Predicting a Great Short Story - Foretold: 14 Stories of Prophecy and Prediction

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Foretold: 14 Stories of Prophecy and Prediction
After taking a look at the authors who contributed to the anthology, Foretold: 14 Stories of Prophecy and Prediction, edited by Carrie Ryan, it wasn't hard to see that this grouping of short stories was going to be terrific.

I adore short story anthologies, for a couple of reasons. I usually read the collections that have a few writers I love (Richelle Mead, Laini Taylor and Diana Peterfreund were my draws in this one) just so I can get my fix while waiting for their next book. But short story anthologies are also like trolling for new authors. After all, if I'm reading a collection, it's usually built around a theme I like and I've noticed that authors, young adult ones in particular, have a tendency to form close bonds with writers of a similar quality. Get one great YA author in a collection and chances are you've hit the jackpot.

"Gentlemen Send Phantoms" by Laini Taylor

What a perfect story to start the collection! This terrific, romantic tale is set in a time where superstition and minor witchcraft was still a part of daily life. Three friends take advantage of the idea that on October 6th, a future husband's phantom will visit his destined wife. All three girls want the handsome Matty, much to Pippin's dismay. She and Matty have been friends since childhood, but she's small and not as womanly as the others.  When she breaks the rules to save her friends, events transpire to make her think that she has no chance with Matty after all, or does she?

I didn't realize that the author who wrote the dark and haunting book, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, could pen such a sweet romance but her chops come through yet again as she showcases her ability to have you buy into a fantastic setting with no reservations. It's an incredible ability not a lot of writers can boast.

"Burned Bright" by Diana Peterfreund

It's no secret that I adore Diana Peterfreund; she always blows me away with the power of her writing and this short story was no exception. Alternating points of view between the charismatic daughter of a cult leader predicting the end of the world and the boy who loves her, this contains an utterly chilling ending. I love stories where I am uncertain about what is really happening - where it's uncertain what is the "truth" - and Peterfreund weaves a complex web in this tale that has me still thinking about the characters a few days later.

The quality I love the most about Peterfreund's writing is her unbelievably strong female characters. These girls are powerful, realize it, and aren't afraid to use their gifts. I always forget how rare this is in young adult literature until I read her work. Anyone who hasn't read her Killer Unicorns series needs to get their butt in gear and do so. It's amazing.

"The Angriest Man" by Lisa McMann

I've never read anything by this author before. Set in an ambiguous semi-fantasy world with an estranged and neglected boy born with a supernatural quality, this story was beautifully written - you enjoyed the feeling of the words in your mouth all the while trying to figure out the truth. Was this unnamed protagonist truly a result of something highly supernatural? Should his mother be blamed for neglecting him? If he really was somehow endowed with otherworldly qualities, how did other people not notice and point it out?

This short story made such an impression on me that I'm definitely going to read McMann's Dream Catcher series (I've bought it for the library, I've just yet to read it).

"Out of the Blue" by Meg Cabot

There exists an entire generation of girls who have been literally raised on The Princess Diaries series, or the gagillion other Meg Cabot books which she's published to acclaim. This short story combines Cabot's signature sense of humor and cutting insight into teen relationship dynamics (the litigious psycho ex-girlfriend? Hilarious!). Cabot's whimsical and creepy tale is conveyed via interview transcripts clearly taken by "the men in black" about fraternal twins who have an encounter with a spaceship when they are six and then another, much more interesting one, when they are sixteen.

Meg Cabot has proven she can handle scifi and paranormal elements as demonstrated in her successful Abandon trilogy and the Mediator series, so it's not a surprise that she paints a creepy, dark antagonist who is all the more menacing (to say nothing of the looming and unnamed government agency questioning the kids) for the occasional injections of humor.

"One True Love" by Malinda Lo

No one can ever go wrong reading Lo (I was privileged to hear her speak at a YALSA pre-conference a few years ago), and this story lived up to my high expectations. With clearly strong ties to the Oedipus story, this work is set in a fantasy world with a princess prophesied to bring down her father the king at the time she meets her "one true love". Her heartless father sequesters her with a nursemaid for her entire life, bringing her out for royal events heavily veiled so there is no chance of her spotting a love interest or being seen by someone who might fall in love with her. When her father (who goes through wives like Kleenex), is awarded a new bride from a country negotiating peace terms, he sends the gorgeous young woman to the same tower as her daughter, who is about the same age.

Lo is renowned for her skillful handling of GLBTQ themes in young adult literature, but, while the princess falls in love with her father's young bride, this beautiful story felt to me like it was more about finding strength and power when you thought you had none. The transformation of the main character from an isolated royal to a young woman filled with the power of love was heartwarming and inspirational. Lo's writing was also sweet, strong and sensual and, as such, was a delight. Anyone who hasn't read her stunning book, Ash, or one of her many other novels, should pick them up immediately.

