Celebrated as the author of five acclaimed historical fantasy novels in the Glamourist series, Mary Robinette Kowal is also well known as an award-winning author of short science fiction and fantasy. Her stories encompass a wide range of themes, a covey of indelible characters, and settings that span from Earth’s past to its near and far futures as well as even farther futures beyond. Alternative history, fairy tales, adventure, fables, science fiction (both hard and soft), fantasy (both epic and cozy)—nothing is beyond the reach of her unique talent. WORD PUPPETS—the first comprehensive collection of Kowal’s extraordinary fiction-includes her two Hugo-winning stories, a Hugo nominee, an original story set in the world of “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” and fourteen other show-stopping tales.
Talk about a fascinating author! Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of the Hugo-winning novel The Calculating Stars (one of my all-time faves) as well as other works. She’s also a highly gifted audiobook narrator (narrating, among other books, the October Daye series and other works by Seanan McGuire). And on top of all that, she’s a professional puppeteer! Yes, a puppeteer. So yeah, given her eclectic talents and interests, I’m not at all surprised that this collection of short stories is varied, unusual, and very, very entertaining.
Eighteen of the nineteen stories in Word Puppets were originally published elsewhere and featured in various anthologies and other publications, with one story (set in the Lady Astronaut world) original to this collection. The publication dates for the stories range between 2005 and 2015.
Overall, I really enjoyed this collection (which is shocking for me, since I usually have an aversion to short stories). Of the stories included in Word Puppets, I strongly preferred the ones leaning more toward science fiction and speculative fiction rather than the stories I’d classify as fantasy.
My particular favorites:
Chrysalis: About an alien race for whom adulthood means the end of serious study, as they metamorphose from larvae to beautiful winged creatures, but leave their scholarship and ambitions in the past.
Rampion: A short but powerful take on the Rapunzel story.
Clockwork Chickadee: About some devious and tricky mechanical animals.
Body Language: A really clever kidnapping/heist story, in which an expert puppeteer works with a gifted AI to save the day. (So awesome!)
Waiting for Rain: A vineyard owner in India deals with family obligations and honor while trying to cope with the financial struggles of having to subscribe to controllable weather.
First Flight: A 105-year-old woman is assigned a time travel task, and uses it to change history.
Evil Robot Monkey: Very short, very good, very surprising.
For Solo Cello, op 12: Wow, this one was great! About a concert cellist, an awful injury, and the even more awful way he might be able to heal.
The White Phoenix Feather: Talk about adventures in dining! This is an action story about a woman who provides dangerous dining experiences to those who can pay. Full of flying dinner knives and hurled soup and flaming baguettes.
Finally, the last three stories are all set within the world of The Calculating Stars:
We Interrupt This Broadcast: This story offers a possible explanation for the events in The Calculating Stars, and it’s frankly creepy. I’m choosing to interpret this story as an early version of events that the author eventually decided didn’t work in the context of the larger series, because otherwise I find it too upsetting.
Rockets Red: A fun interlude on Mars!
The Lady Astronaut of Mars: The story that started it all! I read this story when it was first published on the Tor website in 2013, and absolutely loved it — which is why I was thrilled to death when the author ended up expanding this world into the Lady Astronaut series. This story works as a stand-alone, set decades after the events of The Calculating Stars, and provides a different take on Elma and Nathaniel and the space program. (Fun note: This story was originally written as part of the audiobook collection Rip-off!, in which an assortment of sci-fi authors wrote new stories using the first lines of classic books as a starting point. The Lady Astronaut of Mars begins with the opening line of The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.)
All of the stories in Word Puppets are great, in my humble opinion! If you enjoy Mary Robinette Kowal’s writing, or even if you’ve never read her before, give this collection a try. The stories all stand on their own, so if you’re like me and are generally reluctant to commit to reading a book of short stories start to finish, Word Puppets is a nice choice to keep on your nightstand and dip in and out of whenever you feel like reading a story in 15 minutes or less!
Title: Word Puppets
Authors: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Prime Books
Publication date: November 19, 2015
Length: 319 pages
Genre: Short stories/Science fiction/Fantasy