Book review · short fiction collection

Book review: Starlings

Starlings, by Jo Walton

sept28Description: (from Tachyon Publications)

An intimate first flight of short fiction from award-winning novelist Jo Walton (Among Others, The King’s Peace).

An strange Eritrean coin travels from lovers to thieves, gathering stories before meeting its match. Google becomes sentient and proceeds toward an existential crisis. An idealistic dancer on a generation ship makes an impassioned plea for creativity and survival. Three Irish siblings embark on an unlikely quest, stealing enchanted items via bad poetry, trickery, and an assist from the Queen of Cats.

With these captivating initial glimpses into her storytelling psyche, Jo Walton shines through subtle myths and wholly reinvented realities. Through eclectic stories, subtle vignettes, inspired poetry, and more, Walton soars with humans, machines, and magic—rising from the everyday into the universe itself.

Expected publication: January 30th 2018.
A review copy (eARC) of this book was provided by the publisher through Netgalley. Some things might change in the final copy.

I’m always curious to read new short fiction collections and anthologies, especially when it’s from one author I haven’t read anything from yet. It can give me a good feel of their voice and imagination without the time commitment of a full length novel.

Overall I liked Startlings, the stories were varied, most of them very short, the longer ones never boring. It is separated into three parts: fiction (takes 67% of the book), one script and poetry. Like the author says many times, some of these stories are not actually stories but more like ideas that she put on paper, without plot, just that idea taking a few pages, sometime less. She also refers to them as “exercises” or even first chapters of books she never published.

I usually love the notes at the end of each piece adding some background or explanation to the story. I did there too, for a time. But then some of them were a bit odd. There is several (!) where the author “rants” about publishers or magazines not paying her (which, okay, isn’t cool!) or paying her very little (this is… not relevant to the story…) and sometimes  those afterwards felt a bit too self-congratulatory? It’s awesome that Jo Walton is proud of her work but, I don’t think this was the place to say some of the things said here. Those parts are usually the ones that make me appreciate an author more and… I have to say it hadn’t a positive impact on my view of the author.

Like all collections, there were stories that I liked more than others. Looking at the listing below, I realise that the stories I like best are those leaning more on the science fiction side than the others! The ones referencing Italy and Florence weren’t really my favourites, but I liked how it showed a side of the author I had no idea about.

Three Twilight Tales
Because of this one, I struggled a bit and put off reading this short fiction collection for a few days since I couldn’t get into it. I have no strong feeling about the two first parts but I quite liked the third one.
(Available here)

Jane Austen to Cassandra
Very short and surprising,
(Available here)

Unreliable Witness
I really really liked this one. It is about a very old woman, in an old people’s home. She’s sure that someone is stealing her things, then she encounters an alien. Of course no one believes her, so she record a message about all of this.
(Available here)

On the Wall
Another good one! This is told from the point of view of the mirror from Snow-White, how it was created and came to the “witch”.
(Available here)

The Panda Coin
I really liked this story of a coin travelling from person to person, in a “science-fiction” setting.
(Available here)

Remember the Allosaur
Super short but very fun! About a dinosaur gaining consciousness and being an Hollywood actor.
(Available here)

Sleepersleeper - jo walton
A biographer from 2064 uses her subject to start a revolution, by re-creating him as an AI everyone will download with the book. Interesting conversation between the two!
(Available here)

Relentlessly Mundane
About three persons who have to keep on living after coming back from a year in a fantasy world. I’ve read several takes on this idea and I always like this!
(Available here)

escapeEscape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction
I understand how interesting the way this story is told could be to some people, but I’m not a big fan of such stories with “what if hitler had won this and that”. While I’m interested to read more from Jo Walton, I will not read her novels in this universe.
cw: antisemitism, racism, mention of lynching
(Available here)

Joyful and Triumphant: St. Zenobius and the Aliens
I really liked that the pronoun they/them was used to talk about God. Also the idea of Heaven being populated by humans and aliens from all kind of planets. A Heaven for literally everyone. Still is a christian-like heaven with christian saints, I know how some people are getting tired of this. Still a fun one.
(Available here)

