Do Better is a short story collection connected to the Marla Mason novels by T.A. Pratt.
Finished on: 10.8.2021
[Here are my reviews of the other books in the series.]
Do Better collects more than twenty stories, about half of which center Marla, the rest focus on other characters from the series. The stories are much like the series: inventive and funny, a little bit creepy and, though you wouldn’t necessarily expect it, very romantic. They are arranged in chronological fashion, with a short intro paragraph that places them in the wider context of the series (although they don’t always stick with the canon 100%, a fact is well aware of – probably better than me). Those intros are very helpful, even for people who have read the entire series and might not remember everything very well. But they also mean that it’s a bit tricky to read Do Better to get a feeling for whether one would want to delve into the series because they are riddled with spoilers (that goes for the rest of this review where I talk about each story as well). But for fans of the series, the stories here will be a satisfying addition to the series.
Part 1: Marla Mason
Content Note: threat of sexualized violence
Marla and Jenny Click are sent to collect a debt from The Doorman, one that he owes their mentor Artie. And The Doorman may not have the money just yet, but he does have a plan.
The Doorman was a bit of a horror start to the collection, not in the sense of it being so bad, but rather in the sense that it was pretty gruesome. But then, young Marla is simply tough as nails, so that quite fits and was a nice call-back to her beginning.
Mommy Issues of the Dead
Viscarro needs Marla, by now working as a freelancer, to retrieve an object from another sorcerer. As Viscarro is being rather cryptic about said object, Marla suspects that there is more to it than that. But that’s none of her business – until it is.
Mommy Issues of the Dead was a fun story, a little less horror-y than the first one, but with some nice magic. Probably not the strongest of the collection, but still pretty good.
Ill Met in Ulthar
Marla, still freelancing, is called to the Blackwing institute as Dr. Husch has a job for her: she needs her to convince a fantasy author trapped in his worlds that he will not be able to finish his quest.
If I’m not mistaken, Ill Met in Ulthar was reworked as a chapter in one of the novels in the series (did I mention that my memory is pretty crappy?). In any case, the entire thing felt pretty familiar to me, though the ending is probably different here. I quite liked the idea in any case, as well as the way it satirizes old timey fantasy.
Marla is preparing for a complicated divination, when she and Rondeau stumble upon a cute dog. But there is something strange about that dog. For one, Marla would never call a dog cute. With other problems on her plate – the problems for which she needs the divination in the first place – the dog needs to take a back seat, though.
Pale Dog is fun. It’s the first story in the collection where Rondeau makes an appearance and since I really like Rondeau, I was happy about that. The idea with the dog was also well done. It’s cute charm certainly worked on me.
Grander than the Sea
Dr. Husch from the Blackwing institute comes to Marla as chief sorcerer of Felport to ask for her help with a patient/inmate of the institute who knows about Marla although he definitely isn’t supposed to. And suddenly Marla finds herself trying to stop the resurrection of an old Sea God that probably doesn’t even exist.
This story was wonderfully absurd. I had a lot of fun with it, and also enjoyed getting another glimpse at the Bay Witch way back when.
Little Better than a Beast
Content Note: ableism
Granger is a little late in delivering a message to Marla, so Marla is a bit unprepared for the arrival of the mythical and presumably invincible Beast of Felport. Plus, the Beast doesn’t arrive alone, bringing Marla more trouble than she bargained for.
Apart from the ableism (Granger is a very problematic character, and even more problematically, he is referred to as idiot), it was very nice indeed to see Marla give a misogynist his due.
Bored in her exile in Hawaii, Marla contemplates becoming a private investigator of the supernatural. As her first job, she asks for something interesting and finds a Shark God missing his teeth.
Shark’s Teeth contains traces of anti-colonialism which I found rather nice. I generally liked the concept of the story, though the story itself didn’t speak that much to me.
Snake and Mongoose
Marla has made many enemies in her time, and one of them just announced that she should prepare to die. But Marla isn’t quite ready to go yet, so she gets some allies together to think how she could get out of her debt.
Snake and Mongoose has all the hallmarks of a good Marla Mason story and works very nicely. It’s a call-back to a very early Marla Mason adventure, one that I remember only dimly, but no less fondly.
Marla and Death are on their honeymoon. In Disneyland, of all places. But it appears that there is something for everybody at Disneyland, even for Marla.
This was one of my favorite stories in the entire collection, simply because I love Death so much, especially together with Marla, and here the two are at their cutest and most romantic. Absolutely adorable.
Mother of the Bride
Marla is fulfilling her duties as the Bride of Death, a goddess in her own right, when a particular death catches her attention, one that the mortal Marla Mason needs to spend some time with.
This was a rather short story, but with a sweet sense of forgiveness that is all about letting go, not forgetting. I found it very touching.
Marla finds herself back on Earth, when she still should be reigning over the underworld. With her is a flaming skull who is supposed to help her with her, as of yet unclear, mission. Before she can make any headway, though, she is kidnapped.
