Conqueror Fantastic, edited by Pamela Sargent

Conqueror Fantastic, edited by Pamela Sargent book coverGenre: Fantasy Anthology
Publisher: Penguin
Published: 2004
Reviewer Rating: three and a half stars
Book Review by Jeff Edwards

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Conqueror Fantastic is a collection of thirteen historical fantasy tales, running the gamut from the Aztecs and Greeks up to twentieth century America and Germany. If there is a running theme in the anthology, it is the continuous interplay of past, present and future. George Zebrowski’s “Nappy” is undoubtedly the most frustrating work in the book — the story of a recreated Napoleon Bonaparte, struggling with his new existence in virtual reality as “he went everywhere and lived every possibility” while “moving from infinity to infinity.”

Kij Johnson shows a much more elegant way to handle the shifting perspectives of time in “The Empress Jingu Fishes.” A shaman to the gods, Jingu drifts between visions of the future and memories of the past, but Johnson’s deft handling makes the story flow like the stream where the empress fishes: “All moments are this moment. Past and future jumbled together.”

More than one story in the anthology broaches the subject of love between men. In “Spirit Brother” by Pamela Sargent, Temujin (who became Genghis Khan) executes his lover Jamukha, and the dead man’s spirit is torn between a promise to watch over Temujin and a more earthly need for revenge. In Michelle West’s “To the Gods Their Due,” Alexander the Great learns the price one must pay in order to become a god. Although he gains a form of divinity, Alexander loses all that is truly dear to him, especially the love of his bodyguard and companion, Hephaestion.

While the love stories in Conqueror Fantastic may be bittersweet at best, the authors present a positively bleak outlook of the U.S. political landscape in the 1960s. “Intensified Transmogrification,” by Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Pronzini, offers “a glimpse into the mind” of President Lyndon B. Johnson – a mind in the midst of a breakdown. And in “Good Deeds” by Jack Dann, Bobby Kennedy’s idea of fun is tagging along on a drug bust in Spanish Harlem and releasing a girl in exchange for a sexual favor, then later meeting up with Marilyn Monroe.

Two of the more outlandish pieces in the book feature dragons and Lovecraftian creatures. Stephen Dedman’s “Twilight of Idols” is a gripping story but one constructed for the sole purpose of serving Adolf Hitler his just desserts. When a woman possessing the map to a dragon’s lair approaches Hitler, he agrees to join her on the expedition. According to legend, bathing in the creature’s blood guarantees invincibility, and eating its flesh makes one safe from poison – but not from exposure to gas. Finally, “Observable Things” by Paul Di Filippo is arguably the most enjoyable tale in the collection. An homage to Robert E. Howard, this is a rip-roaring supernatural adventure yarn set in Rhode Island in 1676, pitting Solomon Kane against King Philip, Warrior Son of Massasoit. Though written in the style of seventeenth century English, the story includes welcome humor (“Now that I have…acquired the status of Elderly Relick, honor’d and revered…but likewise equally unlisten’d to”) and a nod to the work of H.P. Lovecraft (When a creature attacks Kane on his ship’s gangplank, he calls it “a child of Dagon”).

In considering whether or not to enter the world of Conqueror Fantastic, readers must decide if such a vast historical landscape will be full of welcome diversity or too many distractions. This reviewer would have preferred for the anthology to focus on a particular era, in order to create some form of continuity among the stories. Too often, the challenge to understand different settings and time periods hindered appreciation of the deeper truths of the stories in this eclectic collection.

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