Robots vs. Fairies edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe. ★★★★
After The Starlit Wood, I had high expectations for any anthology edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe. Thankfully, Robots vs. Fairies lived up to those expectations.
In this anthology, authors are asked whether they’re Team Robot or Team Fairy. Each writes a story involving robots or fairies (or occasionally both) and then provides a brief explanation of their choice. Overall, it’s a pretty strong collection of stories, and I enjoyed the combative framing device. It’s probably no surprise that it was as good as it is — Robots vs. Fairies has a truly great contributor line up.
Let’s start with the robot stories. My favorite has to be Alyssa Wong’s “All the Time We’ve Left to Spend.” If you’ve read anything by Alyssa Wong, you probably suspect it’s a really good story. And you’d be right! Wong’s tale centers around Ruriko, a former teen pop star in Japan. A tragic accident killed the rest of her girl group, and now Ruriko’s the only one left alive. She’s still haunted by her memories, and every month she makes a trip to a seedy hotel/brothel, staffed with robotic simulations of celebrities, complete with their downloaded memories. It’s a chilling, haunting story with a fantastic premise and execution.
Another robot story I loved was “Work Shadow/Shadow Work” by Madeline Ashby, which was one of the stories that mixed both fairies and robots. The protagonist is an unnamed, robotic assistant to a retired pagan priestess in Iceland. She is scornful of the assistant, repeatedly saying it doesn’t have a soul. Using robots to explore the meaning of personhood is an old trick, but “Work Shadow/Shadow Work” carries it out expertly, complete with a dash of magic.
“Sound and Fury” by Mary Robinette Kowal is another great robot tale. How is it that I love Kowal’s short fiction so much more than her longer works? Seriously, I don’t care much for her novels, but I never fail to fall in love with her short stories. In “Sound and Fury,” the protagonist is an engineer on a spaceship sent on a diplomatic mission. She doesn’t much want to be a part of the mission, because she knows that the “diplomacy” will end with the planet being taken over, stripped for resources while it loses all its cultural uniqueness. AKA colonialism. How are robots involved? Well, the ambassador is to be represented by a giant robot since the native population associate prestige with height. Of course, the robot starts malfunctioning and someone has to go surface side to fix it…
Rounding out my quartet of favorite robot stories is Jonathan Maberry’s “Ironheart.” The author is one of the few in the collection who’s new to me, so I’ve really got to check out more of what he’s written! The protagonist of “Ironheart” is a veteran who’s returned to his grandparent’s farm. But he was injured in the war, and the medications needed to keep him alive are bankrupting their already impoverished household. He suspects he doesn’t have much longer to live. As his body fails him, he empathizes with the farm’s robots, who are likewise breaking down. It’s not an uplifting story, but it will definitely stay with me.
Three of the robot stories fell into the category of “all right but nothing special.” Annalee Newitz returns to the setting of Autonomous with “The Blue Fairy’s Manifesto,” a philosophical retelling of “Pinocchio.” I actually liked it better than her novel but the musings on robot uprisings didn’t do much for me. “Quality Time” by Ken Liu is about a liberal arts major who gets hired for a tech company. While they worry they’ll be over their head, they soon get really into solving all the worlds problems through technology. But the may be a bit too enthusiastic, and soon enough side effects appear. In “The Buried Giant” by Lavie Tidhar, an elder tells two young children (in a post-apocalyptic setting) a story about a boy raised in a town of all robots. There were elements I liked (the robot town, the kid who wanted to be a robot), but I wasn’t as enthralled by the frame story.
I could have done without John Scalzi’s “Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind from the Era of Humans for the First Time.” Have you ever seen one of those YouTube videos where the titles are something like “(Fill in the Blank) Reacts”? It’s basically like a transcript of one of those with robots in the blank. Robots React. It’s pretty short, and it’s trying to be funny. It’s not succeeding. At his best John Scalzi is actually funny. At his worst he’s just snarky in an annoying, eye rolling sort of way. This story is the later.
