Released: September 4th 2018
Warnings: Animal death, graphic descriptions of death and decay
I received a copy of Worlds Seen in Passing through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.
This has to be one of the most impressive collection of short stories I’ve read in a long time. This year marks the tenth year that Tor has been publishing fiction, and this was their way of celebrating their success. What a way to celebrate, right?
Worlds Seen in Passing contains a wild variety of themes and subjects, from science fiction and/or fantasy to horror. Every story is different and unique, yet the flow from one to the next was masterfully done. Not once did I find myself struggling to remember what happened in a specific short.
While reading Worlds Seen in Passing, I was strongly reminded of the fact that I should really read more collections like this. The greedy part of me hopes to see more compilations like this from Tor.
If you look at the table of contents you may find yourself overwhelmed by the number of short stories included here (forty in total, for those that are curious), and there are some major names included as well. Many will recognize Charlie Jane Anders, N. K. Jemisin, Leigh Bardugo, Yoon Ha Lee, Carrie Vaughn, Max Gladstone, just to name a few.
I’m sure everyone that has read the collection could point out the ones that stuck out the most to them, the ones they loved the most, or the ones they felt the most impact from. I’m also sure that based on how many short stories are in this compilation, none of us would give the same answer. Personally, my favorites would have to be: Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders, Waiting on a Bright Moon by JY Yang, The Litany of Earth by Ruthanna Emrys, Brimestone and Marmalade by Aaron Corwin, About Faries by Pat Murphy, and The Shape of My Name by Nino Cipri. While those ones were my favorite, I have to admit that some of the others had a very strong impact on me personally, for varying reasons. The Best We Can by Carrie Vaughn, Please Undo this Hurt by Seth Dickinson, the Language of Knives by Haralambi Markov, and Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky all seem to strike a chord with me. Also, please don’t underestimate how difficult it was to not let myself list every short story in the collection here – it was very tempting.
Before I review each of these individually, I will mention that while they were all fantastic and expertly written, they also tend to be on the heavier and more somber side of fiction. That isn’t the case for all, but I’ll confess that I found myself only being able to read one or two at a time before taking a breather. I still greatly enjoyed the experience – I just wanted to give new readers a heads up. Additionally there are several shorts that I would put a ‘warning’ label on, as with my typical reviews. I’ll try to put a warning in the brief reviews, but there being so many, I don’t want to promise that I didn’t miss anything.
Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders
I thought this was a fun spin on the whole concept of people being able to see into the future. I can safely say that I never thought of what that would mean for a person, romantically. The two main characters, Judy and Dough, did a fantastic job of showing how different people handle the same situation (or ability) differently. Where Judy is a positive personality, Doug is without a doubt a negative personality. Whether that is because of their abilities, or if they interpret the future based on their personality, I really couldn’t say. But I did very much enjoy all the possible ways to interpret their scenes.
Damage by David D. Levine
This would be the perfect story for those of you out there that like science fiction war stories. There’s an interesting twist though; it’s told from the perspective of the AI running the ship. I thought the little AI was adorable and heroic, and have to confess that I really did agree with all of their decisions, especially based on what was happening around them.
The Best We Can by Carrie Vaughn
I absolutely loved this story. I loved the different perspective on the whole ‘human race discovering aliens’ trope. It was different, it was fun, and most importantly, it was believable. I mean, really, what exactly would the human race do if we found proof of evidence for aliens? What would we do if we found them, or at least proof of them, but had no idea where they were from, or more importantly, how to get to them? What started out as an interesting twist ended with a surprisingly hopeful and inspiring conclusion.
The City, Born Great by N.K. Jemisin
Okay, for sake of honestly I should tell you that I haven’t yet read anything by N.K. Jemisin, but I absolutely adore her. I follow her on twitter and think she’s amazing. So I may be slightly biased in saying that I loved this story. It was great finally taking a moment to see what talent she had when it comes to writing – and I have to say it held up. This was a heartbreaking, but inspiring story about a young man in the city – many would argue that he has so much going against him, but it was wonderful to see the determination and drive behind this character.
A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel by Yoon Ha Lee
Have you ever seen a collection of short stories inside a short story collection? Well, I hadn’t before this one. As you can probably guess by the title, here we have a bunch of very short (only a few paragraphs each) tales of travel. Each one focuses on a different society/planet and how they approached or interpreted interstellar travel. I loved it. I actually wish all of these were longer – I need to know more about them all, even the somewhat depressing one (if you’ve read this, you know exactly which one I’m talking about). On the whole it was beautifully written.
