Book Review: The Unfinished World: And Other Stories, Amber Sparks (2016)

February 12th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

The Unfinished World: Sorrowful to the End

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Trigger warning for rape.)

It just goes to show, people said later. It just goes to show how fairy tales always stop too soon in the telling. Others said it was never a fairy tale at all. Anyone could see that. They were all too lovely, too obviously doomed. But the wisest said, that’s exactly what a fairy tale is. The happily-ever-after is just a false front. It hides the hungry darkness inside.

Sometimes he wonders if it would really be so bad, letting people flood into history like a tidal wave and sweep away the worst of it. Sure, the paradoxes would destroy us, but so what? Did a world that let happen the Holocaust and Hiroshima and the Trail of Tears and Stalin and Genghis Khan and Pol Pot deserve to be spared?

Every death is a love story. It’s the goodbye part, but the love is still there, wide as the world.

When I requested a copy of The Unfinished World: And Other Stories on Edelweiss, I thought I was getting the debut effort of io9 editor Charlie Jane Anders. I managed to confuse All the Birds in the Sky and The Unfinished World, probably on account of the covers are vaguely similar and both books come out the same week. But no matter: The Unfinished World was on my wishlist too, and even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting – it’s a little more surreal than SF, time travel notwithstanding – it’s an enchanting collection of stories just the same.

At just 240 pages, The Unfinished World manages to squeeze in an impressive eighteen short stories – and one novella, which takes up a full 39% of the book. The stories range from feminist fairy tale retellings to lives expressed in mathematical equations and historical fiction inspired by the rivalry between paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope (my knowledge of which, I must admit, is thanks solely to that one episode of Drunk History). Many of the tales are weird and squishy and difficult to explain (or explain succinctly), so I won’t even try. These are mostly stacked at the beginning of the book and had me worrying that I wouldn’t enjoy the collection as much as I’d hoped. The more surreal stories are lovely, to be sure; but they’re the sort of thing I’m only able to fully savor in the moment, thanks to my inability to wrap my head around it.

Yet I found quite a few stories that I hope to return to time and again, either on the page or in memory. The titular novella “The Unfinished World” is like a sad yet beautiful gift, slowly and tantalizingly unwrapped. Two young lovers, damaged but not necessarily doomed by their respective families, in ways both different yet all too similar. Igne, neglected by a father who saw his dead wife in his daughter’s eyes – the same daughter she died giving birth to. Set, brought back from the brink of death by his older brother Cedric – who would come to believe that some piece of his brother got left behind. Set against the backdrop of the 1920s – filled with the awe of discovery, the push and pull of old vs. new – “The Unfinished World” reminds us that “there are never enough endings.”

“The Men and Women Like Him” – perhaps the only true piece of SF – is breathtaking in its sorrow and futility. In the future, when time travel has been made possible, the past is flooded with well-meaning tourists looking to undo the wrongs of yesteryear. Yet their good intentions threaten our very existence, so time police called “Cleaners” are sent in pursuit. These men and women are tasked with the truly impossible: Ensuring the survival of Hitler. Delivering blankets laced with smallpox to the Natives of the New World. Leaving a certain hip-grinding, white jumpsuited sex symbol to die alone on the toilet. (“An astonishingly large number of them wanted to save Elvis.”) It is a soul-crushing yet necessary task. Or is it?

Another favorite is “La Belle de Nuit, La Belle de Jour,” a retelling of “The Wild Swans” – but with seven brothers instead of eleven. In this mashup of ancient and modern, an evil witch arrives in the princess’s isolated forest kingdom – on a jet, and wearing furs. Her curse turns the brothers into swans by day, and replaces the princess’s voice with a swarm of angry bees. Alone in a cave with only her bird-brothers for company, the princess is hard at work weaving flax frocks with which to break the spell when she’s whisked away – against her wishes – by a king who desires to marry her. It’s an anti-Cinderella story, complete a witch trial and a rather brilliant evisceration of rape culture (two words: enthusiastic consent), all wrapped up in a fiery little package. Love, love, love.

Also worth a mention: “Things You Should Know About Cassandra Dee,” a biting criticism of our beauty-obsessed culture; “The Fires of Western Heaven,” which explores the trauma of war on soldiers and citizens alike; “The Fever Librarian,” the titular character of which contains all of humanity’s knowledge and passions; “We Were Holy Once,” or rather the Benders, its family of hard-hearted con artists; and “For These Humans,” inspired by 19th century German waiting mortuaries.

Songs of sorrow and beauty and tragic love, filled with damaged, broken people who – if they’re lucky – discover some sense of meaning in their hurt. Verses that promise to echo long after the last page is turned.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Not a whole lot. Skin tone and general appearance isn’t always specified, but when it is, the characters are primarily (all?) white. The titular novella, “The Unfinished World,” exhibits the greatest diversity: set at the turn of the 20th century, Set’s brother Oliver is gay and living with a man named Desmond. Later on, Set moves to Hollywood from Long Island and dates an actress nicknamed Lana Volcana, who’s a closeted lesbian. When he’s twelve, Set accompanies his older brother Cedric, an explorer and filmmaker, to northern Canada, where he befriends an Innu boy named Agloolik. Igne’s father killed himself, and she goes on to travel the world as a photographer.

Additionally, “The Fires of Western Heaven” deals with the horrors of war, particularly PTSD experienced by soldiers and civilians alike. And in “The Men and Women Like Him,” the invention of time travel has created a flood of well-meaning tourists who illegally go back in time to stop atrocities before they happen – most notably the Holocaust, i.e., by assassinating Hitler. Time police called “Cleaners” are sent to prevent them from a succeeding – and potentially creating a paradox that will destroy us all. Naturally, they suffer their own unique form of trauma, caused by not only witnessing such horrors, but actively ensuring that they take place.

Animal-friendly elements: Not really. In “The Cemetery for Lost Faces,” Louise’s father trains her in taxidermy and she later makes a career out of it. Her younger brother Clarence’s heart bleeds for the poor animals, so he works in clay instead. Clarence is weak (or, arguably, the bravest of them all); his love for a Russian mafioso’s wife costs him his life. “Take Your Daughter to the Slaughter,” in its rationale for the generational massacre of werewolves, is evocative of the eradication of wolves in the American West – however, I suspect it’s more of a metaphor for fathers learning to deal with their teenage daughters’ sexuality. In the titular novella “The Unfinished World,” Set is attacked and nearly (or so it would seem) killed by a circus bear as a child; to her credit, Sparks describes the poor enslaved creature as “starved and beaten.”


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