Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling edited by Jaym Gates and Monica Valentinelli. ★★★
Upside Down is a collection of short stories intended to subvert common tropes in storytelling and essays discussing trope usage. The vast majority of the collection is short stories, and wow are there a lot of stories. Like in any collection, there were stories that impressed me and stories that didn’t. However, on the whole I found the collection to be on the weaker side.
Going into the collection, I wasn’t aware of most of the contributing authors. I picked it up mainly for Delilah S. Dawson, Alyssa Wong, and Nisi Shawl. I found Shawl’s story to be all right if not exceptional, but I did love both Wong and Dawson’s work. Alyssa Wong took on Yellow Peril in her short story “The White Dragon,” about a girl with the ability to see curses. I loved how magic was described here! Alyssa Wong never disappoints. Dawson twisted First Period Panic in her story “The First Blood of Poppy Dupree,” creating an intriguing mix of Southern Gothic and Greek mythology.
There were other stories I enjoyed as well. Micheal Choi’s “Those Who Leaves” centers on the relationship between a girl, her mother, and the sea. He manages to make a heartrendingly beautiful story out of the Asian Scientist trope. In another #ownvoices story, “Seeking Truth,” Elsa Sjunneson-Henry tackles Blind People Are Magic in her tale of a blind criminal interrogator who always finds the truth.
Other stories had some interesting ideas at their heart. In “The Tangled Web,” Ferrett Steinmetz crafts a tale of a race of insect people where the males’ greatest desire is to find true love and be devoured by eggs a female lays in him. It was the strangest version of Love at First Sight I’ve ever encountered. “No Saint” by Alethea Kontis uses the trope of The Retired Pro’s “Last” Job, but the “pro” in this instance is none other than Santa Claus!
“Super Duper Fly” by Maurice Broaddus had a shaky start but ended up being a hilarious parody of the Magical Negro trope and The Green Mile. On the flip side, Michael Underwood’s “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Paprika Place?” was hands down the most depressing story of the collection. Yes, I know the ending’s optimistic, but still.
Other stories felt contrived or one note. Some of these it was clear what trope the author was using, others it wasn’t. Kat Richardson’s “Drafty as a Chainmaille Bikini” felt simplistic and didn’t add much new to criticisms of female characters in chain mail bikinis. I think it was intended to be funny, but it left me cold. Alex Shvartsman tries to work with all of epic fantasy in “Noun of Nouns: A Mini Epic,” but it never feels more than juvenile. And is epic fantasy even a trope? I think of it more as a genre. Another story that never felt more than surface level was “The Refrigerator in the Girlfriend” by Adam-Troy Castro. He never engages with the criticisms of Woman in the Refrigerator and does little more than flip the words to create an absurd scenario.
I found other stories more confusing in what tropes they were using, but there’s a section at the end of the book connecting each trope to each story. Rati Mehrotra attempts to take on Gendercide in “Real Women Are Dangerous,” but ends up with a very gender binary story focused around men. I could tell while reading it that “Chosen” by Anton Strout was trying to do something with the Chosen One trope, but it felt rather aimless and confusing.
There’s twenty-six short stories in this collection. I’ve only gone over fourteen here, but the other twelve felt completely forgettable and not even worth getting into. I did have hopes for the nonfiction section, but I ended up disappointed there as well. Most of the essays felt incredibly boring. The only one I made it all the way through was Keffy R.M. Kehrli’s “Tropes as Erasers: A Transgender Perspective,” which I actually did like.
There were stories I liked but they felt largely outweighed by stories I didn’t care for. This isn’t a collection I’ll be recommending in the future.
I received an ARC of Upside Down from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a free and honest review.