Book Review – Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World

Monstrous Little Voices is a collection of five short novellas that take place within a fantasy world based upon the works of William Shakespeare, and it’s about 80% brilliant, which is pretty good for an anthology. There’s something of an overarching storyline connecting the stories, in addition to common themes and motifs, and this is nicely executed without making the stories feel totally linear or requiring them to be read in order. At the same time, each one also stands alone quite well.

Foz Meadows kicks things off with “Coral Bones,” a deliberate and thoughtful meditation on the ways in which we learn and perform gender roles. Through the examination of the character of Miranda and Miranda’s life after her marriage and “rescue,” Meadows explores questions about where gender comes from, how it’s imposed upon people, and what are some of the consequences—both personal and social—for failing to adequately conform to strict gender roles. She imagines essentially three worlds: the island where Miranda grew up unconstrained by social expectations, though being also groomed by her father, Prospero, to perform femininity; the world of the court of Naples, where Miranda lives after her marriage to Ferdinand, in which her performance of femininity is no longer optional and the qualities that made her different and attractive to Ferdinand on the island are now unnecessary and unwanted; and the fairy world, into which Miranda flees to escape her unhappy marriage after suffering a miscarriage, and in which gender is fluid and sexuality is flexible. It’s a clever story, and Meadows makes superb use of the Shakespearean elements in order to both pay tribute to and interrogate the Bard’s work.

“The Course of True Love” by Katherine Heartfield takes place, in the world of the book, some twenty years after “Coral Bones,” and it’s an altogether different sort of story—a fairly straightforward romance—that also plays with its source material in interesting ways. Heartfield tells the story of the witch Pomona, who is a friend of Sycorax and devotee of Hecate, and her encounter with an imprisoned fairy ambassador. Of all the stories in Monstrous Little Voices, this one may be the most in the spirit of Shakespeare, filled as it is with fairies, witches, mistaken identities, gender swaps, and humorous banter. What I liked best about it, however, is that it’s a romance where an old woman gets to be the main heroine. Like the previous tale, it’s overtly feminist, but with a significantly lighter and less complicated feminist message than “Coral Bones.”

Emma Newman’s “The Unkindest Cut” may be my favorite story in the collection, and it’s definitely the one about which I most wonder what happens next. Lucia de Medici is a girl with a destiny—to enter into a marriage that will end a war before it even begins—and she’ll do anything to ensure that it comes to pass. It’s an enormous amount of character development and growth squeezed into a relatively short number of pages, and it’s fascinating to watch Lucia change over the course of the story’s events. This girl who begins as somewhat shallow and seemingly marriage-obsessed turns out to be clever, resourceful, and downright ruthless in pursuit of her goals. The ending of the story is somewhat heavily telegraphed, and the ultimate solution to Lucia’s central problem is obvious before it’s even revealed, but it’s so great and the punchline of the story is delivered with such panache that I can barely even think of this as a drawback.

Adrian Tchaikovsky contributes “Even in the Cannon’s Mouth,” which is the story in the collection that is most like an actual play, with at rise descriptions and stage directions being used to provide a theatrical tone and break up the story into distinct scenes. It’s a tactic that I think is used to mixed success here, and I honestly found myself just being overwhelmed by the number of characters and disoriented by the swift and often sudden changes in the narrative. It’s a wild ride, for sure, and there are some interesting interpretations of Shakespeare’s characters—especially Helena—but the actual events of the story are sometimes difficult to follow. I was very glad to be taking notes, but not everyone likes to treat their leisure-reading like homework. Fortunately, everything comes more or less into focus by the end of the story so that there is a mostly satisfying ending, but “Even in the Cannon’s Mouth” is noticeably less substantive than all three of the previous stories. It’s not a bad tale, but it has far less to say than any of the others.

The final story in Monstrous Little Voices is “On the Twelfth Night” by Jonathan Barnes, and it comes somewhat out of left field. It starts off promisingly, albeit very differently than any of the rest of the stories in the collection, being told in second person from the point of view of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne. Then, though, things get weird, and the story barrels towards an ending that I found profoundly disappointing, mostly because it was so completely disconnected from the rest of the collection in tone and subject matter. I might have liked “On the Twelfth Night” in a different context, but here it just feels out of place and so completely unpredicated by the rest of the stories that it’s both baffling and irritating. It’s the highest concept of the book’s tales, but in this case that only means that it has the biggest opportunity to fail with its audience.

All in all, though, Monstrous Little Voices is something special, and this is a great year for reading Shakespeare, being the four hundredth anniversary of his death. With the introduction and afterword, I’d say that it’s definitely worth it to buy the full book, but each story is also being sold separately as an ebook if you prefer to read them that way. At the very least, the first three stories are essential reading, but the whole thing together is worth checking out.

(I received a copy of this title from the publisher via Netgalley.)

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