Tuesday, August 23, 2016

ON THE TWELFTH NIGHT, a blazingly creative finish to Monstrous Little Voices

(Monstrous Little Voices #5)
Abaddon Books
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Anne Hathaway – contented wife of a glovemaker and aletaster, proud mother of three – has her life turned upside down when strangers, oddly familiar, come to her door and whisk her husband away. What is their business, this terrible danger they say we all face? What is the lattice, and what part must her Will play to save it?

Monstrous Little Voices is a collection of five short novellas, a single long tale set in Shakespeare’s fantasy world of fairies, wizards and potions, in honour of the four-hundredth anniversary of the Bard’s death.

My Review: Imagine yourself in Jonathan Barnes's shoes: you're invited to participate in making an anthology of prose extensions and reimaginings of playwright William Shakespeare's retronymed Tuscan Wars fantasy universe. The editors are hotshots. The publishing house is terminally cool. This sugar/adrenaline bolus would lead any writer to need immediate doses of Ritalin and insulin. Then comes the dose of ricin, the silver hammer this collective Maxwell brings down on your head:

You're wrapping the main narrative thrust that four gifted and talented other authors shaped and directed into a satisfying conclusion, and you're doing it as a response to Twelfth Night.

Holy shitsnacks. *I* can feel writer's block coming on out of sheer terror.

In my review of Adrian Tchaikovsky's EVEN IN THE CANNON'S MOUTH, I called attention to Helena's description of a "place between the pages of the world's book," as a central factor in making all five of these novellas make sense (something modern audiences insist on, silly buggers) as a universe. Clearly I don't know if that conceit is original to Mr. T or if it was part and parcel of the pitch to the authors. I therefore claim no special knowledge of the origins of "the lattice" either. The two conceits seem to me to be different points of view on the same underlying reality. Whoever thought this up, however it was disseminated to the writers, it is a piece of bloody brilliance that knits up many raveled places in Shakespeare's own fictional playhouse-cum-universe. It is, in fact, a small bell-ringer for me as part of the explanation of Shakespeare's troubling and sudden blooming into a major talent from humble, nay untermensch dimensions lowly, beginnings.

And Jonathan Barnes plays it for all it is worth by describing it from the standpoint of the most innocent imaginable bystander: abandoned wife Anne Shakespeare. Oh my, how bold and perceptive a narrative choice. Anne is always, in every imaginable way, the unwinner of every iteration of Shakespeare's fame. Read Robert Nye's take on her, MRS. SHAKESPEARE: The Complete Works. Her fictional memoir is as affecting in its portrayal of a loud, vibrant, lively fun-loving woman as Barnes's is in portraying Anne as a passionate woman in love with a restless man. Both takes, along with so many others written over the course of centuries, require Anne to sacrifice herself to Will's outsized persona.

Only in this novella, an entire playwright's canon of pathos is loaded onto Mrs. Shakespeare's broad shoulders:
Afterwards, they went inside and they sat by the fire and they talked of the life that was left to them, and for a little while, they thought not of the past at all, but only of the future.

EVEN IN THE CANNON'S MOUTH, fourth novella in Monstrous Little Voices and a follow-on tale to Shakespeare's As You Like It

(Monstrous Little Voices #4)
Abaddon Books
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Illyria’s Duke Orsino has raised new, powerful allies, and in a last-ditch attempt to win the war, Don Pedro and his brother John, wise old Jacques and the physician Helena sail to Milan to appeal in person for the wizard Prospero’s aid. But unseasonal storms drive them onto the Illyrian shore, and into the hands of their enemies...

Monstrous Little Voices is a collection of five short novellas, a single long tale set in Shakespeare’s fantasy world of fairies, wizards and potions, in honour of the four-hundredth anniversary of the Bard’s death.

