The Stars Seem So Far Away by Margrét Helgadóttir
Fox Spirit Books, 160pp standard paperback (novella), £5.00 cover price
£2.99 on Kindle (Jan 2016)
Reviewed by Alex Bardy (Twitter: @mangozoid)
[NB: Possible spoiler warning(s) ahead]
This is Margrét’s first published novella, but she has previously had several short stories published in magazines, anthologies, etc. incl. some of those included here, and thus we encounter my first problem with this collection, and one I struggled with a lot, in fact.
Don’t get me wrong, the writing throughout is really good, even poetic in places — all the stories have a faint, underlying tone of myth and fable about them, but trying to link them altogether through a shared post-apocalyptic world setting — in which climatic disasters have left the majority of it mostly uninhabitable — proves a step too far, perhaps, and unsatisfactory.
There are fourteen tales herein, and the core characters are all lovingly characterised, all embarking on new journeys, their individual adventure cleverly sprinkled throughout, yet their stories all feel disparate, unconnected. Again it’s hard to my finger on why, but it feels very disjointed and a bit clunky, frankly.
The main characters? Ahh yes, well, there’s Nora, a pirate captain of sorts, who sails the seas alone, stealing the ships of other pirates and gradually making her way north; during her travels however she picks up Aida, who has just survived a particularly virulent plague on one of the Svalbard Islands. The two of them soon become very close shipmates, gradually making their way north for their best chance of survival.
Then there’s Bjørg, a lone survivor left on a remote island by her missing father, and probably the strongest, most complete character in the book. With her two genetically-engineered bear-type creatures called isbos helping protect her, she is also a remarkable scientist, and her father’s instructions were always clear: her duty is to guard the vault, and to kill and burn anyone who arrives on the island. Period. But when the mysterious, wounded Simik appears, she takes pity on him and is prepared to hear him out, eventually leading to them both leaving the island in search of something more, as a loving couple.
Zaki is Aida’a elder brother, and as it happens, spends most of his time exploring deserted lands, until he comes upon former astronaut Roar Haugen, who proceeds to fill his head with fancy notions about space flight. Sure enough, they too both set out for lands anew shortly thereafter.
And finally, there’s Simak, a former soldier leading a small team and forced to head north in search of supplies and potentially, new orders. His struggles are somewhat different, and his story doesn’t really blend with the rest. Indeed, there is some allusion to what may or may not happen in the future, but nothing comes of it, almost as if there is another tale missing from this book, or this one was added at a later date purely to bulk up the page count.
The final chapter, ‘Farewell’, sees the majority of the main characters departing on a shuttle. The End.
I feel bad for knocking this, because it’s a genuinely good collection of well-written short stories, albeit loosely intertwined and completely failing to resolve anything. Whether this is deliberate or not is hard to say, but the setting is ripe for further exploration and more adventures, yet as a reader I can’t help feeling a tad cheated: there’s so much more that could or should have been written about this world and its fate. Some great writing puts this head and shoulders above a lot of other collections, but damn it, I was left hanging…
* This review originally appeared on the British Fantasy Society (BFS) website here