Shards and Ashes edited by Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong

30th May 2013

Shards and Ashes

Shards & Ashes is a fitting title for an anthology that contains nine imaginations of apocalyptic futures – from solar flares that threaten to destroy the planet, to a world whose inhabitants live in fear of supernatural presences.

Editors Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong have compiled a selection of short but well-crafted stories that, while aimed at young adult readers, could easily appeal to an older audience thanks to their portrayal of strong female protagonists.

Veronica Roth’s Hearken is wonderfully imaginative: when chosen individuals can hear someone’s ‘life’ or ‘death’ song, strong-willed Darya must adjust to her new-found gift, an alcoholic parent, and surviving bio-warfare.

...a selection of short but well-crafted stories that, while aimed at young adult readers, could easily appeal to an older audienceCorpse EatersHarmony, likewise subjected to an alcoholic parent, overcomes obligation to her father in order to rebel against an alien invasion. Melissa Marr’s depiction of Harmony as a hostile, unpredictable fighter is compelling. Particularly striking is that any hints of romance are instigated by her.

Nancy Holder’s Pale Rider is influenced by Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight: both female leads lack self-sufficiency, and have a tendency to almost deify their love interests. Alex instantly dominates Dana in a student-teacher relationship, but more worryingly, he often uses his power to control Dana. Alex’s power resembles thrall or ‘glamouring’ (notably in Dracula, True Blood and even Harry Potter – remember the Imperius curse?), yet thrall is associated with villains, and readers are obviously meant to ‘ship’ the Dana-Alex romance. Eliminating Dana’s free will undermines her character. This is a violation, and it’s scary how it’s almost accepted in the narrative:

“I feel like you’re supposed to be here. And ja, I pushed to make that happen. If things were different I would never have invaded you…” He shrugged. “But they’re not.”

The unapologetic justification of male dominance to the point of ‘invasion’ is even more disturbing as Pale Rider seems aimed at a younger audience than other stories in the collection. The plot isn’t as ambitious, and the writing is often cliched, jarring against the more innovative stories.

Rachel Caine’s Dogsbody and Beth RevisLove is a Choice, the only stories from a male perspective, depict non-conformist women: Virtue and her female colleagues are deadly fighters, and Mag obsesses over destroying the hierarchy. Both authors endow each female character with traditionally (perhaps stereotypically) masculine traits, which is for the most part successful, but Mag is too fuelled by rage for a reader to identify with (disappointing for a story with only one named female character).

The most interesting stories appear early in the collection. Branded imagines an Earth shared with supernatural beings. What begins as an uninspired romance-fantasy becomes much more thanks to a complex, even manipulative, protagonist, and Kelley Armstrong’s drip-drip approach to revealing the plot. Necklace of Raindrops is visually arresting; seeing life as a visible symbol is beautiful, yet troubling. Margaret Stohl skilfully addresses the god-complex, challenging power, and clinging to life without truly living, in a believable and relatable way.

One of S&A’s biggest successes is depicting bonds between sisters. Burn 3, exploring the fallout from global warming, shows an affirming relationship between young sisters. Kami Garcia imbues protagonist Phoenix with tenacity and resourcefulness that never seems contrived.

The collection ends with a message of hope: Miasma depicts unconditional love between sisters faced with a plague epidemic. Carrie Ryan draws on history for inspiration: the villains of the piece, the beaked doctors, are insidious, but it’s Ryan’s characterisation of the spirited Frankie that truly makes the story.

Shards & Ashes gives its audience an assortment of well-rounded female characters, and some stories easily have the potential to mature into fully-fledged adult novels.

Shards & Ashes is published in paperback by Atom Books and is available from Foyles, Amazon or your local independent bookshop, priced at £6.99. An ebook edition is also available, priced at £3.99.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: YA fans looking for apocalyptic futures and strong-willed female characters

Other recommended reading: Women of the Otherworld by Kelley Armstrong; the Wicked Lovely series by Melissa Marr; the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth; Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl.

Aimee Oliver