I was excited to read this collection: while my reading in general is quite diverse, my fantasy reading isn’t so much (there are far fewer options), so this book seemed like a great chance to discover new authors. Also, I love historical fantasy. But as it turned out, while most stories in the collection are well-written in a technical sense, I didn’t enjoy them. After taking more than a month to struggle through the first 13 (out of 27), I skipped ahead to read 3 more by well-known authors or that got especially high marks from reviewers. That will be all for me.
The first thing potential readers should know about this anthology is that “Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History” doesn’t simply mean, as I'd hoped, that it’s a collection of stories with settings rarely featured in English-language fiction. In fact, 10 of the stories are set in the U.S., and two more in Canada. Instead, it features characters marginalized within their own societies – whether they’re escaped slaves, orphans raised as servants in brothels, or transgender immigrants – and the stories are all about marginalization and oppression. As such, they’re unrelentingly grim, with a remarkably similar tone throughout. Almost all feature the death of a major character – be they only 8 pages long – not infrequently the protagonist. Most involve war or rebellion, from the perspective of a character who’s powerless.
In other words, this collection embodies what many who only read white men wrongly assume diverse fiction (particularly by authors of color) is like: grim, tragic, message-driven works about oppression that seem more like taking your medicine than enjoyable reading. Very few novels are actually like that (a novel has the space to develop many ideas and experiences), but the compressed format of a short story – especially with many talented but inexperienced authors writing on a single theme – lends itself to one-note works.
The inexperience of the authors is worth addressing, because after awhile I noticed that the stories by established authors (Sofia Samatar, Tananarive Due) were more memorable and interesting than the others. Of the 27, only 6 had published novels at the time of their inclusion in this collection (7 if you count one whose novels were co-written). Yes, short fiction is a way for new authors to break in, but the unusual preponderance of less experienced writers may explain why so many of the stories feel so similar, despite being technically proficient: the authors hadn’t yet established their voices and stuck closely to the prompt instead.
However, it is worth noting that with few exceptions, the stories are quite well-written, and their breadth in terms of location and character diversity is certainly encouraging. There are such great ideas here that I'm sorry not to have enjoyed it. It is overall a promising group of authors, and some of my negative reaction is likely based on publishing decisions beyond their control. Multi-author anthologies tend to be rocky reading generally, since one can never settle in to a particular style or group of characters. And the formatting, with large pages covered in text and very narrow margins, tends to make the stories feel dense even when they aren’t. I wouldn’t rule out any authors based on this anthology, and I hope they will go on to publish novels with equally diverse settings and characters, but also with some room for lightness and fun. As for this collection, I'm glad many have loved it, but it's not one I'll recommend to friends – especially those I’m trying to expose to more diverse works.