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Book: “The Scarlet Circus” by Jane Yolen
Publishing Info: Tachyon Publications, February 2023
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+
Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat
Book Description: “The Scarlet Circus,” the fourth volume in Yolen’s award-winning short fiction series brings you passionate treasures and unexpected transformations. This bewitching assemblage, with an original introduction from Brandon Sanderson, is an ideal read for anyone who appreciates witty, compelling, and classic romantic fantasy.
Review: Jane Yolen is a powerhouse in the fantasy genre. She’s written over 400 novels, short stories, poems, and essays. Beyond that, her work has claimed numerous awards over the many decades she’s been writing, not least of which include a Caldecott Medal and numerous Nebula Awards. Such is the case that she’s one of those authors whose backlist is so intimidating that no matter how many books of hers I read, whenever I pick up a recent one, I’m immediately struck with a sense of guilt for not having gotten to more! So I was happy to see that she was releasing a short story collection this year (with a focus on romance, just in time for Valentine’s Day!), as that seemed like an easy, bite-size re-entry point to an author who deserves much more space on this blog.
This is a short story collection, so there’s really no point in including a summary paragraph. I also won’t be going over every single story in this collection. But I will say right here that I’d struggle to rank these stories or try to include any as “least favorites.” So right here at the top, this is a general recommendation for this collection, and any fans of fantasy short stories should definitely check this one out.
The collection covers a wide swatch of fantasy genres, including fairytale retellings (“Alice in Wonderland”), reimaginings of popular tales (like King Auther and “Romeo and Juliet”), time travel, and even a clever take on the footnotes of an essay that has disappeared after being written in invisible ink. Interspersed with all of these tales, Yolen has included her own poetry. While I do think that her prose is stronger than her poems, these were also nice breaks between the stories, and will likely appeal to those who like a bit more variety in their reading experience.
I did have a few favorites, however. While all of the stories focus on love in one way or another (some with happy endings, other with tragic), I did particularly like one of the later stories in the collection, “The Sea Man,” that focuses more on the love of family. The story follows a sea captain who discover the titular sea man. Though their connection is brief, the story explores the deep understanding of family and love that can cross all boundaries, including ones as simple as language to the more complicated kind that delve into the fantastical.
I also really liked “Dark Seed, Dark Stone,” a story that takes place in ancient Britain, focusing on the Picts and their in-fighting. After the death of her father, the shield of the King, Bridei, a young woman wishes to take upon herself that same role. But, of course, her skills with a spear and shield could never compete with the other warriors. Instead, she earns her place through sheer bravery and the ability to take on a threat in a unique way. Again, the love story is a very small part of this story, but I thought it was an interesting new look into this time period and Bridei himself.
Lastly, I really enjoyed “Dragonfield,” a more straight-forward, action-packed fantasy story. As the title suggests, it follows the tale of a brave young woman, a reluctant hero, and their fight to save their town from a rampaging dragon. While this story wasn’t doing anything particularly shocking, it was the sort of solid, familiar fantasy story that I think most authors work years to complete. And here, Yolen seems to whip it out as if it’s nothing. The simplicity of the story itself instead highlights her vast skills at amusing narration and the creation of interesting and sympathetic characters, even with a very limited format.
As I said, this is a thoroughly enjoyable collection of stories. It’s a must read for all fantasy short story fans, and I think it is an excellent choice if you’re looking for a unique take on a love story this Valentine’s season.
Rating 9: Yolen expertly weaves together a tapestry of romance, with the weft made of magic and the warp made of humanity’s joys and tragedies.
“The Scarlet Circus” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Best Fantasy Short Story Collections.