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Neil Gaiman – Unnatural Creatures

June 10, 2013

41. Unnatural Creatures edited by Neil Gaiman with Maria Dahvana Headley (2013)

Length: 462 pages
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Short Story Anthology

Started: 23 May 2013
Finished: 27 May 2013

Where did it come from? From Harper for review.
Why do I have it? Oh, we all know that I am a total sucker for the YA fantasy short story anthology. And Gaiman! How could I resist?
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 11 March 2013.

Monsters, magic beasts,
and mythic creatures, rejoice!
This book is for you.

Overall Summary and Review: Unnatural Creatures is an anthology for those of us who love monsters, mythic beasts, and magical creatures. Many of the “typical” creatures – like werewolves, unicorns, and griffins – are present, but many of the other creatures are substantially further afield (and some creatures that you might expect to see represented, like dragons, are curiously absent.) The stories also cover a broad range, including classics from the late 1800s and early 1900s, stories by modern fantasy authors, and several stories that are published for the first time in this volume. Overall, I thought this was quite a strong anthology; there were a few pieces I didn’t like as much as others, but no real duds, and the blend of older and newer stories made for an interesting variety, with a few really stand-out pieces. 4 out of 5 stars.

Individual Summaries and Reviews:
gahan-wilson-short-story-title by Gahan Wilson is the story of an inkblot that appears out of nowhere, and moves – and grows – when you take your eyes off of it. This was a fun story, but would I have found it as compelling and creepy if I wasn’t already familiar with the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who? Probably not.

“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu is, as the title suggests, a story of what happens when some very intelligent wasps need to move their colony. While I like any story that involves this much (accurate) biology, this one didn’t grab me.

“The Griffin and the Minor Canon” by Frank R. Stockton is a story about a terrifying griffin who comes to town to see his likeness where it has been carved into the church, and the local clergyman who is sent to deal with it. Like most of the classic stories in this collection, this one reads easily and surprisingly modernly, and although the moral of the story is maybe laid out a little baldly, I still really enjoyed it.

“Ozioma the Wicked” by Nnedi Okorafor is about a girl who can talk to snakes, and is feared and hated by everyone in her village, until the day that a monstrous snake comes to town. An interesting contrast to the previous story, both involving the only person who can speak to the monster that’s come to town.

“Sunbird” by Neil Gaiman is the story of the Epicurean Club, the members of which have just about run out of strange and exotic creatures to eat… except the mythical Sunbird. I’d read this story before (twice! – here and here), so it’s lost some of its shine, but even on repeated exposure, it remains a very clever idea.

“The Sage of Theare” by Diana Wynne Jones is a story about a prophecy concerning the birth of the sage of dissolution, and the gods’ attempts to avert destiny. Every time I read DWJ’s work, I’m reminded that I need to read more of her work. This story was good but it felt like there was a larger context (I believe it’s set in the Chrestomanci universe?) that I just wasn’t getting.

“Gabriel-Ernst” by Saki is a story about a werewolf, and a strange young boy encountered in the woods. Short, but one of the more effectively creepy creatures in the collection.

“The Cockatoucan; or, Great-Aunt Willoughby” by E. Nesbit involves a young girl who takes the wrong bus, and winds up in a land where nothing is as it seems, and things can change at a moment’s notice. This story was one of the less-modern-feeling “classics” in the collection; it felt a lot more like an old fairy tale (it reminded me a lot of The Princess and the Goblin, actually). But it was charming and fun nevertheless.

“Moveable Beast” by Maria Dahvana Headley is the story of a girl in a strange town, a town that surrounds a forest, and what happens when a Beast Hunter comes to town. I liked the central concept of this story a lot, but it felt somewhat unpolished, and like the author was trying too hard to make it edgy.

“The Flight of the Horse” by Larry Niven involves a man who is sent back in time to capture a horse – which are long since extinct – as a present for his ruler. The central conceit – that “hey, the history books didn’t show horses with that weird poky thing on their forehead but oh well” – is pretty obvious from the get-go, but this story made me laugh regardless. Plus I do love me some good time-travel fiction.

In “Prismatica” by Samuel R. Delany, a man is hounded into participating in a quest for three broken pieces of a mirror that will free a trapped princess, but the quest might not be for the noblest ends. This story had a lot of disparate elements, and although each of them was interesting, it wound up feeling kind of disjointed.

