I said somewhere recently that I had never given a multi-author collection of short stories anything more than three stars. Here, I will make that statement false. It's just that usually there is too much comme ci, comme ça
in any given collection. But I hadn't read a Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling collection since I'd signed onto Goodreads. Lemme tell you, that was a mistake.
Datlow & Windling have been putting together some of the toppest notchest collections of short stories in the last (at least) 20 years, curating collections of fantasy, fairy tales, science fiction, and oddments. They come up with great hooks for their collections: topics that are general enough to give the writers lots of room, but with a twist to get them thinking in odd directions. They pretty much prove the rule that good editors make good writing.
The hook behind this one was: "Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber - although, yes, very little does - which is probably the only thing that makes them more obviously for children. Adults will likely be pleased to read these stories too, even without children for cover.
So, to the individual stories:
"Wizard's Apprentice" by Delia Sherman. Maybe it was just the Maine location, but I got a hint of Stephen King off the proceedings, but in a good way. (Mileage varies with King. I like him okay, but I find his prose a little wearying and his endings exhausting.) A good way because the prose was good and the ending better, even with the King feelings. And I'm a sucker for animal transformations and stories about abused children who overcome that abuse through education. The town eccentric wears a shield of his oddness; good on him.
"An Unwelcome Guest" by Garth Nix. This was a little frothy for my tastes, but it's still Nix, and therefore clever and fun to read. Rapunzel as an interloping obnoxious teen; the witch overrun with adult exasperation. Like much Nix I've read, he's got a really great sense of animals, the familiars in the story delivering the best laughs.
"Faery Tales" by Wendy Froud. After the nursery rhymes of bedtime, poetry often drops out of collections for children. I'm gleeful to find it aimed a little bit older. As poetry, this is passable stuff, in your usual free-verse free-for-all. But the subject - the transmutation of the luckless girl into the feared hag - this was totally freaking great.
"Rags and Riches" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Dang, I need to seek out Hoffman's longer fictions, because I keep finding her in collections and loving her to pieces. This is a retelling of the Goose-girl - that clever servant who fails in her cleverness at the last moment, and consigns herself to a bitter death. The story nods to the illogic of the story, but gives the illogic intimacy and purpose, with some nice class commentary in the mix.
"Up the Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers" by Peter S. Beagle. I gotta say, I did not love this at first. A sort of unlettered account by the wife of the giant that Jack slew on his beanstalk adventures. Felt reversal-y. Given some thought, this is really quite sly, the story of the almost unmentioned women who people the periphery of so many fairy tales: the nurses, the wives. (And, here's where I ask: anyone else remember the story of the Devil's Mother in their Grimm collections? I need to get back to Grimm, and soon.)
"The Shoes that Were Danced to Pieces" by Ellen Kushner. A retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, from the perspective of the eldest daughter. I liked the voice, and the clever non-prince, but I'm not enamored of the casual mixing of time periods, or whatever you call it when a princess has to use an inhaler for her asthma. I admit this is a personal hang-up.
"Puss in Boots: The Sequel" by Joseph Stanton. Another poem. This I did not like. The form irritated me enough to make me try to figure out the rhyme scheme - there isn't one, just a confusing muddle of skew rhymes - and I pretty much hate it when cats are given to win. Puss and his Marquis were partners in crime, and Puss was no villain. I think something could be done with the whole clever servant trope in fiction, but not in ten lines pretending to be heroic couplets.
"The Boy Who Cried Wolf" by Holly Black. A strange, exotic werewolf story, full of sensation and reading. The last line is like a zap.
"Troll" by Jane Yolen. God help me, I'm about to make the douchiest statement I've made in at least a week: this reminded me of Grendel, but for the middle-school set. There's something existential about the troll's experience of his world, and the narrator's voice is so true. Just fantastic.
"Castle Othello" by Nancy Farmer. Too many moving parts for me. This marries Bluebeard with Othello and
the historical person Othello was based on. Maybe longer this could have worked. As it stands, there was too much but what about...?
"'Skin" by Michael Cadnum. I can't say this was a favorite, but the interplay between technology and its cost, however coded, was a nice touch. 'Skin is, of course, short for Rumpelstiltskin. Plus, teenage girls are kinda bratty.
"A Delicate Architecture" by Catherynne M. Valente. Holy cow, this story is amazing. Told in her trademark baroque prose, Valente takes on the candy witch in Hansel & Gretel, and I'm just going to keep saying wow. She packs so much in to this short tale, and her metaphors are complicated and tactile. I'll be reading this one again.
"Molly" by Midori Snyder. Although atmospheric and generally dread-producing, this one suffered from my unfamiliarity with the source material. Nice insider/outsider dynamics, with a class sensibility I liked.
"Observing the Formalities" by Neil Gaiman. Another poem. I liked the idea - the cursing witch from Sleeping Beauty tells her tale - but....I don't know. I've never been a fan of Gaiman's poetry, though it isn't bad or anything.
"The Cinderella Game" by Kelly Link. Oh man, just a perfect capstone on this collection, a complete creeper. Not exactly a Cinderella retelling, despite the hat-tip in the title, this story nonetheless details the sibling rivalry aspect of the Ash Girl. There's also some pretty scary werewolf/shape-changing stuff, though totally implicit. I can't even explain why this was so freaky, given that so little happens, and that's one of the best things about this story.