Book Review: Kaleidoscope, Edited by Alisa Krasnostein & Julia Rios

Anthologies provide a rare opportunity to get a fantastic sampling of a wide range of authors, set across a variety of worlds, in bite-sized, delicious tastes that almost always leave me wanting more. (This is because I am picky about anthologies and editors, and thus make a point of sticking to books I know I’m going to love.) Kaleidoscope, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios, is an absolutely fantastic collection of speculative fiction from some truly great writing voices including Karen Healey, Shveta Thakrar, Garth Nix, and Alena McNamara.

The premise of Kaleidoscope: Diverse speculative fiction featuring edgy, interesting, sharp takes on sci-fi and fantasy tropes, themes, and more. It’s the answer to #weneeddiversebooks, before that hashtag was even a thing – and if you’re interested in an introduction to diverse YA and how it can be done, this is a great place to start, given the range of stories and settings that offer up so many different ways to see how it’s done, and how it could be.

I absolutely loved Thakrar’s piece about a character who eats colour, ultimately sustaining herself on colour alone until she takes the ultimate plunge, wondering what it would be like to eat Krishna himself. Healey’s ‘Careful Magic’ explored magic, power, and what it’s like to have an anxiety disorder in the context of a school of magic – without making it seem like the character was magical because of her anxiety, and without giving her disability superpowers. Anxiety also came up in ‘Ordinary Things’ (Vylar Kaftan).

Garth Nix imagined a world where people were assigned a ‘luck number’ that determines their outcome and place in society – where a low number leaves you in the lowest of the low, and a high number gives you access to privilege and power. It’s an interesting take on an old theme, the idea that a machine could determine the outcome of your life and make crucial decisions for you. And, of course, the idea that those outcomes could be manipulated to suit political needs.

What I love about this anthology is the ubiquity of diverse characters – one of the biggest problems I had with it, honestly, is that when I returned to reading conventional YA afterwards, I kept wondering where the diverse characters were, which is the point. It’s jarring to be swept from a world in which they’re omnipresent, playing a huge and important role in the narrative, to one where they are invisibilised, marginalised, and stereotyped – and for the most part, the authors in Kaleidoscope did a great job exploring diversity, even when they were writing experiences they didn’t share (though those who did brought an extra level of verisimilitude to their work – Healey, for example, has written about her experiences with anxiety in the past).

What this book offers is not just a great collection of speculative fiction, although it does provide that. It also shows us a glimmer of what could, and should, be in the world of speculative fiction, a world where diversity is seamlessly integrated and wound all around the stories we tell, just as it should be in life. Kaleidoscope highlights how much we isolate ourselves from each other and the world in life as in fiction, and it does a very sharp, clear job of it. Each piece is a fantastic story, but it’s also a silent comment that lingers long after you finish reading it.

This, too, is part of the long history and legacy of speculative fiction, even if it has been historically hidden and pushed to the side. People have been writing diverse speculative fiction since fiction became a thing, though their work was always recognised as the other and rewarded with small print runs, limited attention, harsh critical receptions, and marginalisation. Some truly great writers worked in the 20th century and so little of their work survives today while people idolise people like Asimov and Heinlein, convinced that their work represents a science fiction renaissance and that no other writers were even close to what they were doing.

Here, at the turn of a new century, writers on a margins are still working and still producing amazing fiction – Daniel Jose Older, N.J. Jemisin, Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Helen Oyeyemi, Kiini Ibura Salaam, and so many others are writing daring, challenging, beautiful, amazing fiction that pushes at the boundaries of speculative fiction, society, culture, and identity. Their work in both adult and YA categories demands to be read, loved, heard, drunk up, and Kaleidoscope is part of that body of work, knocking at the doors of the traditional establishment.

Diverse fiction has been here, and it is here, and it will be here, and it’s not going away. The sooner people get used to it, the better, but they’d better not get too comfortable, because such fiction frequently flips assumptions, challenges narratives, and forces the reader to rethink everything she thinks she knows about the world and her own status in it.

Anyone can pick up a copy of Kaleidoscope — don’t be fooled into thinking that ‘diverse fiction’ isn’t for you if you’re not ‘diverse’ – because there’s something in this book for everyone. This isn’t A Book About Diversity. It’s a book of stories, which happen to be diverse, and they’re stories about real people in real worlds, living real lives.

Note: This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher. I have received no other consideration.