A couple months ago, I met Mary Robinette Kowal at Writers with Drinks. And then she called my post amazingly detailed. I had received a compliment from the puppeteer/writer who brought us "Evil Robot Monkey"! So of course I decided to check out Scenting the Dark and Other Stories, her first book. It's a slim volume comprising eight short stories (some very short) in about seventy pages. I'll go story-by-story first. If there's a link, it means you can read it for free online!
"Portrait of Ari": Two artists, Tom & the titular Ari, pull an all-nighter. They start out a loving couple, but it's the middle and end that make it really interesting. I was impressed and surprised by the fact that I didn't actually need a lot of explanation for this story to be compelling. It just...is. It's quite unnerving. A-
"Death Comes But Twice": A man writes a letter to his wife because he is about to die. His friend has concocted an elixir that brings you back from the dead. How are these two statements related? Oh, this story is deliciously clever, and it is the standard by which I measured all other stories in this collection. A+
"Some Other Day": An interesting concept—what if an attempt to curb the mosquito population worked a little too well?—is paired with a rather mundane love story. I liked the main character, but the love interest was just a Love Interest. I was more interested in the mosquitoes. B-/B
"Just Right": A very short story about a family learning things about each other at breakfast. Unfortunately, what they learn about each other seems completely obvious from the start so the "payoff" kind of deflated an otherwise effectively tense scene. C+/B-
"Scenting the Dark": A blind interstellar parfumier and his seeing-eye dog must fend for themselves against some sort of alien creature. Kowal's use of non-visual sensory detail in this story is brilliant. This would be a really fun scary story to read to people in the dark. Um, if you could read in the dark. A-/A
"Locked In": The shortest story in the collection, clocking in at only three pages, it concerns a man with ALS who, after being unable to communicate with his family for years, unable to even let them know his mind is vibrant and alive, is given the ability to do just that with a new brain computer interface. It's an interesting conversation. B+/A-
"This Little Pig": In a land where cars are basically obsolete and everyone rides buses or bikes, Aage just wants a 1952 British Racing Green MG-TD. Also, this hot chick named Concetta. Every other review I've read names this the weakest story, but I rather enjoyed it. B+
"Jaiden's Weaver": On a ringed planet where Bottom Day is a holiday, Jaiden just wants a teddy bear spider. It's a very cute story. B+/A-
I really wanted to love every story as much as I loved "Death Comes But Twice," but the style and tone of that story was very different from anything else in the book. Kowal's MO appears to be to come up with really cool sci-fi/fantasy concepts but relegate them to the background, instead focusing on the characters, who may be engaging in decidedly normal activities. It wasn't what I was expecting, even though it was done well and the characters felt real. I'm not used to that sort of storytelling; the sci-fi and fantasy stories I've read generally make judicious use of their SFF backdrops. But, of course, there's "All Summer in a Day," which is a story that sticks with you years after reading it, and Kowal's technique is similar to Bradbury's in that aspect. It doesn't matter what makes the gizmo work. It doesn't matter why these creatures exist. The genre trappings are not the point. The people and emotions are the point.
After each story is a postnote that gives a little background on the story and how it came to be. I loved these! Like Neil Gaiman's introduction to Smoke and Mirrors, they provided a lot of valuable insight into both the stories and the writing process. They made me feel bad for not loving a story since it was clear she loved them all in their own ways. I wish all short story collections had these, though. I love hearing short story origin stories!
Now, I look forward to her first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, which comes out in August. It's Jane Austen with magic! There may or may not be glamurai.