Liz Williams's A Glass of Shadow is an anthology of quiet surprises. Williams's prose is filled with an understated elegance, much like the cool glass of red wine the title refers to. The themes she explores include the limitations of the body as a signifier of humanity and shared identity; love as a kind of courage; and the compromises a world in transition can demand of its citizens. Williams explores these concerns using lyrically beautiful imagery that is tender and wryly humorous as it moves through genres, mythologies, and worlds. Williams's interest in blurring genres is one of the reasons why Tanith Lee, in her introduction, describes Williams as "a free-flying innovator" (p. 10). Williams's characters are often forced to cross over—into the world of faery, the world of the dead, other dimensions, selves, ways of being. These journeys feel fresh and immediate. While the stories in this collection range from 1998 to 2011, the ethical and emotional concerns they posit remain pressingly, passionately relevant.
At Williams's prompting, the reader explores an affective world circumvented by capitalism, technological hubris, and the bitter anger of older, forgotten gods. The reader also explores what feels like a series of shared universes. The worlds of Williams's stories often feel interconnected. For example, "Necrochip" and "Mr De Quincey and the Daughters of Madness" both refer to similar succubi-like creatures whose life-force may depend on "a woman’s blood, or a man’s seed" (“Mr De Quincey,” p. 20). In both stories, this creature negotiates to feed. In "Mr De Quincey," Thomas De Quincey has been its monthly lover for years in order to protect his wife from its deadly embrace; he moves through a nineteenth century Britain where friendship, opium, and honor cannot protect one from creatures living outside the realm of the rational. Centuries and continents away, the narrator of "Necrochip" approaches what appears to be the same creature for a one night stand, only to discover that she is selling the opportunity to sleep with her corpse as a means of streamlining her feeding process. This story, as well as "Mr. Animation and the Wu Zhiang Zombies," are both set in Williams's Singapore Three, where one venue can host a black metal concert, a séance, and a Hell-bound rescue attempt. Singapore Three is the main city-state featured in Williams's Detective Inspector Chen novels. It is a futuristic city where the boundaries between Heaven, Hell, and Earth have become muddied, much in the same way the city-state itself troubles international boundaries, as Singapore Three is one of six franchise states of Singapore located somewhere outside Singapore's own borders. In many ways, Singapore Three is framed by the conventions of noir detective novels; it is steamy and unknowable, filled with people and creatures from all over, all of whom are trying to make it big in a city whose frenetic movement is framed by the shadowy dealings of corporations and crime-lords.
A Glass of Shadow also features stories set on Mars in the world of Winterstrike (2008). Williams's Martian series is set in the far future, when genetic modification has resulted in a strictly gender segregated world. Most women are human and live in cities. All men are remnants, blurred into animals, and live outside the cities. Contact between these two groups is forbidden, and the women's city-states are themselves at war. Mr De Quincey's England, Mr. Animation's Singapore Three, and the matriarchal Martian cities of Winterstrike are all lovingly detailed, with a narrative concern for globalization, trade, militarization, and decay embedded into each character's voice. The Winterstrike stories also build on the series, offering vignettes on characters from that world.
Williams's interest in bioethics and globalization are perhaps most explicit in "Voivodoi," where genetic modification has led to a generation of young adults turning into mutants resembling figures from Slavic mythology. Teresa, the Polish teenager narrating this story, reflects on this, and on society’s response to her brother's gradual evolution into something strangely familiar. "I sat staring into the empty air with the book open on my lap and thought: they are all there, among us in the world, or locked up in the sanatorium where no one can see them" (p. 97). Through Teresa's eyes we learn about a world where Polish teens watch Japanese anime, speak with American slang, and avoid speaking directly about the aftereffects of Europe’s gene projects, where it is more socially acceptable to have a brother dying of leukemia than to have one gradually evolve into something inhuman, yet still familial, familiar.
Other stories of particular interest include "Ikiryoh," which is about a royal nursemaid brought out from retirement to take care of a mysterious, angry child, as well as "Who Pays," in which a lower-level Egyptian god struggles to manage the way-station between life and death. These stories in particular blur the line between fantasy and science fiction, with one character noting that a particular ritualistic procedure would "have been called black magic, once. Now it is black science" (p. 191). "Blackthorn and Nettles," which retells a portion of the Welsh Mabinogi, focuses on the tale of Crei, a Land Maiden and paramour of Gwydion, whose sister Arian becomes her dearest enemy. Arian is also Gwydion's lover, and the animosity between these two women takes on a life of its own. Williams's retelling of this particular story begins and ends with an image of cold, frosty starlight and the lonely void of space.
A Glass of Shadow is an unusual collection because of the variety of genres it encompasses, and the elegance with which Williams explores her characters. It is a fascinating introduction to Williams's established series, as well as a quirky, provocative collection of short stories drawing their inspiration from across the globe and reflecting Williams's own globe-trotting experiences. Each story challenges the reader to think critically about the deals one makes to feel a sense of personal integrity in a world where honesty and virtue are dangers, and love is not a cure-all. Williams offers no easy answers. Instead, her characters pose uncomfortable questions, face uncertain futures, and are offered uneasy resolutions. This is speculative fiction at its finest: challenging, rich, and, like a good red wine, rewardingly complex.
Maria Velazquez is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research interests include constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality in contemporary media, as well as community-building through technology. She serves on the board of Lifting Voices, a District of Columbia-based nonprofit that helps young people in DC discover the power of creative writing, and blogs for The Hathor Legacy, a feminist pop culture blog. She recently received the Winnemore Dissertation Fellowship from the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.