This diverse collection of YA fantasy and sci fi short stories has some great ideas, but left me wanting more…
Book: A Universe of Wishes edited by Dhonielle Clayton
Publication date: 6th July 2021
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Titan Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: This review on Goodreads has a very comprehensive list by story.
I was really interested in this collection; Titan’s last YA anthology, Vampires Never Get Old, was a lot of fun (review here!), and I was looking forward to seeing some diverse voices tackling fairy tale and fantasy tropes! Unfortunately, while I liked some of the stories, too many of them felt like beginnings to me; rather than being self-contained short stories, they introduced us to new worlds and characters and then cut off abruptly, either before the plot was fully resolved or before it could get going! For example, I really enjoyed the world-building and tension of Natalie C Parker’s ‘The Silk Blade’, which features a contest of wits and strength to win a position as the prince’s consort, but it cuts off immediately after the main twist, leaving the reader without any sense of satisfaction and desperate to know more about what effect the climax would have on the characters. The same happened with Libba Bray’s ‘The Scarlet Woman’, which sets up a mystery but doesn’t let the main character even start to solve it; Zoraida Cordova’s ‘Longer than the Threads of Time’, a Rapunzel retelling that could be the opening to a whole novel but leaves everything including its romance thread dangling, and Anna-Marie McLemore’s ‘Cristal y Ceniza’, a Cinderella retelling with a trans prince and a heroine whose people are facing displacement by conflict, which was one of my favourites in the collection until it ended so abruptly that I, like the prince at midnight, was left looking around like ‘wait where did she go?’.
That’s not to say that some of the stories weren’t self-contained and satisfying! I’ve not generally clicked with Rebecca Roanhorse’s writing before, so I was surprised that her story here, ‘The Takeback Tango’, was one of my favourites. It’s a short and sweet heist story with some fun sci fi twists and a (slightly heavy-handed) theme of repatriating exhibits from museums. The title story, Tara Sim’s ‘A Universe of Wishes’, has a sweet budding romance and a very hopeful take on hidden magic and the pursuit of happiness, and I liked ‘Unmoor’ by Mark Oshiro, which has some interesting contemporary speculative elements surrounding memories and the ability to control them. I was looking forward to Samira Ahmed’s story ‘The Coldest Spot in the Universe’, having enjoyed her entry in Vampires Never Get Old, and it is very well-written, with a satisfying ending (though I personally didn’t enjoy it, as it deals with climate extinction and I found it far too morbid for me).
I enjoyed the VE Schwab story, which was a peek into the history of two characters from her Shades of Magic series, but this was a nice bonus for readers of that, rather than a story that worked on its own. Rhy and Alucard’s relationship is a fan favourite, for sure, but as with the stories I discussed above, this offers some emotional build up and then finishes with characters setting off on plots of their own. Here, the abruptness of the ending more forgiveable as it’s intended to be a backstory/prequel, but that makes me think that this would have been better sold as a separate story for fans than included in an anthology where a reader won’t necessarily have that background. I am, generally, not in favour of short story collections including works that belong to existing series, so take my opinions with a pinch of salt, but I don’t feel it’s kind to either fans (who have to buy books on the strength of one story) or those who don’t know a work (who may be lost).
Incidentally, I’m not sure where to note this, but I personally struggled to read the final story in the collection, Habibi by Tochi Onyebuchi, due to a hideous choice of handwriting fonts. The story is presented as a series of letters, but the fonts chosen made my eyes slide all over the page, so deciphering each sentence ended up pulling me out of the story emotionally.
As I look through the table of contents here, I just keep thinking how much more I wanted from this anthology. I never expect to like every story in a collection, but I think this goes beyond that. I can write off the stories I didn’t click with – Dream and Dare by Nic Stone, Wish by Jenni Balch, The Coldest Spot in the Universe by Samira Ahmed – as a matter of taste, but I’ve never read a collection before where the stories I liked the most left me so disappointed in their execution. It’s almost as if this is a collection of opening chapters, and I found that immensely frustrating. There are some lovely ideas in here, and some worlds I wish I’d had more time to play in, but on the whole, I felt let down by the constant lack of resolution. Three out of five cats.