BOOK REVIEW: All The Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma

All The Fabulous Beastsis a hauntingly beautiful exploration of the depths of love, loss, and relationships. Priya Sharma’s first collection of short stories offers up tales of cursed lovers, hags, mermaids, snake people, bird people, plant people, and killers. These stories show the true mastery Sharma has over fiction and delivers a gut punch of emotion that’ll stay with you long after you finish.

It is a macabre book, make no mistake on that. Very few of the characters within these stories are safe from the horrors of the world. There are monsters here. Some of the monsters are human and others are far from it. Sharma uses horror to highlight the depths some will go for love, relationships, and lust. By the end of each story we find ourselves asking who really was the monster and who was simply following their heart.

Love and loss are probably the biggest themes in the collection. In “The Ballad of Boomtown” a woman is in love with a man who is married, and during one afternoon of their tryst a tragedy strikes which marks her for the rest of her life. “Rag and Bone” follows a young man who’ll find what you need in the dark areas of town. He falls in love with a deceased captain’s wife, the captain being the face of a rebellion. The young man is targeted to deliver the wife. In “Fish Skins”, a husband’s wife is having a hard time adjusting to life on the land. They fight and bicker, feeling the wedge between them. She might be a mermaid, she might be something else. The tragic tales capture the truth of helplessness and loss when love is involved.

But, a number of these stories give us characters who face this pain and become better people for it. The husband in “Fish Skins” makes a fishtail out of fish skins and waits for his wife by the sea. In the story “Fabulous Beasts” a woman that has the ability to become a snake, faces off with the uncle that wants to use her. She fights back and accepts her true nature. “Pearls” is a unique look at the myth of Medusa. She is in the present day world, learning how to face the demons of her past. When a neighbor introduces himself and shows that he cares more for the person inside than the eyes that can turn someone to stone, she shakes off the past and looks toward a better future. Despite the bizarre settings and characters, there is something beautiful about the lengths some of these character will go for love.

Not all of the stories here are tragic studies of romance. A number of them are pure horror. Which offers up a nice breather between the more heady tales. “The Anatomist’s Mnemonic” follows a man obsessed with hands. He is willing to do anything to find a woman with the perfect pair of hands. In a cruel twist of fate, he finds the ideal woman…except the hands at the ends of her arms. However, he discovers her roommate does. So, he finds an inventive way to get everything he wants. “The Sunflower Seed Man” is probably one of my favorites. After the death of her husband, a widow tries her best to gain the love of her daughter by growing sunflowers in their yard. When one of the sunflowers goes missing, they discover that the husband has come back in a very unusual way. In the story “Egg”, a woman is trying her hardest to get pregnant. She finds a witch in her barn and asks the witch to help her, which of course comes with a cost. These stories highlight Sharma’s ability to stretch into the more weird and bizarre. We get the chance to see her skills at work and marvel at how amazing of a writer she truly is.

I would put All The Fabulous Beasts up against any collection of great speculative fiction. These stories will stand the test of time and will be talked about for years to come. I can see this book being on a number of syllabuses for creative writing. Sharma has delivered a collection that never falters.

The world of short story collections is a better place because of this book.

All The Fabulous Beasts is published by Undertow Publications and is available here.

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Priya Sharma

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Priya Sharma is a doctor from the UK who also writes short fiction. Her work has appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Albedo one and Tor.com, among others. She’s been anthologised in various annual Best of anthologies by editors like Ellen Datlow, Paula Guran, Jonathan Strahan and Johnny Mains.  Her story “Fabulous Beasts” was on the Shirley Jackson Award shortlist and won a British Fantasy Award.

More about her can be found at www.priyasharmafiction.wordpress.com

Reviewed by Matt Brandenburg

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