Publisher - Solaris
Published - Out Now
Price - £9.99 paperback
Thanks to the Publisher for an advance copy in exchange for a fair and honest review
Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories was one of the first true children’s books in the English Language, a timeless classic that continues to delight readers to this day. Beautiful, evocative and playful, the stories of How the Whale Got His Throat or How the First Letter Was Written paint a world of magic and wonder.
It’s also deeply rooted in British colonialism. Kipling saw the Empire as a benign, civilising force in a way that’s troubling to modern readers. Not So Stories attempts to redress the balance, bringing together new and established writers of colour from around the world to take the Just So Stories back, to interrogate, challenge and celebrate their legacy
To me as a child The Just So Stories were just a BBC cartoon series with weird sixties animation, Sir Michael Holdern’s voice and a playful version of how animals got various characteristics. Kipling was the guy who made the Jungle Book and these jolly stories, so I associated him with only kid’s stories. But as I got older I became more aware of his love of the British Empire and for him how that was a good thing that brought order and joy to all it conquered. The impacts of the empire and how we see the rest of the world are still felt today. I think the UK’s ever -increasing tendency to look back with red white and blue-tinted spectacles leaves much to be desired. Just look at how the citizens of Windrush are being treated second class now. The stories of Empire and colonialism are often just told from the ruler’s perspectives. This refreshing set of stories edited by David Thomas Moore and with an insightful foreword from Nikesh Shukla remind everyone that we still need to remember what that time did and what consequences have spilled forth.
How the Spider Got its legs by Cassandra Khaw
There is a very strong opening story told very much in the style of Kipling with mentions of ‘Best Beloved’ but with a much sharper bite. Here Spiders were Long Ago one legged and prey to all, but Spider works out to save her children, but Man realises her joy is a threat. It’s a tale of arrogance and a need to rule ending up as fuel for revenge. You may praise spiders afterwards!
Queen by Joseph E Cole
A Queen narrates to a human child her life and how she was treated by humans when captured. It’s a poignant story of how someone when mistreated can firstly decide survival for themselves is the only purpose but as time passes this can teach someone to rebel for others. Really strong story and you will want to know exactly how the Queen go to her current position. Haunting as we see her character develop and change as her experiences impact her.
Best Beloved by Wayne Santos
Here is a very different story focused less on the anthropologic animals but how at the time the British treated and saw their colonies. In 19th Century Singapore Seah Yuan Ching has fallen for Adam a sophisticated British man keen to read to her and declare his love for her. Yuan Ching finds balancing her time with her lover and his world balanced with her own role in Singapore as a spiritual guardian. It’s a ghost story where it explores Britain’s shameful role in the Opium trade and this story is about how people are possessions or pawns in a global game.
The Man Who Played with the Crab by Adiwijaya Iskandar
A young girl and her father’s life as guardians to a Queen find a white man arrives and cruelly threatens both with his electric wands. The tale winds to a fascinating battle between the Queen and the man exposing his weaknesses behind his desire to destroy and rule. It adds a new dimension to how one group came by their name, but it also shows the attitude colonists loved to show to those they thought were natural servants.
Samsara by Georgina Kamsika
Nina is a 21st century whose white father and Indian mother have divorced. She returns to the home of her estranged Nanna. Nina and her mother are then finding a spirit unhappy with choices made by her family. Really beautiful story where the consequences of not exploring your culture are discussed. Really heart-warming
Serpent, Crocodile, Tiger by Zedeck Siew
This is one of the most thought-provoking stories weaving what looks to be a Malay legend with a story about a Queen at the mercy of two villages and a battle between anthropology and government. Who writes the stories we here and why? Will today’s victors decide certain stories are no longer suitable to support the narrative they now want you to consume? These themes are skilfully weaved together, and the result is unsettling
How the Tree of Wishes Gained its Carapace of Plastic by Jeannette Ng
A seemingly joyful story of how Village traditions of wish making is balanced with the History of Hong Kong. It’s merciless in how the people are treated and the final beautiful dark line really packs a punch.
How the Ants Got Their Queen by Stewart Hotson
Various Ant colonies are bemused by the arrival of a pangolin from far away lands. One Ant sees the power of the Pangolin as a perfect way to redress the balance in various local conflicts. Hotson shows the full impact of Colonialism in a sobering allegory from how some seek to use a colonist’s power, how it decimates a people and how ultimately even those who rescue a land can end up being its next dictator. Quite heart-breaking when you realise how the story will end
How the Snake Lost Its Spine by Tauriq Moosa
A snake holds up the sky and protect all who are under their protection, but White Devils believe they have a way to finally bring their enemy down. This is a well told reminder that Empires don’t always purely invade but they undermine leaders already in place to make the new regime be welcomed with open arms until too late.
The cat Who Walked by Herself by Achala Upendran
Ina tale of Long Ago a Woman is caught by A Mn to do his bidding. This darker story sees a woman try to avoid the fate of Men deciding she is just as much a possession as Dog, Cow or Horse. The final reveal and its reminder to fight back against those who seek to own you is well done and reminder that sometimes you need to rescue yourself from a prison you’ve made.
Strays Like Us by Zina Hutton
Bastet still walks among us after thousands of years but without her followers. A very short tale of how gods survive. Not sure it quite fits but yes it does have a quick point about Neil Gaiman! Always enjoy a tale of what gods do after their time in the sun!
How the Simurgh Won Their Tale by Ali Nouraei
In a hospital battling to keep power for the patients a grandfather walks up to the ward to see his young daughter with cancer. He reads her a story which itself explores through animals and tress the power of mercy, the need to oppress and having hope for the future. Beautifully told and one that ends with a sense of one day humanity seeing sense.
There is Such a Thing as a Whizzy-Gang by Raymond Gates
A young child discovers his uncle’s joke about a monster in the bushes isn’t quite as fake as you’d think. It’s a very visceral little horror story…skin may itch.
How the Camel Got Her Paid Time Off by Paul Krueger
The final story takes a more humorous look at what next happened to the Camel. Trapped in a soulless office with other animals working for HR who doesn’t really care about any other culture Camel is fighting to get Time off for a powerful da in her world. Kipling who rewarded the camel for working now has the story inverted and Camel’s other trait of stubbornness perhaps also is a reminder that rebellion can get results!
A brilliant collection of stories ranging from horror to grief to hope that I think any reader who enjoys the power of story used to reflect our world and perhaps remind us how the horrors of the past have got us to now and a need to ensure they are never repeated. Strongly recommended and another superb Solaris anthology.