Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Review: The Very Best of Kate Elliot

The Very Best of Kate Elliottis a collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories as well as a handful of Elliot's essays on writing, fantasy, and having compassion. Many of the stories in this book are haunting and tense, with deeply evocative characters. "The Gates of Joriun" is one of the most taut, suspenseful fantasy stories I've read, and it's ambiguous ending leaves the reader yearning for more. Likewise, "A Memory of Peace" is a harrowing tale of growing up in the midst of a brutal war. Yet, Elliot's collection contains a wide variety of genres, settings, and tones, and several stories are lighthearted, even funny. "My Voice Is in my Sword" is breezy science fiction romp that takes place among a company of actors sent to perform "Macbeth" for an alien audience. Elliot creates the most odious narcissist I've ever read, then gives him a well-earned comeuppance.

In stories like "Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine," Elliot skirts the line between tense drama and deeply ironic comedy. What else to say about a story where the main character, Anna, survives a treacherous ordeal because her enemies are so used to ignoring poor, middle-aged women that she can pass right by them unnoticed? The author turns the invisibility that society inflicts on older women and turns it into a powerful weapon.

A few stories fall short. "With God to Guard Her" seems like Elliot is trying to write a modern update on typical Medieval "virtuous female saint" stories. While I appreciate what she's trying to accomplish, the story doesn't quite work--It feels too methodical and predictable. I found the story "Sunseeker" a bit tedious as well.

I enjoyed reading Elliot's stories, and the four essays were a treat as well. Her essay "The Omniscent Breast" was a funny take on a pervasive problem that too many writers and readers don't think about until it's pointed out to them. As a writer myself, I hope to stay aware of the male gaze and its effect on my writing. "And Pharoah's Heart Hardened" is a heart-felt essay on the importance of treating people with kindness and compassion, especially people who've been oppressed. It's an important reminder that oppression like racism and sexism happen because people dehumanize others and harden their hearts against other people's suffering.

This is a book I'd recommend to anyone interested in a fresh take on science fiction or fantasy, and if you're a writer yourself, don't skip the essays!

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