Tag Archives: Anthology

Beautiful Star and Other Stories by Andrew Swanston

The Dome Press | 2018 (11 January) | 253p | Review copy | Buy the book

Beautiful Star by Andrew SwanstonEach of these seven stories has at its heart a real historical character, bringing to life a historical event that affected the lives of everyone who remembered it. Real people, as well as fictional characters, inhabit these tales of extraordinary circumstances and the result is moving and powerful. The collection is also most elegantly written, as you’d expect from Andrew Swanston, and at times the emotion is almost understated as people have to deal with what has happened. No drama is made of it. Life must continue.

The seven stories are mostly drawn from the 17th-19th centuries with the notable exception of ‘The Flying Monk’, which competes for the title of my favourite of the collection. Set in the early years of the 11th century we meet the young monk Eilmer who is determined to prove that a human can fly, once he is able to build his wings. Everyone who meets Eilmer and watches his experiments is inspired by him.

Two other stories take us to sea. In ‘Beautiful Star’, the longest story in the anthology, we find ourselves on the coast of Scotland in 1875. A community is stricken by a devastating storm that catches its fishing fleet at sea. But, as with the other stories, Andrew Swanston doesn’t just show us the impact of the main event, he leads up to it by building up the layers of ordinary but remarkable lives. As a result, their destiny is felt to be even more real and devastating. I carry in my head the image of the wives and daughters carrying their husbands and brothers on their backs to the boats. Superstition forbade men from getting their feet wet ahead of their voyage.

In ‘HMS Association’ we meet Daniel Jones, a man pressed into the navy in 1708 and who must endure war against France as they besiege the town of Toulon. This story might be short but it’s certainly sweet. I would have liked much, much more of this.

Other stories also carry us to war, including ‘The Button Seller and the Drummer Boy’ which goes back to the battle of Waterloo and tells the tale from the perspective of both English and French sides. ‘The Castle’ goes back to an earlier war, the English Civil War, and presents the astonishing story of Lady Mary Bankes, a mother of twelve children, who led the Royalist defence of Corfe Castle in 1645 after the death of her husband. This is incredible and makes me want to revisit Corfe as soon as possible.

In ‘The Tree’ we have another story from the period of the English Civil War, or just after it, as the victorious Parliamentarian forces hunt for the vanquished King Charles II across the land in 1651 following his defeat in Wales. Charles famously hid in an oak tree and that’s the story we’re presented with here and I loved it. This is another of those short but sweet tales.

In ‘A Witch and A Bitch’ we have something a little different. It presents the story of Jane Wenham who was famously tried for witchcraft in 1712. Known as the Witch of Walkern, the troubles of her life are here laid bare, as well as the maliciousness of her accusers, and the kindness of her granddaughter. It’s a moving story and tells us much about attitudes to witchcraft among ordinary men and women, as well as courts and officials, at a time that recoiled from the witch trials of the 17th century.

I loved this collection. It is elegant and full of heart. If I had to have a least favourite it would be ‘The Button Seller and the Drummer Boy’ but that is simply because it draws on a historical period that does little for me, so the fault is mine entirely. But I adored the other six stories and took something from each of them. They also inspired me to find out more about the events that they portray. I haven’t been a big reader of short stories in the past but I do read and appreciate them much more now. And it’s all because of collections like these.

Other reviews and features

The King’s Return

Guest post by Andrew Swanton: Spies and spying in the Civil War



Strange Weather by Joe Hill

Gollancz | 2017 (7 November) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

Strange Weather by Joe HillIn four novellas, loosely linked by the weather, Joe Hill presents a chilling portrait of present-day American society. The effects of global warming are more and more apparent with almost each passing day but this is a little too obvious for Joe Hill to focus upon. After all, to any sane person this should be taken as read, and in fact weather plays less of a role in these stories than the title of the collection suggests, with the clear exception of Rain. Instead, Hill takes us inside our nightmares, to a place that’s almost real. The things that take place there are most certainly real – illness, gun violence, grief, prejudice, fear. Some stories contain more elements of horror than others but they’re all disturbing.

In Snapshot a young boy takes on a stranger in town, the Phoenician, who uses his polaroid camera to steal memories. This was for me the most harrowing of all four stories and it actually upset me a fair bit. Loss of memory is a terrible thing and Joe Hill portrays the pain of this exquisitely. I loved young Michael. His kindness is so touching and something of an antidote to some of the other characters that we encounter through this collection.

