Review: “Laughter at the Academy,” Seanan McGuire

Pros: These stories made me feel things
Rating: 5 out of 5

Laughter at the Academy is a book of stand-alone short stories by Seanan McGuire (you don’t need to have read any of her series in order to read these stories–if you’ve never read her work before, this would be a great introduction!). The span of genres is great: science fiction, urban fantasy, horror, bio-thriller (more bio than thriller), apocalyptic, cosmic horror, and even a story set in a steampunk realm. Every story in here was a winner for me, which can be unusual in anthologies (although less unusual in single-author anthologies). Some stories naturally hit me harder than others, but I have to tell you, I felt things while reading these. I may have even bawled my eyes out once.

The first story, Laughter at the Academy, introduces us to the idea of Schizotypal Creative Genius Personality Disorder, and how it results in outbreaks of mad scientists. It’s a wonderful, twisted, beautiful take on mad scientists and how they’re created.

There are some stories that I can’t explain much about without giving too much away, but that gave me a really nice chill or shudder. Lost is one of these, and it starts with children being drawn to the night sky. Crystal Halloway and the Forgotten Passage introduces us to a portal fantasy, where a young woman has been saving a fantasy land in her spare time. This is definitely a chilling one! Frontier ABCs involves a not-as-young-as-she-looks schoolteacher and the guns she makes use of in her spare time.

I’ve always been a big fan of bio-terror end-of-the-world stories, and The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells delivers quite nicely. A scientist who’s been trying to warn the world about the dangers of disease decides she’s warned humanity enough. Each to Each is neither bio-terror nor end-of-the-world, but it has hints of both. Women serving in the Navy are being modified to survive in the sea, and all the details that go into that are fascinating. Lady Antheia’s Guide to Horticultural Warfare details how a race of alien plants comes to earth. The first to make it ate a young lady’s maid, taking on her memories and understanding, allowing her to grow close to the ruling humans.

Uncle Sam is an unexpected treat. To quote the intro, “This is the story of Uncle Sam, and the founding of the United States of America, and why girls always go to the bathroom in groups…” (If that combination doesn’t intrigue you, nothing will!) It’s a little riff on modern folklore. Driving Jenny Home is a bittersweet telling of a phantom girlfriend who asks for a ride home. I shed a few tears. Another folklore-based story is In Skeleton Leaves, which is a very unusual Peter Pan tale.

Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust is an “urban fantasy film noir” take on the world of the Wizard of Oz. Dot is a Princess of Oz, the Crossover Ambassador, and the Wicked Witch of the West–and she has to solve a murder in a city where everyone hates her. This story is sharp as a knife!

Homecoming is my favorite story in here, even though it centers around football and cheerleaders, which I have no interest in. A mysterious game of football is played with cheerleaders who seem to know more than they’re saying. The sides are chosen as the game progresses, and that isn’t the only irregularity. This one, umm, might have actually made me cry. “October never ends if the game is never truly finished.”

We Are All Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the Velveteen War is another story that I found absolutely gripping. When AI was discovered, we were (for once) smart enough to not put it in charge of our weapons or our healthcare system or anything like that. No, we built it into toys that were made to be self-learning teachers to our children. Yeah, that couldn’t possibly go wrong… “The war is over and the war will never end.” My favorite touch in this story is that the first AI toys were built to help non-neurotypical children, who needed a friend who could adapt to their needs.

The Lambs is another take on how smart robots might be used. Someone developed robots who can pass as human. Bullying was such a problem in schools that there was at least one “lamb” inserted into each class. Their purpose was both to draw the ire of the bullies away from other loners, and to record all the instances of bullying so that they could ‘tell on’ the bullies at graduation. There’s a lot of fascinating detail in how they have to balance everything in order to keep people from identifying the lambs, and we definitely get into the down sides of putting children under constant surveillance.

A couple of these stories have very unusual formats. Bring About the Halloween Eternal!!! is, in fact, told as a Kickstarter campaign! It’s a hilarious and fun look at how someone plans to bring about an eternal Halloween, and defeat her older sister, who wants to make Christmas rule. Office Memos is told through, what else, office memos. It’s a delightful tale of a Gremlin hired by a company and how she makes life… interesting… for them. This one really made me smile. From A to Z in the Book of Changes is… well, I’m not honestly sure how to describe it. It’s a bunch of entries in the form of a children’s “A is for…” guide. Except not for children. #connollyhouse #weshouldntbehere is a story of ghost hunters checking out a haunted house, told through tweets. Don’t skip the hash tags! This one is surprisingly gripping and frightening.

There Is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold I found slightly confusing at first, but it’s well worth sticking with. The premise is unusual (let’s just say that a woman is making some very strange dolls), but the real meat of the story is in a very satisfying tale of revenge. Another guilty pleasure vengeance tale is Please Accept My Most Profound Apologies for What Is About to Happen (But You Started It), in which a genius loner with an obsession with dinosaurs takes their revenge on their childhood bullies. And, well, everyone else, too.

Threnody for Little Girl, With Tuna, at the End of the World is a very sad little tale of climate change and the world’s last known Pacific Bluefin tuna, named Matthew. Tears were involved when I read this one.

Another of my favorites is Down, Deep Down, Below the Waves, which is an oddly hopeful bit of Lovecraftian work. Violet is a grad student at Harvard, only she’s experimenting on her fellow students. When she invites four of them to accompany her back to her family’s bed and breakfast for a little getaway, they certainly don’t expect to become part of a gruesome experiment.

Content note for gender-based slurs, occasional discussion or depiction of prejudice, and bullying. There are several nice depictions of same-sex relationships.

This is a truly wonderful collection of short stories, with ups, downs, love, revenge, the end of the world, and so much more.

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