You think you know all the fables that have ever been told. You think you can no longer be surprised by stories. Think again.
With origins in myth, fairytales, folklore and pure imagination, the stories and poems in these pages draw on history that never was and worlds that will never be to create their own unique tales and traditions…
The next generation of storytellers is here.
Faith Mudge / Twelfth Tansy Rayner Roberts / The love letters of swans Thoraiya Dyer / Bahamut Rabia Gale / The village of no women Jenny Blackford / The Lady of Wild Things Suzanne J. Willis / Rag and bone heart Nicole Murphy / A Cold Day Vida Cruz / How the Jungle Got Its Spirit Guardian S.G. Larner / Kneaded Charlotte Nash / The Ghost of Hephaestus Cat Sparks / The Seventh Relic Gitte Christensen / The nameless seamstress Foz Meadows / Scales of Time (poem) reprint Moni / Illustrations Scales of Time Kathleen Jennings / Cover Art
Fairytales and folk tales are some of the most enduring forms of storytelling. It’s no wonder then that fairytale retellings remain a popular staple of speculative fiction. In Phantazein Tehani Wessely has brought together a set of stories that are as diverse as one can imagine, while all fit under the heading of fairytale (re)telling. Not all of the stories are re-imaginings of classic fairytales, some are based on folk tales or myths and some are original, but all of them are new and entertaining. In fact there wasn’t a story that disappointed, something that is rare for an anthology, as there is always at least one story that doesn’t work as well. Not so the stories included in Phantazein.
All of these twelve stories – and one poem – are entertaining and a joy to read. My biggest complaint would be that I wanted more stories, just because I loved these (re)tellings so much. What made these stories even more enjoyable was the scope of their subject matter. There are European tales, but also inspired by Arabian, Chinese, Buddhist and South American myths. They are stories with universal themes: love, compassion, avarice, desire, loneliness, sacrifice. And while there were no disappointing stories, there were stories that spoke to me more than others.
Faith Mudge - Twelfth A retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, Twelfth tells us the tale from the point of view of the youngest of the twelve prince. It’s a tragic tale and a tale of revenge. I loved the way Mudge twisted the tale to suit the angle of her interpretation. There is also an interesting mirroring of the idea of betrayed hospitality that will cost the King dearly in the end. It is also a fantastic origin story for one of folklore’s most enduring monsters.
Vida Cruz - How the Jungle Got Its Spirit Guardian Seemingly based on South American mythology, though I wasn’t able to trace its roots, this tale was fascinating for its treatment of traditional gender roles and the consequences of not conforming to them. I loved the cunning way its protagonists try to circumvent their village’s strict social customs. Tenu and Daza’s secretly swap tasks and conduct a hidden courtship, in defiance of all tradition and most importantly Daza’s tyrannical mother. Yet, despite all their efforts they are caught, and when worst comes to worst Tenu’s choice is heartbreaking.
Jenny Blackford - The Lady of Wild Things Blackford’s story is an interesting mix of Greek mythology and traditional fairy lore. I loved this vision of history repeating itself to a different ending, with both beloveds being lured into the forest and being lost, and yet another version of a sacrifice of one for the greater good. I loved the way Blackford portrayed the mother’s having to decide between duty and love and her heartbreak at having to do so.
Tansy Rayner Roberts - The Love Letters of Swans Roberts’ story is an alternate telling of Paris’ wooing of Helen, later of Troy, when she is still the wife of Menelaus. But this is not the wooing you’re expecting. Paris is rude, crude, and arrogant, while Helen has no intention to let him nearer to her than two seats over at the dining table. Magic is sneakily incorporated into the story and I liked the fact that it wasn’t just divine. The twist ending is fantastic and one I’d never expected when I started the story.
Phantazein is another great anthology from Wessely, filled with fabulous stories from a strong and all-female line-up. I loved the many different traditions covered in the collection and the one thing I would have really loved to have added in is an explanation for the origins of the stories, which cultures the authors drew on or whether they wrote completely original tales inspired by fairytale tropes. Still, if you enjoy fairy tales, mythology, and folklore, Phantazein is an anthology you definitely need to check out.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.
This collection was never intended to see the light of day, indeed as Tehani, the editor says, “it really shouldn’t exist” Phantazein grew out of the slush pile of the submissions call for another Fablecroft anthology, Insert Title Here.
