Laughter at the Academy – ARC review

Author: Seanan McGuire
Publication date: October 31, 2019
Genre: short stories, fantasy, science fiction
My rating: 5/5 stars

Most of all, this book is for all those fools who laughed at me in the academy. I may not be raising the dead yet, but I still know where my shovel is.

– Introduction

It’s no secret that I think Seanan McGuire is pretty great. I’ve only read a few of her books, but I’ve massively enjoyed them all. I knew she was great before I started on this collection, but boy howdy, she has outdone herself. Twenty-two short stories, all filled with her signature wit, wistfulness, and love for all things strange and disturbing.

I would offer a summary if I could, but of course, short stories don’t lend themselves to that sort of thing. At the end of this post, if you want a full listing of stories, along with my brief thoughts on each of them. In general, though, there are quite a few running themes, including, but not limited to: fairytales (especially Peter Pan), childhood and growing up, science (and the limits thereof), experiments (including ones on your so-called friends), magic, ethics, mythology, ghosts, warfare, the future of life on Earth, the ocean and fish/mermaids, AI, pollution, and dolls. There is an abundance of feminism and plenty of positive queer representation. The styles range from conventional stories to text interspersed with field guide notes to a literal crowdfunding campaign that tells its own story, because let’s face it: nothing Seanan does is conventional. In other words, it’s everything I could have asked for in a book. And, with all the eeriness and magic, it’s perfect for this time of year.

While not every story was perfectly to my liking, every single one was highly original and well-executed, and I did enjoy them all, just in different amounts and capacities. In a short story collection, you’re bound to have at least one or two you don’t like as much as the others, because if there was no variety…well, it wouldn’t be a very good collection, would it? There is definitely variety here, and while there are some common themes, nothing feels redundant. In the preface, the author mentions that this is a combination of some of her best stories and some that, while maybe not her best, are still her favorites. I completely understand why–even if the execution isn’t flawless (though it is pretty dang close, as her writing is beautiful and incredibly well-suited to the kinds of stories she tells), the originality more than makes up for any minor stumbles (and, again, there aren’t many).

I could keep going on about how much I loved it, but I guess the most important part here is just that this is a stellar collection, and perfect for the most obsessed fan, the casual reader, or even someone totally new to Seanan’s work.

This is where, by format, I should offer up some extended metaphor, like “follow me into the forest” or “let’s go walking in the fields together, you and I,” but my metaphors are in my fiction, and tend to be pretty weird.

– Introduction

TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNINGS: pretty much all of them, honestly. No racism that I can recall, I guess. I’m sure I’m forgetting some, but they include depression, suicidal ideation, domestic abuse, allusion to child abuse, lots of death, violence/gruesome moments, sexism, homophobia/transphobia

The Stories

Okay, so each of these is a quick bit of plot and then commentary. I have starred my favorites–yeah, it’s nearly half of them, but I’m indecisive and also there are just so many good ones?? There are no spoilers, as always. If I had a quote or two I really loved, either for its humor or its painful truth, I’ve put it after its respective story as well, just to give you a taste of what sort of wonderfulness you’ll find.

“Laughter at the Academy: A Field Study in the Genesis of Schizotypal Creative Genius Personality Disorder (SCGPD)” – literal mad scientists. Brutal, a tad predictable, but still fun despite the darkness.

He was a poster child for science as a force for good…at least until the tentacles started bursting from the windows.

“Lost” – a sadder Peter Pan, told by a child left behind when the ships came. Personally found this one a little slow, but the ending was beautiful.

“The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells” – terrifying and amazing. I will forever be afraid of going to meet authors from now on. Also of just being around…literally anyone.

“Uncle Sam” – the real reason girls never go to the bathroom alone. Where Seanan comes up with this stuff, I will never know, but this was even stranger than usual–in a good way.

“Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust” – a grittier aftermath of the Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy (Dot) has to solve a murder. While the story itself was good but not outstanding, I could TOTALLY see a whole series being written on this world and these characters. I want to see more about Dot’s girlfriend, Petrichor, and Dot’s pumpkin-headed friend, Jack. The idea is bigger than the short story format can do justice to, I think.

I swore as I got out of bed and crossed to the window, opening the curtains to reveal a sky the sunny fuck-you color of a Munchkin swaddling cloth.

“Crystal Halloway and the Forgotten Passage” – according to the blurb, this was Seanan’s first portal fantasy, and I could see the glimmers of what would become the world of Every Heart a Doorway. This one especially reminded me of In an Absent Dream, with similar themes about growing up and facing the choice between eternal magical youth or growing up at home.

