The beautiful cover art for C.S.E. Cooney’s 2015 book Bone Swans was what first caught my eye. The fact that it’s a short-story collection meant I’d definitely get around to reading it sooner or later, but seeing that at least two of the stories were retold fairy tales sealed the deal; a 99-cent sale for an e-copy of the book was overkill, but much appreciated.
I’m really glad I picked this one up; I’ve never ready any of Cooney’s work before, but she’s automatically on my favorites list now. Her style is equal parts folksy, flamboyant, romantic, lyrical, filled with atmospheric paragraphs you fall into. The characters are just smart-aleck enough to make me root for them, and each of the five stories here is a jewel.
These are far from cookie-cutter fantasy adventures; there’s a different flavor to each tale.
Life on the Sun is the story of a desert nation at war against its oppressor, in a city where the fighters weave carpets that they can sweet-talk into flying. The action starts at the end of a war that the Bird People both win and lose (depending on which part of the war you’re talking about), and tells of friendship and loyalty and sacrifice, with a main character who it turns out isn’t just a fighter, but the whole reason the war ever got to this point in the first place.
So Kantu, grudgingly, had taught Mikiel to walk the mazepath of the Catacombs, how to weave a carpet with thread that could fly, and finally, how to take to the skies. In turn, Mikiel showed Kantu how to dance with a knife strapped to her thigh, how to use a slingshot and flirt in twelve languages.
We come to the first of the retold fairy tales with The Bone Swans of Amandale, which reimagines not one, but two folktales (more, if you count references to the Fairy Queen, falling asleep for a hundred years if you wander into the wrong places, and a mayor who’s exploiting the old trope of murder victims/swans turning into self-playing musical instruments, all to have an orchestra without having to pay for professional musicians.) Our narrator is Maurice the Incomparable (he gave himself the title), a member of the Folk, magical creatures who can turn from human to animal. In Maurice’s case the animal is “rat”, and he’s a tough survivor type in whatever shape he’s in, as well as lustful, cheerfully amoral, always hungry, and incapable of taking anything seriously. He’s also heartbroken over a woman who’s way out of his league, and he’s loving every second of it. Because if there’s anything that a rat needs more than cheese, it’s drama.
The first time I almost died, it was my fault. It all had to do with being thirteen and drunk on despair and voluntarily wandering into a rat-baiting arena because life isn’t worth living if a Swan Princess won’t be your girlfriend. Embarrassing.
The next story jumps from the forest to the sea, sometime after the gods drowned the Nine Cities – and the Nine Islands with them – leaving only the Last Isle and the Glennemgarra, the Unchosen. In Martyr’s Gem we meet Shursta, a lowly fisherman who’s been proposed to by Hyrryai, the richest and most beautiful maiden on the island. I thought at first this was going to a murder mystery, but the whodunnit of the story is actually rather simple, and so is Hyrryai‘s motivations. It’s easy to understand wanting to throw away your life for vengeance; things only get complicated when you have to deal with friendship and love and every other part of life that still keeps going on anyway.
If I had to pick a favorite of the book, it would be How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One. It’s another slightly slanted look at a popular fairy tale, but I don’t want to get into too many details about how the story changes because discovering that is
part of the fun. Not that it’s all fun though; Gordie Faircloth is resilient and clever and short-tempered (she is just done with her sot of a father’s storytelling, with holy inquisitors, and with straw. Most especially with straw.), and she has a growing talent for hexes and rhymes, but she goes through absolute hell before the story’s end. The genesis for this one could be summed up with the question, “Why exactly would a maiden want to marry the person who’d threatened to execute her if she didn’t do the impossible in three days?”
What I had done was been shut up in a silo with enough straw to stuff a legion of scarecrows. From the itching in my arms and the tickle in my nose, I apprehended a heretofore unknown but deeply personal reaction to straw. In sufficient quantities, and given enough time, the straw might actually murder me.
Time was one thing I didn’t have.
The Big Bah-Ha is an odd one to end the collection with. It’s a lunatic story, almost nightmarish in places. The world is, really and truly, no fooling, ending, with only a few years left to go. The really awful part though is that it’s an apocalypse which only takes adults, so once the world is filled with nothing but feral children who know it’s not a matter of if, but when they’re going to die, you eventually get to the point where even the afterlife stops working.
“Good afternoon, children!”
That voice was like a Slinky toy going downhill, like shouting down into a well after someone fell in, like a piece of expensive caramel melting in a slant of afternoon sunlight.
Along with the flowing descriptions, the quirky dialog, and the impossible situations, the thing that draws me to Cooney’s stories the most is that they’re surprising. I’ll have an idea about the characters when they’re introduced, and so often it’s completely wrong. The daughter of the occupying force in Life on the Sun turned herself over to the Bird People, and the welcome she received was beautiful, and summed up in the simplest way. In The Martyr’s Gem, poor friendless Shursta enters what’s sounds like a miserable situation, and it morphs into something that leads to really fun scenes, like the one where his delightful sister steals peoples plates and then innocently pretends to eat from all of them while Shursta’s new best friend keeps trying to steal one back. The people with every reason to act superior are the sweetest friends, enemies end up being trustworthy, and every now and then the person with the ability to cause the most pain is the very last one who wants to.
C.S.E. Cooney wrote in her acknowledgements that her heroes and heroines came out of an “ardent assertion that those of us who are plain or just plain ugly are as capable of passionate, witty, romantic, terrifying adventures as pretty people”. Every single one of those adjectives applies to all five of the stories collected here. Cooney has released two books already in “The Dark Breakers” series – which include several elements that popped up in the fairy tales here – and I may have to try to read both of them so I can be ready to review the third one the very second it comes out.
Cover art by Kay Nielsen