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Bone Swans: Stories Paperback – 7 Jul 2015
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Five stories, ranging in length from short story to novella. Each reminiscent of an old-school fairy tale, both beautiful and disquieting, with various recognizable tropes and archetypes and plotlines and characters all delicately woven together into something entirely new. Each told in phraseology that echoes the rhythm and poetry of a truly gifted oral storyteller, full of sure-footed language that carefully signals character, time, place, while nonetheless belonging clearly to the voice of this author alone.
Cooney clearly understands the evolution of stories, how bits and pieces of their DNA free-float between people before recombining in our minds, adapting themselves to the time and environment in which they're told. The stories themselves are familiar and yet different from anything I've read in a long time. Her masterful use of language reminded me more than once of David Mitchell; and yet, while Mitchell's cleverness is the sort that (justifiably) demands recognition, Cooney's style is almost the opposite. Subtle, lyrical, with a beauty that shines through its familiar trappings; you could read each story without ever noticing the careful craft of the words, and then they would be there to surprise and delight you upon reread.
These aren't long stories, but they're not quick reads either. They're as much poem as story, meant to be thoroughly enjoyed; read quickly, they lose much of their power. But if you love fairy tales, if you love stories, if you love beautiful use of language, if you enjoy the journey of the story as much as the destination? This is the book you didn't even know you desperately wanted.
Life on the Sun: Incredible worldbuilding in just a few pages. The mix of cultures, desert landscape, rights wronged and wrongs righted, and a nearly perfect ending.
The Bone Swans of Amandale: Interesting fusion of faerie tales, brought down-to-earth by the wonderfully grounded narrator, Maurice the Incomparable. I especially adored the characterisation of the Pied Piper, fey and lost and eldritch when he needs to be.
Martyr's Gem: Again, excellent world-building in a very short space. About the only quibble I have with this story is the subplot and ending: <spoiler>I'd have preferred to wonder how Hyrryai would discover her way to herself from where they were rather than the lot of them sailing off over the horizon. New beginnings are just too easy for this story, somehow.</spoiler>
How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One: Excellent rumpelstiltskin. I really liked Gordie.
The Big Bah-Ha: This story let the collection down, somehow. While the ending came back up to par, the first half was... uninspiring, in comparison. In any other collection I probably wouldn't have noticed, but after the first four stories, it was glaringly clumsy in comparison.
I've read C.S.E. Cooney before, different stories and poems than in this collection. I was unsure whether I liked her writing or not, but this collection puts her on my read list. Her style is sort of similar to Catherynne M. Valente and Maria Dahvana Headley, so if you like those authors, you should like this.
Life on the Sun: Dense fantasy about a war, the bird people, and power. It's so dense I felt like it needed to be longer to better develop the characters and conflict. Otherwise, cool concept and writing. 3.5/5
The Bone Swans of Amandale: The shapeshifting swans of Amandale are being hunted a killed, their bones made into instruments beneath the juniper tree, at the bidding of an ogre-mayor Ulia Gol. But shapeshifting rat Maurice has an idea to save his lady love Dora Rose, one of the swans, with the help of his good friend the pied piper Nicholas. Combining The Juniper Tree, The Pied Piper of Hamlin, and Sleeping Beauty, this is a wonderfully creative novella. 4.5/5
Martyr's Gem: In a fantasy, post-apocalyptic world, Shursta, a poor fisherman, marries the wealthy Hyrryrai at her request. Hyrryrai's sister has recently been murdered, and she's heard Shursta is kind to his own sister Sharrar. This is a good story overall. I enjoyed the world and characters, though some characters were a bit one-dimensional. 4/5
How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One: A really wonderful Rumpelstiltskin retelling. Loved. 5/5
The Big Bah-Ha: Not sure I know what was going on in this one! In a post apocalyptic world, some sort of rash kills adults, and there's these tall people that eat children, and heaven is a sort of circus. Um. This is my least favorite in the collection, but it's certainly inventive. 2/5