Waiting on a Bright Moon by JY Yang
I loved this short. Actually, when I sat down to write the mini-review for this one I almost popped back up and added it to the list of my favorites – but if I allowed myself to do that soon I’d be finding myself doing that for all of them. This was a beautifully written piece of work. I honestly wish there was more to it. I need to find out more about this world – the events leading up to this story, what happened to the main characters, and what will happen next. I have so many questions. I think I found another author to start researching…
Elephants and Corpses by Kameron Hurley
Warning: Animal death, reanimated corpses (that last bit probably shouldn’t be surprising, based on the title).
I’ll admit that this one was a tougher read for me than all the ones before it. While I found the world itself fascinating, as well as the main character – I knew right from the beginning what was going to happen to the animal introduced, and my heart just couldn’t take it. Still, the writing was phenomenal, as were some of the debates and implications raised by this short.
About Fairies by Pat Murphy
This was an oddly sweet and introspective piece. In many ways it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. However, I think it was exactly what I needed. A lot of what is happening in this appears to be coping mechanisms for dealing with the loss of a loved one. Having gone through this recently myself, I really found myself appreciating and respecting what was being done here.
The Hanging Game by Helen Marshall
Warning: Animal death, hangings (again, the title sort of gives that bit away). Miscarriages/loss of young infants.
This was a heavy read, to put it lightly. You know how every city/camp/other location where kids congregate ends up developing its own games? And how it’s usually based on the lore of said location? Well this is one of those stories. Here the kids play at hanging, with many of them using proper high tension ropes – being that their parents are loggers. Obviously a game about kids hanging themselves is concerning enough, but story takes it a few steps further. I understand the point that was being made here…but this was a lot to swallow. Still, I have to admit that the writing was very well done, and the imagery provocative enough to ensure that it’ll be remembered for a long time.
The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu
This one is set in the future – but how far into the future is left unsaid. How do you think the world would react, if suddenly everyone was called out for their lies? Regardless of the reason for the lie itself. This is a fun concept being used to discuss a very real and difficult point in many people’s lives; the action of coming out to one’s family. After all, how can you hide anything in a world where water will be dumped on you for any lie or act of subterfuge?
A Cup of Salt Tears by Isabel Yap
This was a heavy tale, to say the least. It was beautifully and brilliantly written. It also had a way of really tugging at your heart strings. Or at least that is how I felt on the matter. I loved the inclusion of local lore, that was a lovely touch and really allowed the story to unfold in such a natural way.
The Litany of Earth by Ruthanna Emrys
I mentioned this above, but I really do think that this was one of my favorites from this collection. I’ve read a lot of Lovecraft lore, or stories based on Lovecraft. Never once have I seen the perspective flipped like this though, and I’ll confess that it never even occurred to me to think about what would happen to those ‘side characters.’ I love the new viewpoint, and the character giving us that view was wonderfully written. I really felt connected to her – I found myself sympathetic to her; and hoping for a resolution for both her and her people. I sincerely never expected that. The lines that were tied between this and some very real events makes one that much more aware of how we treat people that we’d rather just not think about. It was beautifully done.
Brimstone and Marmalade by Aaron Corwin
This was an incredibly funny and cute story, even if it does end up finding a way to make it heavy in the end. I’ll admit I really enjoyed it, and could see a younger version of myself happily having a little demon (or three) as a pet. It’s such a funny concept, and having the characters go about their days like it was no big deal was alarming, in an odd sort of way. I loved reading about Matilda and all the life lessons she learned thanks to Ix-Thor.
Reborn by Ken Liu
If you’re looking for a short story that has a different perspective for an alien encounter/invasion, then this is the story for you. It’s the same and different at once. Some parts are exactly what you’d expect; while other parts…well they make you wonder, let’s put it that way. It raises a lot of interesting questions, like the origin of selflessness and the impulse to be kind and helpful, and the concept of different forms of control and aggression. It left me with a lot of different thoughts and questions…and I’m okay with that.
Please Undo This Hurt by Seth Dickinson
I felt a very strong connection with this story. Perhaps it was the emotions that Dominga and Nico were experiencing. No, I know that’s exactly the reason why. These characters were just so human it was impossible not to relate to them. Even as the story breached more and more into the sci-fi I found myself entranced by the characters and their emotional turmoil.
The Language of Knives by Haralambi Markov
Warning: Graphic details of human remains.
This was probably the most graphic short story in the collection. Second maybe to Breaking Water, but I’ll leave that to you to decide. However, the meaning and core concepts behind the story…they can’t be overlooked. This is a tale of loss, but more than that it’s about coping and acceptance. It’s about realizing that there are different ways of showing love and affection, and sometimes you have to accept one over the other. It’s about realizing that one type of affection doesn’t automatically make the less inferior. It was beautifully written, and worth the slightly graphic nature.