“The Manticore, the Mermaid, and Me” by Megan Kurashige involves siblings, a museum, and a little magic. I thought this story was interesting when I read it, but it wasn’t really substantial enough to have left much of an impression.

“The Compleat Werewolf” by Anthony Boucher is the story of a professor who, at a low point in his life, encounters a strange man at a bar who claims to be magician, and tells our protagonist that he is a werewolf who can change form at will. Which is all well and good, but who can he trust enough with his secret to change him back? This story was originally published in the 1940s, but on the whole it felt very fresh, although with sort of a throwback-y noir feeling in parts. It’s also the longest story in the book, but it read very quickly.

“The Smile on the Face” by Nalo Hopkinson was one of my favorite stories in this collection. It involves an insecure young woman, a cherry pit, dryads, saints, and some unexpected happenings at a party. The language is beautiful, the characters are very relatable, and the story as a whole was just awesome.

“Or all the Seas with Oysters” by Avram Davidson is the story of a bicycle shop owner who is convinced that the new racing bike in his store is not actually a bike… and where did all of those coat hangers come from? I couldn’t decide if this was a funny story that was secretly really creepy, or a creepy story that was subtly very funny. Very interesting and original, though, and either way, I really enjoyed it.

I’ve actually read – or rather listened to – “Come Lady Death” by Peter S. Beagle before (here). A highborn London lady always strives to throw the best parties, so finally she invites the one most famous guest that no one else would think to invite: Death. My opinion hasn’t changed since the first time: excellent historical fantasy, well-written and well-plotted and left me wanting more. Also, I thought the first time about how Death will always be the Sandman Death for me, so I wonder how Gaiman thought about including this story in his collection.

Recommendation: Gaiman and Headley did a very nice job of bring together old and new into a compilation that is going to appeal to lovers of magical creatures of all ages.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Couldn’t find any. Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: When I was a boy, the best place in the world was in London, a short walk from South Kensington Station.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 15: “The kris, an old war souvenir brought in the house by Archer’s grandfather, was fixed to its display panel by a complicatedly woven arrangement of wires, and it took Sir Harry and Archer a good two minutes to get it free.” – A Malayan dagger with a wavy double-edged blade.
  • p. 77: “His great-grandfather had founded the Epicurean Club with the proceeds of a tontine which he had taken great pains, in the traditional manner, to ensure that he had collected in full.” – An investment plan in which participants buy shares in a common fund and receive an annuity that increases every time a participant dies, with the entire fund going to the final survivor or to those who survive after a specified time.
  • p. 95: “Nobody would play backgammon with her any longer, and her purse bulged with grubby piasters.” – a monetary unit of Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan, and Syria, equal to 1/100 of a pound.
  • p. 172: ““That bird would laugh it if were fed on dog biscuits and senna tea.”” – The dried leaves of Cassia angustifolia or C. acutifolia, used medicinally as a laxative.
  • p. 315: “Oxymandias calmly reached his hand into the air and plucked a coin. He looked at it ruefully. It was a gold moidore.” – A former Portuguese or Brazilian gold coin that was also current in England in the early 18th century.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2013 9:04 am

    I’m not a fantasy person but this sounds like a good way for someone like me to dabble in it.

    • June 18, 2013 10:07 am

      Kathy – Sure! Especially since there’s the more classic stories – a lot of children’s stories from the late 1880s and early 1900s were fantasy-based.

  2. June 10, 2013 9:35 am

    I LOVE the sound of this book! I will have to add it to my TBR list!

  3. June 12, 2013 10:49 pm

    Never heard of this–sounds interesting! And impressive to find a short story collection with no real duds…

    The Griffin story sounds like a fascinating concept! I’ve read the Sage of Theare, and as I recall, it is part of Crestomanci (slightly). I highly recommend the rest of the series!

    • June 18, 2013 10:09 am

      Cheryl – I’ve really enjoyed the books of Diana Wynne Jones’s that I’ve read, and know that I need to read more, but for some reason I never seem to gravitate towards them when I’m looking for my next read. Time to fix that!

      • June 18, 2013 11:13 am

        For a long time, she was my go-to shelf whenever I couldn’t find anything interesting at the library. Read a lot that way…

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