As I was reading the slush, I uncovered several stories that resonated with me as working very well together but not, it seemed, in an unthemed anthology. To include them in Insert Title Here would have unbalanced the nature of that collection. These stories felt like they belonged in a different book altogether. A fantasy book. This book.
- Introduction, Phantazein.
Now my participation as a judge in the Aurealis awards precludes all but the most general commentary on a number of the stories in this collection. A fact that makes telling you how good it is rather difficult.
That being said you have Tansy Rayner Roberts with a fusion of Greek myth and fantasy in The Love Letters of Swans. If you have come to enjoy Tansy’s work, this is her doing what she does best, fusing her fiction talents with her professional knowledge of the classics. Interesting to see her working with Greek myth/history as opposed to Roman.
Thoraiya Dyer, delivers an interesting take on Arabian myth in her story Bahamut. If you liked the historical stories presented in Gilgamesh Press’ Ishtar, Dyer’s work in fantasy, especially here, would work well in that milieu.
In Kneaded, SG Larner delivers a sickly sweet( I may never be able to drink Raspberry cordial again) tale that plays with elements of The Sugar Child and other folktales that involve baked or manufactured children. Twelfth by Faith Mudge also gives us a dark and interesting perspective on those group of tales that fall under The Twelve Dancing Princesses line. Working with fairytales I think can be a two edged sword, they are familiar and so it’s difficult to be original and you have centuries of expectation as to how and why these stories should be told. Thankfully all the writers in this collection have managed to walk the blade edge.
The Nameless Seamstress is a beautiful tale by the late Gitte Christensen, presenting Chinese mythic elements. Having read it, loved the ambience its execution conveys, I am truly saddened that we have lost this talent.
It’s good to see another work by Rabia Gale, a Pakistani American writer whose work I have followed for some time. Her Village of No Women, continues to show growth in her abilities. I have always found her work to be distinctive and original and this story reaffirms my thoughts that she is one of those writers that can work with genre elements and reshape them to produce something original and distinctively hers.
Thematically Phantazein seems largely split between retellings of fairytales and retellings or reworkings of ancient history/myth. If you are a fan of the current trend of dark retellings of either of these sources then there’s enough dark here for you. Not all stories end sadly but there is a gravity, a depth to all of them.
I love that Tehani included an illustrated work of poetry from Foz Meadows (illustrated by Moni). You probably wouldn’t get Scales of Time outside of small press, or somewhere like Strange Horizons – a poem about friendship and love from the perspective of a dragon.
For a collection that seems to have magically coalesced, Phantazein is a solid production. I’m not sure you could get a stronger collection by asking for direct submissions. Kudos to Tehani’s eye for talent and story and kudos to the writers who took long raked over material in a lot of cases and breathed life and originality in to them.
Phantazein showcases the depth of talent Australia has in the fantasy field and gives us a glimpse at some other international authors who we may not be familiar with.
Well I may be a little partial seeing as this is by the publisher I intern for, but I didn’t have part in reading through the slush pile and building the anthology; I received it to ensure the interior was set out without any errors (so that’s on me if there are!)
This is clearly one of the best parts of interning for a publisher. Getting to read for work! From the very first piece in this anthology (one of my favourites!) I was swept away. This is a collection of wonderous fantasy, the kind that don’t always have a happy ending… Prepare to expect the unexpected as several of the tales take a sudden turn that even the most voracious of readers shan’t be able to expect.
‘Twelfth’ by Faith Mudge
This is a retelling of one of my favourite Grimm fairy tales, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, but just as sinister as the original. Here we see the tale from the point of view of one of the princes, and learn who they are,and why they lure the princesses away to dance each night. This makes me all the more eager to read Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing!
This is an excellent piece of writing, and will surely be on my mind for nominations this coming awards year. Wow, Faith!
‘Bahamut’ by Thoraiya Dyer
An impressive story of magic and the sacrifices that must be made. “Every time a priestess uses her magic to call water, the person who loves her most in the world forgets her.” Hence, the scathing daughter of the priestess shall learn magic from letters alone, as she’s soon to forget her own mother, as her father before her forgot them both. The only other option is for the priestess herself to forget her daughter, and then be alone in the world.
'The Nameless Seamstress' by Gitte Christensen
This piece is hard to summarise in short, for it’s wonderfully complex. A new weaver has taken his place, and is struggling with his tasks. The old weaver crafted the most wonderful silk, but filled with longing and loneliness the new weaver can only weave of things similar. Still, he eventually hands the finished material to the Nameless Seamstress, who then takes up her part.
