Tag Archives: Short story

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

Incendium

Advertisements

Bridging Infinity edited by Jonathan Strahan

Solaris | 2016 | 447p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Bridging Infinity edited by Jonathan StrahanBridging Infinity, edited and introduced by Jonathan Strahan, is the fifth collection in the Infinity Project series and it presents fifteen new short stories, all hard science fiction, by some of the finest authors of SF writing today. Any anthology that features new stories by Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter and Ken Liu is not to be ignored and it meant that I jumped at it, so much so that I bought the beautiful large paperback to complement my review ebook. I now have the series but, I’m ashamed to say, this is the first I’ve read. I’ve only recently been converted to SF short stories (I am a brickbook fan, after all) and I have Alastair Reynolds to thank for this. I have catching up to do – it will be a pleasure.

The inspiration behind this collection is ‘sense of wonder’ and I make no bones about it – it is this very thing that attracts me to hard science fiction more than anything else. I love an author to open my eyes to the wonders of the universe, whether they have been inexplicably created, engineered by mankind or built by mysterious alien species. These things can make humans seem so small and insignificant but they also have the power to make humans feel infinitely important, enormous, powerful. This anthology looks at humanity’s place in a solar system, galaxy or universe of incredible engineering. These builders demand that we are awstruck by their achievement, ambition and endeavour.

The stories are a product of their times and, as such, a fair few are filled with concern at mankind’s treatment of what is currently the only planet available to us, Earth. There is a melancholic strand that weaves its way through some of the stories as people find ways to save the planet, rebuild it or abandon it forever. It’s a pleasing curiosity that in a collection of science fiction tales inviting us to marvel at the universe, its greatest treasure is to be found beneath our feet.

I’m not going to describe each of the stories because that would spoil the book but I do want to mention some of my personal highlights. Despite the variety in story and styles of narration, there isn’t a story that I didn’t like, although there were a few that I understood less than the others (particularly ‘Mice Among Elephants’ by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven). I don’t expect to understand everything in hard science fiction. If I did my eyes wouldn’t goggle and my jaw wouldn’t drop at such regular intervals when I come across something that astounds me. But I did have a few favourite stories, including ‘The Venus Generations’ by Stephen Baxter and ‘Seven Birthdays’ by Ken Liu. Both of these stories make use of lives extended beyond their normal human parameters and consider the impact of this on relationships. The mix of the epic (the drive to engineer something that will save planets or life) and the intimate (the need to maintain relationships with children and parents) really appeals to me. They prove to be both awe-inspiring and poignant.

Time travels in great swathes through a few of the stories and this gets unusual treatment in ‘The Mighty Slinger’ by Tobias S. Buckell and Karen Lord. In this story, arguments rage over the fate of Earth and caught in the middle is a band that is woken up at various intervals to play for different sides of the debate. There is humour, too, and ‘Ranger in Space’ by Charlie Jane Anders is a fantastic story. AIs are taking control of the universe and the only thing standing between humanity and eradication is a bunch of party-goers. What a strange world this presents. I rather liked it. Humans are not the only beings in this collection, and neither are AIs. There are other stranger things.

Different environments feature, including a flooded New York City, a Dyson Sphere-like construction of almost unimaginable size, crisscrossed by trams. There is a giant ship in which one man believes himself alone except for an army of working robots – how frightening that could be if you hear a noise that shouldn’t have been made, or catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of your eye that shouldn’t have been there to be seen. The most disturbing story for me was ‘The City’s Edge’ by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and to find out why you need to read it.

There are riches waiting to be discovered in Bridging Infinity. And now I’m keener than ever to investigate the other volumes in the Infinity Project – who knows where they’ll take me.

The Greatest of These: Part Three by Joanna Cannon

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna CannonTo celebrate the publication of The Trouble With Goats and Sheep on 28 January by The Borough Press, Joanna Cannon has written the short story The Greatest of These which features her two young detectives Grace and Tilly. I’m delighted to be able to share Part Three with you here. If you need to catch up, you can find Part 1 at Litro and Part 2 at Bookanista.

Part 4 will follow at The Writes of Women (21 January), Part 5 at Popshot Magazine (22 January), Part 6 at The Debrief (23 January), and the final part at the London Review Bookshop on 24 January.

The Greatest of These: Part 3

The butterfly led us back into The Avenue.

I was quite disappointed at first. I was hoping it would take us into town, more towards Woolworth’s, and perhaps the Pick-and-Mix counter. Tilly was worried we’d lose it, but it was easy to spot – a shout of colour on a blank canvas, a flicker of possibility on a landscape of nothing.

It was quick, too. So quick we had to hurry to keep up, and the more we hurried, the more the snow fought against us, pulling at our wellingtons and drawing us backwards. Halfway up the road Tilly sank into a drift and had to be uprooted, but the butterfly seemed to wait for us. It was never far away, forever in our sight, but always just a fingertip out of reach.

When we arrived in The Avenue, Mr Forbes and Eric Lamb were still standing with their shovels, arguing, and Thin Brian was there too, holding a sweeping brush and half a slice of toast. The butterfly had landed on Eric Lamb’s shoulder, but people were so busy shouting, none of them had noticed.

‘Look!’ I said.

We had appeared in front of them in a tangle of arms and breathing, and everyone stopped and stared at us.

‘Look,’ I said again. ‘On your shoulder.’ And I pointed and everyone looked.

‘A butterfly,’ said Eric Lamb.

‘In January?’ Mr Forbes anchored his shovel in the snow and took a step forwards. ‘You don’t get butterflies in January.’