"This Is a Mortal Wound" by Michael Grant 

Michael Grant is the successful young adult author probably best known for his dystopian Gone series. With his facility with science fiction already established, it's unsurprising that he has chosen to include a story in this anthology set in the near future. As an educator, this storyline did make me REALLY uncomfortable, and - while I haven't known a teacher who has completely snapped - this was all too easy to believe!

This is a tale of a sadistic teacher set in a future where education is more dominated by technology than it is today. I did think it stretched the premise of "prophesy and prediction" although clearly it was meant to highlight the real future of education as needing to keep up with the fast pace of scientific discovery and change. I couldn't decide if I liked Tomaso or not, but I loved the climatic scene where his teacher gets her comeuppance as he proves to her that technology offers better quality information than his textbook. That said, the absence of an actual good teacher - one that has expertise and uses technology to help guide student learning - made me sad, but I'm sure this would be a cathartic short story for a student who has suffered with a horrible teacher (and, let's face it, we've all had at least one).

"Misery" by Heather Brewer

Chronicles of Vladimir Tod series
The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episodes I remember most as a child were the ones were protagonists found themselves in a strange town or surrounded by menacing neighbors. The show usually had some tremendous twist, a la Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," which would make me gasp. If I was lucky, it would possess enough of a resolution that I could go to sleep that night, not worrying about the fate of the characters.

Heather Brewer's short story instantly brought this scifi infatuation of mine to mind. Set in a mysterious town that no one could quite remember moving to, Alek awaits to hear of the "gift" the year would bring him, a gift predicted by the town psychic, Jordan. Jordan predicted the arrival of Alek's best friend, Sara, at a time when he was lonely, but he feels a tremendous weight bearing down on him; this year's gift might be more than what he bargained for.

"The Mind is a Powerful Thing" by Matt de la Pena

Joanna is a constantly worried sixteen-year-old. Despite celebrating her birthday with her close friends in West L.A., she nevertheless sees the worst around every corner and to her, the worst means assault and murder. After imbibing a little too much, the party gets out of control and Joanna might have irreparably damaged the one really good thing in her life.

I have a bunch of de la Pena's books in the library, but they are still on my "to-read" list. His unique voice was a refreshing change in the middle of this anthology and I loved the inclusion of Latina characters and an urban setting in a genre usually dominated by white protagonists. Diversity aside, however, I was wowed by how de la Pena conveys the idea of Joanna's paranoia, yet simultaneously gives you reason to believe she might just be worried for a valid reason. This duality kept me guessing and questioning my assumptions for the whole read. I love it when a good writer does that to me.

"The Chosen One" by Saundra Mitchell

Saundra Mitchell's fantasy story was a standout in this collection, largely due to her choice to have a scarred protagonist, yet show us this character's inner beauty from the beginning. Corvina may be the daughter of the king of Vernal, but she was born on the wrong side of the blanket and is relegated to be the servant of her legitmate sister, the stunning Lucia. Lucia is wonderful, however, and about to embark on a search for a fiancee worthy of her, so Corvina is all the more bereft when her sister falls prey to a virilent disease. Not content to stand by and do nothing, Corvina decides to embark on a quest to find a magical cup that could cure Lucia.

Isn't all good fantasy centered on an individual's quest? Corvina's fight through obstacles, her finding a handsome ally to aid her, and a wonderful resolution had me eagerly turning the pages of this tale. I know Mitchell has done paranormal and mystery, but has she done other fantasy? I'm dying for more.

"Improbable Futures" by Kami Garcia

I've only read Kami Garcia's work which she's written partnered with Margaret Stohl, so it was super to be able to hear her voice separate from that collaboration.

Ilana has been a carney since she was a child, destined to follow in her mother's footsteps to tell people their "fortunes" at the run down circus they've followed for her lifetime. She hates lying to people every night, but she does it, both because it is the only life she knows and because of the very real threat the owner poses to her. But one night, something happens to the prophecies Ilana tells her customers, and she never could have foreseen the results.

This tale was dark, dark, DARK and so rich with despair that I felt heavy after reading it. Yet I was delighted to see such a wonderful writer emerge on her own at the same time. Garcia has a new book coming out this year and this short story guarantees I'm buying it for the library.

"Death for the Deathless" by Margaret Stohl

Did you know that I actually have heard both Stohl and Garcia speak? They were a dynamic twosome during the same YALSA young adult literature presentation where I also heard Malinda Lo. Attendees actually got a copy of Beautiful Creatures as one of the take-away gifts for the workshop. I read it in one fell swoop on the plane and loved the gothic feel and strong Southern sense of place that pervaded the novel. The highly successful series established both Garcia and Stohl's reputations, so it's great to see them both writing on their own, yet enjoying each other's company in the same anthology.

If this short story doesn't become a full-fledged book or series, it's a waste of a terrific idea. Beginning in the dark recesses of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, we meet two immortals, Luc whose job it is to use the enigma machine to receive prophecies from an unknown dimension, and the beautiful Adrienne, who must communicate them, good or bad, to the head immortals. Sorcerers, vampires, and werewolves abound in this world, and when Luc receives a communication about death to immortals, he and Adrienne are terrified to see the repercussions when she delivers the message, and for good reason.

