Books, Reviews

Great reads: 3 excellent short story collections

In the last little while, I’ve read three new short story collections by three brilliant writers, and each one of these is well worth picking up.


Neither Here Nor There, by Cat Rambo

This is two collections in one, literally. In the physical copy of the book, you actually turn it over and start the other collection “from the back” (a very nifty trick!). Cat Rambo is a fantastic writer, of course, and the stories in this collection are terrific reads. There’s a playful vibe in all Rambo’s writing (even in stories that take darker turns) – whether it comes through in a mind-bending setting (like the city of Serendib), or a wryly funny piece of dialogue, or in the way she describes a character with well-chosen, illuminating details. That playfulness really makes her stories shine, and reading her storiesreminds me of one of the reasons I love to read fantasy: because anything is possible (in the hands of a good writer, anyway).

Three favourite stories:

  • ‘Love, Resurrected’ is a dark, gripping story that deals with power, and the corruption of power, magic, obsession, and love. I really like the main character in this story, general Aife Crofadottir: she is fascinating, complex, and so terribly tortured.
  • ‘Call and Answer, Plant and Harvest’ is a story that lives and breathes magic. It follows the chaos mage Cathay while she engages in some magical gambling with a woman called Mariposa. For some reason, this story’s opening line “Cathay is a chaos mage and doesn’t care who knows it”, completely enchants me. It’s one of those brilliant opening lines that draws you in, sets the stage, gives you some character insight, and sets the mood, all with one brush-stroke.
  • ‘Her Windowed Eyes, Her Chambered Heart’ is a fabulous steampunk tale with a horror twist, and I found the characters and the world absolutely captivating – I’d read a book about Artemus and Elspeth! (Please?)


And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, by Gwendolyn Kiste

Full disclosure: I liked this collection so much I blurbed it. Kiste has a real gift for pulling reality inside out in her fiction, taking situations, fairytales, and storylines that might seem everyday or familiar at first glance, and then twisting them into uniquely imagined, dark, and haunting tales. Her prose is exquisite: a prime example is the beautiful ‘All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray’. Kiste can also chill you right to the bone, as she does in the haunting ‘Audrey At Night’.

Three favourite stories:

  • ‘Ten Things to Know About the Ten Questions’ is a deeply unsettling story that uses the list format to tell a story about friendship and family and the pressure to conform and be “normal” on somebody else’s terms.
  • I have a weak spot for the ‘The Man in the Ambry’ – a very strange, very creepy scary, but somehow also very touching tale, told through a series of letters, written to the shadowy man in the ambry.
  • ‘The Five Day Summer Camp’ is a gut-wrenching story about resistance and rebellion in a society that ruthlessly enforces obedience and loyalty, while most people act as if nothing untoward is taking place at all. This story just gutted me: brilliantly done suspense and horror.


Speaking to Skull Kings and Other Stories, by Emily B. Cataneo

Cataneo’s dark, weird, and fantastical stories defy easy description, bending history and reality and old fairytales into new shapes. There’s the Russian revolution – but skewed as if seen through a magical lens. There’s France – but a France where women have wings attached to their flesh and bone. There’s old Europe, haunted by an ominous Dark, where the population of a city looks to bird-men for salvation. Cataneo weaves together all these strands of history and magic, horror and fairytale, into something truly unique and captivating.

Favourite stories:

  • ‘Speaking to Skull Kings’ is a story that claws at your heart with its sadness and desperation. There’s a dangerous forest, a brother and a sister, and Bird, who protects them. The world that seems utterly strange and weirdly magical, yet you always sense the shreds and fragments of a more familiar world, hidden beneath the magic. This is just a brilliant short story and I think it broke my heart a few times, just to read it.
  • ‘The Ghosts of Blackwell, Maine’ is a deeply moving and very different sort of ghost story, about belonging and family and finding the courage and strength to leave home.
  • I also adore ‘The Emerald Coat and Other Wishes’, which features a beautiful, mysterious, and terribly dangerous coat, and also the very real specter of death. I love how Cataneo makes this story both beautiful and chilling at the same time, blending the dark magic of the coat, with the very real experiences of loss and longing and loneliness.


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