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Pretty Monsters
Kelly Link
Viking, 400 pages

Pretty Monsters
Kelly Link
Kelly Link's work includes appearances in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, the 'zine Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and the collection A Wolf at the Door (edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling). She won the World Fantasy Award for her story "The Specialist's Hat" and the James Tiptree Jr. Award for "Travels with the Snow Queen."

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Trampoline
SF Site Review: 4 Stories
Jelly Ink
Small Beer Press

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Pretty Monsters is a collection of Kelly Link stories which can be deemed "Young Adult." For the most part, this simply means they feature teenaged protagonists. Otherwise they are as challenging in many ways as much of Link's work -- they do not necessarily end happily, they feature twisted self-referential narrative structures, they... they entrance. (It's probably fair to say that none of the stories here are quite as challenging as such stories as "Light," "Lull," and "Stone Animals", however.) The collection includes a few previously collected stories, the award-winning YAish pieces from Stranger Things Happen (her classic horror tale "The Specialist's Hat," winner of the World Fantasy Award) and from Magic for Beginners (the title story, which won the Nebula, and "The Faery Handbag," which won both the Nebula and Hugo). The other six stories are from the past couple of years, including "Pretty Monsters," original to this book.

I am a big fan of Kelly Link, and I've burbled in print about most of these stories before. But I'll repeat myself some. There isn't a story in this book that is less than very enjoyable. And most of them are just magnificent. Obvious high points include the award-winning stories I already mentioned: "The Specialist's Hat" is an obliquely frightening story about motherless twin girls in a haunted house and their babysitter, who, she says, used to live there. "The Faery Handbag" tells of a girl whose Grandmother has a handbag which holds her entire home village, placed there to escape the dangers of World War II. "Magic for Beginners," one of my favorite stories of this decade, about a boy and his friends and a Buffy-ish TV show that they love (and may be characters in as well) and a wedding chapel and a phone booth... It's a delight.

Those stories, while indubitably fantastical, are also set in more or less current times. A couple of the more recent stories make nods to more traditional fantasy settings. "The Wizards of Perfil" features a girl sold to the disagreeable reclusive title wizards while her telepathic cousin remains behind in a war-torn town. Most of the story shows the girl's sort of accommodation with the wizards -- which turns out perhaps as we expect, though Link gets us there in unexpected ways. "The Constable of Abal" concerns a mother and daughter who can see ghosts, and who use this ability in not entirely reputable ways -- and who end up followed by the ghost of the constable who catches on to their tricks. But again, the story changes when they reach another town and the mysterious Lady Fralix.

Other stories return to a more contemporary setting. "Monster" is a spooky story of a summer camp and a bullied boy and rumors of a monster in the woods. "The Wrong Grave" is a lovely weird tale of a boy who decides to dig up his girlfriend's grave to retrieve some poems he has regretted having consigned to her coffin. Here Link is again using narrative form to great effect -- the narrator's voice and identity are in the end central to this story -- as well as the deadpan acceptance of dead girls rising from their graves.

The most recent two stories are among the longest and best in the book. The excellent long title story, "Pretty Monsters," tells two stories: one about a girl named Clementine who has a crush on an older boy who saves her life twice, leading to a foolish pursuit of him into Eastern Europe; and the second about a bunch of friends who kidnap (for fun) a couple of girls in their group for an "ordeal" -- but the kidnapped girls have a medical need to be back home in time, and we gather that what should be a madcap fun trip may not turn out well -- and we notice that one of the girls is reading Clementine's story. Which serves as a guide to what's really going on when both stories converge on an ambiguous but not reassuring ending.

"The Surfer" is also from 2008 (from Jonathan Strahan's first rate YA original anthology The Starry Rift), and it is the only unambiguously science fictional story I know of from Link. A Balkanized U.S. is descending into economic and political chaos, and a boy is taken by his father to Costa Rica in the wake of an epidemic. There they join a colony of sorts awaiting the arrival of aliens. While the aliens' impending arrival, and the back story of this particular near future, are certainly interesting, the heart of the story lies in the depiction of the boy's not entirely mature reactions to his situation. Which is to say that more than most of the stories here, this is fairly conventional Young Adult fiction -- and still very well done and involving.

I loved this book as I've loved most everything Kelly Link has written. It is certainly appropriate for YA readers, but just as appropriate for adults. I don't think I've really gotten across what makes Link's stories so magical. Part of it is in some offbeat central ideas, fantastical notions that are well used in service of both story and character. A big part is her voice, often ironical but always in a way that brings both readers and main characters in on the joke. Her characters are always real, always good enough to identify with but far from perfect, nor indeed usually particularly special. She plays games with narrative structure but again the reader is always in on the joke -- and sometimes so are the characters -- and there are reasons for her structural playing -- they aren't just games. And she has that special ability -- not one required of good writers but a gift if you have it -- that just makes the reader need to turn the page, to know what happens next -- or if not what happens next, what Link will say next. Really though -- just seek out Kelly Link's stories and read them.

Copyright © 2009 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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