STARLINGS, by Jo Walton
Tachyon Publications, 2018
Starlings is a short story collection by Jo Walton, author of such books as the Hugo and Nebula award winning Among Others as well as the Small Change trilogy, beginning with Farthing, and the Thessaly trilogy, beginning with The Just City. Starlings is Walton’s first collection of short fiction—as she mentions in the introduction, Walton is better known for novels. But it’s not just short fiction—the book is sandwiched by poetry too: a poem at the beginning to introduce us and then a whole host to round us off at the end.
Walton tells us in the introduction to the collection that spent a while writing short stories without actually knowing how to write short stories. When this is pointed out, I think you can tell. Walton’s stories are weirdly shaped—they don’t necessarily travel or end where you’d expect them to. This doesn’t make them bad, mind you. Walton’s writing is as good as ever. But what really shines through this collection is the calibre of Walton’s ideas.
The collection takes on myths, fables, stories and histories and in almost every story I was captured by Walton’s inventiveness. From ‘Remember the Allosaur’, in which Cedric, a talking allosaurus, desperately wants to give his Hamlet, to ‘What Would Sam Spade Do?’ in which the future holds a race of clones of Jesus.
Walton fully embraces the silliness of some of her subjects. What may be my favourite of the collection, ‘Three Shouts on a Hill’ is a playscript about three children of an Irish lord and their pastiched mythic adventures. I can’t even begin to describe the madness and hilarity and also sadness and defiance of this story—it reminds me of Monty Python and Tom Stoppard at once. This ridiculousness runs through the collection like a delightful vein. See also: the Godzilla Sonnets(!).
Speaking of the poetry, sometimes it feels as if in a mixed collection poetry can take second fiddle to the prose. I don’t feel this happened here. Jo Walton’s poetry—which she admits she is a better hand at than short fiction—is deft and deep. I enjoyed every single poem. There are more myths and legends here, and Walton turns them upside-down and inside-out and looks at them from odd angles.
The title of this collection, ‘Starlings’, has a dual meaning that the opening poem unfolds. We know the little oil-coloured bird that flies in dazzling murmurations in their flocks. But a starling could also be a young star, as yet incomplete but beginning to shine. That’s what I get from these stories: the light from these artifacts of Walton’s past only just reaching me now, unformed and odd and very often beautiful.