In The Underwater Ballroom Society, an anthology sprung what-if-ily from a Twitter discussion, Tiffany Trent and Stephanie Burgis have edited a book targeted most righteously to the naiads, nāgas, and merfolk among us. Eleven stories of splendiferous sub-lacunar spectacle await the invited… and we’re all invited! Put on your best fishing net dress, string yourself with drowned doubloons and deep-water pearls, and dive in!
I spent the last few months reading The Underwater Ballroom Society at my usual leisurely (read: snail’s) pace, often just before bed. This was a totally dreamy way to do it. Emphatically recommend! That subtle hour when the day’s grind meets hypnogogia, and you sink into a swoon of dank marble staircases and the ominous creaks of an enchanted glass ceiling under pressure…
But enough about my reading habits, let’s talk about the book! How can I neglect a single story of such a strong collection? I can’t and I won’t! So here I give you just a few… well, not spoilers, never that, but… spicers! Sea salt and ice chips and the merest hint of a hydrothermal vent!
Ysabeau S. Wilce: “The Queen of Life”
I mean, to quote DIRECTLY from the pages, this story was “a glorious time, full of glorious people.” I’ve been a slavering FOOL for Ysabeau S. Wilce’s fiction ever since discovering her in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in my early 20’s. I’ve read all of her books — even some of her current work-in-progress (*falls over*) — and from the first sentence of “The Queen of Life,” I was all the way in. That prose! It’s like stuffing your face with ice cream and bonbons, all while quaffing the Bailey’s, and you know there’s hellfire at the bottom of the bowl, but you also know it’s worth it!
What a tremendous cathedral bell CLANG of an opening for this anthology! A crossroads story. A rock and roll story. A story about a magnificent old woman (there aren’t enough tales featuring old woman heroes! More please!), and a story about Death. For it is a Faery story too, and everyone knows that Faery shares marchlands with Death’s domain. Beginning to end it called to me, “Come away, O human child!” And I away went.
Y. S. Lee: “Twelve Sisters”
I was just a short way into this when I had a pleasurable chill. “Why, Cooney,” I thought to myself, “this is two for two!” And by that, I meant, “TWO STORIES IN A ROW FILLED WITH STRONG WOMEN DOING AWESOME THINGS!”
I was always a sucker for Grimm’s “Twelve Dancing Princesses” fairy tale — and I am always up for a subversive retelling. Lee’s focus was on the sisters, who are survivors. Not in the sense of having survived trauma, but in the sense of surviving ongoing trauma. The arc of the story bends toward liberty; I couldn’t have been rooting harder for these women! Oh, but I’m thirsty for good sister stories. Every time I read a story that features sisters being good to each other, helping each other, facing formidable circumstances together in one united SISTER FRONT, then, no matter the outcome, I consider it a victory. I get all, I don’t know, GIDDY! I am super, super, super stoked to read EVERYTHING ELSE by Y. S. Lee. Like, beside myself. And the author’s note at the end (each story has one: LOVE THAT!) had me nodding fiercely.
Iona Datt Sharma: “Penhallow Amid Passing Things”
What I wanted–what I really, really wanted — was for this short story to be a part of a larger body of work. A novel, maybe. A whole series. AN EPIC! I kept thinking, “Surely these characters exist elsewhere!” They felt so FULL, so endowed with history and intent. I mean, listen:
“An austere figure, Trevelyan; a precise speaker; a born horsewoman; no home or hearth fire that anyone knows of. ‘Saltwater for blood’…”
And she’s not even PENHALLOW! Oh, PENHALLOW!!! That darling scofflaw! This is yet another — three for three! — story full of incredible female characters with whom I want to eat all kinds of seafood while cozily chatting about incantatory things! Surely, I thought, Sharma’s characters must make appearances elsewhere? Don’t they have people to evade, to seduce, to placate, magic to conjure, adventures to be getting on with!?
