A collection of short stories all written by one person is a bit of a risky endeavor. If the writer isn’t really good, after a while all the stories start to sound the same, or share the same themes or the same flaws. It takes a good writer, like Jane Yolen, to take a collection of stories written over a period of years and turn it into a delight like The Emerald Circus. When you consider how many of the stories in this book are based on famous works of literature we’re all fairly familiar with, her achievement is all the more impressive.
It does help if you’re a fan of Alice in Wonderland, or the stories of King Arthur, because she takes several stories from those worlds. If you’re a fan of The Wizard of Oz or of Peter Pan, or even if you aren’t, you’ll find her takes on those works to be interesting and quirky.
I personally loved “Lost Girls,” a story set in the world of Peter Pan in which Darla, a modern girl whose mother is a lawyer and who doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone, leads the other Wendys to assert their own rights to adventure and to have the Lost Boys clean up their own messes (one of the things I liked about this story, other than the pirates, who were wonderful, was the vision of Peter Pan himself; I’m kind of partial to versions of Peter Pan which don’t see him as a wonderful innocent).
In my opinion, the best of the Alice in Wonderland themed stories was “Tough Alice”. Here, Alice frequently finds herself in Wonderland, but always has to deal with the dangerous Jabberwock, until this particular time when she figures out how to defeat the monster. Clearly Jane Yolen has a feel for the characters of Wonderland, including the Beamish Boy (from the poem “Jabberwocky”) and the various queens, and her sly sense of humor really works here.
Poignantly, she portrays Lancelot of King Arthur’s Camelot as a monk seeking Guinevere’s bones to ask her forgiveness for the way he treated her (and Arthur) in the story “The Quiet Monk.” She incorporates a real archaeological discovery in Glastonbury into the story, and allows a younger monk (who idolizes Lancelot even before he realizes who this new monk actually is) to be the point of view character.
One of the longer stories in the collection is called “Evian Steel,” and it’s a sort of prequel to the Arthurian legend, explaining (in a way) the creation of the famous Excalibur and how the Lady of the Lake came to have it for him. While I was personally delighted to recognize some of the characters from the legends (not that I particularly liked all the portrayals, especially not her concept of Morgan le Fay), the best thing about the story is the world she creates, an island where women live and men are forbidden, and the swords they make are made powerful by the blood of their creators.
Her version of The Wizard of Oz is called “Blown Away,” and is told by one of the men working on Uncle Henry’s farm. It’s both realistic and fantastic, and while there’s no Oz per se, Dorothy does get blown away into another life, another world, and discovers her true self there, returning to the farm only long enough to illuminate the lives of the people she left behind.
She also takes on real life characters, mostly writers, in her stories, starting with Hans Christian Andersen and continuing with Edgar Allan Poe (not her best story in the collection, in my opinion), and Emily Dickinson (in an award winning story that manages to capture not only Dickinson’s unique vision of the world but even the way she used language), and putting them in different settings to imagine what might have made them what they were.
Of course, not all the stories work or are equally good. I could have done without the Beauty and the Beast/Gift of the Magi mashup, and a take on Red Riding Hood just didn’t do much for me, but this is to be expected in a collection of stories. Some will work better than others, some will be more fun than others, and even the ones I wasn’t thrilled with were well-written.
If you don’t have a lot of time to devote to a book, if you’re a fan of short stories in general, or if you’ve got a taste for fantasy with a feminist twist, then by all means check out The Emerald Circus.