Kelly Link is fast becoming one of the biggest go-to names for short fantasy fiction, and it’s really easy to see why. Her stuff is charming, and often very funny, and she always uses her fantasy elements in an intelligent and thought-provoking way. Her latest collection, Pretty Monsters, is well-set to keep her up there with the best.
If you’ve read Link before, it is true that arguably the two best stories here have already appeared in her previous collection. ‘Magic for Beginners’ and ‘The Faery Handbag’ are both entirely worth a re-read, some of the best short fantasy fiction we’ve had in a long while, but might be slightly disapointing for people who feel they’re taking up pages where new stories ought to be. It’s to Link’s credit that the collection feels cohesive anyway, and meeting her own high standard hasn’t been a problem for her, but I will admit to a moment of ‘But I know how this one goes already!’
Actually, though, this is an illustration that one’s desires should not always reign, as people who are new to her work deserve treats too. ‘Magic for Beginners’ is a warm and loving story about fandom and growing up and community, which manages to be both wistful and hilarious, and ‘The Faery Handbag’ is a sweet and sideways look at responsibility and truth and fantasy, and they deserve to be out in the world more. It would just be nice to have other stories too. (But then isn’t that always the cry, with the good stuff? More, more!)
The other works here are also very good, just for the record. I think I otherwise like ‘The Constable of Abal’ and ‘The Surfer’ best, but everything here is good. Link’s main thing is taking fantasy tropes and saying ‘… so how would that go, then, if you weren’t the stereotypical hefty white dude with a sword?’ The answers she comes up with are reliably entertaining and thought-provoking.
Link is fascinated by stories, and if you don’t like a good deal of meta-commentary in your fiction, you will want to stay away. I don’t mean that she’s strictly metaphorical in her use of fantasy tropes, at all: there’s been some discussion on this lately, and I’m definitely of the opinion that Link’s zombies need to be seen as a brain-eating menace first and foremost before they’re a metaphor for anything else, but specifically what I mean is that all her stories are also about stories. ‘Pretty Monsters’ is a story in which the characters read a story which is retold within the story, which itself turns out to be a story being told to two other characters, and the fictional interaction between those stories might grate for someone who doesn’t like that kind of thing. A few more specifically have the power of narrative fiction as one of their themes, in differing ways.
I eat that stuff up with a spoon, luckily, and find it heartwarming: Link is never afraid to show that she loves her genre, that she has a huge and real affection for every single fantasy element she uses.
It’s charming and oddly refreshing. If Link wasn’t clearly a master of what she does, it would not be surprising to hear that she was just starting out, bright-eyed with joy and the surety that stories are something amazing. Her optimism and affection are contagious, and it makes the whole thing a lot of fun to read, even through the lower points of the collection. I was not particularly enamoured of ‘The Specialist’s Hat’, for instance, but it’s an interesting take on the trope, and her skill and enthusiasm made that accessible, even though it’s never going to be one that I re-read.
Ultimately, that also makes it very accessible. Link’s approach to fantasy is a diverse one – women are particularly well represented here, and there’s some gender-bending and a bunch of brown-skinned people as well. I get the sense that Link feels that the fun, and the aesthetic and intellectual enjoyment, of well-done fantasy should be open to all. If I didn’t already, I suspect this collection would go a long way towards getting me to agree with her.
Any Cop? If you’re after short stories, you could do so much worse than this. If you’re unsure about fantasy you might want to wait til a paperback comes out, but the hardback is a lovely book to hold in your hands, and either way I’d definitely say give it a go.