Friday, September 11, 2020

Review - Firebirds

edited by Sharyn November
Date: 2003
Publisher: Firebird
Reading level: YA
Book type: short stories
Pages: 421
Format: e-book
Source: library

Firebird-the imprint-is dedicated to publishing the best fantasy and science fiction for teenage and adult readers. Firebirds is an equally special anthology. Its sixteen original stories showcase some of the genre's most admired authors, including multiple award-winners Diana Wynne Jones, Garth Nix, Lloyd Alexander, Nancy Farmer, Meredith Ann Pierce, and Patricia A. McKillip. Here you will find a sparkling range of writing, from dark humor to high sword and sorcery to traditional ballads-something for every sort of reader. Finally, to make this anthology even more of a standout, it appears first as a deluxe, jacketed hardcover. Welcome to Firebirds-a must-have for fans of contemporary speculative fiction.

Edited by Sharyn November.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I've had this hardcover sitting on my shelf for... well, I think I bought it shortly after it came out, so it's been over at decade, at least. I don't even know if I read any of the stories at that time. I figured I should probably get around to doing that!

Here are my thoughts on the individual stories:

"Cotillion" by Delia Sherman

This is a variation on the "Tam Lin" story, in which a girl named Janet has to save a young man from being a fairy sacrifice. I didn't love it, but part of that was because I was a bit confused about the setting. I guess we were supposed to figure out that it was set in 1969 just from a vague Vietnam reference and the way the main character was dressed (honestly, I thought she was just retro). I've read a few variations on this story, and to be honest, I didn't think this one really offered anything new or unique.

"The Baby in the Night Deposit Box" by Megan Whalen Turner

I thought I might enjoy this one because I really love the author's The Thief. This definitely does have an interesting premise (a baby is mysteriously left in a deposit box at the local bank). The baby--who eventually grows to be a young woman and the hero of her own story--is black, which isn't an issue... except that it's revealed kind of late, resulting in a sort of violent mental adjustment for the reader. (I like knowing what the characters look like from the beginning.)

"Beauty" by Sherwood Smith

Here's a story by the author of another of my childhood favourites, Wren to the Rescue. I didn't realize until I read the author's note at the end of it that it's based on characters from another of her series. It doesn't really matter, though; this story can stand on its own. And now I'm kind of curious about the world it's set in and the characters it follows. (I mean, there was a guy who got turned into a tree. Now I really want to know the details of how that happened!)

"Mariposa" by Nancy Springer

I guess not every story can be a winner. I can sort of see what the author was trying to do here, but it didn't quite work. The story comes across as dated, repetitive, sexist, and slightly racist. The basic premise is that girls tend to lose their souls in the pursuit of being what society says they should be. I mean, you could look at it that way... but I also got the uneasy feeling that the story was also implying women were weak and silly for letting this happen. (Also, the phrase "remembering as if cozening back a dream" is used twice. That prose is so purple, it probably needs to let out the breath it didn't realize it was holding.)

"Max Mondrosch" by Lloyd Alexander

I guess I was expecting a little more fantasy from this particular author. With the exception of the ending (which could also be viewed as simply metaphorical), there's really nothing fantastical about this story. It's really more of a tragicomedy about a man trying (and failing) to find a job. It's well written and a quick read, but I don't think it really fits in this anthology of fantasy and sci-fi.

"The Fall of Ys" by Meredith Ann Pierce

This is actually one of the stronger stories in this collection. It's inspired by an old Celtic myth, but changed up a bit so that it's not so misogynistic (the author's note at the end explains the original; wow... women just couldn't win). It reads like an old fairy tale, and I quite liked the style. It's one of the shorter stories in the book, but I wouldn't have minded if it had been a little longer.

"Medusa" by Michael Cadnum

This story is too short. It's also kind of misogynistic and victim-blamey. It's interesting that what would've been okay in 2003 raises red flags in 2020. Basically, this is a retelling of the Medusa myth from Medusa's point of view. Athena is the villain, cursing Medusa because she dared to have consensual sex with a hot god. So the poor cursed girl turns her family to stone (and presumably lots of others, too, although that part is glossed over) and then we get to the point where Perseus chops her head off. With her last thought, Medusa begs Athena to give her the life she deserves... and Athena turns her into a rock. WTF? She deserves an eternity as a rock because some goddess got her peplos in a twist and cursed her? Whatever.

"The Black Fox" by Emma Bull (adaptation) and Charles Vess (illustrations)

This one struck me as kind of unnecessary. It's an old ballad given a graphic-novel treatment. The poem is included, and after reading it, I can't really see why anyone would want to go to all the trouble of illustrating it; it's pretty boring. Charles Vess apparently did a whole series of these illustrated adaptations for a book. That's probably where this one should've remained. It doesn't quite fit here. It's all English snobbery with the devil thrown in at the end... and it's odd, to say the least.