A group of young gifted people are having lunch on a generation spaceship, discussing the future of the next generations and what would happen to the way of life in the generation ship. I really loved this one, maybe my favourite!
(Available here)

At the Bottom of the Garden
Uhhhh this was… unsettling to say the least. Very short, involving children cruelty (meaning, children being cruel.)
(Available here)

Out of It
I read all the stories above in one setting starting at the second one but this one bored me a little and couldn’t grasp my interest. It was past midnight, that might explain it, but the stories that followed were fine so I think it’s just that this story wasn’t for me.

What a Piece of Work
That story about Google gaining sentience was actually the one I was most interested to read! It didn’t have a plot, this was more of a stream of consciousness with Google thinking what its done and what it can do. Interesting, but I had been hoping for a bit more.

Parable Lost
Humm I don’t know what to think of this one. I think it wasn’t necessary.
(Available here)

What Would Sam Spade Do?
Well, I can say I haven’t read a story like this one before! The main character is a clone of Jesus, like thousands others, and works as a PI.
(Available here)

“We’ll pay your professional rates. Jesus!” I couldn’t tell if she was calling me by name or swearing.

Oh I really liked that one! A man born from a tank in a planet where humans came in a generation ship is wondering about the seemingly illogical family traditions of his wife’s family and looks for answers.

What Joseph Felt
Christian related again, this is Joseph’s point of view on his wife getting pregnant without them having sex. Another very short one, I don’t have any strong feeling about it.
tw: mention of rape
(Available here)

The Need to Stay the Same
Some kind of alien writes a book review about an human book (if I understood correctly.) It was a fun one, especially as someone reading this and taking notes for review!

A Burden Shareda burden shared
A family (but mostly focuses on the mother/daughter relationship) is sharing the pain from the chronic pain of their daughter/partner/… and have to make sacrifices to help her. Deals with guilt and consequences.
I would be interested to know what people suffering from chronic pain think about this story.
(Available here)

Three Shouts on a Hill (A Play)
This is the first time I encounter a play in a short fiction collection! It was nice, not my favourite but once I got used to it I had a fun time.

Dragon’s Song
Not in this Town
Hades and Persephone
The Death of Petrach
Advice to Loki
Ask to Embla
Three Bears Norse
Machiavelli and Prospero
Ten Years Ahead: Oracle Poem
Pax in Forma Columba
Translated from the Original
Sleepless in New Orleans
The Godzilla Sonnets
Not a Bio for Wiscon: Jo Walton

Those poems were really varied. I loved the first one, and liked the idea of the last one: the traditional author bio at the end written as a poem. No strong feelings for the rest, I felt a bit uneducated because I couldn’t always undertand all the references but I’m sure people who do will greatly enjoy them!

Would I recommend this book? I think any fan of Jo Walton will be dying to read this. It didn’t turn me into a fan of her work but I feel like I understand better what I would get myself into when reading her novels, I feel like this short fiction collection is a great way to get a glimpse of the person behind the authors. Still, this leads me to think I will read a novel of hers one of these days, either Tooth&Claw or Among Others!

Some people could feel cheated because a lot of these stories are very short, a lot don’t even have a plot. I’m choosing to see this book as a collection of the author’s work and ideas, like a glimpse on her notebooks, her drafts.
I’ve been told it isn’t the best way to get introduced to Jo Walton, though it worked well enough for me so I’d say go for it if you’re interested and feel intrigued by what you saw above.

4 thoughts on “Book review: Starlings

  1. After finding out more about this anthology, I don’t think it will be a good choice for me as someone who has never read the author. Thanks for the review and confirming to me that her novels will be a much better introduction!


    1. Yeah I think that reading her novels that have themes of interest to you would be better! At least I feel like I know the authors’ recurring themes better now ^^
      You’re welcome, and thank you for reading 🙂


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