But, alas. I contacted the author — through Twitter? — and she sort of LOLed and said, “No, no. It’s just a short story.” Bah! BAH, I SAY! Thankfully, this is not the only piece of fiction she ever wrote. Must hunt down more. But if “Penhallow Amid Passing Things” WERE the only thing she wrote, I’d still want to lick it.
Tiffany Trent: “Mermaids, Singing”
Here we have Tiffany Trent, a good friend of mine. Hallo, Tiffany! She sends me honey from her hives and feeds me brunch on her beautiful back patio when I go visit her house. You cannot seriously expect me to give a measured, cool, calm review of her story.
CIRCUSES! SHAPE-SHIFTERS! SECRET PRINCES! WOLF QUEENS! MERMAIDS!
Now, all of these are very fine things and should of course induce you to go read the story RIGHT NOW, but I have to say, amidst all the spectacle and glamor, I really just liked Abby Chen an awful lot. And I liked her mother, Canton Kitty. And I liked their backstory. One sees a lot of Steampunk England and alternate Victoriana and London-is-the-Center-of-the-World-Ta-Da! in Fantasy, but you don’t often see a complex, diverse London. Here, Trent peeks into the Oriental Quarters, explores interracial marriage, and follows characters who have better things to do than swan around in bustles getting married. They’re too busy building bolt-holes for hideaways, and saving people from durance vile, and seeing new worlds open up right in front of them. Oops! Was that a spoiler?
Jenny Moss “A Brand New Thing”
This was a quieter story, and I welcomed it for that. The protagonist, Eve, views the world at a tilt from her family. The writing reflected that: angled long and slanting and enchantingly askew, like afternoon light falling into a parlor that is all white and black and rigidly maintained.
This story is like a slow awakening from a long sleep. It chronicles a series of small decisions (for example: going to bed in a stolen golden dress, cuddling an iron key, in the hopes that the statue of Neptune will open his secret door into the lake for you when you dream) that leads to the great big decision of what it means to grow up.
Sweet as they are, dreams are not enough. Even late-night nether-lake ballroom floor encounters are not enough. There is a world for Eve outside the pages of the life she knows. A world not just of violets but of roses — even though there is the possibility of thorns. Very satisfying.
Cassandra Khaw: “Four Revelations from the Rusalka Ball”
OMG I COULD JUST EAT KHAW’S PROSE. SLURPABLE, GNAWABLE, CHEWY, JUICY, BONE-IN PROSE, FINGERNAILS AND ALL! WHERE’S MY PIE SERVER?
Um, hi. Am fan. So. Yeah. What was I saying? Oh, yes? Rusalkas.
So, no, what I really want to say is that it doesn’t matter that this story was so short because you really just want to read every single line over and over again anyway. Out loud. It’s like a poem like that. It practically is a poem. Or, I mean, well. No, it is. Yes. A prose poem. That’s what I’d call it. Also a fever dream. A phantasmagoria. It’s… well, I want to say it’s flagrant, except that seems to have all kinds of negative connotations, and I mean it in the NICEST way possible.
That last line?
The hearts are always eaten at the end.
It’s the price of admission.
That’s also what the story does. She’s just SO! DANG! GOOD!
Stephanie Burgis: “Spellswept”
This was, I am both delighted and ashamed to say, my first Stephanie Burgis fiction ever. I think. Delighted because, YAY NEW AUTHOR MUST READ MORE, and ashamed because, WHAT HAVE I BEEN DOING WITH MY TIME TILL NOW???
I had the most astonishing feeling of coming home when reading this. Ah! I thought. Yes! This is what I like. It felt like books I’d devoured for pleasure ever since I was a teenager, or younger. Magic, society, siblings, love affairs, politics, ballrooms, proving yourself, subverting expectation, oh my!
(No, I mean, literally, I just went to Amazon and did that one-click-buy thing. This century, I tell ya!)
