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If you've read any of Bruce Golden's books, you know he's always trying something new--taking his readers to a completely different worlds. This isn't the path followed by many authors, who write sequel after sequel after sequel. As a writer, it's a gamble. It's certainly not the formula the major publishing houses want authors to follow. But at least you can always expect something unique from Golden's keyboard.
This time, with Tales of My Ancestors, Golden takes us back in time to revisit events both famous and infamous, to meet well-known historical figures as well as many who've never garnered a mention in history books. Of course there's a speculative side to each of these tales--a touch of fantasy or a dash of science fiction that gives this book the feel of the History Channel being broadcast via "The Twilight Zone." Yet, even with these speculative touches, the historical details remains accurate, never contradicting the records of the time (at least as far as my historical knowledge takes me). That's more than you can say for most straight-up historical fiction.
There are plenty of books that combine historical fiction with the speculative, but what makes this collection of tales unlike any other book I'm aware of, is that each one features at least one of Golden's direct ancestors as either a major or minor character. By "direct ancestors," as he explains in his prologue, Golden means his great grandfathers or grandmothers.
One ancestral bloodline is involved in the early exploration of America, another features the travails of various British kings and queens, while a third follows an American family's generational move west. There are dark tales, inspirational ones, some melancholy, and even a few that are humorous, like Golden's sexy, satirical take on the Robin Hood legend.
Along the timeline of history, Golden's ancestors will deal with a banshee, a mermaid-like selkie, a dola of Hungarian legend, creatures of Native American folklore, and a pale horse of death. There are time travelers, alien parasites, and a couple demons for good measure. Readers will meet some of the last Chicago Cubs to win a World Series, learn how Shakespeare might have been inspired to write one of his most popular plays, and consider what could have happened to big band leader Glenn Miller, who vanished during World War II.
In one of the very best tales, about the Salem Witch Trials, Golden looks at the dark side of humanity and its ever-present mob-mentality. It's religious superstition run rampant--one of the more insidious and shameful chapters of early American history. Unlike most speculative fiction writers who've tackled this time and place, there are no actual witches, no demons, no black magic--only the black hearts of men. The best part of the tale, the fantastical aspect of it, is that the "devil's advocate" is played by Satan himself.
In another story you'll meet the man sometimes described as the "black Mark Twain," and witness his liberation from slavery. You'll wonder if there are really tons of gold in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona, or something else even more incredible, and you'll find out what might have caused a renown Viking warrior to give up his life of pillaging and settle down in Western France.
Golden's narrative style is quick-moving, spare, and dialogue-heavy. It's almost cinematic in nature. He gets right to the action and the character inter-action, so if you like the more languid style of writers who give you paragraph after paragraph of descriptive verse, you may not care this leaner literary bent. However, it works for me, and always kept my interest. More importantly, I believed his characters. They were always plausible, always someone whose shoes I could put myself in, whether they be good or evil by modern standards of civility.
Is every story a winner? No collection of short stories is ever a total love fest, because every reader's tastes vary. A story one person will adore, another can take or leave. But this bunch of tales satisfies on a number levels, and the variety of lands and eras Golden takes you to makes each page-turning journey worth the trip.
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