2 out of 4 stars
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Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles 2000-2016 is nothing if not ambitious. This collection, which includes over thirty short stories, two graphic novels, and a novella is, perhaps most notable for the range of its perspectives, and Coles seems as comfortable writing about sensational events as he is ordinary lives. Topics under consideration here include, but are not limited to, human trafficking, religious extremism, and murder. Yet Coles also probes into more ordinary human experience, like love (in all its various forms) and grief.
This collection is also, as an added bonus, illustrated. Illustrations precede every short story (and the novella) and they are, of course, ever present in the graphic novels. All the illustrations are eye-catching, and each picture increased my interest in the story to come. One thing I found somewhat idiosyncratic, however, is that the graphic novels featured here had already been told as short stories earlier in the text. The effect is somewhat multifaceted. In some senses the graphic novel form made the stories more engaging, and yet this form also seemed to sacrifice some of the intricacies that made the short stories more compelling.
As I said, I also found the sheer number of perspectives throughout the text impressive. Several stories, for instance, feature disabled protagonists, and these stories are not often told in fiction. Coles’ stories are also set in a range of historical moments, from the French Revolution to contemporary America. Moreover, Coles has a gift for brining settings to life, and the best stories in the collection are those in which the setting cannot be divorced from the narrative.
These stories were, in addition well-paced, as Coles proves himself skilled in the art of ratcheting tension in a small space, and, considering that these stories necessarily rely on a short form, Coles is also proficient at forcing readers to care about his characters. In fact, it was frequently my assessment that several them could, if expanded, make very good novels.
Despite these strengths, there are also some drawbacks. For me, Coles’ strength is more apparent in understated plots, and the more sensationalist stories were either cliched or not believable. While it is true that premise of these stories is interesting, it sometimes seems that the extraordinary events come at the expense character development and depth. These stories also seemed somewhat predictable, and I found them, perhaps paradoxically, less engaging than those stories that looked at ordinary lives.
Additionally, although most stories had a good mix of quick plot and character development, some of the stories would have been, on the whole, more compelling had Coles chosen to linger in the more poignant moments of the text. His prose also seemed, at times, to be rather flat and it seems that whether one will enjoy this collection or not is really a matter not just of personal preference but of mood, and readers who are looking for a quick escape without a lot work on their part will find this collection well suited. If, on the other hand, readers are looking for something more complex, it is possible that the experience will be somewhat mixed. I stated earlier that Illustrated Short Fiction is ambitious, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, while all the stories attempt ambition, some fail to meet the mark. While I did not consider any of the stories to “fail,” it is clear that the collection is not strong throughout, and Coles’ potential, so evident in some stories, is not quite as evident in others. For these reasons, I rate this collection two out of four stars. I did not give this book only one star because I liked the fast -paced plots in all of the stories, and many of the protagonists are compelling. My rating is not three stars, however, because some of the stories were cliched and predictable, and there were some instances where the stories felt somewhat rushed. It seems possible, though, that Coles could reach grater heights in the years to come, and I would not be averse to reading his work again in the future.
Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles: 2000-2016
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