Whenever the Seamstress sends a garment, it is directly to its intended and they must accept it with grace. When the wife of the emperor – shunned for so long from the long-awaited garment finally receives hers and finds it’s practically a rag, she eventually accepts it with head held high, and agrees to wear it to the event that very night.
And as for anything else… you’ll just have to read.
'How the Jungle got its Spirit Guardian' by Vida Cruz
A tale of customs in a small group of people, how they can divide and ruin an otherwise perfect thin in many ways. This is the type of story that has the right ending, but oh how you wish it could have turned out otherwise!
I loved Daza in this, and Tenu (of course). I loved the descriptions and the food, oh the food! I’m a sucker for food described well.
'The Seventh Relic' by Cat Sparks
Danielle – never Dani – is a slightly disturbing look into the burdens diets and the whole culture of what women must do (who care about these things) to stay in peak condition. I couldn’t even try to count how many different diets Sparks goes through in this – it’s staggering.
Split between two POV, we see both Danielle and Mei-yu through to the crescendo of an ending, which is then quite stunning and harsh. It left me thinking ‘…Oh…!’
What I loved about this was seeing Danielle’s thought process. Perfectly captured.
'Rag and Bone Heart' by Suzanne J. Willis
A beautifully written tale that feels like another twist on an old fable, one that I haven’t yet read so can’t identify. If it’s not a twist, then it’s written so perfectly in that style that it fits in perfectly, creating one of its own right.
I love how brutal this is, and some of the sentences within are simply magic. ‘Slow violence’ is an example of the perfect use of words within, though you’ll have to read to see what context they’re in. A very excellent piece indeed.
'Kneaded' by S. G. Larner
We often read of tales of women who want children so badly, but how often do we read from the POV of one of those children, who were finally born from such desperate measures?
What I loved of this piece was the clever characterisations in the actions which gave the piece more depth to show the customs and time this is set – the brush of a skirt, and so on.
The ending of this? Excellent. Slightly leaves it open and wondering what happens in their future.
'A Cold Day' by Nicole Murphy
Another of my favourites, of a simple potter and the customs their town dictate concerning the birth of royals and what spells are used to protect the young. Beautifully written, this shows powerful characterisation in so few glimpses and words, and I loved how it goes in directions you don’t expect!
Also – SUCH a good ending! Simple and short, and ties it all together in such a realistic way. I really must read more of Nicole’s work!
'The Village of No Women' by Rabia Gale
Quite a worrying tale, using magic to create wives for men. Written from an excellent choice for the POV, this tale is quite complex with layers of thought given to the various problems it shows and just when you think this has enough in it already – wham, another reveal!
Interesting ending also! So much to say about this piece, but it’s a hard one to review without treading into spoiler territory. It’s also darn decent, and one that I think will last in my mind for quite a while.
'The Lady of Wild Things' by Jenny Blackford
Such a good opening line – ‘It is difficult to say which the people of my village feared more: the man-wolves or the nymphs.’
I love seeing short stories that show mythical creatures as terrible beings – harsh and cruel and focused on their own enjoyment rather than the fanciful idea of granting wishes for no reason to any human they come across. I love some grit!
'The Ghost of Hephaestus' by Charlotte Nash
Ahh, steampunk. A lovely tale of mystery and suspicion, a good showing of intelligence that doesn’t have all the answers but shall damn well strive to be try. This is one of those short stories that leaves the reader wishing it was a full novel or series.
This is a touching story, full of wonder, Gods and a change of times. This is a tale of epic proportions whittled down into a bite sized chunk, leaving you hungry for more while still being satisfied with the ending.
'Scales of Time' by Foz Meadows, illustrated by Simone Herbert
It’s not often you get a poem in an anthology, and even rarer that you get it illustrated. Simone’s lovely art matches Foz’s lovely way with words perfectly. A poem about a dragon? Hell yeah – honestly, why isn’t there more of this in anthologies? Authors, get writing!
This is short and sweet, and shows how the perfect choice of words can move you in just 150 words which would otherwise take a number of thousand to do in novel form. This is damn well done.
