales. Just when it seems like there is no link to the previous stories, Marra sweeps in and ties it all together. He even manages to slip in the occasional, passing reference to familiar figures from A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, his striking 2013 debut novel, which won numerous fiction awards. The Tsar of Love and Techno has the same heart-breaking melancholy and absurd dark humour here that was present in his phenomenal novel, and his powers of description are strongly in evidence. Particularly exceptional is the second story, “Granddaughters,” which uses the collective voice to share the disappointments of six women who live ordinary lives in Kirovsk while they watch one of their classmates rise to fame and fortune.

As a novel, these events would be loose, somewhat shapeless, and stylistically uneven. As short stories, they are deeply interconnected, and reflect the variety of experience in a country with a turbulent history. The connections feel natural rather than forced, and the collective result is greater than the sum of its parts.

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Shifting Shadows: Stories from the World of Mercy Thompson

Cover image for Shifting Shadows by Patricia Briggsby Patricia Briggs

eISBN 978-1-101-60950-7

“Humans, in her experience, were weak and fragile things prone to dying and breeding with about the same frequency.” 

As the subtitle of this short story collection might imply, Patricia Briggs’ popular protagonist, Mercy Thompson, does not feature at all in many of the stories in Shifting Shadows, or appears only in passing, or by mention. Rather, many of the stories feature secondary or other minor characters from the series, allowing them to briefly take centre stage. The collection consists of four new stories, and six previously published works, along with two bonus scenes, outtakes from drafts of Silver Borne and Night Broken. Each work is introduced and contextualized by the author, along with a note about where it fits in the series timeline.

Perhaps the best of these is the previously published “Alpha and Omega” which follows Bran’s son Charles to Chicago during the events of Moon Called, where he meets his new mate, the Omega wolf Anna. Charles and Anna jump to life on the page, with fantastic chemistry, and Briggs’ fans can be forever grateful that her editor took one look at the story, and asked Briggs if she could write Charles and Anna their own series, leading to the publication of Cry Wolf in 2008.

“Seeing Eye”, featuring the white witch Moira and Tom of the Emerald City Pack, has a similar energy, and fans have long been hanging on Briggs’ promise that she will write more about them (perhaps their own series?) in the future. Moira and Tom first appeared together as a couple in Hunting Ground, but “Seeing Eye” goes back before the events of Moon Called, to their first meeting, and the realization that Tom can be Moira’s eyes. This tantalizing story will only makes fans hungrier for their story to get its own book.

Another standout is “Roses in Winter”, which finally follows up with Kara, the youngest known survivor of a werewolf attack, whose father approaches Mercy for help in Blood Bound. In addition to revealing the fate of an off-page character who sparked a great deal of curiosity among fans, “Roses in Winter” also develops another popular character, Asil, who has been living with the Marrok’s pack for fifteen years, expecting a death which is slow to come. While “Alpha and Omega” and “Seeing Eye” were both previously published, “Roses in Winter” is one of the new stories in this collection.

Some of the stories in Shifting Shadows are beginnings and stand alone quite well. Others gain most of their resonance through their connection to Briggs’ larger world, which fans have come to know and love. In general, the stronger stories are those which feature popular series characters who don’t normally star. Warren gets his own detective story in “In Red, With Pearls” and “Silver” delivers Samuel and Ariana’s tragic backstory, only hinted at in the series. The exception to this rule is “Redemption,” a story about how Ben’s protective pack instincts are slowly eroding his misogyny, which should be redemptive as the title suggest, but instead is unfortunately bland. However, the majority of the stories in the collection are interesting either for what they reveal about some of our favourite characters, or the glimpse they offer into a corner of Mercy’s world that we don’t normally get to see.

Ajax Penumbra 1969

Cover image for Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloanby Robin Sloan

ISBN 9780374711849

“Your parents are weirdos in the best possible way. They do not celebrate birthdays; never in your life have you received a present on the tenth of December. Instead, you are given books on the days that their authors were born.”

In this prequel to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan takes us back to San Francisco in 1969, where the Summer of Love is winding down, and Mohammad Al-Asmari is still managing the 24-hour bookstore that will one day belong to his protégé. Silicon Valley is starting to take shape south of the city, and the BART is under construction. Visiting this developing city for the first time is Ajax Penumbra, who comes to San Francisco on assignment to acquire a copy of the Techne Tycheon—a lost book of fortunes—for the Galvanic College library where he is employed. When his search leads him to Mo Al-Asmari’s 24-Hour Bookstore, he unexpectedly finds himself entangled with the Unbroken Spine, and the origins of its San Francisco store.

Even more so than in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, the San Francisco setting is a key element of the story, as is the development of the computer age. This short story gives a great feel for late 60s San Francisco, with occasional references back to the city’s origins as a Gold Rush port. Sloan creates neat parallels between Penumbra’s life, the rise of computers, and San Francisco’s development into a tech giant. Ajax Penumbra and Marcus Corvina are introduced, and brought together by a quest very similar to the one that leads to the final fracture in their relationship forty years later. It is easy to see how the two men develop into the characters we meet in the novel. Familiar secondary characters from the novel make appearances as well, though sadly it seems too early for Clark Moffat, author of The Dragon-Song Chronicles, to play any part.

This short story provides an intriguing glimpse into San Francisco’s past, and introduces the rivalry between  Penumbra and Corvina with a fun, fast-paced mystery, but it is not an essential addition to the original story.

The Wanderer in Unknown Realms

Cover image for The Wanderer in Unknown Realms by John Connollyby John Connolly

ISBN 978-1-4767-5139-9

A book is a carrier, and the ideas contained within its covers are an infection waiting to be spread. They breed in men. They adapt according to the host. Books alter men, and men, in their turn, alter worlds.”

By all accounts, Lionel Maulding led a quiet and retired life in the English countryside, never traveling further afield than strictly necessary. If he was regarded as a little bit eccentric by his neighbours, he was also considered harmless. So when Maulding goes missing, both foul play and leaving of his own volition seem equally unlikely. Recently returned from the Great War, Soter is hired by Maulding’s lawyer, Mr. Quayle, to look into Maulding’s whereabouts. When Soter arrives at Bromdun Hall, he discovers that Maulding’s home is less of a house, and more of a library—every room is overflowing books. Maulding’s library reveals his recent fascination with the supernatural and occult, and leads Soter into the dangerous world of occultist book sellers in London as he searches for answers.

What starts out slowly as a conventional historical mystery takes a chilling turn for the supernatural when Lionel Maulding’s occult studies are revealed. The turn from routine mystery to creepy horror is abrupt, but prior to this point, the story wasn’t really grabbing my interest. Unfortunately, the story comes to a rather abrupt conclusion just when it feels like we are getting into the meat of Connolly’s fascinating world. This may be in part due to false expectation set by the fact that the last 15% of the Kindle file is a preview for one of Connolly’s novels, but it is also due in part to the fact that the ending leaves a lot to the imagination. Having read a few Kindle Singles over the course of the last month, I shouldn’t be surprised; very few of them have struck the right balance and actually feel as if they are “expressed at their natural length.” Connolly’s writing is intriguing and I would consider reading other books by him in the future, but this novella failed to satisfy.

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