My Review: Thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis close to being my tippy-top very-best favorite in the collection! It is not because of any lack or failing that Tchaikovsky's entry comes in at 0.999999999999 of 1 in my affections, it is the happenstance of placement. This fourth of five novellas takes on As You Like It, a dear favorite play of mine; but the tale does so very near the close of the collection's business, and so is constrained to bring major thematic strands together while working within the conceit established for the whole endeavor.

A lesser writer would be sunk by meeting these rigorous demands. Tchaikovsky makes doing so look effortless and makes his audience chortle, snicker, giggle, and all while mopping away strange bits of moisture from the corner of the eye. No idea where those came from. But here's the rub for me: I sense that there was a lot, nay a plethora, of material that Tchaikovsky whipped in to the crème Chantilly that is Even in the Cannon's Mouth and was compelled to jettison it to serve his multiple masters.

I realize I could be completely wrong, Tchaikovsky isn't an intimate of mine and doesn't confide his secrets to me; but read this:
"You are most kind," Viola spoke over him. "And pray, will you not join us, who has such respect for learning?"
They passed some moments exchanging compliments, then sent the noble Spaniard off for more mugs, consigning him to the seven-deep scrum about the tapster. Viola let Feste ramble, watching the two foreigners try to follow his baffling loops of logic. At last she said, "Aye, we two are belike the foremost men of learning in all Illyria, and yet you see how fortune treats us! I myself have converse with angels and airy spirits most nights, and have studied with no lesser man than Doctor Dee, while Father Topaz has honed his craft in the invisible college of Verrucoporcus and conjured the stone philosophical. It has been many a cold week since last a stranger showed kindness to two poor scholars such as we."
This grace note off the mash-up within pastiche inside hommage shows the attentive reader just how much pruning must have gone into keeping this novella a novella and not a stonking tome. (Saint Quinculencus? HA!) A mind this well furnished and a spirit this inclined to playfulness must be severely disciplined to keep things concise.

The form Tchaikovsky uses to frame his tale is also an aid in this task. Acts and scenes and stage directions function as a corset does in assisting the costume to cover more fleshed-out bones than it could otherwise. They're in the spirit of the Bard, they're familiar to the audience likely to pick up the book, and they're practical. It isn't a small feat to understand all that and use it so seamlessly for all those purposes that the typical reader passes them all by unthinking.

These passages reveal the immense and demanding task behind the seemingly effortless storytelling going on in the foreground:
"We are between the pages of the world's book. Each scene and moment of our lives is pieced together in this space before it's served to us. We are where none of us was meant to be."
May I just say YES to this? And:
Parolles was still at his fictional Battle of Lepanto. Already he had travelled on a cannonball and hauled himself out of the water by his own hair. Each listener had tried to challenge the lie--Orsino, Don John, and Sir Toby among them--and each challenge he slew, and then piled up the bodies to reach even greater heights of the absurd. Where his words might have taken him, when the newcomers broke in, was past all guessing. Some men, when given rope, refuse to hang themselves but weave a ladder to the moon.
Aside from the humor and the dignity of the passage on its surface, there is in concert with the passage above a deep structural function to those ideas expressed. This becomes more obvious when the book has been consumed whole. But there is something, some gravitic effect like dark matter, that pulls the reader towards these moments and carves their importance on the awareness paid into any work of fiction.

Yet all without any sense of didactic purpose or clanking of barely invisible plot machinery. That, my friends, is the best quality of writing going today.

Monday, August 22, 2016

THE UNKINDEST CUT, Macbeth immortal, The Tempest family dysfunction, and Julius Caesar with the gender roles swapped in true William Shakespeare-meets-21st century fashion

(Monstrous Little Voices #3)
Abaddon Books
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Lucia de Medici sought only to marry, ending a war that has engulfed all the world from Navarre to Istanbul; but she has been lied to, and made into an assassin. Now, armed with new knowledge and accompanied by the ghost of her victim, she sets out to find who so deceived her, and to what end, and to try and restore the damage done.

