Review: Scenting the Dark & Other Stories

Posted: December 11, 2009 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Mary Robinette Kowal, Collection, Short Fiction

During our adventures at World Fantasy in October, we had a chance to meet and chat with Campbell Award winner, Mary Robinette Kowal. If any of you are listeners of Writing Excuses (and if you aren’t, you really should be), then you may remember Mary from her guest appearances on the podcast. They were some of the most entertaining and insightful episodes that the podcast has put together.

As it turns out, Mary has a short story collection being published through Subterranean Press (we love them). Needless to say, we were excited to read a review copy of the collection.

First, let’s discuss short stories a bit. No, you don’t have a choice but to indulge us. As we stated when we reviewed the novella collection, METATROPOLIS (EBR Review), short fiction is hard for us to review. Simply put, we don’t care too much for it. We’ve made our attempts to read the Writers of the Future anthologies, and we just get bored. We’ve read short stories in magazines, and in other various anthology collections, and they are really hit-or-miss… much more so than long fiction. Perhaps this is due to authors not writing that much short fiction anymore. It just doesn’t pay the bills like a novel does. Authors don’t practice it, so when short stories are published, the quality seems to suffer. Once again, these are our general observations and opinions.

So what does it take to write a short story that doesn’t suffer like the majority? Well, if we knew for a fact, we’d have a bunch of stories published ourselves… but that’s neither here, nor there. In Mary’s case, her collection SCENTING THE DARK & OTHER STORIES seems to do all the right things… at least for us. And we are picky. So when we say we liked Mary’s collection, that should tell you something.

SCENTING THE DARK & OTHER STORIES contains eight (8) short stories… at least we think it does. Confused? So are we. Our review copy only had seven of the eight listed in the Subterranean Press book listing. Heck if we know. Anyways, of the seven stories we read, we realized that we do indeed like short stories when they are done right. The story “Death Comes but Twice” is a great throw-back to Victorian SF. “Scenting the Dark” is a fantastic study on fear. Every story has some great material and inspiration in it.

We could go on about the individual stories, but really, we’ve decided that going into short stories blind is the best way to read them. Think about it. A short story usually takes one, single idea and makes a scene out of it, so if you read it without prior information, it becomes MUCH easier to enjoy. With regards to that one idea that make a short story, perhaps this is why Mary’s collection succeeds where others fail. With her experience in the puppeteer (how awesome is THAT!), Mary seems to have a better grasp on how to express things with a single expression, or with a single word. Her experiences have allowed her to tell short stories in a most effective manner. This kind of quality just isn’t seen too often in short fiction anymore.

SCENTING THE DARK & OTHER STORIES is a fun collection of Mary Robinette Kowall short stories; especially useful for aspiring authors to gain insight about inspirtation.

The major problem we had with this short story collection is that it was too… uh… short. With only seven (or eight… whatever) stories, we finished the collection in an extremely short amount of time. If the quality of the stories hadn’t been so high, this would have been a serious deal-breaker for us. Though, to be fair, Subterranean Press is only charging $25 for a signed and numbered copy of the collection. You decide if it is worth it. We certainly thought it was. Though we do also think the cover is on the weak side.

Before we finish, there is one last thing we want to mention. At the end of every story in the collection, Mary has a brief paragraph or two describing what gave her the idea behind the story. Ladies and gentlemen, this should be done at the end of EVERY short story published. Not only do we get further insight into the story, but we gain a similar measure if insight into the author and her (or his) creative process. If you are and developing author trying to write short stories, Mary’s collection SCENTING THE DARK & OTHER STORIES should be on your bookshelf. You won’t get any better instruction at a better price.

We are now officially WAY excited to read her novel, SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, which comes out next year. High-five, Mary. You made us like short stories again.

  • Recommended Age: 15+. If you like short stories, or want to write them, you should pick this up regardless of your age. This would also be a good place to retry reading short stories in general.
  • Language: A little
  • Violence: Not really
  • Sex: Some is alluded to, but nothing is shown

Or you can get the book directly from Subterranean Press.

She also does a writing podcast with Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells. Check it out. Writing Excuses


  • Dragen says:

    Like you, I am not overly fond of short stories, but Neil Gamians Fragile things is a wonderful collection of little gems. As a added bonus each short storey comes with a little background information (ironically in the beginning of the book.) I hope you review it in you pursuit of god short stories now that you have decided that you like them.

  • Kaz says:

    Harlan Ellison and Rodger Zelzany both write great short fiction i.e. For a Breath I Tarry

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