Rags & Bones is an anthology of “New Twists on Timeless Tales”, which sounds exciting and Gothic and subversive. The impression is only reinforced by the prominent presence of Neil Gaiman and Garth Nix’s names on the cover.
In actual fact, the tales on which these stories are based are not timeless at all (if any tale – even fairy tale – ever is timeless). Most of them are very much products of their time (Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”; Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla; Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene); only two of them are fairytale retellings (Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper and the Spindle” and Kami Garcia’s “The Soul Collector”). In fact, a more accurate subtitle for the book would be “Retellings of Stories Some Authors Happened to Like”.
Which pretty much epitomises my experience of the book: it feels random, pointless and inessential. I haven’t read many of the original texts, but I do know about a few of them, and it feels like most of the stories here expand on their originals only in one (often the least interesting) dimension. So “The Sleeper and the Spindle” aims at a feminist retelling of “Sleeping Beauty”, but is ultimately thwarted by Gaiman’s continuing objectification of minor female characters (it really adds nothing to a story to tell us that a sleeping woman had cobwebs between her enormous breasts); Holly Black’s “Millcara” (from, obviously, Carmilla) renders LeFanu’s darkly seductive heroine as a thinly-characterised modern-day teen; and Kelley Armstrong’s sole contribution to the subgenre of retellings of “The Monkey’s Paw”, in her story “New Chicago”, is to set it during a zombie apocalypse.
There are a couple of standout’s: Garth Nix’s retelling of “The Man Who Would Be King”, “Losing Her Divinity”, is engaging mostly because of his prodigious gift for worldbuilding; and Saladin Ahmed’s “Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy” feels like the only really necessary story in the whole collection: a short meditation on the first three books of Spenser’s Faerie Queene through the eyes of its “Saracen” antagonists Sansfoy, Sansloy and Sansjoye, it’s a dissection of Western fantasy’s habit of typecasting entire races as “evil”.
Overall, though, Rags & Bones is a disappointment, and a fairly tedious one. Borrow it from your local library for Ahmed’s story, and perhaps a couple of others (Garcia’s “The Soul Collector” is quite enjoyable), but it’s not worth buying.