"Byndley" by Patricia A. McKillip

This is well-written, standard fantasy fare about a wizard named Reck who's trying to find a way into a magical realm so he can return something he stole from the faeries many years ago. While I wasn't blown away, I wasn't irked by anything, either, and quite enjoyed the writing style. I might have to check out more of McKillip's work in the future.

"The Lady of the Ice Garden" by Kara Dalkey

While this retelling of "The Snow Queen", set in ancient Japan, is well written, it suffers from trying so hard to be feminist that it comes across as misandristic. Coupled with the statutory rape of a 13-year-old boy, the themes here aren't really appropriate for inclusion in a YA anthology. (And if you're hoping for something akin to Frozen, you'd best look elsewhere. Not that Frozen is even a good example of a retelling of "The Snow Queen". But I digress. "The Lady of the Ice Garden" is dark, depressing, and left me feeling like I'd just wasted a few minutes of my life.)

"Hope Chest" by Garth Nix

This almost seems like it could've been written today as a commentary on charismatic politicians who threaten society. It seems to be an alternate history/fantasy sort of story about an abandoned girl who comes to town with an unopenable trunk. When she finally gets it open at age sixteen, she finds that it's full of guns. She then tries to take back the brainwashed town in a bloody display of marksmanship.

This is really gory, and focusses so much on the guns that I was about ready to scream. (I don't know what it is with some authors and their need to describe the guns in such excruciating detail. It's a gun. We get the idea.) Being a young adult story, it also featured the much-hated phrase about the unrealized held breath. Overall, it had some interesting moments, but I doubt I would ever read it again.

"Chasing the Wind" by Elizabeth E. Wein

This story is a complete rip-off. It's pure historical fiction, so I don't know what it's doing in a sci-fi/fantasy anthology. (In the author's note, she says something about how she started writing a Somali-inspired alternate history fantasy... then decided she really wanted to write about "aeroplanes". Okay, so write about "aeroplanes" on your own time and write something in the assigned genre for inclusion here! I really don't get why this was allowed.)

And the story wasn't even that good. Aside from Martha wishing she were a Mary (it's a Biblical reference), there's no character development. It's just three people (and a couple of barfing cats) taking a plane ride across Kenya. There's little conflict, and the only interesting parts of the characters' histories are merely hinted at. This was a waste of time.

"Little Dot" by Diana Wynne Jones

This is probably my favourite story in the book, and it's about cats. Since I don't like cats, that says something about my enjoyment of the rest of the book.

But this is a cute little story, told from the point of view of a cat named Little Dot, about a group of rescued cats, their wizard, and a beast that's stalking the neighbourhood. Magic and hijinks ensue. This was as strong as I expected it to be (it's Diana Wynne Jones, after all) and I quite enjoyed the feline characters, despite my initial misgivings.

"Remember Me" by Nancy Farmer

A strange story about an unusual sister and an odd camping trip. I usually enjoy Nancy Farmer's writing, and I did enjoy this story (even though it was quite short).

"Flotsam" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

This is awful. The writing is stilted, the dialogue is even worse, and the whole thing comes across like it was written by a time traveller from the 1950s. (The bully's name--in a contemporary fantasy--is Shoog Kelly! I kept waiting for him to whip out his comb and give his hair a tweak.) Full of insignificant and confusing details (who gets changed in the hall closet when there's a perfectly good bathroom a couple of steps away?), this story is a whole lot of "skip it".

"The Flying Woman" by Laurel Winter

This story struck me as a bit sexist. The main character is a girl, but it's her brother who has all the power and the emotional journey. As a result, the main character seems like a bit of an accessory, there only to prop up the male secondary character. Basically, a sister and brother are sent to a deserted island because they can find and use magic (respectively). One day, a winged woman washes ashore. The brother appears to fall in love with her (probably because she's the only female around who isn't his sister). The winged woman is miserable and just wants to leave. She eventually does, and there's some sort of weird emotional resolution from the main character that doesn't seem to follow from the rest of the story (no matter how much the author might explain it in the note at the end; if you have to explain what you meant, and the reader still doesn't see it, you didn't do a very good job with the story itself).

Overall, I'm disappointed. This is supposed to be an anthology of fantasy and science fiction, yet there were no science fiction stories that I could see, and "Chasing the Wind" is historical fiction with zero fantasy elements whatsoever.

If you're looking for fantasy stories, you might want to check out this collection. Just be aware that some of them seem a bit dated. If you're looking for science fiction, you'll have to look elsewhere.

Overall: 2.34 out of 5

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