It’s been a while since I read a short story collection, let alone a book of fairy tale retellings, but it’s undoubtedly my favourite genre of short story. (Second place is probably the psychological horror; third is philosophical science fiction that exists more to prove a concept than anything else.) The Starlit Wood is a great collection to break my dry spell, full of remixed fairy tales from a diverse set of authors.
First, the good: the stories of Parisien and Wolfe’s collection are packed full of surprises. Aliette de Bodard’s Pearl and Max Gladstone’s Giants in the Sky are science fiction retellings that take the themes and emotions of the fairytales in question and pull them into entirely new settings. Others, like Even the Crumbs were Delicious by Daryl Gregory, take a dark-comedy spin to the events – who on earth could have come up with edible wallpaper drugs? – and still others like Some Wait by Stephen Graham Jones drag the tales down into pure tragic horror. No two of these stories are the same, and while the essence of the fairytales are still there, they’ve been imbued with all-new relevance.
Also of wonderful note is the range of representation, both in authors and in subjects. Several of the authors are LGBT+ and/or queer-identified, including Seanan McGuire and Charlie Jane Anders. There are several authors of colour instead – Aliette de Bodard is Vietnamese, Marjorie Liu is Taiwanese, and Stephen Graham Jones is Blackfeet, among others.
Out of all of them, I’d have to say that The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest is my favourite. Charlie Jane Anders chose to retell the story of ‘The Mouse, The Bird, and the Sausage’, but despite the story itself being quite miserable, this has got to be the funniest story in the whole collection. Fairy-tale retellings have managed to get a reputation for being quite grim, and while I like a grim (Grimm?) story just as much as the next person, it’s lovely to find yourself laughing out loud at one instead. As Anders herself says in her afterword, somehow it turned out kind of like an Adventure Time pastiche, complete with a sausage who wants to be a club DJ.
Some of the stories, however, didn’t do it for me. Familiaris by Genevieve Valentine has beautiful prose, but the throughline of the story itself gets lost, and while I love the premise and writing of Badgirl, the Deadman, and the Wheel of Fortune by Catherynne M. Valente, I reached the end and felt like there should be more to the story. Most short stories leave the rest to the imagination, true, but both of these two felt incomplete, and could have done with just that touch more.
Also, while I’m loath to bring it up – it’s a matter of demographic and who’s willing to write it – I can’t help but notice that when queer representation comes up in fairy tale retellings, queer male representation is almost nowhere to be seen. Queer representation on its own is still sparse enough that the fact that there’s anything in this anthology is fantastic (at least one trans author, and Marjorie Liu’s The Briar and the Rose is a beautiful love story about Sleeping Beauty and her female knight) – but it is starting to get noticeable that queer men are still missing. It’s something I’d love to see more of, and if there’s anthologies I don’t know about that let the princes be into each other, or lets Sleeping Beauty be a sweet young man, let me know!