Title: Shards and Ashes
Editors: Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong
Star Rating: * * *
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Dystopia /Urban Fantasy, Short Stories
Shards and Ashes is a collection of YA short stories about dystopias by some of the big names in the genre. From out-of-control corporations to colonies in space, these narratives offer a variety of future possibilities for and commentaries on human society.
Short stories are extremely hard to write. Authors have limited space to tell stories that are often complicated and broad in scope; therefore, every word counts. When done correctly, though, short stories can be very powerful as they are compact bundles of emotional impact.
One way of structuring an effective short story is to focus on the characters. For example, in Hearken by Veronica Roth, her universe is not particularly detailed, but the story focuses on how this world affects the choices and life of her protagonist. In this dystopic future, some people have developed the ability to hear the life and death songs of others. We are not really given much information as to how or why this occurred, but instead follow the main character as she chooses which role she is going to occupy. This universe could definitely be expanded, but I never felt like my unanswered questions harmed the story of the one person that I was reading about. Kelley Armstrong’s story Branded was quite similar. In her world, humans have fled behind fortress walls because of the existence of supernatural creatures, and the story involves our main character’s attempts to escape from this life. The hows and whys of the dystopia were less important than whether the main character was going to escape safely and reunite with her lover. As a final note, even if the exact details of the universe are not the focus of the story, they still need to make sense and flow well for a character-driven piece to work.
Another short story method that often works well is to write a story that exists within an already established universe. Beth Revis’ Love is a Choice is set in her Across the Universe series, and was meant to explore a character that didn’t get much attention in the series at large. Such a format is a great way of addressing a subject that adds to the overall story, but doesn’t fit easily into the main novels. In this case, Love is a Choice happens before the events of Across the Universe, and is meant to contextualise Orion’s choices, complicating the ethics and morals presented in the rest of the series.
As I said above, short stories are a very difficult type of literature to master, and authors can go astray in many ways. One of the most common problems is when authors try to cram too many ideas and concepts into their piece. This leads to a lack of cohesion and clarity, and your readers just end up confused. This was an issue for Margaret Stohl’s Necklace of Raindrops, as well as Nancy Holder’s Pale Rider. Both offered an interesting glimpse at a dystopic world, but there wasn’t enough information given to readers for either of these stories to make sense. I didn’t really understand what was happening, and all of the questions I had in my head distracted me from enjoying the stories themselves. An important lesson, therefore, is to ensure that your idea is appropriate for a short story, and know when it needs to be simplified for this particular form.
For other authors, their misstep is to write something that is really just a chapter in a broader story. This was the problem with Melissa Marr’s Corpse Eaters. A short story, despite its length, needs to tell a closed story. It may be that you are writing about a universe that could be the topic of its own novel, but you need to give your readers something definitive in this particular piece. In Corpse Eaters, we are thrust into a world where a “God” has arrived and is taking over with reptilian monsters. Our main characters are rebels, and the father of one of them betrays them for inadequately explained reasons. This could have been its own story had there been more concentration on the betrayal itself, but instead it felt like a portion of a novel that was dropped randomly into the collection without any context. Consequently, when writing a short story, you should ensure that it can stand on its own.
Finally, because authors have such a short time to woo their readers, the topic of a short story needs to be interesting and unique in some sense. You don’t have enough space to reiterate something that’s come before. This was the central problem with Burn 3 by Kami Garcia. It was not that the story was poorly written, but that the framework of the dystopic world and the conflict that occurred were not terribly novel. The ozone was destroyed, making it difficult for people to avoid life-threatening burns, and, consequently, there was a black market for the skin of children for people to heal themselves. This story had potential, but it didn’t push the horror of the situation enough to make this not particularly original situation shine. In fact, I completely forgot about this story until I checked the table of contents. The lesson, therefore, is that short stories depend on something memorable or poignant that will stay with your readers.
Shards and Ashes isn’t the strongest collection of short stories, but it was still an enjoyable read, and the book certainly offers a lot of insight into what makes a well-constructed short story! For those who enjoy the latest trend of YA dystopic literature, this is a fun and quick volume to pick up, and for fans of Bath Revis’ Across the Universe series, the book contains a new story from that universe.