Instead of Three Wishes: Magical Short Stories by Megan Whalen Turner was the slenderest volume on my TBR shelves. I dearly love Turner’s “Queen’s Thief” series, marketed as Young Adult, that begins with The Thief. In my opinion this short story collection, like that series, doesn’t necessarily have to be considered as being for any particular age of reader, though it’s published as Children’s.
The seven stories all have a mythological or fairy tale feel, but none follows a staid, expected path. Please note there are spoilers ahead!
“A Plague of Leprechaun” examines the havoc wrought by tourists and small mishaps on a small New Hampshire town. “Leroy Roachbane” is a take on the fairy tale “Seven at One Blow” that also addresses a lack of diverse books in a local library. “Aunt Charlotte and the NGA Portraits” combines a selkie story with a puzzle and oil paintings, told to a young girl by her elderly great-aunt. It’s one of my favorites for the final line, “What you believe is up to you.” “Instead of Three Wishes” reminded me of the Armitage stories by Joan Aiken in tone and humor, with a cranky elf prince in a contemporary world. “The Nightmare” is a chilling story that resonated with me. It shows bullying bouncing back on the bully, and though he learns from the experience, the only way to escape is to push the retribution along to someone who asks for it: a person who is now bullying him. “The Baker King” is charming, a delightful conclusion to the collection. It reminded me a bit of her novels with its alternate world setting, and I loved the irreverent take on monarchy.
The ghost story “Factory” made me think the most. Content warning: it includes offstage suicide and child death; spoilers for the story in this paragraph. “Factory” is set in a world where capitalism and industry has taken over nature, and no one seems to have any purpose beyond factory jobs, though libraries still exist. Pigeons are called simply “birds” because they are the only birds left (though this world still has chocolate and cinnamon). The protagonist John, an orphan who’s recently started his first job, meets a ghost whose family home, in the midst of a nature preserve, stood where the factory was built. By dying with intention when they could no longer protect the land, the entire family still exists there, while seeing the living as ghosts moving through the land as it once was.
It’s a little unclear that the family chose to die; one of them is a toddler and two are ten years old, so they could not have fully consented, but it doesn’t seem like the mother cold-bloodedly murdered them, either. The ghost John meets, a young girl named Edwina, spends most of her time in an attic room, reading the books in the house when they all died. Edwina doesn’t change physically, but she has continuity of memory throughout being a ghost. John is able to check out library books and read them to her; she writes down the poetry she wants to keep. Then he introduces her to detective novels, which she loves.
John is relatively happy in his job as solo operator of the high crane because he gets to be alone and read books on his breaks, but his dearest wish is to have someone to talk to about the books he reads. In the end, after speaking with Edwina’s mother’s ghost, he checks out as many library books as he can and hides them with chocolates and spices all over the rafters of the factory, then takes cyanide. He and Edwina spend their afterlife–or perhaps it’s a second life?–together, reading books and eating chocolates, having escaped the dreary grind of the factory forever. It’s a story that will stick with me for a long time.