Crafting an anthology is a bit like making a good playlist: it’s not just the selection of pieces that matters, but whether they suit the overall mood and the way they fit together. I’ve also found – though this might just be a personal preference – that anthologies with a too-specific theme tend to fall flat, the individual stories bleeding together into a single, monotone whole. Particularly if the intention is to showcase a trope-heavy subgenre, like dystopian romance, I frequently find myself losing interest: even if most of the offerings are engaging and original, seeing the same devices used and reused in such close proximity wears me out, and once I’ve reached my saturation point, I find it hard to continue.
Regular touches of Australiana that creep into the stories […] served as a pleasant reminder that my country of origin is ripe for SFFnal interpretation.
Which is part of why the guiding theme of editor Tehani Wessely’s One Small Step – that of discoveries and change in a feminist, SFFnal context – really worked for me. The broader mandate provides an ideal showcase for stories which, while radically different in terms of setting and structure, were nonetheless united by a common element. The collection also has a strong sense of inclusivity, featuring multiple stories both by and about WOC, and providing a welcome departure from the usual straight-white-male-dominated view of SFF. Though flawed in parts, overall, I found this to be a highly enjoyable, moving anthology of works by Australian women; and particularly for me, as an Aussie expat, the regular touches of Australiana that creep into the stories – references to eucalyptus, kangaroos, wombats and other such Antipodean things – served as a pleasant reminder that my country of origin is ripe for SFFnal interpretation.
The collection begins with ‘Always Greener’, by Michelle Marquardt: a straight SF story with a YA vibe. Despite being one of the longer pieces on offer, I felt the worldbuilding here was a bit thin and, at times, cartoonish in its depiction of clumsy aliens. The human element relied on a portrayal of traditional gender roles which, while not unrealistic or poorly explored, nonetheless felt a bit flat to me. As such, it gets things off to a bit of a tepid start; but that being said, the writing itself was solid, and the emotional journey of the heroine was satisfying enough to keep me reading.
By contrast, the second story – Lisa L. Hannett and Angela Slatter’s ‘By Blood and Incantation’ – gripped me wholly. Switching between the perspectives of three different women in a feudal setting, the gorgeous writing, strong characterisation and powerful emotional angle make it one of the strongest pieces in the collection.
This promise is continued with Deborah Biancotti’s ‘Indigo Gold’, an urban fantasy with superhero elements. Though following a much simpler narrative arc than the previous two stories, the use of journalism as a means of interrogating the sudden emergence of superpowers was effective without being twee, and left me wanting to read more about both the heroine and her world.
Jodi Cleghorn’s ‘Firefly Epilogue’, however, had me frowning. Though beautifully written in parts, the execution and explanation of SFnal conceit both felt a bit jumbled, while the choice of setting – a white woman’s perspective on Malayasia – struck me as being Othering of the locals. The conclusion hinges on the story being an outsider narrative, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing per se, in this specific instance, it left me feeling uncomfortable.
Next comes Daughters of ‘Battendown by Cat Sparks’: a story of curiosity and outsider status in a future-dystopian setting. Though the ending felt a little incomplete to me – I wanted more details – and the catharsis a bit too convenient given the struggle preceding it, I nonetheless enjoyed both the heroine and her journey, and as with Indigo Gold, it made me want to read more stories set in the same world.
A clever, original take on fairytale retellings in a modern context, ‘Baby Steps’ won me over with its casual good humour.
‘Baby Steps’, by Barbara Robson, took me by surprise. A clever, original take on fairytale retellings in a modern context, this story won me over with its casual good humour, persuasive voice and compelling build (to say nothing of its creative use of setting and framing devices).
Suzanne J Willis’s ‘Number 73 Glad Avenue’ proved similarly delightful; though the logic wobbles a little near the end, the overall premise and execution remain strong – a whimsical slipstream story with undertones of steampunk and time-traveller’s appreciation of fleeting beauty.
Coming off two such strong stories, I found myself stalled by Kate Gordon’s ‘Shadows’, which is – sadly, both in itself and given its positioning at the pivotal midway point – the weakest story of all. Though not as problematic as Firefly Epilogue, it just didn’t seem to do anything; I came away not sure what moral or change was meant to have been affected, and with a niggling sense that the piece was incomplete. The inclusion of some (to my mind) decidedly lacklustre poetry didn’t help, either, and while both the heroine and her urban fantasy magic had promise, it ultimately felt like a dry run for a YA novel, or else the watered down remains of same: a good, strong start for something longer, but underdone on its own.
Happily, Penelope Love’s ‘Original’ did a decent job of picking the pace back up again. A playful SF piece that builds to a surprisingly touching conclusion, it makes clever use of established gender norms as an interrogative counterbalance to the strangeness of its (human, yet inhuman) characters.
But it’s with Thoraiya Dyer’s ‘The Ships of Culwinna’ that the anthology really gets back on track. A heartbreaking investigation of culture, sexism and ignorance in an ancient setting, this beautifully written story has stayed with me long after I finished reading it.
What if the White Witch had a daughter? What would she think, when Aslan came?
‘Cold White Daughter’, by Tansy Rayner Roberts, is another gem, taking the surprisingly common trope of Narnia (or an obvious faux-Narnia, in this case) revisited and inverting it to tell a tricksy story about origins, perspectives, dreams and how they affect our choices. What if the White Witch had a daughter? What would she think, when Aslan came? Read it, and find out.
With ‘The Ways of the Wyrding Women’ by Rowena Cory Daniells, we revisit a similar premise to that used in By Blood and Incantation – the role of women with feared-yet-coveted magic in an otherwise male-dominated society – but from a very different angle. This is a story of pragmatism, sacrifice and hard choices, and one that works extremely well.
‘Winter’s Heart’ by Faith Mudge explores the role of women in a different way: with a queen consulting a magician on how best to love her child. Perhaps its just the fact that I’ve become a mother myself this year, but this story affected me deeply, and felt like an honest, meaningful exploration of love and motherhood.
Female magic is also explored in ‘Sand and Seawater’ by Joanne Anderton and Rabia Gale – an eerie, powerful story about the nature of pain and what it means to be human. This was one of my favourite stories overall – the theme, setting and execution all work together to make something truly memorable.
‘Ella and the Flame’, by Kathleen Jennings, is a story that draws its power from investigating the nature of fairytales and the role of women within them. One of the saddest stories in the collection, I genuinely teared up at the conclusion – a piece that makes a little go a long, long way.
And then, finally, the last and – to my mind – best story of them all: D.K. Mok’s ‘Morning Star’. A truly powerful note on which to end the collection, ‘Morning Star’ is by turns funny, poignant and breathtaking: a perfect, original story about humanity, agency, the end of the world and what comes after.
As a showcasing of Australian female talent, [One Small Step is] both an important and an extremely worthwhile anthology.
So, there you have it. Though I did have some issues with the collection – a couple of stories didn’t work for me, one was problematic, and the order of appearance could have been better – overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The strongest stories – ‘Morning Star’, ‘The Ships of Culwinna’, ‘By Blood and Incantation’, ‘Sand and Seawater’ – more than make up for the weaker ones, and as a showcasing of Australian female talent, it’s both an important and extremely worthwhile anthology. Recommended reading for anyone interested in SFF with a feminist bent, and a strong incentive to keep an eye on Fablecroft Press’s output.