The Shape of My Name by Nino Cipri
This was a time travel story like I’ve never seen it. While it makes perfect sense now, I can honestly say that I never thought about time travel being used as an allegory for learning to accept oneself the way they are; or about societies’ lack of acceptance. This was a very powerful story, and I’m so happy to have read it. I actually wish there was more to it – I wasn’t ready for it to be over. Add this author to the list I need to follow up on.
Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky
Lucian is one of those silent characters that I’m always drawn to. Naturally I loved everything about this story. From the questions raised about love, to the realization that there are different types of love. More than that though, this was a story about needing to find yourself before you can ever find, or accept, love. If I had to pick a highlight for this collection, it would have to be this story here. It was so perfect.
The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Lady Astronaut of Mars was both uplifting and heartbreaking. Which one dominated varied from moment to moment, so it was very much an emotional roller coaster. It was beautifully written, and brought tears to my eyes at more than one point. I think many of us fear ending up being in Elma’s position – at least in regards to losing a loved one. At the same time it’s hard not to be impressed with what she accomplished, what she stands for now, and what she still stands to achieve.
Last Son of Tomorrow by Greg van Eekhout
This was a sad, but interesting, twist on the whole Superman superpowered character. Yes, it always seems fun and cool, but I’ve always wondered what the cost would be for something like that. Clearly I wasn’t the only one to wonder it – though Eekhout did a much better job with this than I could have ever hoped for myself. This is the tale of John, his superpowers, and his immortality.
Ponies by Kif Johnson
Warning: Animal death.
As tough as some parts of this one was, I really enjoyed it. It reminded me of a poem I read when I was a kid, about how the main perspective was slowly turning into a doll with no motivation or emotions all in an attempt to make society like her. That’s sort of the case here, though it’s less subtle and more brutal. There’s no denying the demands being made for acceptance here, nor can we pretend the cost isn’t high. And yet the characters here still did everything asked, gave up everything asked. Makes you wonder how many others would do the same thing.
La beaute sans vertu by Genevieve Valentine
This was an eerie reimagining of the world of fashion, but I really enjoyed it. It explored the darker sides of fashion, letting elements travel to their extremes, such as the fashion of attaching different (younger) arms to the models – and how that made it acceptable to have purple finger tips. I love all the questions and implications this tale raised to the surface. If you’re looking for something that will make you sit and think, this is the one to read.
A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers by Alyssa Wong
A hauntingly beautiful tale of two sisters with magical abilities. This one is more about the limitations of said abilities, and how they can only do so much. They can’t change the past. They can’t change how cruel people can be. They can’t make you be accepted for what you are. The ending is heartbreaking, but also perfectly fitting in what was being told here.
A Kiss with Teeth by Max Gladstone
I found A Kiss with Teeth to be a moment of humor and light between some of the heaviest short stories in this collection. For that it was perfectly placed. I love the idea of Vlad going through a midlife crisis, all the while trying to fit in and conform with that a ‘normal human’ would do. It’s both absurd and hilarious….but also shows that not everybody can fit the same mold, and that we shouldn’t kill ourselves trying to be like everyone else.
The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections by Tina Connolly
Warning: Implications of what a corrupt and wicked king would do to his people (torture/rape).
This was a tough read at points, but it is also going to be one of the tales that sticks with me the longest. I love the concept of a baker infusing his art with emotions and memories – not his own, but those of the eater. That the baker was the one to bring justice to this horrible world is that much more perfect. A beautiful ending for a fascinating tale. I would have loved it had this one been a novella or novel.
The End of the End of Everything by Dale Bailey
Here we have one of the horror stories in this collection. It was well written, and incredibly creepy. It dripped with foreshadowing that I couldn’t hide from. I almost wish I had saved this one to read around Halloween time. It’s about a married couple, suicide parties, and the end of the world. So what could possibly go wrong?
Breaking Water by Indrapramit Das
Warning: Graphic details of decay.
Breaking Water is an interesting story. It’s about ownership, guilt, and doing what is right. Or at least, that’s what I read into about it. There were some graphic details included in this one, but to be honest it really isn’t any worse than any zombie fiction out there. I did like that this one took the time to explore how the world at large would react to an infestation (for lack of a better word) like this.
Your Orisons May be Recorded by Laurie Penny
Warning: Mentions of sexual assault/child molestation.
How would you feel if you worked at a call center for people who needed help, but you weren’t actually allowed to help? I think it’s safe to say that eventually, after hearing people like that day in and day out, you would eventually break down, right? Everyone would. Even an angel.
