Tag: Shortfire Press

Book and story notes: Miéville, Brown, Hyslop

China Miéville, Embassytown (2011)

The rumour before publication was that Embassytown would be China Miéville’s first proper oray into science fiction; and, technically, it is – but Miéville is a fantasy writer at heart, and setting a novel on a planet in deep space with aliens hasn’t changed the essential feel of his work. Our narrator is Avice Benner Cho, a human native of Embassytown, which lies on a world whose indigenous species are known as Hosts. The Hosts can only understand their own language, and even then only if it’s spoken by a sentient being; as the Hosts have two mouths which they use simultaneously, humans communicate with Hosts through specially-bred clone pairs called Ambassadors. The start of the novel sees the arrival in Embassytown of a new Ambassador named EzRa who are, uniquely and impossibly, not clones – and when they address the Hosts, they start a change of events that will lead to all-out war.

Embassytown may not represent a dramatic shift in genre for Miéville, but it is his first novel in quite some time not to be set at least partly on present-day Earth, and here things do feel different. I’m thinking in particular back to Perdido Street Station; granted, it’s a good ten years since I read that book, but I remember it glorying in its own strangeness. Embassytown is more subdued and remote: partly this is a function of its narrator, who admits that she’s not naturally one for the limelight; and Avice’s voice remains correspondingly cool and measured throughout. But it’s also appropriate to the story Miéville is telling, as it concerns a species and mode of communication which are so very inscrutable.

Yet, even though I recongnise its importance, that distancing effect still stops me from really engaging with the novel. There’s certainly some interesting fantasy in there: for example, the Hosts cannot lie, even to make metaphors; they can use similes, but have to enact the object of comparison first – and they can involve humans, including Avice herself. However, mostly, I find the issues around Hosts and their language too abstract to really work as the key emotional anchor for the story; and that is what puts Embassytown in the lower tier of Miéville’s works for me.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.

Kat Brown, ‘A Marvellous Party’ (2011)

This new story from Shortfire Press concerns Adie, whose boyfriend Simon breaks up with her on a railway-station platform just as they were about to go on holiday for Christmas. He boards the train, and she returns dejectedly to her flat – where her friend Becca invites Adie to a party that might just turn her life around. There’s some neat writing here, as Kat Brown creates an atmosphere very efficiently, with a few choice details; whether it’s life in Adie’s flat (‘John [her flatmate] dropped four Nurofen into a carton of orange juice’), or the party itself:

Glazed middle managers buzzed around a beige buffet, and Becca was absorbed almost immediately by a cloud of sequins and novelty jumpers. Adie took a glass of festively disgusting red wine and was swept into conversation by a group who spoke only in buzzwords.

Brown won this month’s Literary Death Match in London with ‘A Marvellous Party’; it’s not hard to see why, and I imagine that the story works just as well read aloud as it does on the page.

Jess Hyslop, ‘Augury’ (2011)

Another new Shortfire Press piece, in this case one that won its author Cambridge University’s Quiller-Couch prize for creative writing – again, it’s clear why. Jess Hyslop takes us to Nazi-occupied Guernsey, where Peter Davies gets by after a German soldier shot him in the leg; he only survived because his neighbour, Anne Brehaut, found him and took him in – not that Anne’s blind husband Louis was keen on having a man in the house who could see her when he himself couldn’t. Now, Peter fixates on the Brehauts’ shed, where he’s sure they’re keeping a bird; or perhaps he’s really fixating on Anne.

Peter Davies comes to life as an ambiguous, not-quite-sympathetic character, who has been scarred (emotionally as well as physically) by his injury, and left world-weary and cautious:

What currently worries him most is Talk. There is a lot of Talk about. This Talk is surreptitious, taking place at odd hours in odd corners amongst what he considers, frankly, odd people. And it is idealistic, which means that it is dangerous. It is exactly the kind of Talk he tries not to get involved with, the kind that he will hurry past with his head down, if he catches so much as a whisper.

The tension which builds throughout this story comes from never being quite sure what the characters might do, or what their true motivations are – right up to the sharply effective ending.

Shortfire Press

Nadifa Mohamed, ‘Summer in the City’ (2010)
Laura Dockrill, ‘Topple’ (2010)
Elizabeth Jenner, ‘It Snows They Say on the Sea’ (2010)

It seems there is something of a trend at the moment for publishing individual short stories. To name two publishers doing so, I’ve already come across Nightjar Press and Spectral Press – and now Clare Hey has launched Shortfire Press, which is specialising in electronic-only editions of stories. Shortfire has launched with three titles, and it is a very strong selection.


Nadifa Mohamed arrived on the literary scene last year with Black Mamba Boy; I liked that novel (albeit with a few reservations), and I like this story even more. The events of ‘Summer in the City’ take place in London over the course of a few hours, shortly before the birthday of Mohamed’s narrator, Hodan Ismail. Hodan has asked for a bike, and that’s what she’ll get – but not, as she discovers, the one she wanted. That scene, in the middle of the story, is nicely handled, as Hodan tries to reconcile her disappointment at seeing the rusty ‘old woman’s bike’ her father has bought from a neighbour with the feeling that she really ought to be grateful for a gift that her father would hardly be likely to have received as a child, and certainly wouldn’t have grumbled about if he had.

Apart from one or two points in the opening descriptive passage that don’t quite work, the rest of the story is similarly fine. I particularly like Mohamed’s knack for bringing characters to life in a couple of sentences. We meet some characters only in passing, maybe through only a snatched conversation, yet it’s still possible for us to create a vivid picture of them and imagine what their stories might be. The author also has a very good control of mood, as the tale shifts from a light-hearted tone to something more serious. I look forward to Mohamed’s next novel with even greater anticipation than previously.


‘Topple’ is the first piece by Laura Dockrill that I’ve read, but it will not be the last. This story documents brilliantly the evolution of the relationship between the narrator and the object of her attention (which is sometimes affectionate, other times not). The tale begins at a swimming pool when both are aged eight, and the girl has the first stirrings of a feeling for which she may not yet even have the concepts (‘I hope I don’t miss you leaving, little red-eyes bellyflopper. Even though boys blatantly aren’t my thing’).

So the story moves forward through the years, never ringing a false note. Now the girl and boy are friends; now they aren’t. He has a girlfriend; it matters; it doesn’t. Growing up. Birthday parties (will he come? does she want him to?). Clubs (will he be there? will he be alone? does he even remember her?). Drinking. Jobs. On. Off. An air of uncertainty (around the relationship, yes, but the girl is also uncertain about herself, to an extent, as she grows up) remains throughout. ‘Topple’ is an incisive contemporary take on will-they/won’t-they – and you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out if they will.


The third Shortfire launch story is by a new writer, Elizabeth Jenner. ’It Snows They Say on the Sea’ is a short but effective character study. A couple look back on a week when inclement weather and shift patterns kept them from seeing each other, despite their living under the same roof. They communicated largely through notes left while the other was sleeping. Now (the beginning says), they resolve not to let it happen again: ‘They will buy highlighter pens, make charts, tack planners to the fridge with plastic vegetable magnets.’ But that sounds to me more like a good intention than a serious plan; perhaps, then, the couple can laugh at that week from this distance.

One of them can, anyway. Jenner reveals a fracture in the relationship that has the potential to grow into a deeper division: the woman seems to have shaken off that week, but the man still dwells on it. In carefully detailed prose, we see the myriad little ways he was affected by her absence (or, at times, her proximity), and what the result has been. This story is a great start for Jenner, and – along with the other two pieces here – a superb start for Shortfire Press.

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