Unfortunately, I also didn’t care for Max Gladstone’s “To a Cloven Pine.” Remember what I said about Kowal’s work? My experience with Gladstone’s is almost the opposite. I’ve loved all his novels, but I’ve had a harder time of it with his short stories. “To a Cloven Pine” is a cerebral story drawing from “The Tempest.” By “cerebral,” I mean it had a lot going on but I was never sure what was happening. It went completely over my head.
Onto the fairy stories! My favorite of these is the opening story of the collection, “Build Me a Wonderland” by Seanan McGuire. Essentially, it’s about a theme park centered around fairies where the special effects are actually magic, unbeknownst to the visitors. When an efficiency expert arrives, the magical citizens of the park worry that their future is at stake. It was a lot of fun, and I would totally read more in this setting.
My second favorite of the fairy stories is “Murmured Under the Moon” by Tim Pratt. Man, I need to read more by Tim Pratt. The protagonist of the story is a human librarian for a magical library; her girlfriend is a sentient book. Then when she arrives for work one day, she finds the doors barred and all the books being stolen. Librarians to the rescue! Sure, this story has book lover appeal, but it works well even without that element. It’s got the twisty nature of the fae down, and it was fun to boot.
I didn’t like it as much as the other two, but I did enjoy Sarah Gailey’s “Bread and Milk and Salt.” It’s a creepy and subtly feminist story, as is often the case with Gailey’s work. The narrator is a fae of the kind from the darkest fairy tales. It becomes fascinated with a specific child, determined to lure him away to the woods. As the boy grows, the hunted becomes the hunter…
Delilah S. Dawson/Lila Bowen’s story was set in the same world as her Shadow series, which starts with Wake of Vultures. It must take place between book one and two, because the protagonist is called Nettie and is referred to with she/her pronouns (at the beginning of book two, the narrative starts calling him Rhys and uses he/him pronouns). Anyway, in this story Nettie/Rhys (look, I feel weird calling Rhys “Nettie,” okay?) tries to save another shapeshifter from a group of fae with ill intent. I think I would have enjoyed the story a lot less if I didn’t already have a connection with the protagonist.
I was pretty “meh” on the other four fairy stories. It’s not surprising Kat Howard chose Team Fairy (at least if you’ve read anything she’s written), but the story was a bit of a let down. In “Just Another Love Song,” a banshee girl feels the urge to sing death for the first time. It’s hard to pinpoint what about the story didn’t work for me. I think maybe it’s mostly that it wasn’t bringing anything fresh to the table. Or maybe I’m just not that into music? I think that was my problem with “Adriftica” by Maria Dahvana Headley, which contains Titania, Oberon, and rock and roll. I’ve reluctantly concluded that I’m not a fan of Headley’s writing, and this story does nothing to change my opinion.
“Second to the Left, and Straight On” by Jim C. Hines is a gritty take on Tinker Bell, who’s kidnapping loved girls (the “Found Girls”) and feeding off of their belief in a cult-like manner. The protagonist is a woman who’s lost her daughter to Tinker Bell, and she’s hunting the fairy. While I enjoyed the twist at the end, the story as a whole didn’t do much for me. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. On the other hand, I have an easier time seeing why “The Bookcase Expedition” by Jeffrey Ford didn’t appeal to me. The narrator is so passive! It’s the story of an elderly man who observes tiny people living in his house, in particular an expedition where they climb his bookcase. Having the narrator literally sit in an armchair the entire time puts the entire story at a distance. It just didn’t work for me.
The final story in the collection, “A Fall Counts Anywhere” by Catherynne M. Valente, mixes robots and fairies in equal measure. It’s a brilliant idea. She takes the title of the anthology literally, pitting robots against fairies in a wrestling style competition, complete with names, costumes, and announcers. The story’s told through the transcript of one bout, and a story slowly emerges. Perhaps too slowly. I wish it’d gotten to the point a bit sooner, but on the whole I still liked it.
Based off of the stories in Robots vs. Fairies, I’m Team Robot. For whatever reason, I enjoyed those stories more! Maybe there’s just more room to tell stories with robots? Or maybe I just like robots written more ways than I like fairies, who I prefer to have a dark edge. It’s a tricky question.
Which would you chose: robots or fairies?
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.