The Tallest Doll in New York City by Maria Dahvana Headley
This has to be one of the silliest and cutest love stories I’ve read in quite some time. I loved it – it did a fantastic job of bringing a smile to my face. Considering how dark some of these short stories have been, I greatly appreciated a little break from all of that. And to believe it all started out on Valentine’s Day in 1938…
The Cage by A. M. Dellamonica
I’m not going to lie – this one really got to me. I actually wish it had been a full novel, or at least a novella. I desperately want more information. More than that, I want some closure. I also completely believe that events would go down like this. I can’t imagine humanity at large would react well to the revelation of werewolves – and therefore I completely believe that they would be brutally hunted down first, and then dealing with the ethical and legal debates after.
In the Sight of Akresa by Ray Wood
Warning: Somewhat/fairly graphic details of a tongue being forcibly removed.
A chilling tale of love, secrets, and their costs. I really enjoyed this story. I know I’ve said it before, but I actually would have loved to see this one go on a bit longer. The world felt so well formed – I feel like it’s got to be a world that the author has been working on for a while (I haven’t actually looked into that yet, but I intend to). I really love how at first it looked like Claire was telling somebody else’s story entirely, only for it to be slowly revealed that it was more than that.
Terminal by Lavie Tidhar
Terminal one gave me chills. It’s wonderfully written, with both heartwarming thoughts full of hopes and dreams, and moments of heartache, loss, and confusion. In short, it did a wonderful job of capturing a variety of human emotions and using them to explain a complex situation. It was masterfully done.
The Witch of Duva by Leigh Bardugo
The Witch of Duva is sort of like a dark and twisted version of Little Red Riding Hood (well, the happy one we tell these days that is, not the original). I liked the twisted perspective on all of the characters involved. Nothing was what I expected, so I was on my toes the whole time. I’ve been meaning to read Leigh Bardugo’s works for quite some time now, so it was nice to see a little bit of it in here.
Daughter of Necessity by Marie Brennan
Another short story I sorely want to go back to the beginning and include in my list of favorites. I love retellings of classic stories, even more so if they’re done from a different perspective. This is a new perspective on a classic Greek tale. I won’t ruin it for you by telling you which character is telling the tale, or how they’re connected to the rest of Greek mythology. It’s more fun to read it and put the pieces together yourself. Trust me.
Among the Thorns by Veronica Schanoes
Among the Thorns really got to me. It is an emotional tale, full of events that were too real for fiction in so many ways…yet they made the fictional parts that much more believable and fantastic because of the reality they were based in. I loved this one, and everything that it represented. It handles anti-Semitism and all forms of hate wonderfully, as well as the ethical debates revolving around how to handle people with hate in their hearts.
These Deathless Bones by Cassandra Khaw
Warning: Animal death, implied graphic deaths.
Oh my goodness. These Deathless Bones was really hard to me to read, because of all the implied/talked about animal deaths…but the conclusion made it all so worthwhile. I love the implications in this tale, as well as all of the ethical and moral debates one could have about it. Mostly I loved the very last lines of it.
Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch by Kelly Barnhill
Mrs. Sorensen sort of reminded me of a twist on a classic fairy tale princess – what with all the people and animals adoring her beyond reason. Okay, not all of the people – more like the men. But still, it was a well written and interesting short story. I almost wish there was more to it, though if I’m being honest the author started and finished the story at the perfect moments. So I can’t really complain.
The World is Full of Monsters by Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer’s piece is highly metaphorical, but still very interesting. I actually ended up reading it twice, and for a few different reasons. I wanted to make sure I was interpreting everything correctly for one. For another I just really enjoyed the writing style.
The Devil in America by Kai Ashante Wilson
Warning: Graphic depictions included.
This was probably the hardest short story to read out of the collection. What made it hard was just how based in reality it is; there was no hiding from the ugly past of America here. I respect and commend that choice (as it shouldn’t be something hidden). Still, it’s always painful seeing or thinking about the crimes and acts of violence that were committed during that time. Having this story told from the perspective of a child made that point that much more painful. There is an element of fantasy woven in through the history here, with angels and shapeshifers (or possibly one and the same) weaving their way through the plot.
A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or When You Wish Upon a Star by Kathleen Ann Goonan
And here is the last story in the anthology. I have to say that this was the perfect one to conclude with, as it was informative, imaginative, and hopeful. I loved the tale of the main perspective here, her trials of getting to be who and what she wanted. The comparisons and connections between Disney and space was really interesting – it’s certainly never a perspective I’ve thought of before, even if this short story made it all seem so obvious now.