Genre: Fantasy Anthology
Book Review by David L. Felts
Mr. Hartwell brings us an admirable and global collection of stories culled from a variety of sources. Several continents and countries are represented here, with authors from Great Briton, Australia, Yugoslavia, Canada, and the United States. The stories range from the completely original, to those that retell recognizable fairy tales, to those that take place in worlds created by other authors such as H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. A wide range of cultures is represented as well, with stories that incorporate elements from American Indian, Aboriginal, Oriental, and Caribbean myths and legends.
The collection contains 23 stories. Some of those I enjoyed most are “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O”, by Michael Swanwick, “The Hunger of Leaves”, by Joel Lane, “Mom and Dad at the Home Front”, by Sherwood, Smith, “Golden Bell, Seven, and he Marquis of Zhang”, by Richard Parks, and “Making Noise in this World”, by Charles de Lint. There aren’t any ‘bad’ stories here (this is a year’s best after all) but there are some that seemed rather average to me, and a few that didn’t quite work as well as others. Terry Goodkind’s story is good, but too long for the tale it tells. His style is somewhat choppy as well. “The Window” left me scratching my head. “Path of the Dragon” despite being very good, might be too dependent on the reader having read Mr. Martin’s books (the story is an excerpt from the third volume in his fantasy series); there are a lot of names, places, and events mentioned that don’t have a direct bearing on the story, but will be recognizable to those who have read the novels. Fortunately I’ve read (and enjoyed) the books, so this wasn’t a problem for me, but I could see how it could be for some.Overall, the variety and talent represented here definitely make this required reading for any fantasy fan.
“Everything Changes”, by Jonathan Sullivan
From his mountains, Teliax, an ancient dragon, has watched mankind crawl from the caves and form civilization. To him, the life of a human is no more than a brief flicker of time. But progress has brought a new weapon–gunpowder–that may threaten even him. Now war looms. When one side asks for aid while the other threatens destruction, Teliax must face the realization that all things change, even for immortal dragons. A good story where Mr. Sullivan does a nice job bringing to life the perspective of a being that has existed for millennia.
“A Troll Story (Lessons in What Matters, No. 1)”, by Nicola Griffith
What makes a hero a hero, or a villain a villain? Deeds seen by some as heroic may be considered by others to be evil. How do such deeds weigh on a person’s soul, on the way he or she makes decisions and leads his or her life? Even the smallest event can swell in weight an impact as the years pass. These are some of the questions Ms. Griffith proposes in this well-drawn but dark tale. The story is fable-like, taking place in ancient Norway a thousand years before. Winter is fast approaching, and Tors is in desperate need of a winter Shepard. But last year, winter trolls were seen wandering and he is forced to hire an outsider, Glam, for the job. Glam turns out to be both more and less than he appears, as does Agnar, who accepts the role of hero, seeking to save Tors and his family. A story that will leave you thinking. What more could you want?
“The Face of Sekt”, by Storm Constantine
When the appearance of a mysterious conjuror and an illness in the prince coincide, the avatar of Sekt, the physical manifestation of the goddess Sekt, is forced to discover the out the truth about herself and her powers. Is she truly an embodiment of the goddess on Earth? Only by risking everything can she find the answer. An immersing world adds to the strength of this well-realized tale.
“Chanterelle”, by Brian Stableford
After marrying, Alator and Catriona move to the city, leaving their country upbringing behind. But their childhood stays with them, in the form of the tales they remember and tell to their children, Handsel and Chanterelle. When a plague forces a return to the countryside, Handsel and Chenterelle find themselves caught up in the tales their parents used to tell. This dark story is told in fable fashion and draws from a number of sources many readers will recognize. It goes beyond the familiar elements, however, to create something entirely new; a rich story that could easily stand alongside any modern or ancient fairy tale.
“Path of the Dragon”, by George R.R. Martin
Daenerys Targaryen is returning to reclaim her throne after years of exile and persecution. She has in her possession three dragons; the last three in the world. She also has a handful of loyal followers. But it isn’t enough to reclaim her throne, so she goes to Astophor, a city of slaves, to acquire an army, even though the thought of using slaves goes against her beliefs. There she finds for sale the Unsullied, eunuch slaves raised from childhood to be the ultimate warriors. With them, she can begin the quest to regain her throne. The price of their purchase promises to be high, both for her and the Astophori people. This story is excerpted from Mr. Martin’s “A Storm of Swords”, the third in his series of fantasy novels. It’s very good, but it might be a slightly inaccessible to those who haven’t read the novels. There’s quite a bit of reference to events and characters from the previous books and some readers might get a lost trying to keep track of the how and why of everything going on.
