Winter Shadows and Other Tales
by Mary Lee
Review Shoshana Kaminsky
Full disclosure: Mary is a good friend of mine. So now you know.
I loved reading this book. One reason I really appreciated it is that I have two very young children, and by the time I climb into bed, I have almost no power of concentration left. The longest of the twenty stories in this collection is ten pages, and most are under eight pages. Which means that even one whose brain has mostly leaked out after a day of sippy cups and poopy diapers can still read at least one satisfyingly-woven tale before bed.
What is surprising about these stories is not how short they are, but how complete. The characters are real, the settings are believable, and the plots are well-crafted. Mary draws from the tremendous variety of worlds that make up the fantasy genre, so that the reader is spun from a contemporary setting in one story to high fantasy in the next. Such short stories do not allow for long descriptions of the setting, but each story contains just enough choice details to give the reader a satisfying sense of place.
All of these stories are dark to a greater or lesser degree. There are some happy endings, but there are no unearned happy endings (or "easy grace" as we say in the religious field). Fantasy cliches are often turned on their heads in Mary's stories: the dragon slayer may well be ashamed of the work he does, and the handsome prince seeking a beautiful princess may discover that the process is more complex and treacherous than he had imagined. I enjoyed the stories that ended happily (I'm a sucker that way), but I was equally satisfied by some of the blackest tales in the book. My favorite was the dark, sinister "The Winter of the Rats" -- a retelling of the Fable of the Pied Piper of Hamelin with all of its pieces wonderfully brought to life: the rats, the townspeople, and - amost magically - the piper's music.
Another, very different story, that I enjoyed was "Conversation Pieces", about a woman trying to live a normal life in a rundown Boston apartment as the inanimate objects around her attempt to engage her in conversation. And then, there was the deliciously creepy "Roadside Stop" about a man just looking for a bite to eat in the middle of the night.
There were some stories I didn't care for as much. "Dragonslayer" was perhaps the one story in the collection whose plot and characters did not quite win me over. "Gift" to me lacked the life and excitment of the other stories, and I found the ending unsurprising. At the same time, I can easily imagine that someone whose tastes were different from mine would be pleased by those same tales I found a little disappointing.
I would love to see what Mary could accomplish in longer stories. If she can achieve this degree of depth in stories of 3000 words or less, just think what she could do in 7000 words, or 10,000, or even 20,000! In the meantime, her anthology of science fiction stories will be published shortly, by Dark Regions as well. I'll look forward to diving in!
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