Review of Downside Girls – short story collection by Jaine Fenn

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This collection of four standalone stories, with a foreword by Alistair Reynolds, features some of characters from Fenn’s debut novel, downsidegirlsPrinciples of Angels. It isn’t a surprise that someone has jumped at the opportunity to publish further stories in this fascinating world, where the Angels are augmented female assassins principally employed to kill politicians that the electorate have judged to be inadequate. One of the ironies in Fenn’s world is that the Angels are taken from the feral underclass who eke out a living on the underside of the floating Kesh City, most of whom are far too busy trying to survive to bother with voting…

I read Principles of Angels, the first book in her Hidden Empire series, after meeting Jaine Fenn at Bristolcon last year and while I enjoyed the story, it is her world that has lodged in my head ever since. Her clean, unfussy writing style belies the layered intricacy of her worldbuilding, where her protagonists are completely ringfenced by their extraordinary environment which Fenn manages to depict as entirely normal. It’s a neat trick to pull off and a lot harder than Fenn makes it look. The slightest sense of flourish on the author’s part would have immediately undermined the gritty edge of reality confronting her characters.

This collection can be read without having ever picked up a Jaine Fenn book – in fact provides an excellent introduction to Fenn’s writing and the world.

Collateral Damage – When Vanna Agriet accidentally spills her drink over an Angel it could spell death, but instead it leads to a rather peculiar friendship. This story provides an insight into the life of an Angel, and their unique role within society is explored from an enjoyably oblique angle, compared to the political machinations that drove the plot in Principles of Angels. I particularly enjoyed the twist at the end.

Death on Elsewhere Street – The downsider Geal hopes for a better life topside, only to find herself embroiled in a ‘removal’ by the Angel Thiera. This is another story that explores the role of Angels – and what the consequences of becoming society’s official assassins can be for those involved. I found it all the more powerful that it was told from the viewpoint of someone else caught up in the action.

Angel Dust – Downside, Isha’s brother Rakul brings a little black box home with him, and sets Isha on a journey that takes her to a meeting with the most powerful man in Kesh City. This story is the one in the collection that highlights the grim conditions in Downside as Isha struggles to deal with the fallout when her brother becomes embroiled in one of the gangs. I particularly enjoyed the incident where Isha narrowly avoids death when she’s drawn to the ornamental fountain playing Topside, only to receive an urgent warning that it is poisoned to prevent citizens from drinking free water…

The Three Temptations of Larnia Mier – Larnia Mier, a talented topside musician and instructor, is injured after witnessing a removal first-hand. As her abilities diminish, new possibilities open up. This is the odd one out. Larnia Mier comes from the privileged part of Kesh City – Topside. No gritted, giddying journeys for her to gather sufficient water, hopping over holes in the walkways that could plunge you to your death…

The other interesting difference with this story is that it is told in third person point of view, whereas the others are all narrated in first person viewpoint. Yet, it’s my favourite… I’m still trying to figure out why – I’m a sucker for gutsy heroines from hard backgrounds and first person pov is always the one I’m attracted to, both as writer and reader. I found her fascinating in Principles of Angels, too. Fenn has her brittle, solitary personality absolutely nailed, and I think she leaps off the page. I also very much enjoyed the ending – initially, I figured this was going somewhere more predictable and less tricky and hats off to Fenn for giving us this less tidy, yet far more convincing conclusion to this story.

As Reynolds mentions in the Foreword, short story writing is demanding in ways that novel writing isn’t, and in order to produce an anthology of successful short stories takes a high degree of writing skill. Fenn’s Downside Girls not only is a great addition to her list of published books, but also demonstrates her talent.
9/10

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