Title: Liberty & Other Stories
Author: Alexis Hall
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Pages/Word Count: 308 Pages
At a Glance: A pastiche that’s done not just amazingly well but with unexpected touches of hilarity in deeply serious moments.
Reviewed By: Rena
Blurb: For the delight and edification of discerning readers, we present diverse stories concerning the lives, histories, and adventures of the crew of the aethership Shadowless.
Lament! as an upstanding clergyman falls into the villainous clutches of a notorious criminal mastermind.
Question your sanity! as a dissolute governess confronts blasphemies from beyond creation.
Wonder! at the journey of the dashing skycaptain Byron Kae across sapphire oceans, through smog-choked streets, and to the depths of the sky itself.
Gasp! at an entirely true and accurately rendered tale of pirates, cavalrymen, aethermancers, scientists, and a power to unmake the world.
Plus, hitherto unseen extracts from the meticulous and illuminating journals of Mrs. Miranda Lovelace, rogue scientist and first of the aethermancers.
Review: As a big fan of Alexis Hall’s Prosperity, I was thrilled to learn about the upcoming stand-alone titles that serve as prequels and sequels to the novel (upcoming back then, anyway, when I first read Prosperity; I’ve been, alas, rather late to the party since). Liberty and Other Stories is a collection of novelettes and novellas focusing on Picaddilly, Byron Kae, Jane Grey, Milord, and Ruben Crowe – recounting, through wonderfully diverse narrative approaches, their stories leading up to the events in Prosperity as well as those following.
The collection begins with “Shackles”, which is a prequel that goes over Milord and Ruben Crowe’s relationship before they cross paths again in Prosperity. Now, I was really looking forward to this installment as I was hoping to warm up to Ruben Crowe after his rather dull presence in the novel. With only him and Milord taking center stage in this novelette, we get to enjoy the sizzling chemistry these two men have as they desperately and doggedly resist their attraction to each other. Unfortunately, I finished the story still not a fan of Ruben Crowe.
Firstly, of the four titles in this collection, “Shackles” seems to be the weakest. Against the zany steampunk adventures of everyone else in this collection, this story comes across as too standard and by-the-numbers in terms of the exploration of the two heroes, and I’m afraid it was rather easy for me to forget the plot once I started reading “Squamous With a Chance of Rain”, the second novelette in the anthology. And secondly, Ruben is – Ruben. Yes, he’s a preacher (or former preacher) who finds himself torn against his beliefs and his nature, but I still find his characterization rather more like wallpaper against which Milord distinguishes himself. Had the story been told from Milord’s POV, maybe my perceptions of Ruben would be altered in some way or another since Milord’s colorful personality and quirks would influence my views. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t, and I was glad to move on from it.
The rest of the anthology – “Squamous With a Chance of Rain”, Cloudy Climes and Starless Skies, and Liberty – more than make up for “Shackles”. And that’s because we’re once again blessed to see all kinds of adventures unfold through the eyes of the more electric members of the Prosperity cast. I also would like to emphasize the fact that in these three stories, Alexis Hall goes all out and approaches them through a variety of narrative styles and devices: the epistolary novel, the dialogue, journal entries, and even court records. Each is a pastiche that’s done not just amazingly well but with unexpected touches of hilarity in deeply serious moments, particularly in the last two books.
Jane Grey’s story is told in epistolary fiction style – a style I’ve always loved, having been introduced to it in my college English Lit classes. It’s a narrative approach that can provide the reader with a fantastic view of the letter writer’s personality, especially when the same character writes to different people (in this case, Jane writes exclusively to her friend). Tone changes, language shifts, details are either held back or expanded on, depending on the recipient and the writer’s relationship with him/her. And in Jane’s case, we get to enjoy a pretty hysterical account of her “origin story”, as it were, and how she got her bizarre abilities and her drug addiction. It’s also a pastiche on a number of levels, which was fun to pick at as I read through it. Jane Grey, i.e., Jane Eyre (gothic governess story by Charlotte Brontë) and Agnes Grey (Victorian governess story about the horribleness of teaching someone’s brats by Anne Brontë) – as I read both books before, I couldn’t help but pounce on those. Add to that a generous dose of The Sound of Music, and you’ve got Jane’s pre-Prosperity life in all its gothic, close-harmony singing and laudanum-spiced glory.
Cloudy Climes and Starless Skies is an account of Byron Kae’s history – really the saddest and most bittersweet installment in this collection. It’s told from Byron’s POV as a dialogue with Dil, and that dialogue takes place some time after the events in Prosperity. Dil here is now a young man, not a scrappy boy – wiser than ever, more adventurous than ever, and certainly proving himself Byron’s perfect partner in more ways than one. Throughout the story, Dil interrupts the narrative with questions, observations, and other things in typical Dil style – generously peppered with expletives, coarseness, and keen insight spelled out with the kind of openness and earnestness that’d make you laugh and break your heart at the same time. And it’s through Dil’s (most welcome) interruptions that Byron’s story doesn’t get weighed down too much with sadness. The closing paragraphs prior to the epilogue, especially, would’ve brought me to tears had I not been laughing at something Dil was saying leading up to that part. On the whole, this novella was perhaps the most beautifully written of the stories in the collection.
Liberty goes beyond the private worlds of the characters we love and raises issues regarding power and its abuse. It’s also the most complex of the stories in the anthology, told in a series of a few random journal entries and letters, but mostly court documents. Other characters are introduced, their purposes mostly nefarious save for one man who risks execution as a traitor to England by listening to his conscience at the very last minute. It’s a fun adventure in which different characters tell their stories (to the court, of course), their voices so wonderfully distinct from each other that you end up not wanting to have the chaotic incident in Liberty recounted in any other way. Expletives are, of course, redacted, to hysterical effect. And, as icing on the cake, we’re given pretty serious warnings or instructions from transcribers regarding recordings on wax cylinders and what one can hear when said cylinders are played back or played backwards.
This anthology really serves its purpose in further fleshing out the world created in Prosperity. My indifference toward “Shackles” didn’t really hurt my enjoyment of the rest of the stories, and I highly recommend the entire series to anyone who loves both steampunk and some really colorful pastiche.
You can buy Liberty & Other Stories here: