I’ve just finished Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories
. This excellent collection succeeds in every possible way: not only does it fulfill its mission to deliver fantasy stories with diverse protagonists (along many axes of diversity: ethnic, geographical, physical and mental status, sexual orientation, and gender1
), written by equally diverse authors, but it also delivers diversity of mood, tone, and style. The stories are all excellent, some of them breathtakingly so. One editor, Julia Rios, is American; the other, Alisa Krasnostein, hails from Australia, and perhaps for that reason there’s also a nice hemispheric balance in the collection.
You know a story’s good when you’re compelled to share it, which happened to me several times while reading—first with Ken Liu’s “Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon.”
The title refers to the Qixi Festival, commemorating the yearly meeting of the celestial lovers Zhinü, the Weaver Maiden, and Niulang, the Cowherd, on that date. When the story opens, Yuan, who lives in Hebei, China, is about to be separated from her friend and lover Jing, who is going to America for school. I assumed—wrongly!—that I was in for a connect-the-dots parallel between the two girls’ present-day situation and the folktale. In fact, Liu had something better planned—a fantastic journey, and touching, unexpected advice, which an aged Zhinü shares with the lovers. I shared the story with a friend of mine who was suffering a separation from a friend, and she too was surprised and moved by it.
The second story I shared was the very next story in the anthology, “The Legend Trap,”
by Sean Williams. Three friends enter a d-mat booth to test the urban legend that entering the destination “Bashert Ostension” will take you to an alternative universe, just a hair’s breadth away from our own. I knew my sixteen-year-old son would love this: I had him read it to me, and we kept talking about it for days. It’s a tense, exciting story with the atmosphere of an updated version of The Twilight Zone
. Big applause for the names of all the neverwhere destinations that Williams comes up with—things like Addison’s Adit, the Fistula, and the Long Way Home. (But where’s the diversity?
you may be asking—more on that later.)
On the third occasion, I read the story to my son: it was Karen Healey’s hugely inventive “Careful Magic.”
Helen is an outsider in her school in part because of her OCD compulsions and in part because she’s chosen to declare for Order magic, whereas most of her classmates prefer Chaos magic (her own mother has the rank of Chaos Queen). Healey deftly introduces these magic systems and their differences in the context of an enchantment an unscrupulous fellow student has cast, which Helen must break. There’s a whole novel’s worth of invention and characterization in this story, in which Helen’s OCD is emphatically not
a source of her strength, but a reality she has to live with.
My final most-favorite story, Sofia Samatar’s “Walkdog,”
takes the form of an essay by teen student Yolanda Price, complete with footnotes and occasional spelling errors. Writing on the topic “Know Your Environment,” Yolanda describes for her teacher, Ms. Patterson, the mythical Walkdog, sourcing her information primarily from a lonely boy’s imagination, supplemented with scraps of news, scholarship, and the songs of blueswoman Maisie Oates. Yolanda’s voice is superb, and her transition from somewhat scornful of her main source of information—the geeky Andrew Bookman—to remorseful and bereft is masterful and heart wrenching. This is a true gem of a story, a compelling mix of humor and sorrow.( thoughts on the other stories, individually )
Now to return to the question of diversity and how noticeable it is, or isn’t, in the stories. An important part of having diverse stories with diverse protagonists is having stories that aren’t
focused primarily on the fact of the diversity itself. The protagonist’s difference—whatever it might be—from the majority population is just one of their characteristics and may be incidental to the plot itself. So, for instance, Yolanda, the protagonist of “Walkdog,” says, “I mean I consider myself a New Jersey native, what else would I be, even though I’m African and German and Spanish and God knows what else,” but her ethnic makeup isn’t the focus of the story. The Walkdog itself, part canefield legend and part blues fragment, shows more clearly the way in which minority voices can be present and powerful, and yet go unnoticed by the dominant culture—and yet, important as this element is to the story, it’s secondary to the themes of friendship and remorse.
Similarly, in “The Legend Trap,” two of the three friends are lesbians, in a relationship with each other, and while the fact of their relationship adds tension and drama to the story, it’s the relationship, not the fact that it’s a lesbian relationship, that’s important.
In many of the stories, the protagonist’s difference is more important to the story. This is the case with Helen’s compulsions in “Careful Magic,” Rene’s schizophrenia in “Kiss and Kiss and Kiss and Tell,” Neha’s South Asian family life in “Krishna Blue,” and Anisa’s Lebanese background in “The Truth about Owls.” These tales aren’t about
compulsion or schizophrenia or coming from a South Asian or Lebanese family, but those realities are central to the story.
“Terms of Service,” by contrast, is actually about
the harshness of the life of overseas workers, and the toll the arrangement takes on their families. Similarly, “The Lovely Duckling” and “Celebration” are about
the protagonists’ differences. And the presence of this spectrum of emphasis is as it should be: wanting to normalize difference and diversity doesn’t mean we should forgo stories that focus on the hardships associated with those differences.
In the end, though, I think the shining achievement of this anthology is that the stories are exciting, funny, moving, and powerful; they’re thought provoking, and they’re fun to read. I’m sure you’ll end up with at least as many favorites as I did.1 The only imbalance I could perceive in the anthology is in the sex of the protagonist: the protagonists are almost all female.