Laura Anne Gilman: “The River Always Wins”
I didn’t realize until AFTER I FINISHED this short story that Gilman had written it. I told you, I was reading at night. (Gimme the prose! Author revelations later!) But I was super-pleased and excited, because I’d read Silver on the Road sometime last year, or maybe the year before, and I’d been waiting–in the back of my mind — for the rest of The Devil’s West books to come out, and when I finished the short story, I realized THEY HAD! Bonus for me! Plus, must hie myself back to Amazon for that one-click…
Okay, but back to the story. Yeah, “The River Always Wins” is not at ALL like Silver on the Road — nor should it be! — so I’m not surprised I didn’t guess at the provenance right away, even if I hadn’t been reading late at night.
This story was like being plugged into another country’s wall socket without an appropriate adaptor. I think my hair stood on end. I had electricity in my TEETH. It was so PUNK! Such a gritty, sweaty, breathless, skull-pounding, adrenalin high of a short story. It made me feel claustrophobic. It made me feel like dancing. All in all, anything that can crush my lungs like that has my profound admiration. And now I must re-read Silver on the Road, and finish the series. Thank you for the reminder, dear Underwater Ballroom Society!
Shveta Thakrar: “The Amethyst Deceiver”
I believe it was Thakrar who, in early 2017, coined the phrase “Beautiful Resistance” as a way to talk about art and beauty as acts of defiance in dark times. I think every single story I’ve read of Thakrar’s falls under the category of “Beautiful Resistance.”
Heretofore, my experience of Shveta Thakrar’s fiction has been one of stained-glass colors, startling plumage, strong tastes, an immense and wild melancholy, and an intimate cast of characters — sometimes just one or two with any significant interaction.
In her story, “The Amethyst Deceiver,” the cast of characters has exploded, and she handles the crowded pages deftly and with solemn purpose. It is a story, ostensibly, of rescue. Here, again, are more fabulously mighty female characters, and another powerful lightning wallop of British ballroom expectations subverted.
Here is Thakrar examining, eviscerating, and reimagining all those tired Anglocentric fantasy tropes from her singular, post-colonial, Desi point of view. What I loved best about “The Amethyst Deceiver” was the evolving, surprising, increasingly complex relationship between the two siblings. Also, she works her mushroom metaphors beautifully.
Patrick Samphire: “A Spy in the Deep”
Two words for you: REGENCY MARS. Okay, I admit it, I’ve read a lot of Regency Romance novels. I blame my Mima for giving me my first Georgette Heyer novel when I was twelve. What’s better than a regency romance novel? A REGENCY MYSTERY SCI-FI SHORT STORY SET ON MARS! Wait till I tell my mother, whose life’s ambition is to go to Mars and start a hydroponic garden there!
As the title suggests, this is a spy story. Espionage! Undercover! Retrieve a package! Solve a murder! Clever teenager in dangerous situation! Bumbling adult accomplice!
Right from the beginning, there was a sense of continuing narrative (only this time! THIS TIME there really IS a continuing narrative! Apparently this story chronologically follows The Dinosaur Hunters — yet another REGENCY MARS SPY STORY from The Casebook of Harriet George, now with DINOSAURS!), of characters you already love, because it’s like you’ve already met them, even if you haven’t.
I quite enjoyed the frantic pace, the fumbling toward clarity, and the way nothing is ever quite easy for the protagonist, who feels that it ought to be, at least, easier. Since she’s a genius and all. But when the submarine-sized fecal matter hits the fan (or in this case, the glass ceiling of an underwater ballroom), our Harriet is ruthlessly efficient, in full command of herself, and ready to sacrifice all to save the most people she can. And her brother-in-law the Honorable Bertrand Simpson is just lovely! Super fun read — and a famous end to this anthology!
Thanks for reading, but you ain’t seen nothing yet! Getcher swoop on, and snatch up this antho ASAP! The Underwater Ballroom Society.