I have a tentative thesis after reading Firebirds, an anthology edited by Sharyn November that’s made up of original fantasy and science fiction and meant for a YA audience: one of the main failure modes of short fiction is didacticism. That is, when a short story doesn’t work, my reaction tends to be “Oh look, A Message” or, less often, “oh look, a story where nothing happens.” I don’t know if YA stories are more prone to didacticism than others, but a number of the stories in Firebirds that didn’t quite work for me also seemed to have A Message. To be clear, the existence of the didacticism isn’t usually why the stories don’t work for me; it’s that the characters, plot, or prose didn’t grab me enough to outweigh the didacticism.
I don’t have much to say about the stories that weren’t bad, but didn’t grab me, and also seemed to have something of A Message, so I’ll just list them with brief descriptions:
- “Cotillion,” by Delia Sherman, is a “Tam Lin” variant set in late 1960s New York City.
- “Mariposa,” by Nancy Springer. “‘I’ve lost my soul?’ . . . The doctor nodded. ‘I think so. Probably in early adolesence. It happens more commonly than you might think.'”
- “Medusa,” by Michael Cadnun, is pretty much what the title says.
- “Chasing the Wind,” by Elizabeth E. Wein, is set in 1950 Africa with no apparent sf or fantasy content.
- “Remember Me,” by Nancy Farmer, is a changeling story.
- “Flotsam,” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, is about various people who are lost—between worlds, in grief—and help each other become found.
Laurel Winter’s “The Flying Woman” doesn’t have quite as explicit a message as the stories above, but something about its tone failed to grab me. Then there are two odd, dark stories, which have compelling images though I don’t exactly like them, Lloyd Alexander’s “Max Mondrosch” and Garth Nix’s “Hope Chest.”
Diana Wynne Jones’ “Little Dot” is a cat story. If you don’t like cats, it will have no appeal for you whatsoever; and even to me, it feels more like an excuse to tell cute cat anecdotes than an actual story. In contrast, Sherwood Smith’s “Beauty” is an actual story, one I rather like, but I suspect that its effectiveness is limited to those who’ve read Crown Duel. (Chad’s reaction is consistent with this suspicion.)
Then we have two feminist retellings of fairy tales, “The Fall of Ys” by Meredith Ann Pierce and “The Lady of the Ice Garden” by Kara Dalkey, both of which effectively evoke the mythic feel of the original tales even as they rewrite them.
Finally, my three favorite stories in the collection. I’ve already written about Emma Bull and Charles Vess’s “The Black Fox” in talking about Vess’s collection Book of Ballads, so I’ll steal what I wrote there:
This is actually a recent (1974) ballad by Graham Pratt, based on a fragment of a Yorkshire folktale; it tells of a fox hunt that’s not finding any foxes, until someone injudiciously remarks that they’d chase the Devil himself if he appeared. Out pops a black fox, and the chase is on. I like this one because in its sixteen pages, it has vivid characters, humor, sense of wonder, and an interesting little twist on the ballad. To my mind it’s the most satisfactory as a standalone story; the tension with the ballad is a bonus.
Megan Whalen Turner’s “The Baby in the Night Deposit Box” also has a good bit of humor. Someone takes a small-town bank’s new slogan, “Your treasure will be safe with us,” quite seriously, and leaves the baby of the title in the bank’s custody. The tone is perfectly charming and makes me smile every time I think of it.
The tone of Patricia A. McKillip’s “Byndley” is perfectly elegant—well, almost. It’s the tale of a wizard who stole something from the Queen of Faerie and now is trying to return it. It’s a really gorgeous story, vivid and dreamlike at once, and it’s probably only me who thinks that the last two lines of dialogue clunk inexplicably. Regardless, it’s very much worth reading.
By my standards, that’s a pretty good batting average for a collection. I have the next one, Firebirds Rising, in the to-be-read bookcase and look forward to it.