Monstrous Little Voices is a collection of five short novellas, a single long tale set in Shakespeare’s fantasy world of fairies, wizards and potions, in honour of the four-hundredth anniversary of the Bard’s death.

My Review: Have the hankies ready. There is a reason Meadows is known for dark fiction. This is a supremely clever narrative conceit, driven by the fact that even the smartest and most experienced practitioner of an occult art can fall over human frailties like motherhood, misplaced trust, the need to fix people, places, things.
Her mother's face was pale in the lantern light. She looked tired, and older than Lucia liked to think she was. The deep red velvet of her cloak made her look ill in contrast. "Dear heart, I have always told you the truth. I cannot tell you because I cannot see it."
"Have you lost your gift?"
"You can see the future for others, then, still?"
Her mother's sigh was one of a woman tired beyond words. "Sweet child, rest now."
Unquestioning faith meets unshareable burden. I'm familiar with that.

As burdens go, parenthood's the heaviest imaginable to most mortals. Add in the unfathomable weight of governance. Then top it all with a "Gift" of supernatural power. No wonder la chère Madame sa mère sighs wordlessly. You would too. Adding yet more weight to the burdens Lucia and her mother must carry is the reason that the future must be scryed in the first place: Lucia's impending nuptials to Francesco de Medici will finally, once and for all, put an end to the Tuscan Wars that bedevil this fantasy Mediterranean and draw in the rest of the world, magical and mundane. If they can be brought to their successful conclusion.

So what constitutes success? Do forms have more value than substance? If forms are observed and goals attained by that measure, what cost exacted on the meat-puppets voids success?

Prospero, Duke of Milan, enters the stage with his cruel loss poisoning his never-sanguine personality and clouding his tiny remaining window onto human nature. Lucia's task is to remove him from the stage. Does she succeed in this task if, in accomplishing it, she uses a "One Ring to Rule Them All"-level evil artifact that in its use summons the violent, murderous immortal remains of Scottish King Macbeth to unleash his blood and horror onto the world Lucia's charged with saving?

In the end, the narrative noose that Newman draws about Lucia's neck is clear to the poor child. She has been used by forces far, far more powerful than it is safe for mortal beings to interact with.
Her face was wet and her throat raw. Everything seemed too dull, too slow to be real.
"Yours is not the face of love redeemed," Prospero said, not unkindly. "Take a moment to restore yourself. I fear you grasped that magic's nettle for longer than you should have."
Love redeemed? Love squished under the thundering hooves of the Universe's largest cavalry, yet left breathing and suffering. It is a sadist's delight, this tale. Lucia, standing in for the reader, makes the best decisions she can based on the best and most trustworthy information she has; that the information is unreliable and the decisions terrifyingly misinformed mean that we/she must now suffer the single most painful coming-of-age moment of them all:

You don't matter.

THE COURSE OF TRUE LOVE, a prose sequel novella to A Midsummer Night's Dream, the delicious comedic play written by William Shakespeare

(Monstrous Little Voices #2)
Abaddon Books
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Pomona, a gifted hedge-witch of advancing years in fair Illyria, is walking about her own business when she spies a fairy gentleman trapped in a secret garden. Vertumnus, King Oberon’s emissary to the Duke, has been taken captive by proud Titania, and a war is in the offing... unless Pomona can prevent it.

Monstrous Little Voices is a collection of five short novellas, a single long tale set in Shakespeare’s fantasy world of fairies, wizards and potions, in honour of the four-hundredth anniversary of the Bard’s death.

