Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. Last time around we talked about two stories from the first half of Lavie Tidhar’s The Apex Book of World SF 3—each a fresh take on a familiar trope. This week, I thought we’d finish up with two more stories from the closing half of the anthology: “Waiting with Mortals” by Crystal Koo and “Three Little Children” by Ange. The first is originally written in English, while the other is translated from the French by Tom Clegg.
Coincidentally, there were also two other stories in this second half that I’ve discussed before here at Tor.com: “To Follow the Waves” by Amal El-Mohtar and “Brita’s Holiday Village” from Jagganath by Karin Tidbeck. So, as a whole, the last half of this anthology was certainly as strong as the first—all together a good showing, with plenty of variety in voices and styles from around the world.
But on to today’s stories, to complement our last installment’s discussion. These are remarkably different sorts of narratives, to begin with: one is a fairly straightforward urban fantasy set in Hong Kong, while the other is a modern fairy tale written as if told to children at bedtime by their grandfather. Read in concert, these two pieces give a good sense—particularly alongside the others discussed from this anthology—of the variety and range of stories Tidhar has collected here.
The first, “Waiting with Mortals” by Crystal Koo, struck me as an unfamiliar rendition of a familiar set of tropes—something I tend to appreciate. The grit and grimness of much contemporary urban fantasy is here, and the story itself takes place in a world where ghosts are a part of life—in particular the city life of Hong Kong. The protagonist himself is a ghost; his relationship with his also-ghostly father is still as much of a mess as it was in life, and so is his relationship with the girl he loves but who seems to have mostly been using him throughout his life/death.
It’s a dark little piece, unforgiving in the way that many stories like it are: the characters have trouble interacting with each other, there’s jealousy and greed and broken people interacting with other broken people. In the end, however, what won me over most was the shift in relationships that allows the protagonist to move on: his father’s willingness to sacrifice for him and try to make him happy, the girl’s unwillingness to see him or care about him enough to change her patterns of behavior. The realizations that he cannot change her into someone different and also that maybe he hasn’t been seeing his father through true eyes for a long time compound to make for a solid ending, one that’s satisfying in the confines of the world-building.
As for that world-building, while the story is a little hard to find one’s feet in at first—it took me a bit to sort out the mechanics of the host/ghost conversions, and that the father was also a ghost—once it gets the ball rolling, it’s solid. Koo’s city feels alive, drenched in neon and fog and fluttering with humans alive and otherwise; her use of detail is sparse enough to not overwhelm while also rich enough to give a good sense of place, time, and person. I generally found it to be a compelling piece about love and loss and connection—one that stuck with me for a bit after finishing.
On a very different note, “Three Little Children” by Ange (the pen-name for a pair of writers, Anne and Gérard Guero) is a scary story/fairy-tale that reinterprets a nursery rhyme about three murdered children who are rescued and brought back to life by Saint Nicholas. The narrator tells a story-version to his own grandkids about three pickpocket children, a policewoman, a gang, and a serial killer—all of whom interact with each other in ways mimicking parts of the rhyme. In the end, it seems that the man himself might just be Saint Nicholas, the rescuer, and that magic is perhaps not so distant after all.
Though it might sound like a children’s story, Ange’s method of telling is dripping with menace and discomfiting detail—I found it quite uncomfortable at parts, in the way that stories for kids with adult implications tend to be. The presence of the monsters in the night is also the presence of violence, exploitation, drug-running and other dangers. While the children might not necessarily pick up on the metaphorical or dual-nature of the narrative, as a reader, it’s impossible for us not to.
And really, “listening” to the telling of the piece as a reader was what I liked here; it’s a pleasantly disturbing experience. The narrative voice doesn’t seem over-played, at least, and I felt fairly taken in by it. I appreciated the unspoken realities of the city lingering underneath the magic, and that the magic is likely just a fairy-story interpretation of real life: the sprites are just other children playing, the monsters are just regular human monsters, et cetera. But then there’s the ending, in which the kids are all right and the police officer can’t remember what really happened—implying that, maybe, there’s something else afoot after all. I always like that sort of thing. The last twist, that the grandfather himself is possibly the Saint Nicholas figure of the tale, is a little playful—it offers another real-world angle: perhaps he was just the man who rescued the children and is now telling his grandkids the story with a veneer of something otherworldly. Or, on the other hand: perhaps it’s real exactly as he tells it. The story doesn’t seem to offer an answer, and I don’t particularly need one.
So, in a sense, there might be a thread uniting these otherwise disparate stories after all: each takes a look at urban life and what it hides, in a way. Ange’s story is a solid piece of prose, a pleasant read in a dark fashion, while Koo’s is a familiar-yet-not take on a popular mode of storytelling that looks at complex relationships through an interesting, ghostly lens. As with the rest of the anthology, these are intriguing voices doing neat things with genre fiction, and I enjoyed reading them.
Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.