Do Better was one of the funnier entries in the collection, I thought, and gives us another glance at the Mycelium, which I also very much enjoyed. Definitely counts as a win in my book.
Three Petitions to the Queen of Hell
Sufi and Marla have been reigning the underworld together for quite a while when Sufi proposes to make it possible for mortals to petition them. Marla agrees reluctantly (only if they pass several tests, of course), and is promptly – that is, after decades – confronted with her first petitioner – who shall not remain the last one.
This is one of the most romantic stories in the collection, and it’s a sapphic romance (and I don’t mean Sufi and Marla) to boot. What’s not to love about that?
The Four Horsepersons of the Eucatastrophe
Chaos witch turned god Elsie Jarrow finds her way to the underworld to recruit Marla for a road trip that is also a mission to roll back some of Elsie’s more chaotic changes.
This story is really wonderfully fun with Elsie’s chaos. I don’t know if I would want an entire novel about Elsie, but reading a story about her exploits here and there works very well for me. Especially with Marla as a counterweight.
Part 2: Everybody Else
Down with the Lizard and the Bees
Bradley Bowman, called B, keeps having prophetic dreams that he talks over with his dead boyfriend. That’s just what being a psychic is like. His latest dreams bring him on a quest with Jay, a young man trying to bring his girlfriend back from the dead.
This is the second story in the collection (and not the last) that is about not accepting death as the limit for love. Where the other two stories are romantic to their cores, this one is rather sad and pretty depressing. I liked it, but it is definitely heavier than the rest of the stories.
A Cloak of Many Worlds
When multiverse god B took Marla’s cloak off her hands, he thought that he could keep it safe. But it appears that the cloak is more insidious and even more foreign than he thought. B will need help to take care of it for good.
Marla’s cloak is one of the best inventions of the series in my opinion, and B is one of my favorite characters, so I really liked this adventure that puts those two things nicely together.
Life in Stone
Content Note: torture
Assassin Mr Zealand was hired to find the soul of a sorcerer, a job that becomes ever more complicated for him.
Although I liked the concept, this story was difficult for me because Mr Zealand is unbelievably cruel in it. I just couldn’t stomach how he treated Hannah and it kind of ruined the story for me.
Ice Murder Safari
Crapsey and Squat are on a mission: they are hunting something in ice and snow, leaving a murderous trail in their wake.
I find Crapsey and Squat rather enjoyable, at least for a little while. Their banter certainly didn’t overstay its welcome in this story that is quite fun.
The Atheist in the Garden
Pelham has taken over taking care of the underworld in Marla’s absence. And it is just then that a very famous atheist dies and doesn’t want to submit to the underworld’s rule.
This story pokes fun at a specific kind of obnoxious atheist in a way that I (an atheist myself) very much enjoyed. I would have also liked more Pelham content, but I really enjoyed that we got this story at least.
Gift of the Anthropophagi
Porter has some very important Christmas shopping to do, even if he already maxxed out all his credit cards. He would do anything for Dell. But then two guys show up and try to convince him that there is something weird about Dell.
One of two Christmas stories in the collection, this one isn’t really interested in the spirit of Christmas, but that’s quite alright. It has a lot of Rondeau and B bantering. In this case, it might be trying a little too hard to be funny than actually managing to be funny, but it’s bit bad.
Ghostreaper, or, Life After Revenge
Content Note: suicide
Elsie Jarrow keeps Carson from committing suicide, gives him a mythical weapon, instructs him to do some vengeance and leans back to enjoy the havoc. That is her entire deal. But Carson may not play along forever.
Another Elsie Jarrow story with a pleasantly chaotic energy and that manages to strike the right balance at the end.
Happy Old Year
After a couple of very bad years, Dave contemplates how badly his life turned out on New Year’s Eve. That’s when Elsie Jarrow shows up and offers him a deal: go back to any New Year he would like in his life. Dave jumps at the chance, but of course, there is a catch.
I very much liked the idea for Happy Old Year, though it is a rather cruel concept. Given it’s cruelty, I would have appreciated a happier ending for sure.
A Pathway Up and Down
Alisa, Marco and their two children Sophia and Hector are on a camping trip when something comes to get them in the night, trying to give them powers. Something, or rather someone: Elsie Jarrow.
This story again gets the balance for an Elsie Jarrow story right: there is chaos, and a sprinkle of cruelty, but there is also hope and fun.
Under the Tree
Gabe wakes up disoriented under a Christmas tree: it appears that Elsie Jarrow granted his girlfriend Ivy a Christmas miracle. Though they still need to figure out the rules for the miracle.
This was a nice finish for the collection: the third “not accepting death” story and the second Christmas story, it’s a romantic, sweet and cute ending that shows a different side to Elsie. All of that is much appreciated, and rounds the collection off nicely.
Summarizing: a very nice collection.