“The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O”, by Michale Swanwick
Crow is an archetype, a primal force made flesh who exists in all times and who can travel anywhere and anywhen. A trickster, he makes it his business to do what he wants, regardless of the desires of other Powers and Godlings. His most current adventure takes him and Annie, the woman he loves, to ancient Rome, where he has a deal for the local beastmaster who buys for the gladiatorial games. But fate soon catches up with him in the form of Lord Eric, a Power and Annie’s husband. He takes his revenge, but Crow ultimately executes the last play in this time- and universe-hopping tale. Reviewing it doesn’t come close to reading it. Inventive, original and fun. Go read it.
“Ebb Tide”, by Sarah Singleton
Jake is a nineteen year-old trying to find himself and a purpose for the future; Ansilie is an elderly man, a war veteran, trying to come to terms with an event from his past. When Jake discovers something odd washed up on the rocky shore and tells Ansilie, these two disparate characters find a common purpose. Strong writing leads to a somewhat soft resolution, in that something has changed for both of these people, but we’re left to speculate what changed and what will be different.
“The Hunger of Leaves”, by Joel Lane
The story takes place on the continent of Zothique, originally created by Clark Ashton Smith and appearing in Weird Tales back in the 1930s. Here, three less-than-wholesome characters with dreams of riches and plunder enter the forest realm of Yhaldi in search of the lair of the sorcerer Niil. The details here do more than bring the forest to life; it becomes a character in its own right, with its own purpose and will. A creepy, atmospheric, and engrossing story that does a great job capturing the tone of the old 30s pulp stories.
“Greedy Choke Puppy”, by Nalo Hopkinson
The Caribbean and voodoo magic provide the setting for this story. The Lagahoo is also called the God horse; seeing one means someone is about to die. The Soucouyant is the Caribbean equivalent of the vampire. Both of these supernatural beings play a role here. The characters were well done and the mythology refreshing, but this story didn’t quite come to life for me and the end wasn’t as much of a surprise as it was probably supposed to be.
“The Golem”, by Naomi Kritzer
The Golem is a fantastical being, created of inanimate matter and then brought to life by its creator. One of the golem’s powers is the ability to discern future events. If the creator of the golem dies while the golem still ‘lives’, then the golem becomes free and no longer bound to the will of its creator. But does being alive make one a person? Does simply existing grant a soul by default? The backdrop of WWI, Prague, and the Jewish persecution by Nazis provide the backdrop for this well-done story.
“The Devil Disinvests”, by Scott Bradfield
Stories about the Devil aren’t wrung out yet. Mr. Bradfield creates a new Devil for us, a CEO in a tailored suit and handmade loafers. But what happens when the Boss gets tired of the business? A fresh perspective on an old subject that pokes some fun at the execs of today. Light fare and (thankfully) short enough that it stays fun.
“A Serpent in Eden”, by Simon Brown and Alison Tokley
What seems to be a snake appears in Frances’ garden, but not everyone can see it, and her four year-old daughter Phoebe knows more than she’s saying. Nice writing, and apparently about the power of childhood imaginings, but it never quite came together for me.
“Wrong Dreaming”, by Kain Massin
When a young aboriginal girl is murdered, Uncle uses his powers to call up a spirit for revenge, but too late he realizes he fell prey to his anger and tries to undo what he brought into being. With a young man form his tribe, he sets out to stop what he started. For its length, this story covers a lot of ground; it also has more than one viewpoint. The flow had me confused a few times and I had to re-read to figure out where I was and what was going on. The aboriginal magic was interesting, as was the character of Uncle, but overall this story required more work to read than it should have.
“Mom and Dad at the Home Front”, by Sherwood Smith
Literature has given us a variety of tales where children go off to magical worlds to explore and be heroes. But what about the parents who get left behind? This light-hearted and sentimental story takes that viewpoint as we see Rick and Mary deal with their three disappearing adventurers. An enjoyable story that nicely illustrates some bittersweet points about what it means to be a parent, forced to endure the ongoing process of separation as your children grow up.
