Shakespeare 400: Monstrous Little Voices (review)

Remember this book I mentioned a few days ago?

monstrous

Well, I’ve finished it, and here are my thoughts! Spoiler-free, because at least with spiders, I can ring my neighbour’s doorbell; with spoilers…just, no.

Blurb: It is the Year of Our Lord 1601. The Tuscan War rages across the world, and every lord from Navarre to Illyria is embroiled in the fray. Cannon roar, pikemen clash, and witches stalk the night; even the fairy courts stand on the verge of chaos.

Five stories come together at the end of the war: that of bold Miranda and sly Puck; of wise Pomona and her prisoner Vertumnus; of gentle Lucia and the shade of Prospero; of noble Don Pedro and powerful Helena; and of Anne, a glovemaker’s wife. On these lovers and heroes the world itself may depend.

These are the stories Shakespeare never told. Five of the most exciting names in genre fiction today – Jonathan Barnes, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Emma Newman, Foz Meadows and Kate Heartfield – delve into the world the poet created to weave together a story of courage, transformation and magic.

Including an afterword by Dr. John Lavagnino, The London Shakespeare Centre, King’s College London. (From Goodreads)

Release: 8 March 2016 for the collection, but each story is released separately. See the publisher’s site for more details.


Disclaimer: I received a copy from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review. I also have an academic background in Shakespeare studies, where my research is focused on film adaptations.

Having worked so extensively on Shakespearean adaptations, I’m always ambivalent about approaching works based on or inspired by Shakespeare. While I do read and write plenty of fiction, I find it difficult to switch off my ‘academic mode’ when it comes to Shakespeare, and was admittedly a little cautious about reading and reviewing this collection. In my experience, it’s almost impossible to achieve the ‘right’ balance between the most ‘critically successful’ and ‘enjoyable’ adaptations, and when you throw my own personal tastes into the mix, things can get even more interesting—as it certainly did here.

What took me completely by surprise, right at the start, was how much I loved the first story, ‘Coral Bones’ by Foz Meadows. While several aspects fuelled my enjoyment, they all ultimately shared the same core: the story read like an excellent piece of fanfiction. As an avid reader and writer of fanfic—often preferring fics to the ‘originals’—I’ve always adored the endless possibilities of shaping pre-existing characters, steering events into new directions, developing story worlds and worlds of stories. Meadows not only succeeds in all this, but also executes it with beautiful, poetic, dark, and almost-melodramatic prose, which, to me, is a wonderful twenty-first-century analogy to Shakespeare’s verse. Although I acknowledge ‘purists’ might scoff at this comparison and prefer some of the other stories in the collection, I believe it’s important for writers to use a contemporary vernacular, and not strive for ‘authenticity’. In this, Meadows’ novella, I believe, encapsulates the Shakespearean spirit of adaptation.

Oh, and it’s a pretty amazing story, too. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say the characters from The Tempest get a bit of a makeover, and the novella sets the scene for the rest of the collection.

Although I liked most of the remaining stories to varying degrees, I didn’t find them as enthralling as ‘Coral Bones’. ‘The Course Of True Love’ by Kate Heartfield offered an intertextual treat by basing the main narrative on elements from Book 14 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which tickled me pink, given how much Shakespeare used the same text for inspiration. ‘The Unkindest Cut’ by Emma Newman not only continued a chilling part of the overarching plot, but also provided the fantastical context behind the imagined ‘Tuscan Wars’ by invoking the historical House of Medici. Reminiscent of Shakespeare’s history plays, ‘Even in the Cannon’s Mouth’ by Adrian Tchaikovsky brings together well-known and relatively obscure characters alike, and puts quite a spin on All’s Well That Ends Well, one of my least favourite plays. Tchaikovsky’s story also cements a central conceit throughout the collection, in a very prominent something-I-shan’t-reveal-because-boo-spoilers, which is very recognisable amongst Shakespeare’s oeuvre, and I think would delight many readers.

Without revealing anything at all, the final story, ‘On the Twelfth Night’ by Jonathan Barnes, is just brilliantly conceived and executed. This and ‘Coral Bones’ are fanfiction at their best. Regardless of how the publishers market it and how many Shakespeare scholars contribute to prefaces and afterwords, the collection is most definitely fanfiction, just as most of Shakespeare’s plays were fanfiction. And, as I’d mentioned earlier, I find few things more magical and delightful than some well-written fanfics with enough of the ‘original’, but fully formed in their own right.

If the entire collection had been like the opening and closing stories, I would have given this five stars. However, I came across a few things in the middle stories that detracted from my enjoyment. Firstly, while I appreciated the numerous quotations from and references to Shakespeare’s plays, I found some of them diminished the writing rather than enrich it. Secondly, some of the prose and dialogue felt much too try-hard for my liking—if I wanted Shakespeare, I’d open my Norton Shakespeare or grab £5 groundling tickets at the Globe. Thirdly, while some of the intertwining elements of the Mediterranean ‘battles’ were reminiscent of the history plays, they didn’t fare so well with the political intrigue to keep me, well, intrigued.

Despite my issues with the above, I very much enjoyed the collection, and am both personally and professionally excited about its upcoming release. While Monstrous Little Voices won’t tick all the boxes for everyone, it certainly will tick a lot (perhaps all) for a lot of people. I will heartily recommend it not only to my two main ‘Shakespeare groups’ of second-year university students and Bardathon Challenge participants (hi, folks!), but also to anyone who enjoys a good story (or five).

For those who like numbers: 4/5

One thought on “Shakespeare 400: Monstrous Little Voices (review)

  1. I really enjoyed this. I think when I picked it up I felt a little wary as I”m not well read of Shakespeare and I don’t usually enjoy short stories. In spite of the above I just loved this book. The stories all connect and even though I’m sure real aficionados will gain more than me (or maybe not) I felt like I picked up on a lot of the references. I hadn’t thought of it as fanfic so that’s a really great point to make. I do think it’s a great achievement to be able to bring together five authors and yet pull off stories that are all inter-connected.
    I loved this a lot more than I anticipated and in fact it’s one of my surprise reads so far this year.
    Lynn ;D

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