I arrived at Kelly Sandoval’s stories later than I should have, really. The first time I read a piece from her — Mirror-Skinned — I remember thinking to myself, “I should probably read more.” But I ended up being distracted by life, which was probably a good thing because when I came back, I’d a veritable cornucopia of words to savor.
But where do you start with your Sandoval experience? The Right Sort of Monsters, I’d argue, is a great place. Haunting and lyrical, it beautifully showcases her world building expertise, her depth of description. It begins very strongly:
"Anabeth’s new baby had the teeth of a crocodile."
And it does not stop. From that first evocative sentence, the tale slowly unspools, assembling itself into an unsettling conversation between the crocodile-toothed child’s mother and Viette, our protagonist. We learn that Anabeth isn’t happy about the child’s dentition; we learn about Viette’s “latest” stillbirth, about wings on a little girl, about a curse that lives in the blood. And then:
"Anabeth wasn't the only one who needed a child. I, too, was willing to take what the gods refused me.
The priests would say that was the problem. We had dared to cross the boundaries of Godswalk. We had eaten crystal fruit and bathed in rivers of liquid sapphire. But we'd been children. We had known nothing of the Godswalk. Except that it was new. That it was beautiful."
Nothing is ever overtly explained. Sandoval tantalises with more and more descriptions of a rich, disconcerting universe, where children grow in trees of "shining copper and burnished silver,” trees that rumored to feed on flesh, who will grow a child for you if you give it blood from your body and your lover’s vein.
And then it gets more stranger, more beautiful yet. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but I will say this: it explores the hypocrisy of our occasional desires, how we say we can love the things we care for impartially, and how we can still have selfish preferences. There’s death here, off-camera but still agonisingly poignant. But “The Right Sort of Monsters” ends on a hopeful note, full of a measured grief but hopeful, always hopeful.
That sense of wistfulness, of sorrow that has been internalised and accepted, permeates much of Sandoval’s writing. The Stories She Tells Herself is a quiet agony, inspiring tears the first time I read it. If you’ve ever been caged in an abusive relationship, ever known someone who has suffered from one, it’s likely to do the same for you. Sandoval does an absolutely masterful job blending the fantastical with the achingly real, creating a fable for the modern ages. And that ending, god. That ending. It’s very quintessentially Sandoval for me, at this point. Full of teeth and dignity, full of power.
Read her. You should have been doing it already.