I loved that the POV switched between the two characters and this world is so rich and nuanced, it left me wanting much, much more. I hope I get it!

"Fate" by Simone Elkeles

I'm not sure I would have put a second short story which also alternates POV between the male and female protagonist, but Ryan did. Luckily the two stories couldn't be more different. While Stohl plays to her strengths (and established fan base) in paranormal romance, Elkeles knows her forte is undoubtedly contemporary YA romance and she delivers.

Carson is an eighteen-year-old recently homeless and from a rough background; his father is in jail and his mother abandoned him when he was young, seeing him sporadically but always with little commitment. A loan allows him to rent a run-down RV in a trailer park and while it's not much, it's home, even if it comes with a chattering sixteen-year-old redhead girl next door. Willow doesn't seem to know how to take a hint, but she is determined to help Carson and he discovers that maybe it's time he opened up a little after all.

Sweet romance but it felt highly compressed to me - I would have enjoyed this in a longer book!

"The Killing Garden" by Carrie Ryan

Carrie Ryan was on the cusp of the zombie resurgence in YA literature and her books always kept me wide awake waiting for the pandemic that would turn us all into cannibals. I think she has an ability to draw a world that has you believing this could be yours under different circumstances, a chilling view of alternate history that is the fuel of nightmares.

While there are no zombies in this short story, the premise is equally as frightening. Tanci is the first female heir born to a long line of gardeners to the emperor, and her birth is a tremendous disappointment to her father, who does not feel she will be strong enough to carry on his legacy. Not just in charge of the elaborate royal gardens, the gardener is also responsible for weeding the court of enemies and threats, a weeding that consists of racing the condemned through the gardens and then strangling the accused on the execution platform.

Tanci trains her entire young life, casting aside any doubts and toughening her body. When she proves her strength, beating her father at the age of fifteen, she feels that there should be more than the numb emptiness she carries. But she doesn't really begin to question her role until she comes in contact with a particular prisoner who has her rethinking her vocation.

What chills you to the bone about this story is a society in which a teenage executioner is completely accepted and how Tanci can divorce herself from any doubts or feelings and make her work merely a test of skill and strength, even as she snuffing out the life of another person. Ryan's pacing is pitch perfect, so much so that this story gives the impression of a longer novella as it takes the reader on its main character's emotional journey.

"Homecoming" by Richelle Mead

Finally, the story I actually purchased the book to read! I am a gigantic fan of the Vampire Academy series and it's companion Bloodlines series (The Indigo Spell #3 is coming out on February 12, 2013!). In all of YA literature (and most of adult romance), I defy you to come up with a hotter male lead than Dimitri Belikov. YOU CANNOT DO IT. I've got lots of teenage readers backing me up on this, people, trust me (and a few adult ones, as well).

After Rose Hathaway, the protagonist of the Vampire Academy series helps free Dimitri of his Strigoi fate (and they have an eventual happily ever after, at least enough that the Bloodlines series can begin), you next "see" them in Bloodlines, getting Jill settled in with her Alchemist handler, Sydney, our protagonist for that series. I knew, somewhere along the line, that Rose and Dimitri must have gone back to Siberia to visit his family. Rose's time in that landscape with the Belikov's were some of the most moving emotional scenes of the series as she wrestled with her grief and the knowledge that she had promised to hunt him down, and I wanted to see them all again.

I was not disappointed. Not only did I revel in seeing my two badass lovebirds together in Russia but it was wonderful to see all of Dimitri's relatives, even his witch grandmother, the cryptic Yeva. Yeva annoys Rose once again (Yeva claims she new that Rose would be Dimitri's salvation, information Rose would have enjoyed having prior to trying to hunt him down and kill him) when an Alchemist arrives to tell them about a dangerous Strigoi nearby, the Blood King. The Alchemist convinces Rose and Dimitri to try and rid the area of this menace as so many humans are getting killed. Naturally, they head off to do just that.

Rose and Dimitri are just as fabulous a couple as they always were and Mead has chosen to showcase them at their loving best - fighting Strigoi. This is a story which will not disappoint fans of the series, particularly with all the hints that Dimitri is set on convincing Rose to marry him.

So Who Wins the Blue Ribbon?

With fourteen short stories, I feel like I should at least highlight the best quality stories in this anthology. Naturally, my favorite is Mead's "Homecoming" but I'm willing to admit that someone who was unfamiliar with the Vampire Academy series would not get as much out of this story as I have (although I think they'd be tempted to read more of the series). "One True Love" by Malinda Lo and Saundra Mitchell's "The Chosen One" are stellar examples of strong female fantasy characters. Margaret Stohl's "Death for the Deathless" has also been staying with me for days, and I really do have my fingers crossed that this is a precursor to a series.

Carrie Ryan should get a bruise from patting herself on the back for this collection. She has successfully corralled some of the best quality writers in the young adult genre, building a terrific anthology of short stories which delivers to readers, not only an excellent taste of each of these authors, but also fourteen compelling emotional journeys.

I hope I can prophesy that she'll do this again for us.