I’ve never really done a full anthology review before and truth told, I’m feeling a little unsure how to do it. Mini-reviews of each story? A general overview? Something in between?
I suppose the best place to start is what Distaff is (even if there’s been plenty of words here on this blog about it). It’s all Sci-Fi, all written by female authors - and that’s about where the hard similarities finish. The majority of them have haunting, apocalyptic vibes, but some are sweet and humourous, like E.J. Tett’s Holo-Sweet and Kerry Buchanan’s Space Rocks. Some take place on a near future Earth, some in space, some on very different (or far future) planets - Jo Zebedee’s ambitious We Are The Shadows has two of those in a split time-line story. And while they all have a feminine slant, not all of them have female leads; a few are written entirely or mostly from the angle of men, like Susan Boulton’s Ab Initio and Shellie Horst’s My Little Mecha, where a technician has to deal with malfunctioning security and his family at the same time.
Incidentally that story made me miss my train stop.
It’s not even my favourite story in there. That honour belongs to The Ice Man by Rosie Oliver which would make a fantastic novel in its own right. Or series of novels. Maybe even a movie. I think my favourite thing about the Scandi Noir movement is the way they use the cold sparse landscapes and distances to frame people as individuals, loosely connected to the whole and each with their own major flaws. The Ice Man nailed that feeling. Nailed. It.
But while I may have a favourite, there are no bad stories here. A lot of anthologies have me fast-forwarding at times - not here. Not once. If I had to look for a criticism, I’d say that a few stories didn’t quite stick their landings and give me the resolution I desired. None of those endings marred my enjoyment however as each story had already won me over.
Ultimately, where Distaff wins me over is that each story has its own individual feeling yet all of them felt like they belonged together. I have no rational explanation for that; just that there was a seamless fit that made reading the anthology very enjoyable. And I expect that I will dip in and out of this collection again over the years and test how that holds up.
Okay, couldn’t do this without individual story reviews:
The Broken Man by Jane O’Reilly - One of the slower and bleaker pieces in the anthology, it centres on post-apocalyptic scavenger Kiko and the risks she takes when she finds a man who’s fallen from the paradise above and builds to a deliciously dramatic and hopeful climax with its themes of Have and Have-Not.
Space Rocks by Kerry Buchanan - By turns tense and comedic, it plays off the horror trope of a space ship crew that realises it has an unwelcome passenger, and does a lot with those crew dynamics in a small space. I can easily imagine this as the start of something bigger.
The Ice Man by Rosie Oliver - Cool in just about every possible way, this neo-noir tracks a Swedish detective Soldis as she deals with a murder involving old friends, a secretive genius millionaire and the frailties of humanity. I must reiterate my demands that this be made into a movie.
A Cold Night in H3-II by Juliana Spink-Mills - I literally just got the pun there and feel stupid as, well, hell as a result. ANYWAY. This is the story of Meryn, one of the survivors on a failing colony. It has a horror-comedy vibe and while this is one of the stories where the ending didn’t quite get me, the creepiness and humour both really got me.
The Colour of Silence by Damaris Browne - There’s a lot happening here in this story about a devastating virus and how people cope with stress; the care with which we see the process of emotions that makes the latter makes the story feel slow, the scale and timeline on which we see the form makes it feel quick. A very neat piece of storytelling with a powerful end.
Holo-Sweet by E.J. Tett - Silver was a ship’s janitor, until she and the ship fell in love and she got promoted to ship-whisperer - but there’s complications. Holo-Sweet deals with those complications, and uses a light touch and jokes to deal with what’s quite a weighty topic. A lot of fun to read.
My Little Mecha by Shellie Horst - Stories that are full of mystery and family interactions hit my sweet spot; My Little Mecha is full of both and executes them both pretty spot on as technician Jared tries to make sense of malfunctioning security on Orbital Two. I was still somewhat confused by a few things by the end, but that just means Shellie Horst should write a follow-up story to it.
Ab Initio by Susan Boulton - A near future post-apocalyptic tale in which a survivor named Trent struggles to cope with the expectations of those around him. My favourite part of this story was how evocative it was; I felt like I could see all of it. That and the ending with its hint of redemption.
The Shadows Are Us And They Are The Shadows by Jo Zebedee - I don’t know if this was deliberately placed at the back because it has the strongest themes of renewal, but if it was, I thoroughly approve. It’s another of the slower, bleaker pieces with a powerful emotional ending full of hope, all about an attempt to survive a dying earth, and Jo pulls off the sense of panic one would feel facing the end.