Kate Elliott has been writing fantasy and science fiction since the 1980s, with over twenty novels to her name. This collection brings together a number of standalone short stories, as well as several which fit into the varied worlds of her longer series. The book also includes a small number of essays and blog posts, focusing on issues of diversity and equality in speculative fiction.
I haven’t read any of Elliott’s work before, so for me, this was a solid introduction to the scope and range of her writing. As such it was helpful that (where applicable) the stories were labelled with the series they belong to, to inform future selections. I imagine the reading experience would be different for someone already familiar with many of the worlds portrayed, but my overall sense was of well-developed worlds featuring a diverse bunch of characters. Elliott is clearly an author who writes with great awareness of diversity and identity issues, and it pays off in the breadth and authenticity of her characters and settings. The tales are set across a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds; there are main characters from across the whole spectrum of age; there is an underlying awareness of gender and sexuality and identity politics.
With any collection of shorts, I suspect it’s inevitable that some stand out above the rest. A couple of the series-related stories felt more like vignettes or character sketches, included primarily to give a flavour of the wider world of the series, but these were by far the minority. Most of the stories read well as stand-alone pieces, short enough to be devoured in a single sitting but rich enough to require time to absorb and contemplate. For the purposes of providing a meaningful review, I’ll focus now on a couple of personal favourites.
We knew we were in trouble when Macbeth insisted on seeing the witches first.
You know the bit: Banquo and Macbeth enter and Banquo says, “‘What are these, so wither’d and so wild in their attire?'” That’s his moment, when he points out the three witches to Macbeth and Macbeth sees them for the first time, those three terrible hags who will hail Macbeth as king when of course he isn’t king yet and will only become king by murder most foul.
Have you heard about actors who won’t let any of the other actors have moments on stage that are theirs alone?
“Hey,” said Bax to Yu-Sun, who was playing Banquo in drag, “I’ll see the witches first, and then I’ll tap you on the shoulder and you see them and say the line.”
— From My Voice Is In My Sword
It’s hard to pick an overall favourite from such a diverse collection, but for me it would probably be My Voice Is In My Sword. This sci-fi piece sees a troupe of players preparing to perform Macbeth for an alien audience. The nuances and complexities of inter-species politeness are depicted in a believable manner, and the actors face the additional pressures of representing their species, as well as putting on a good performance. While the diva-like behaviour of the lead actor was so exaggerated as to be comical, the responses of his compatriots are convincingly rendered. Plus, I’m just a sucker for a theatrical backdrop.
At the more fantastical end of the spectrum, To Be A Man is a lighthearted, sexy tale written from the perspective of a sabre-toothed cat who learns to transform himself into human form. Rory appears naked, covered in the blood of the pet dog he was mauling, but to his mostly-feline brain his nudity simply presents a pleasant opportunity to seduce the two women who discover him. The death of the dog is a complication, however, and one that honour requires him to resolve.
When he had prowled into the garden from the enclosed parkland beyond, the little pug dog had been yapping in a skull-rattling fashion. His first instinct was to shut it up. He’d also wanted to cleanse his palate of those tickling feathers from the peahen he’d had so much fun chasing down in the parkland. So he’d bounded after the dog, snapped it up, and shaken it. The dog was small and fatty and sour-smelling, but at least it didn’t have feathers.
Then a woman’s voice tensely said “Blessed Venus, step back out of sight, Felicia. A slow step. Don’t startle it. Just back away and it will eat that hells-cursed pug and not you.”
–From To Be A Man