Loaded was inspired by ‘the massacre of twenty children in Newtown, Connecticut. Loaded was my attempt to make sense out of our nation hard-on for The Gun’. It focuses on a mass killing in a shopping centre while the town is threatened by a deadly forest fire. It shows what happens when the bigoted, the ignorant and the aggrieved can get their hands on a gun. The fallout is extraordinary and not quite what you’d expect. I had some issues with the way that this story develops. It’s powerful stuff but its ending was troubling for me. This is the longest story in the collection and also the oldest.

Aloft is another kettle of fish entirely and lifts us out of reality. Aubrey is about to do a parachute jump. The thought alone terrifies him but he’s doing it with friends as a tribute to someone they loved who died young. He also wants to impress Harriet. But when he makes his jump something happens and instead of floating to Earth Aubrey lands on a cloud. And on that cloud what you want may come to pass. I’m not a fantasy reader and so I did struggle with Aloft, which is my fault, not the story’s.

My favourite of the four is Rain, an apocalyptic tale of rain that falls as lethal crystal needles. Thousands are killed, law and society break down. Honeysuckle loses Yolanda, the girl that she loves and her grief compels her to make a hazardous journey to let Yolanda’s father know that his wife and daughter are dead. There are horrors along the way as you can imagine. But there are also bright spots, especially with Hill’s depiction of the young boy that Honeysuckle babysits. Joe Hill says in his afterword that ‘Rain arose from a desire to spoof myself and my own sprawling end-of-the-world novel The Fireman. I’m a big believer in making fun of yourself before anyone else can’.

While I found the stories mixed in their appeal, each shares in common a very important factor – the fine characterisation. It’s impossible not to feel involved with these people’s lives. Some are vulnerable and powerless, prejudiced against, but many make a stand and do the right thing. There are pleasing little digs at certain American presidents, comments on the state of society, especially in regard to its gun laws and tolerance (or lack of), but it’s the characters that give these stories life and there are a few moments that I won’t forget in a hurry.

Other review
The Fireman

The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu

Head of Zeus | 2017 | 447p | Review copy (and bought copy) | Buy the book

The Wandering Earth by Cixin LiuWhen I devoured the Three-Body Problem trilogy by Cixin Liu, I discovered an author who gives me everything that I want from science fiction. There is a beautiful melancholy to his vision of the distant past, the present and the future, and he fills it with the most enormous, jawdropping ideas. All of this was confirmed and more by The Wandering Earth, an anthology of ten (or eleven if you’re reading certain earlier ebook editions) glorious stories written by Cixin Liu over the last twenty years.

I’m not a big reader of short stories generally but my eyes were recently opened by Alastair Reynold’s collection Beyond the Aquila Rift. The Wandering Earth confirms my better-late-than-never opinion that there can be just as much to love about a science fiction short story or novella as there is about a brickbook, which is what I traditionally go for. The majority of the stories here are about fifty pages long, with chapters, and are more than long enough to pull the reader into the most extraordinary of times and places.

The collection kicks off with the story that gives the anthology its name, ‘The Wandering Earth’ and it is absolutely fantastic! Earth knows that the Sun will die in a thousand years or so, in a burning flourish that will destroy the inner planets of the solar system and eradicate all life and possibilities for life on Earth. The generations who live under this foreboding decide to do the seemingly impossible. They will turn Earth into a starship. It will travel through the Galaxy to find a new home, its inhabitants surviving deep below the surface, never seeing or experiencing daylight. It is an extraordinary story – there are moments in it that made me sit up and my jaw drop – and it sets the theme for the rest of this collection.

Ideas and themes recur through the stories – first contact, the creation of life on Earth, the end of that life (globally and on a more intimate level), the distant past of dinosaurs and ants, exploration within the very core of the planet, judgement on how well humanity has done, sacrifice for the good of the Earth. There is a sadness to many of these stories as men and women are faced with the demise of life by a variety of methods, but they must also face the natural end of a single life. Even Gods must die in the end. But this sadness is counteracted by the wonder that comes through knowing that we are not alone in the universe or indeed on this planet – just as other civilisations travel through the universe, there are other species on our own planet who deserve consideration. Humans can look at existence with a limited perspective but these stories suggest we open our eyes.

I love the way that, even though each of these stories stands alone, some of them make reference to others – names and people occasionally recur, ideas pop up more than once, such as the suggestion that the Earth is just one of several identical Earths that were created at the same time and will inevitably fight for supremacy.