My Review: A moving, touching, lovely tale of love surprised. Heartfield creates, in Pomona and Vertumnus, a pair of seasoned travelers whose voyages on love's tides have left them on land and grimly content that it be, and remain, so. Neither, however, can resist a puzzle to solve, a clue to pick and unravel into a solution, so when Pomona accidentally sees into Vertumnus's walled prison yard-cum-garden and also through his enchanted appearance as an old hag, she cannot accept that her first vision is not the correct one and that her undignified descent into the enchanted courtyard is not showing her a lie when she sees Vertumnus's haggish countenance. The lie she knows her eyes tell her piques her curiosity, which once aroused is not to be stilled by the shrilling and shouting of tiny Queen Mab playing her role as jailer to the glamoured Vertumnus:
"And if you had seen this man, what of it?" squeaked Mab. "Why seek him with such ferocity? Whenever you think you glimpse a man, you charge toward the place he was last sighted and seek him behind any bush or tree? I advise you as a woman of some years myself: your fond chase will only make your quarry despise you more. Chase cattle, not men. You are, by your looks, not wealthy enough to atone for your wrinkles in the eyes of any man worth the hunting."
The woman set her lips together but said nothing. If she were a trap, sent here by Titania, she must have no awareness of it--or else she could play a part better than any mummer. She had wandered into this garden only to be taunted, to be called ugly and foolish by a bitter old gad-fly.
By Jove, he would prove the little harridan wrong if he were wearing his own appearance.
"You rere-mouse," he scoffed to Mab. "You speak of love as you would of farthest India, knowing nothing of either."
In response, she flew at him, her ghastly team stamping toward his nose. Without thinking, he caught her between his cupped palms for just a moment, but it was just long enough for Mab to work her magic on him. He screamed as pain spread from his feet upwards, all over his skin, and in his mind flashed a strange vision, so that for a moment he thought his prison was not a beautiful garden but a dank stone cell, smelling not of blossoms but of mould. ... Pomona put the book down on the bench and a hand on her hip. "Do not trouble the fairy, madam. She speaks the truth. I know full well I am no beauty. I do not seek a husband, here or anywhere. Show me the way out, then, I will trouble you no more. Where is the gate? I see none."
And so we have the traditional romantic beginning: meet cute, start by being antipathetic to each other, but unite in opposition to a third party. There's a reason that's an evergreen. It worked then as it works now. Get them juices flowin' and then let the underlying chemistry have its turn.

But wait, there's more! After all this novella is a follow-on to one of Shakespeare's most famous romantic comedies. We've already had mistaken identity, ensorcellment, a changeling child's fate revealed, immortality...what's next? Oh yeah! Ignition!
...he was never privy to Oberon's laughing whispers with Puck and his other councillors, and never invited to join the Hunt with the other favourites. He was always more than human but less than spirit.
If he were a true fairy, he would be gone now, off on the air like a sylph, vanished like first love. If he were a true fairy, perhaps--probably--Titania would not have been able to take away the powers she had given him so long ago.
Instead he was bound, and hurt, and limping behind this witch like a pig being led to market.
I don't know about women's feelings on the matter, but to me there is nothing sexier than a man under arrest and/or tied up. No wonder Pomona starts the cross-examination that, as always, elicits the startling details of the male love interest's past which are destined to warm her reluctant heart to him in his pitiable vulnerability. Heartsfield does not stint in assigning pitiability to Vertumnus! Changeling, outsider, neither fish nor fowl...well, what decent heroine could resist that?!

Not his rescuer, that's for sure:
"Truth is truth," she said. "Beneath, above, inward, outward."
"You say that, who saw me as a woman yesterday."
"And were you any different, when I saw you as something else than what you are? Would you have acted any differently than you had? You cannot seek your nature, you can only make it, moment by moment." ... "Then tell me, what is your nature, Pomona?"
"It is whatever I need it to be--or whatever the person paying me for my services needs it to be."
"So simple! But Rumi says the king knows not that he is a king when he sleeps, and the prisoner knows not that he is a prisoner. So what are we, then, when we are sleeping? When we are only ourselves, at night, naked and unoccupied?"
"Are you always unoccupied, then," she said, "when you are naked?"
That loud thud you just heard? Yeah, that was Pomona falling for Vertumnus. He's already fallen for her, his rescuer from Titania's cruel captivity. And now their world trembles because there is no enemy, human or faerie, who can stand against the certainty of mature people in love. It falls to the pair of them to avert the onset of still worse bloodshed in the Tuscan Wars, this imaginary seventeenth-century world war, as soon as they face down the wrath of faerie royalty.

