I have been a fan of Maggie McNeill's "The Honest Courtesan" blog for several years now, and it was an honor and a privilege to be the first person to buy this book at Amazon. If this isn't the first review, it's partly due to the fact that I had to wait a week to receive this book in the mail (I was too impatient to wait for the Kindle version to come out), and once I did receive it, it took me a couple of days to finish reading it. Maggie deserves better than simply a 4 or 5 star review that mentions nothing about what she has actually written, nor gives a good reason to people who do not read her blog why they should buy this collection of short stories. This review will rectify that.
Maggie has been rightfully praised as a blogger, but I find that praise incomplete because any barely literate fool with a cheap laptop or tablet and an internet connection can write a blog, and make no mistake---many bloggers ARE barely literate fools. Maggie is a good *writer* who happens to have a blog. While I believe a collection of her non-fiction work will actually be better than this, as a short story collection this happens to be very entertaining. There is a double meaning to the title of this book, "Ladies of the Night." On one hand, most of the protagonists of these stories are sex workers or whores. In the introduction she writes for this book, Maggie explains that she discovered that she had no trouble thinking of an idea for a story to write if the story centered on or at least had a whore in it. Creative writing teachers would call this "write what you know", for Maggie worked for nine years as a sex worker, and her blog is dedicated to fighting for the rights of sex workers. Although that message is also present in these stories, it is soft-pedaled. Maggie's desire to convey a moral is the caboose which sits squarely behind the engine of her desire to tell a story. The reader thus gets the message without feeling that they have been preached to, much as "Schoolhouse Rock" got people of my generation to memorize the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution and the multiplication tables without us realizing we were doing schoolwork. The way she does this is simply showing sex whores as real people---for the most part not passive victims of evil pimps or madams, nor sinister seductresses of frail men. If there is a future collection of her stories, I'd like to see a few more "bad whore" stories because I don't think a sex worker character has to be on the side of the angels to make a good point about human rights.
For a second, I almost forgotten what I had written about the double mean of the title of the book. If on one hand, the title refers to whores who are frequently characters in these stories, on the other hand, the title also refers to the TYPE of stories in this collection. For the most part, these are science fiction/fantasy stories that any self-respecting geek would love to read. In particular, they remind me a lot of "Twilight Zone" episodes because many of them come with surprise endings. Maggie has a particular knack for delivering this punch line in the final sentence of the story, as she does with "Pandora", "Spring Forward", "Dance of the Seasons", "Concubine", "Palindrome", "Pearls Before Swine", "Ghost In The Machine", "The Specialist", and "Monopoly". For this very reason, some readers may want to avoid reading the introductions to Maggie's stories until AFTER they have finished reading them. I particularly recommend this in the case of "Pearls Before Swine" because I think the introduction makes it too easy to guess who "Kay" really is before the very end of the story. Also, as in the Twilight Zone many characters up to no good get their comeuppance through a last-minute twist as in the satisfying "Fair Game." That's not true, however, of Anna in "Palindrome" who doesn't deserve her incarceration and institutionalization. The horrifying thing about that story is in the real world, there are people punished exactly the same way by the prison system for equally stupid reasons.
The only other story in this collection as dark as "Palindrome" is "Concubine" where for the first time we actually read about sex workers who are forced into the work by the state, and although they live a comfortable life, their gilded cage is still cage and they are in that cage for life. The women in "For I Have Sinned" on the other hand will presumedly be released from their "penitence" sometime in the future even if they don't get married. Both these setting are similar in that they seem at first to be set in the distant past while the true setting comes as a shock. There is a a similar setting surprise in "Vocation", although that is a much more optimistic than the other two.
But aside from "Palindrome", "Concubine", and "For I Have Sinned", and to a lesser extent "Fair Game", most of the stories in this collection aren't dystopian, or at least the dystopia is mitigated. "Friend" takes place during the darkest days of the Second World War, yet it comes across more as a showcase for not only heroism and courage, but one of Maggie's favorite characters. Maybe this would be a good time for me to mention that Maggie pays homage, either directly or indirectly, to many of her favorite writers in this collection, including Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury, Margaret St. Clair, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sidney Newman, Mary Shelley, Joe Shuster, and Jerry Siegel. Maggie rarely mentions these references explicitly in the stories themselves, and half the treat of reading them is figuring them out. The weakest of these is "Companion", because once you figure out who the story is about, it comes across a bit as a "Mary Sue" fan fiction story. (Maggie acknowledges this in the intro.) Ironically, "Penelope" doesn't even though Maggie explicitly writes herself into Ray Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles." The point of that story is that while the terraforming and colonization of Mars---if feasible---will take place in the distant future, the dystopian America imagined by Bradbury is a lot closer than most people realize.
Two paragraphs ago, I mentioned that most of the stories in this collection are not dystopian. Now I can get around to mentioning the lighter side. "Bad News" is a funny story about a group of succubae about who argue about telling their boss about bad news down on Earth. "The X Factor" is about a professor who literally cannot believe what the truth that is right in front of him. (This could be a good litmus test for would-be readers. Google this story and read it from Maggie's blog, and if you believe everything the professor says and don't understand why he is supposed to be funny, then save your money.) The only thing mitigating the humor is the knowledge that there are real people who believe EXACTLY what he does, and real people are persecuted because of their stupidity. "Ambition", the story of a 30's-era call girl is surprisingly sweet and touching. "Dance of the Seasons" which is set in North Africa over two thousand years ago is also touching, but bittersweet. "Rose" which seems to be about a wife rather than a call girl or mistress actually becomes quite sad once the plight of the title character becomes evident. "Visions of Sugarplums" is a touching Christmas story with a science fiction twist. "Painted Devil" is a supernatural temptation story set in the post-bellum South (presumedly Maggie's native Louisiana), and it would not be nearly as effective were it not for the moving portrait of an aging courtesan mourning the loss of her dear friend and patron.
There are five other stories that deserve to be singled out. While most of the stories in these collection stand by themselves, three form a trilogy---"A Decent Boldness", "A Haughty Spirit", and "Glorious Gifts" about an Amazon warrior---Aella, who travels out from her homeland into Man's World? Think this is about Wonder Woman? Think again. This story is set in the ancient past, and Aella is very much a warrior rather than a superheroine. She's tough, hard-headed and practical---just like most soldiers are. Yet as tough as Aella is, she is very much a real woman and doesn't come across as a male character in drag. The other two stories are "Pandora" and "Nephil" which bracket the short story collection. Neither story has any direct connection to sex workers. In "Pandora", a young wife is haunted by mysterious dreams of an underground world, which she explores to discover its terrible secret. In "Nephil", a biologist tries to uncover the answers behind the mysterious birth of her sun and his unknown father. "Pandora" has a surprise twist at the end, but not so with "Nephil." The reader of "Nephil" will (or should) know where that story is going, but that doesn't make the ending any less devastating.
If my babbling hasn't convinced you that this book is worthwhile, try reading some of the stories for free. If you Google the names of the stories and "Maggie McNeill", you should come up to links to them in her blog with the exception of "Nephil" which was expressly written for this collection. I hope more reader will buy this book because Maggie is a very good storyteller, and I really hope that this book is not a one-shot deal.
P.S. I also would like to give credit to cartoonist Chester Brown for an excellent cover which he drew for this book. A cover is not the story, but it's beautiful, catches the eye, and sets the tone for Maggie's stories inside.