Review: On the Twelfth Night by Jonathan Barnes

12th nightI reviewed the first two books of the Monstrous Little Voices series, Coral Bones by Foz Meadows and The Course of True Love by Kate Heartfield, back in January when the 5 novella series began its publishing schedule.

The series has come out as a celebration on the 400th anniversary of the Bard of Avon’s death. Each story is set in the worlds he created, borrowing characters and settings from different stories and exploring issues like identity, love, trust and fate.

The novellas have been universally brilliant.

I have just finished the final book of the series, On the Twelfth Night by Jonathan Barnes, and I’m delighted to report that it’s just as superb as the first two, and indeed the next two.

To quickly get us up to date, I reviewed 3 and 4 on Goodreads as follows:

The Unkindest Cut (#3) by Emma Newman

Newman - The Unkindest CutAnother strong segment of the Monstrous Little Voices series, bringing in plot points and elements from the preceding two. Innocence and trust come to treachery, and prophesies prove tricksy as ever.

Even in the Cannon’s Mouth (#4) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

cannons mouthThis fourth novella of five in the Monstrous Little Voices series ramps up the drama, taking a host of characters from comedy romances – Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, As You Like It and All’s Well That Ends Well – and swirling the darkness of Hecate and Macbeth into the mix. The wars touched on increasingly in the previous novellas come much closer to the surface, and events from the other stories have more weight here too.

Here we have shipwrecks, women disguised as men, powerful magicians, noble prisoners and untrustworthy companions. The language is beautifully wrought, the plot as complex as any by Shakespeare, but with a clear and satisfying resolution that leads towards the last book of the series. I can’t wait!

And lo! the last book came out, and I had to wait a little, though I didn’t like to, and here is my review of it.

On the Twelfth Night by Jonathan Barnes

I’ve not often been a fan of second person in fiction – the ‘you do this, you feel that’ format can feel a bit forced. But I have to say, Jonathan Barnes’s choice to use it here, putting you in the shoes and heart and mind of William Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, is inspired.

We know relatively so much about Shakespeare you see, and if you love his work, you have a kind of relationship with him. So from the start, the reader is placed in a particular juxtaposition with how Anne (and how we) feel about Shakespeare, as well as how we feel about love, marriage, life and loss.

This final story introduces us to Anne and her husband William – the man who never left Stratford, who never went to the theatre, who never wrote all those plays we loved. It also introduces us to a multiverse – where our playwright Shakespeare exists in one reality, and the realities of where all the other Shakespeares that might have been also live.

Of course, all of this is learned through Anne’s eyes as she… as you… as we see our husband leave in the company of strange yet strangely familiar men, members of a mysterous Guild, to fight some war that is nebulous. Life is filled with foreboding portents, and our son Hamnet, who has not dreamed since the illness that nearly killed him, begins to have prophetic dreams.

Barnes’s use of ‘you’ is clear yet subtle. He dictates to us our feelings and our fears, but it is done with such delicacy, such care and such sorrow, that when the battle comes to our very door, I had tears in my eyes for Anne’s/Will’s/my/our great sacrifice.

The return to third person for the final chapter – the twelfth night – is completely in keeping with the plot and the denouement of the 11th night… so when a final reminder and reference to the recent past is made, I had another strong, emotional response.

On the Twelfth Night is a fine finale to a series of excellent novellas exploring humanity, love, and redemption.  And these storeies all happen within the worlds made for us by William Shakespeare, the playwright commonly acknowledged as the man who helped us understand so much of the complexity of what it is to be human, which is the reason his plays have survived for 400 years beyond his death.

I really cannot recommend them highly enough.

Buy the stories individually

Buy the collection

Read more about Monstrous Little Voices at Abaddon Books.