Book Review: The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen

I’m a graduate of the Clarion West science fiction writing workshop, and I am on their mailing list. I recently received notice of a one-day special workshop by the award-winning writer Kij Johnson taking place in November 2017. The workshop is called “Working With Other Works: Inspiration, Homage, Fanfic, and Plagiarism.” Before I received this news, I had attended her reading in July 2017 during which she read from her upcoming novel, which is a sequel to the famous children’s classic The Wind in the Willows. The long and the short of it is, if you draw from a work that is still under copyright, it’s plagiarism. Otherwise, it’s one of those other things.

This is an entertaining collection of stories by Jane Yolen, and almost all of them would come under the heading of fanfic, homage, or inspiration from other stories or legends. Yolen draws from characters and materials from Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, The Legend of Robin Hood, and The Legend of King Arthur, as well as poems by Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson. This is not to disparage the stories in any way. Yolen demonstrates how to do it the right way. In fact, two of the stories, “Lost Girls,” a unique take on the Peter Pan story, and “Sister Emily’s Lightship,” about a hypothetical source of Emily Dickinson’s inspiration, have won major awards.

Two of my favorites in this collection draw on historic or mythological characters for their storylines. “Evian Steel” is a novella that tells of a legendary island in the midst of a river where women forged sword blades, and how Guinevere made the sword Excalibur and Merlin found her to present it and her to King Arthur. Another, called “The Jewel in the Toad Queen’s Crown,” deals with the relationship between Benjamin Disraeli and Queen Victoria. A number of other stories are witty, clever, original interpretations of beloved classics that add relevancy and insight.

One other aspect of this collection that I greatly appreciate is the afterword in which Yolen comments on each story. I love introductions or afterwords in which authors explain how they came to write stories, their inspirations, any difficulties they encountered, and so on. For me it ties the stories in with the writer’s life. The first author I read who did this to great effect was Harlan Ellison. He always wrote long introductions to the overall books and to each story. Another is Robert Silverberg. When I started publishing story collections I made sure that I wrote extensive afterwords to each one, with a section for each story, as I wanted to link the stories with the rest of my work, especially my memoirs. I have always felt that the lack of some sort of comment by the writers in short story anthologies or collections diminishes their impact. So I am pleased that Yolen makes the effort to confide in her readers by letting them in on various aspects of her personal and professional life.

All in all, this collection is a light, entertaining read, just perfect for when you want to relax and lose yourself in the fantasies you enjoyed when you were young.

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