Assuming they survive....

Sunday, August 21, 2016

CORAL BONES, being a prose sequel of sorts to The Tempest, the fine late play written by William Shakespeare

(Monstrous Little Voices #1)
Abaddon Books
99¢ Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Miranda, daughter to Prospero, the feared sorcerer-Duke of Milan, stifles in her new marriage. Oppressed by her father, unloved by Ferdinand, she seeks freedom; and is granted it, when her childhood friend, the fairy spirit Ariel, returns. Miranda sets out to reach Queen Titania’s court in Illyria, to make a new future....

Monstrous Little Voices is a collection of five short novellas, a single long tale set in Shakespeare’s fantasy world of fairies, wizards and potions, in honour of the four-hundredth anniversary of the Bard’s death.

My Review: Probably my favorite of the five novellas. I love the conceit of Miranda finding the life of a wife, after a girlhood and youth free of conventional constraints though rife with unconventional unsavorinesses, to be boring, constrictive, and evoking in her a deep sense of ambivalent unhappiness. I suspect that many folks who jumped from the frying pan of youth into the open fire of adulthood will relate to Miranda's plight and wish for her good fortune in discovering an escape route.

One of Meadows's sinewy strengths is in smithing beautiful, enduring phrases from Shakespeare's native tongue:
Ariel's cure is a nostrum that tastes of moss and sunsets, scratching my throat like swallowed earth. It sits in the core of me like ice, a steady coolth radiating outwards, soothing my fever; soothing me. I stare at the painted angels overhead and wonder how unlike them I must be, that I can leave my father and husband to think me dead.
Words, ordinary words that you and I use every day, seemingly effortlessly placed in a shimmeringly lovely arabesque; the mighty effort it took to bend the armature of thought the words bedizen is unobtrusive. Meadows makes the struggle look easy. That is talent coupled with an iron will and work ethic.

A trend in modern fantasy writing that I find very agreeable is the presentation of faery creatures as truly other, not either Goody Goody or Evil Wicked Mean and Nasty as was the case for so long:
Puck laughs, warm and pealing. "Your concern is touching, but deeply unnecessary. Did Ariel not tell you, child? I'm a trickster, and though my enemies try as they might, it's tricky to trick a trickster with even the trickiest trickeries. And in any case, should anyone try to trick me"--his smile turns vulpine, sharper even than his teeth--"they must do so in the knowledge that I'll trick back."
"A boastful thing, aren't you?"
"Modesty is for saints, which I most certainly am not."
"Indeed? You shock me, sir!"
"Excellent! I do so love to be shocking."
The words flow like cold spring water, deceptive in limpid clarity, hiding a swift current and slippery rocks ready to lift one's feet from their footings and dump the inattentive into an icy bath of surprise: teeth, wits, mind, morals, all are sharp instruments to this ancient, soulless trickster.