“Homecoming” – the Valkyries and football. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and it is beautiful and clever and invites a good perspective on the idea of the afterlife. This is going to stick with me for a while.

“Frontier ABC’s: The Life and Times of Charity Smith, Schoolteacher” – wild west meets space colonization, with a teacher on the front lines. A testament to the power of a good educator to change the world, for sure.

Choices are like that. Some of them exist only for as long as it takes not to make them.

“We Are All Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the Velveteen War” – just when you thought dolls couldn’t get any creepier, Seanan added AI to them in this heartwrenching story of grief, loss, and love.

“The Lambs” – when androids become an anti-bullying monitor, high school gets complicated. Another tale of science possibly going too far, and the emotional abilities of machines. I could almost see the real world trying to make a version of this idea into reality, which is disturbing.

“Each to Each” – military mermaids, with discussion of big issues like sexism and transphobia, wrapped in a layer of scientific “progress” that still hurts those who are forced to carry out the dirty work.

“Bring About the Halloween Eternal!!!” – I kid you not, this entire story is told as a crowdfunding campaign, unfolding in reward levels, updates, and a comments section. As I sit here on Halloween, with literal snow on the ground (seriously, it is coming down like crazy outside, and I had to walk 25 minutes to the office in it) and Christmas decorations already on the shelves of stores, the premise of this far-fetched narrative is rather timely.

TRUE generosity isn’t about cheap wrapping paper and teenagers dressed like elves and shitty presents from your Aunt Jill that you’re just going to re-gift ANYWAY. True generosity is about free candy from strangers, sometimes with bonus razorblades (and those are expensive!).

“Office Memos” – weird and funny email correspondence from an office run by a gremlin, complete with explosions and spontaneous gender reversals.

“Lady Antheia’s Guide to Horticultural Warfare” – humanoid plants are out to colonize Earth, by infiltrating the royal family of England. Like something out of a Doctor Who episode, but less optimistic, though still full of humor.

“But the first thing you did was eat my sister’s maid.”
“I’m aware,” I said primly, gathering my skirts as I waited for the doors to slide open on their well-oiled tracks. “But I was very sorry afterward, which is the very definition of diplomacy.”

“Driving Jenny Home” – super sad lesbian ghost love story. This one hit the feelings pretty hard, but was still beautiful in its sadness. I don’t actually know the song “Driving Jenny Home” that inspired it, but I really want to find and listen to it now.

“There Is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold” – when Pinocchio meets Pandora’s Box. I wish I could explain that better, but you just kind of have to go for it.

“In Skeleton Leaves” – another Peter Pan, this time focused on the role of the Wendys that take care of Lost Boys. Includes a delightful disregard for gender norms–including some male Wendys and a female Pan–and subversion of everything you thought you knew about the classic children’s tale.

“Please Accept My Most Profound Apologies for What Is About to Happen (But You Started It)” – a clever little number, told as one long letter, from someone who did something bad with no regrets. More science and experimenting on people. Also, dinosaurs.

Humans will always defend the offspring of the privileged, if allowed to do so.

“Threnody for Little Girl, With Tuna, at the End of the World” – the saddest one in this collection, to me, about a girl and the last tuna fish on Earth, in a world where pollution has destroyed so much and everything is kind of falling to pieces.

“From A to Z in the Book of Changes” – taken from 26 different prompts people gave her, Seanan wrote this one as a series of 26 snapshots of possible revelations or huge changes. Lots of them involve the end of the world.

P IS FOR…PENGUINS
They are less innocent than they seem. Do not trust a bird that has turned its back on the sky.
When the penguins ask you to pick a side, ask yourself which you fear more: the warming world or the drowning deep. You will only have one chance to choose.

“#connollyhouse #weshouldntbehere” – oh god, this was creepy. Told entirely in Tweets (because, again, Seanan is a master at unusual narrative formats), the fear here comes in its vagueness and unexplained problems, and seriously, I couldn’t stop reading until I got to the very end of it. It was that scary.

Sometimes it’s easier to chase fake ghosts than real ones. #connollyhouse

“Down, Deep Down, Below the Waves” – the longest story in the book, and a blend of science and biblical stories, with mythical fish monsters and genetic experimentation. It was a good one to really sink your teeth into. (Not creepy fish-hook teeth. Just regular human teeth.)

Knowledge is like the sea. Go too deep, and the crushing weight of it could kill you.

In short: read this book. Revel in the weirdness and wonder. And Happy Halloween!

Thank you to Subterranean Press for providing me with an eARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!