There are amazing wondrous moments in The Wandering Earth, such as the description of a fall through the centre of the Earth, a micro-Earth, an alien eating a human to see whether the species is tasty enough to keep it alive – for food, an extraordinary dispersal of wealth, the construction of a new sun, the beauty of a flower. I couldn’t read these stories fast enough. I couldn’t imagine where they would take me next.

As well as the hardback, I also bought the kindle version and it’s worth mentioning that this turned out to be an older version, with different translations and with an additional story (‘Of Ants and Dinosaurs’, which is a marvellous story and I wish it were in the hardback). I’ve been told that this is currently being replaced but it did cause me some confusion as you can imagine! For the time being, these two editions are not the same book. Certainly, the hardback is a thing of beauty and its translations are wonderful. So praise galore must go to translators Ken Liu, Elizabeth Hanlon, Zac Haluza, Adam Lanphier and Holger Nahm.

If you’ve never read Cixin Liu before then this would be a great place to start. And hopefully, after reading it, you will be inspired to take a look at this wonderful writer’s masterpiece, the Three-Body Problem trilogy which is now complete and ready for the taking.

Other reviews
The Three-Body Problem
The Dark Forest
Death’s End

Beyond the Aquila Rift by Alastair Reynolds

Beyond the Aquila Rift | Alastair Reynolds | 2016 | Gollancz | 784p | Review copy | Buy the book

Beyond the Aquila Rift by Alastair ReynoldsThe imagination and creative genius of Alastair Reynolds is extraordinary and arguably nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Beyond the Aquila Rift, a substantial anthology of seventeen short stories, some of which have featured in other collections and some which have not. The stories vary in length from just twenty-odd pages to over one hundred and are drawn from a range of science fiction universes, including Revelation Space and there is not one story among them that didn’t make me stop and draw breath. I originally treated myself to one story an evening but about halfway through I gave up on this and gobbled the rest up, not letting the size of this big hardback put me off carrying it wherever I went, always looking forward to my next dip, confidently assured that I would be amazed by it.

I couldn’t stop raving about this book as I read it and I think that’s because it’s been a significant read for me. Firstly, I’ve never been a fan of short stories or novellas. I usually like a story to be long enough that I can be consumed by it for several days and it can take me a while to be fully immersed in a new science fiction world. But none of that mattered here. I found myself being completely fascinated by the premise, setting and characters of these stories almost instantly. I couldn’t believe that this would continue for the whole collection but it did! The other reason why this book feels significant for me is that it has made me realise that Alastair Reynolds at his best is the very best.

I’m not going to give away much about these stories because discovering them for the first time is part of their enormous pleasure but I do want to stress how varied they are. Some are set in a far distant future in which mankind has been altered almost beyond recognition although still hanging on to that something that makes it human; there are robots, some more human than others; there are wars; there is a future Ice-Age Newcastle as well as other depictions of Earth in a damaged near-future; there are enigmatic alien artefacts; there are artists, including one in search of the perfect blue. There are also plenty of clever twists and surprises and a range of moods – nobody does horror in space like Alastair Reynolds and here there are fine examples of situations and sights that will make your blood run cold. There is also tenderness, notably between an old man on Mars and a young girl who has stowed away on a space ship. There are a couple of young adult stories. There is a touch of the bizarre – most notably in the final story which introduces us to Derek the T-Rex – extraordinary and so funny! Throughout these stories, we meet so many intriguing, memorable characters in such a remarkable array of situations and locations.

If I had to pick a favourite story, I just couldn’t, but potential choices include Diamond Dogs, Minla’s Flowers, the Last Log of the Lachrimosa, The Old Man and the Martian Sea, and the story which gives the collection its name. And all the others.

The collections closes with notes on each of the stories, which provides such fascinating background to their origin, development and inspiration as well as their influence on Alastair Reynolds’ novels.

Above all else, Beyond the Aquila Rift is full of wonders. You can find them in every story, reminding me why I love Alastair Reynolds’ novels so much. The Medusa Chronicles is already one of my stand out novels of 2016. I am gobsmacked at the breadth and scope of imagination and writing genius on display here. I am so pleased I have more novels and short stories to read, including Revenger, the next novel, which is published this September and will be reviewed here shortly.

Other reviews
Blue Remembered Earth (Poseidon’s Children 1)
On the Steel Breeze (Poseidon’s Children 2)
Poseidon’s Wake (Poseidon’s Children 3)
Revelation Space
Redemption Ark
Absolution Gap
Pushing Ice
Slow Bullets
With Stephen Baxter – The Medusa Chronicles