I believe that Meadows has speared the wriggling fish of The Tempest's--indeed perhaps all of Shakespeare's works's--essential message, alluded to but never declaimed outright, in this long speech Miran-Miranda (you'll see what this means when you read the novella) makes to Puck as they travel away from Ferdinand and Prospero and the rest of the ordinary (!) world, together:
I am--I know I am new to desire, and all my husband taught me was that wanting should be his province alone, with granting those wants my chore. Certainly, I envied him the decision, but it was not--is not--the whole of it. On the island, there was hardly need to think of myself as girl or woman, except inasmuch as my father told me to, for I had no real source of comparison. Caliban was inhuman, my father defined himself as a sorcerer more than as a mere man, and Ariel could be anything she pleased. But then there was Ferdinand, and for his sake--and for my ease--I took the role I'd been told to take, but though I tried to obey, it was...I wish I could say it was just the skirts, that I chafed only at the expectation of manners, but it wasn't that, Puck, it was language, the words, the feel of them. I never knew words could be so sharp, until the wrong ones cut me. But they weren't always wrong, that's the worst of it; some days I revelled in being called a lady, but then the day would pass, the sun would rise and fall again, and the same name felt like a collar, bringing me to heel; or else a corset, squeezing me into wrongish shapes for the adoration of strangers.
But are they wrong? I still don't know. But, oh, I wish--I wish--I could change as Ariel does, that flicker-flash between girl and man; I wish my form could be all the forms my heart desires! The moon has phases, does it not? We call it full and half and harvest, but through its wax and wane, it remains the moon, and we love it no less--must I be any different? I must not, for I am not. My heart is a moon, and some days I am full and bright within myself, a shape that fits my name, and then I fade, and mirrors show only a half-light shared with a silhouette, an absence my form reflects; and then, in the dark, I am dark altogether, until I regrow again. Why should such a thing be any more difficult to grasp than the fact that some think me dead, and yet I live? The contradiction is only in their perception of what I am; and though killing me would perhaps solve it to their satisfaction, it would not undo the truth of me.
I am struck speechless. I can only say to this eloquent outpouring, "Yes, Foz, yes. You got it. You get it."

My weekly column, MY READING LIFE, is live now

This week's rant is "Authors, Publishers, Reviews, and Amazon" at this link: http://tinyurl.com/j3nlnku

I got steamed about this today because I'm very tired of being regarded as a creator's audience and asked, more or less peremptorily, to promote the creator's work in the exact and precise way that creator wants it to be done. I review books and movies and suchlike because I want to; because I love them, love the medium, love that sharing my enthusiasm or lack thereof can help a reader find or avoid something that they wouldn't have found or avoided on their own.

This rant is my response. Yes, it requires that you click on a link to read it; if that's too much trouble, by all means don't. Just don't say anything to me about it, since the idea that a mouseclick is an imposition on you doesn't say good things about you to me.

MONSTROUS LITTLE VOICES, a beautiful-looking and beautifully conceived and executed anthology of Shakespearean fanfic

MONSTROUS LITTLE VOICES: New Tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World
Afterword by Dr. John Lavagnino
Abaddon Books
$9.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Mischief, Magic, Love and War.

It is the Year of Our Lord 1601. The Tuscan War rages across the world, and every lord from Navarre to Illyria is embroiled in the fray. Cannon roar, pikemen clash, and witches stalk the night; even the fairy courts stand on the verge of chaos.

Five stories come together at the end of the war: that of bold Miranda and sly Puck; of wise Pomona and her prisoner Vertumnus; of gentle Lucia and the shade of Prospero; of noble Don Pedro and powerful Helena; and of Anne, a glovemaker’s wife. On these lovers and heroes the world itself may depend.

These are the stories Shakespeare never told. Five of the most exciting names in genre fiction today – Jonathan Barnes, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Emma Newman, Foz Meadows and Kate Heartfield – delve into the world the poet created to weave together a story of courage, transformation and magic.

Including an afterword by Dr. John Lavagnino, The London Shakespeare Centre, King's College London.


My Review: I hereby make an Executive Decision to promote the works of fiction in this collection from stories, as the publisher describes them above, to novellas. Considered in terms of length, I think that's justified, if only barely; it's the depth of storytelling and the complexity of the interrelationships that lifts the tales out of storydom. Admittedly the authors each had a tremendous boost out of the story ghetto by working within the Shakespeare-verse. This has saved a tremendous amount of worldbuilding effort on their part as a certain level of background familiarity can reasonably be expected of readers attracted to the tales. The problems that come with working inside a set of conventions and premises not of one's own creation aren't to be minimized. Honoring the unknowable intent of the original creator, going with or against the tide of the original creator's fan-base's fixed ideas and assumptions about same, while avoiding the artistic death-spiral of checking one's own creative impulse at the door is a feat of no small proportions. Bravo to each and all for navigating these shoals gracefully and successfully.

