Sugar and spite

- Kimberley Ballard

The first short story collection from Marjorie Liu is one of myths and fairy tales. Fittingly, reading it feels like being lured into a deep, dark forest.

Women are at the forefront here, with stories sewn from the violence and struggle of being born female. “Sympatheti­c Bones” comes first: a folksy, gothic tale about a girl who grows up in the clutches of a backwoods witch, where she leans the rough magic of hoodoo and how to punish the roving hands of local men with homemade dolls. It’s painfully gripping. “The Briar And The Rose” is also a highlight. A queer retelling of Sleeping Beauty that finally gives its eponymous princess a taste of revenge, its bodysnatch­ing villain is a high-camp delight.

In contrast, the sickening monster horror of “The Last Dignity Of Man” isn’t about women at all, but a wealthy CEO who models himself after supervilla­in Lex Luthor. He’s also sexually obsessed with Superman, a provocativ­e detail that takes the collection into adult territory.

Unfortunat­ely, the collection is weaker in its second half. “The Light And The Fury” takes place in an alternate steampunk history, where a Chinese-scottish woman fights to save her country from brutal conquest. But while it’s a treat to read about crystal skulls and grotesque monster-warriors, its heaving plot would have been much more suited to a novel. Two companion pieces to Liu’s Dirk & Steele series and her novella The Robber Bride have also been included. These can be enjoyed standalone, but lack the bite of the collection’s earlier works.

It remains a gorgeous collection, filled with the kind of lush, vibrant imagery that makes it feel painted rather than written. One to read late at night, preferably with a mug of herbal tea and a black cat on your lap.

In 2018, Liu became the first woman to win the Eisner Award for Best Writer, for her horror-fantasy comic Monstress.

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