‘You get this one,’ said Tilly. ‘We found it by the drainpipe.’

Mr Forbes narrowed his eyes. ‘I wonder what it means?’

Everyone moved in a little closer, except Thin Brian, who bit into his toast.

‘It probably means we’re going to have a hot summer,’ he said, in between chewing.

Mr Forbes leaned back and put his hands on his hips, and laughed. And Eric Lamb laughed as well, and Tilly and I put our hands on our hips and laughed too, even though we didn’t really know what we were laughing at. I actually thought it was quite a sensible suggestion, but sometimes copying what everyone else is doing is just easier.

‘Don’t be daft, lad,’ said Mr Forbes. ‘It’ll be as wet and cold as it always is.’

We all did agreeing noises, and Thin Brian’s chewing was very slow and quiet.

I think the butterfly might have stayed on Eric Lamb’s shoulder all day, had Thin Brian’s mother not appeared at that very moment and slammed her front door so hard, an avalanche of snow fell from the porch roof and smacked itself onto the lawn. She was wrapped in an enormous blanket, and fur sprouted from the tops of her boots. She looked quite grumpy.

‘If you’re all standing around doing nothing,’ she said, ‘one of you can get up there are brush off my television aerial. I can only get the test card, and even that’s haphazard.’

Mr Forbes and Eric Lamb became very busy. Thin Brian stared over at his mother. He still had crumbs on his chin. ‘I’m not very good with ladders,’ he said.

‘I’ll miss Crossroads at this rate.’ She started crunching her way over the lawn. ‘And you’re forty-two, Brian.’

The butterfly stopped Mrs Roper in her tracks. It darted around her face, and the colours faltered on a backcloth of silence.

‘Well, I’ll be,’ she said. ‘In January.’

We all nodded.

‘What do you think it means, Mrs Roper?’ I said.

Mrs Roper drew the blanket around her shoulders. ‘Well,’ she said, and took a very large breath. ‘Of course, no one knows The Bible better than I do, but I don’t recall any mention of butterflies. However, it’s clearly a symbol.’

‘A cymbal?’ said Tilly.

‘A sign.’ Mrs Roper crossed herself, although with the blanket there, it was a bit hit and miss. ‘I’ve just not decided what of.’

Eric Lamb’s spade found the pavement, and it scraped against the concrete. It was strange how the snow made all the sounds wait their turn.

‘A butterfly is a symbol of hope,’ he said, when the scraping noise had disappeared. ‘The caterpillar dies, but it turns into a butterfly, so just when you think everything is done for, you discover there’s hope after all. A fresh start.’

‘Like the snow,’ I said. ‘Like cleaning the blackboard.’

I didn’t think anyone knew what I meant, but then I saw Tilly nod. Tilly always understood the inside of my head. It was one of the best things about her.

The Terror: a short story by Giles Kristian

Year: 2014
Buy: Kindle
Source: Bought copy

The Terror by Giles KristianReview
It is AD 758 and the great hall of Harald, Viking jarl, is alive with memories retold of past adventures and deeds. Harald himself takes on the role of skald, his warriors gathering around his high seat, leaning back into their cloaks, comforted by the fire, warmed by the mead, while Grimhild, Harald’s beautiful wife, nurses their newest born, Sigurd. Jarl or not, Harald is a brave man because the subject of his story is another lord, none other than Grimhild’s father. As she watches on, fiercely but with a spark dancing in her eye, Harald tells his tale of daring and danger to his men and their wives, inspiring the young and the untested to seek out their own glory, but never would there be such a prize again as the prize that Harald and his friends fought for all those years ago.

What follows is a thoroughly entertaining, colourful tale of a group of young Vikings competing to out do one another on a reckless, foolhardy quest. While it initially reminds us of the high spirits of youth, timeless in any age, the mood soon turns – these are Vikings, after all – and violence and gore and mayhem will have their way. But this is also a memory, the jarl’s no less, retold time and time again no doubt, and so it captures and enhances every moment. The fact that the warriors of the story are naked and hairy for much of the tale does much to add to the enthusiasm of the narrator and his listeners. As for the nature of the Terror – Harald lets the tension build.

The Terror is a perfectly formed short story by one of the finest writers of historical fiction about today, Giles Kristian. One of the reasons why The Terror works so well, quite apart from the deeply evocative and powerful language, is because it is Harald’s own short story, told to us in his distinctive voice, in a spirit of warmth and camaraderie, bringing the reader into his inner circle, placing him or her by the fire and filling their head with a colourful, raucous memory from Harald’s glorious youth.

For those who enjoyed God of Vengeance this year, The Terror is also a wonderful opportunity to learn a little more about the parents and home of Sigurd, the Viking hero of God of Vengeance, before the tumultuous events that open that novel. If you’ve not read God of Vengeance, or the fabulous Raven trilogy, then The Terror is the perfect introduction to Giles Kristian’s remarkable skill as a creator of lost Viking worlds. Violent, warm, humorous and cruel, this story encapsulates so much of the appeal of Giles Kristian’s writing while adding even more to the background and mood of God of Vengeance. I was fond of Sigurd before but now I’ve had this glimpse of what he was fighting for and why I love him even more.

The short story, which you can enjoy in under an hour, is accompanied by the opening of God of Vengeance.

Other reviews
The Raven trilogy – Blood Eye, Sons of Thunder, Odin’s Wolves
God of Vengeance

Civil War novels
The Bleeding Land
Brothers’ Fury