Liz Bourke Reviews Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight by Aliette de Bodard

Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight, Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean 978-1-59606-952-7, $40.00, 384pp, hc) September 2019. Cover by Maurizio Manzieri.

Aliette de Bodard’s Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight is a collection from an author whose work possesses both breadth and depth. Published by Subterranean Press, this volume largely collects works from her Hugo Award-nominated Xuya continuity – including award-winning stories “The Shipmaker” (BSFA Award), “Immersion” (Nebula and Locus Awards), and “The Waiting Stars” (Nebula Award) – but it also includes two novelettes from her Dominion of the Fallen continuity (in which her three most recent novels have been set) and one or two stories in different continuities entirely, like “The Jaguar House, in Shadow”, which was a Nebula and a Hugo Award finalist.

It’s a well-balanced collection, whose themes and concerns – whose arguments – are deftly addressed in an eloquent (and eloquently personal) introduction. These are stories about aftermaths, about interstices: stories about memory, about diaspora, about love and loss and compassion, and about building communities worth living in even when the world is cruel and/or indifferent. And they are stories with a strong non-Western influence. The arrangement of the stories highlights their thematic connections – and sometimes their contrasts – and makes for a collection that can be read both as a unity and as something to dip in and out of for specific stories.

I’m not going to discuss all of the stories in this collection – many of the award-winning ones are already much-discussed – but I do want to highlight as particularly noteworthy three that haven’t won awards. Two of them are the novelettes set in the Dominion of the Fallen universe: “Children of Thorns, Children of Water”, and “Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness”. Let me be upfront: they’re my favourite stories in the collection, and that’s almost certainly down to the fact that each of them focuses on one of my favourite characters from the novels.

“Children of Thorns, Children of Water” is a story about dragon prince Thuan and his initiation into House Hawthorn. It combines a high-stakes cooking competition with extremely creepy magic and politics. De Bodard combines her talent for worldbuilding and atmosphere with her deft skill at creating relatable characters, to offer a very satisfying read that stands alone and doesn’t require knowledge of the novels.

“Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness” is a novelette that probably makes more sense if you’ve already read The House of Shattered Wings, and it’s certainly enriched by a level of familiarity with the characters and the world. It stars Emmanuelle, first introduced in The House of Shattered Wings as the lover of Selene, head of House Silverspires, as she tries to organise a birthday celebration for her lover. House Silverspires has been seriously weakened by the events of Shattered Wings, and the birthday party of its leader is a political event. Politics, magic, conspiracies, and an extremely weird fungus combine to frazzle Emmanuelle and threaten the lives of Silverspires’ dependents. It’s much more fun and fluffy than the rest of de Bodard’s stories in this collection (even when it has its dark points), making it both enormously entertaining and perfectly placed as the collection’s concluding story: it’s good to go out on a note of eucatastrophe.

I said I wanted to highlight three stories. The third is “A Salvaging of Ghosts”, set in the Xuya universe, which is a brief, glittering story about attachment, obsession, grief, and the loss of a child. It’s deftly done and very affecting, and I recommend it to your attention.

I don’t read a great deal of short fiction, but as a collection, de Bodard’s Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight works beautifully for me. I recommend it highly.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

This review and more like it in the November 2019 issue of Locus.

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