'The Love Letters of Swans' by Tansy Rayner Roberts
I’d say it’s ‘saving the best for last’ but the whole anthology has been pretty dang good, so let’s just leave it as I’m a Tansy fan! If you love everything Roman then look no further than this short story (actually, do look further and get Tansy’s ‘Love and Rompanpunk’, literally an award winner and shortlisted for many awards besides…)
But back to this actual short. What I love about Tansy’s writing is always the dialogue. Always the characters. In this piece we see people at their most cruel and desperate, historical fiction flung our way as she turns often ill-taught history into something exciting and engaging. Damn, Tansy’s good!
It’s not often when you get an anthology where you enjoy reading each of the shorts, and read them to their entirety. Now I had to read each in full to proof, but I know I would have done that anyway because I kept forgetting I was proofing as I got too involved in each story, and had to keep going back to re-read.
This is one of FableCroft’s best anthologies to date, and I don’t say that lightly. Join us at Conflux in Canberra in October for the book launch and see it for yourself!
Phantazein is a fantasy anthology edited by Tehani Wessely. It's heavily fairytale/fable/mythology themed and contains stories by a range of female authors. This is the second all-female anthology Tehani has put together (the first was One Small Step), which is interesting, especially as Phantazein was unplanned.
All the stories in this anthology have very strong fairytale-like themes (a point I unfortunately reiterated a few times when commenting on individual stories). I have to admit this isn't my favourite style of fantasy, but nonetheless there were some stories that really stood out to me.
My favourite stories, in the order they appear, were: "Kneaded" by SG Larner, which really grabbed me when I got up to it; "Scales of Time" by Foz Meadows and Moni, an illustrated poem, which was predictably sad but gorgeous; and "Love Letters of Swans" by Tansy Rayner Roberts, about Helen and Paris and Helen's slave girl, was probably my favourite story of the lot. I suspect leaning heavily towards the mythological rather than fairytalesque added to that, but however you want to classify it, it was an excellent story. Other stories I liked, again in the order they appear, were "Twelfth" by Faith Mudge, "Bahamut" by Thoraiya Dyer, and "A Cold Day" by Nicole Murphy.
As I said, the stories are mostly fairytalesque, but towards the end of the anthology there's an interesting shift away from what I usually think of fairytales towards other time periods. There's a steampunky story (still with magic) and then the Ancient Greek story of Tansy's I mentioned above. I should also note that when I say "fairytale" I don't just mean the European forest kind of tale, there is a pretty good amount of cultural diversity, including eastern and tribal stories. It's quite a mixed bag and all of them are a new take or twist on old ideas. None of them are straight retellings of anything that's ever been made into a Disney movie.
If you enjoy fairytales or fantasy more generally, this is definitely the anthology for you. I've made comments on individual stories below, and I think it's fair to say there's something here for all kinds of fairytalesque fantasy fans. I have used the word "fairytale" too much in this review. Sorry. If you don't think I should be apologising, go buy this anthology.
Twelfth by Faith Mudge — A fairytale about twelve brothers, complete with darkness and hope. Well maybe not a fairytale per se because the cautionary part is less the point of the story and anyway doesn’t caution the usual suspects. Mudge weaves a beautiful tale with a pleasing ending.
Bahamut by Thoraiya Dyer — A story about the sacrifices one must make to protect those one loves. Which is more important, saving a kingdom or being loved?
The Nameless Seamstress by Gitte Christensen — a tale of magic clothes, the imperial court and the near-mythological Weaver and Seamstress.
How the Jungle got its Spirit Guardian by Vida Cruz — A surprisingly epic tale for all that it retains the vibe of the earlier stories. And much more about people than the title suggests. Also gender roles
The Seventh Relic by Cat Sparks — An odd, slightly surreal story. Not quite my thing, I have to admit.
Rag and Bone Heart by Suzanne J Willis — A nice and sort of horrible (in happenings) story about a girl in a magic kingdom, a king and a helpful old witch. I liked it.
Kneaded by S.G. Larner — I found this story absolutely delightful. A brilliant take on the idea of people made not of flesh. (With, I think, a twisted allusion to Hansel and Gretel thrown in briefly). Definitely one of my favourite stories in this collection.
The Village of No Women by Rabia Gale — Into the village of no women comes a clever scholar to make the men wives from animals. A satisfying tale.
The Lady of Wild Things by Jenny Blackford — Evil fairy-type beings. Not a bad story, but it didn't leave a very strong impression on me.
The Ghost of Hephaestus by Charlotte Nash — Steampunky while still having a fairytale feel to it (but perhaps less so than a story involving forests). The style wasn’t really to my taste and I personally didn’t connect with this story.
