The Emerald Circus
by Jane Yolen
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tachyon Publications Trade Paperback / eBook ISBN/ITEM#: 9781616962739
Date: 14 November 2017 List Price $15.99 / $9.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Reviewing Jane Yolen's new collection, The Emerald Circus, was a strange experience for me. The last time I read Jane Yolen's work was as a teenager, devouring her series of young adult dragon novels Dragon's Blood and Heart's Blood. As an adult, I lost track of her work, so I didn't know what to expect in reading her fiction again almost twenty years later. What I found was a writer who again and again mines our modern fables and shared cultural touchstones with an eye to revealing new riches and angles in these familiar stories. The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and more; all are grist to Yolen's mill. Indeed, almost all of the stories in this collection work from culturally relevant source material, exploiting the tension between the expectations given rise to by this source material and her own subversive or surprising twists. My enjoyment of the stories varied somewhat based on my familiarity with and appreciation for the sources on which she riffs, but all are tightly constructed and well executed.
Several of the stories fictionalize the lives of real people. "Andersen's Witch" turns Hans Christian Andersen's life into one of his own fairy tales, complete with a Witch, a terrible price, and a last minute redemption. "Sister Emily's Lightship" imagines Emily Dickinson encountering aliens. Someone more familiar with Dickinson's life and work would probably enjoy it more, but the sensitive portrait of Dickinson is affecting even apart from the science fictional element. "The Bird" imagines Edgar Allan Poe's inspiration for his most famous poem, re-infusing the familiar poem with new pathos.
My favorite stories in the collection are those that riff on other authors' work. "Blown Away", despite having almost no plot elements in common with the Wizard of Oz other than Dorothy being carried off by a hurricane, manages to construct a fascinating dialogue with that famous work while telling a rich and affecting story in its own right. "Lost Girls" questions the gender dynamic of never-never land to great effect. Indeed, I wish this story were longer--it sometimes feels like a novella or short novel compressed into a few short pages. And, while a bit less substantial than these stories, "The Gift of the Magicians, with Apologies to You Know Who" mashes up the "Gift of the Magi" with "Beauty and the Beast", with hilarious and gruesome results.
Arthurian legend is another frequent source of inspiration for Yolen. "The Confession of Brother Blaise" tells of Merlin's birth, "Evian Steel" of the forging of Excalibur, and "The Quiet Monk" of Lancelot's search for the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere to ask forgiveness. I have only a passing familiarity with the Arthurian story, so I feel that I missed some of the nuances of these stories, but "The Quiet Monk" in particular succeeds as a story despite this ignorance.
The story notes at the end of the collection are a special treat, offering a selection of poems along with insight into the inspiration for, and writing of, the stories collected here. This behind-the-scenes peek is a lot of fun, and Yolen has the rare gift of being as interesting when she talks about her writing as the writing itself is.
This collection represents the self-assured and confident voice of a writer who has perfected their own voice. If you enjoy reading fresh, sometimes subversive, but always affectionate takes on the stories that we all grew up with, I recommend this collection without reservation.