Equally graceful and successful is publisher Abaddon Books's cover and interior design. The use of period-sourced woodcuts as cover images and interior part-title pages is visually and intellectually pleasing. Woodcuts are shorthand for a rustic or home-made aesthetic, and the ones chosen for use here as well as on the covers of the individually published novellas are appropriately playful in nature. They all capture the spirit of the project whole and entire as well as illuminating certain aesthetic choices made within the illustrated novellas.

I'll review the novellas individually. The idea of the whole collection merits separate consideration.

And that right there, that little word "collection," is a big reason why the reviews of the parts are different from the whole. Is this a collection? Is it an anthology? I deliberated about that for some time. My love affair with Wikipedia's easily accessed and readily digestible information led me there first, where I found this indirect illumination of the distinction between an anthology and a collection:
Since publishers generally found anthology publication a more flexible medium than the collection of a single poet's work, and indeed rang innumerable changes on the idea as a way of marketing poetry, publication in an anthology (in the right company) became at times a sought-after form of recognition for poets. The self-definition of movements, dating back at least to Ezra Pound's efforts on behalf of Imagism, could be linked on one front to the production of an anthology of the like-minded. Also, whilst not connected with poetry, publishers have produced collective works of fiction from a number of authors and used the term anthology to describe the collective nature of the text.
(emphases added)
A collection, then, is a single-author sampling; an anthology has multiple authors. In the SF/F field there exists a long tradition of themed anthologies from Groff Conklin's many forays beginning in the 1950s all the way through 2016 Hugo-winner Ellen Datlow (for Best Editor, Short Form), and I'm confident that the form will continue into the foreseeable future.

I'll call this book a themed anthology. Its shared premise is that the Mediterranean world of Shakespeare's invention, in which he set many stand-alone comedies and dramas, was deliberately created by Shakespeare as an exercise in worldbuilding. While the modern concept of worldbuilding didn't appear until 1820, we attribute so many powers of prescience and invention to him that this latest one doesn't stretch his legend unduly. Five authors take a play or several plays from this loose grouping of works and, instead of retelling the source material, write prose sequels of sorts to the plays. I've seen several references to these novellas as Shakespearean "fanfic", but the amateurish clumsiness this mildly pejorative and deeply (if unfairly) dismissive term hauls as its baggage is insulting to the fine writers here included. It's factually accurate perhaps, but the connotations aren't.

A collection of Shakespearean "fanfic" is a terrific idea no matter what, one I hope we'll see more of, but this anthology came out tied to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Tying the publication of MONSTROUS LITTLE VOICES to such a cultural milestone is genius and I hope the advance sales were monster (which would aid the project in remaining on the backlist forever). If anyone should profit from the Bard of Avon's legend, I'd love it to be modern creative writers working the seams of precious coal he found to invent new and exciting ways to delight and warm us by the collective hearthfire. Fires need fuel. The hottest fires use the best fuel. What better fuel is there than that which comes from time-tested sources? Four hundred years of mining hasn't exhausted this source.

Digital Humanities scholar Dr. John Lavagnino contributed an Afterword to the anthology that provides a clear and concise overview of the aims, sources, and results of the project. It reads to me like a call to arms:
...Pericles returns to a plot resolution {Shakespeare had} used as early as The Comedy of Errors and found fascinating throughout his career: the astonishing reunion with those who seemed lost forever. That particular kind of wonder doesn't appear here, and indeed fits a play better than this book's new kind of exploration. Instead we get the richness of a fictional world that could continue rolling along forever, that could keep leading us to new places and startle us not by returning to our beginnings but by going on and on.
Aux armes (ou claviers), citoyens creatifs!