A Cold Day by Nicole Murphy — A potter who makes magic pots to protect newborn children and the demands placed on her by the royal family. I liked this story, although I found the end a little abrupt.
Scales of Time by Foz Meadows & Moni — A sad/lovely poem of a girl and her dragon, written by Foz and illustrated by Moni. Sad thumbs up.
Love Letters of Swans by Tansy Rayner Roberts — A new take on the story of Helen (of Troy, sort of) and Paris. Engaging, awesome, an excellent note to end the anthology on. One of my favourites in this anthology.
In my September review of To Spin A Darker Stair, I anticipated that Phantazein would prove to be more of the same. Having now read it I can say: it is and it isn't. Although Phantazein opens with a fairytale retelling and closes with a mythological retelling, the majority of its stories are original stories that retain a strong fairytale flavour.
The stories that make up the anthology had a nice mixture of cultures. While there were some stories that felt vaguely European, there were also some that drew on Asian, Arabic and South American influences. Not being from these cultures, I'm not in a position to judge whether these influences were handled with sensitivity. From an outsider's perspective, they seemed respectfully done. The diversity made for a reasonably well-balanced anthology, with one exception: there were very few Australian-influenced elements. Cat Sparks' story The Seventh Relic was the sole exception and a questionable one. Only those familiar with Buddhism in Australia are likely to identify the setting, which otherwise comes across as generically western.
There was also a nice mixture of relationships featured in the stories. Being fairytale-inspired, there were various family relationships (mother and daughter, mother and son, father and daughter, siblings etc) as well as romantic relationships and straightforward friendships. I would like to have seen a few more non-heterosexual romantic relationships. The Seventh Relic proved the exception here once again, though, as with the Australian setting, it tended to be understated.
Being the exception to both of my diversity-related criticisms, it is perhaps unsurprising that The Seventh Relic was also the only story that I felt didn't quite fit the anthology. However, I feel this was less to do with the inclusion of those diverse elements than its tone, which came across as a little too biting in comparison to the more fairytale-esque stories.
My notable mentions were difficult to pick but include Twelfth by Faith Mudge, The Ghost of Hephaestus by Charlotte Nash and How the Jungle Got its Spirit Guardian by Vida Cruz. Twelfth was a retelling of the Grimm fairytale The Twelve Dancing Princesses. It had wonderful heart and no easy resolution. We didn't quite get off on the right foot, as I had some trouble with the perspective at first and felt the beginning could have used some tightening up. However, it drew me in as the characters came more to life.
The Ghost of Hephaestus was an enchantingly romantic steampunk that tapped into Greek mythology and managed to hit all my buttons.
How the Jungle Got its Spirit Guardian drew on Aztec influences and had some interesting commentary on gender roles sold by some strong characters.
Overall, I found Phantazein to be very entertaining. Despite my criticisms, it had a nice mix of stories and I'd definitely recommend it to those who like fairytale-inspired fantasy.
I was quite impressed with this short story anthology. Each of the stories here are either inspired by a folktale, myth, or fairy tale -- or could have been. The ones which have been inspired by an existing tale turn the familiar story onto its head. The princes in the twelve dancing princesses are as much pawns and prisoners as the princesses. Helen from Troy is a unwitting victim who still has divine powers from her father. Midas is a cruel murderer. The rest of the stories read as if they could be fairy or folk tales themselves, and span the world. Some of my favorites are:
* How the Jungle Got Its Spirit Guardian by Vida Cruz, which tells the story of a boy and a girl who refuse to accept traditional gender roles. * Scales of Time by Foz Meadows and illustrated by Moni, a bittersweet poem of a friendship and loyalty. * The Nameless Seamstress by Gitte Christensen, in which a gift is given. * Love Letters of Swans by Tansy Rayner Roberts, about Helen of Troy.
This is one of the most entertaining anthologies that I've read, and I love anthologies.
The stories are all somewhat in the style of fables but the characters in each story are quite different with their own challenges. From revenge to sacrifice, spiritual guidance and romance, from jungles to wonderful castles, the characters entice you to keep reading.
All the stories are extremely well written and intriguing. My personal favourites are "The Nameless Seamstress" by Gitte Christensen and Nicole Murphy's "A Cold Day." But it was not possible to fault any of the stories for their storytelling, characters or writing styles.
I highly recommend this anthology to anyone who delights in a good story and excellent storytelling.