“The Fey”, by Renee Bennett
This story borrows elements from Arthurian legend and transposes them to an unknown world and time that could represent almost any period in history. Morgana has had a strange life, her reality impinged by visions of another world, a world of trees and shadows. When an in invading army occupies her town and soldiers occupy her house, she at last realizes the meaning of what she has been seeing. I found the resolution of this short, surreal tale difficult to grasp, but enjoyed the tone of mystery and otherworldliness that Ms. Bennett invoked.
“Golden Bell, Seven, and the Marquis of Zeng”, by Richard Parks
In this oriental fable, Seven (who is actually the tenth child) glimpses Jia Jin and falls in love with her. But Jia Jin is a concubine and a gift to the ailing Marquis; she is doomed to follow him (along with the rest of his servants) into the spirit world when he dies. Seven is determined to save her from this fate. He’s an easy character to cheer for and his quest is as interesting as the characters he meets.
“Making Noise in this World”, by Charles de Lint
James Raven is an artist who media is spray paint sides of boxcars. One night he discovers John Walking Elk, a man left out to die of exposure to the elements by corrupt elements in the local police force. Elk challenges James to be a warrior. Along with some advice from the local medicine man, James sets out to discover his own interpretation of the challenge Elk posed. There’s a powerful message here delivered in an entertaining and absorbing way. Whether or not you agree with the philosophy presented, this story will leave an impression.
“Magic, Maples, and Maryanne”, by Robert Sheckly
Modern Urbana is the setting for this magical tale. The main character is a modern day wizard, though we learn that magic has a mind of its own and can’t be controlled, only appealed to. He ends up involved with Phil, his boss, and a group of investors seeking to profit from his ability. But magic comes at a cost, of course. The ‘rules’ of magic Mr. Sheckly applied in his world didn’t convince me; my disbelief never got suspended enough for me to thoroughly enjoy the story.
“The Prophecies at Newfane Asylum”, by Don Webb
Just as several stories engage various cultural mythologies, so too do some draw on the per-existing creations of other authors. This story uses the Cthulhu pantheon created by Lovecraft. It’s set in colonial America and concerns two British spies, one of whom has come to the colonies after an extended period on no communication from Jeremiah Brewster, the previous spy. Brewster is found to be residing in the local asylum. The replacement spies wrangles an interview at which Brewster relates his Lovecraftian tale. Fans of H.P. will no doubt enjoy, and it has a broad enough appeal to be enjoyable to most others as well. Mr. Webb does an excellent job capturing the flavor and feel of the culture at the time.
“The Window”, by Zoran Zivkovic (translated from Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic)
Speculative fiction stories about life after death are as common as stories about the devil. It’s hard to put a new spin on this well-worn wheel, and I don’t think Mr. Zivkovic does here. It’s a first person story in which we never learn the name of the protagonist. He is apparently having a dream, only it turns out not to be a dream and he realizes he has died. He meets up with an afterworld character who offers information (not enough) and a choice. Some of the rules here seem a bit arbitrary and the protagonist’s final choice at the end didn’t really seem to grow out of any logical progression. Overall it didn’t stick with me or leave much of an impression. I will offer what I was told by one pro years ago, “Description is a lot more fun to write than it is to read.”
“And Still She Sleeps,” by Greg Costikyan
This retelling of the Cinderella fable is set in an alternate England where magic exists alongside what appears to be late 18th or early 19th century technology. During an archaeological dig, Professor Borthwick and his crew discover what appears to be a living girl, deep in the grasp of some arcane induced slumber. Mr. Costikyan does a wonderful job with the characters, and the world and setting are fully realized. Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable retelling of the fairy-tale classic.
“The Walking Sticks”, by Gene Wolfe
The introduction bills this story as ‘…darkly humorous contemporary sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’ Johnny and his wife Jo receive a strange shipment intended for Johnny’s ex-wife Mavis, who can’t be located. It’s and old cabinet; inside are twenty-two wooden walking canes. After the cabinet’s arrival, strange events begin to transpire, and Johnny is firmly planted in the middle. He’s an unreliable narrator and the story is somewhat hard to follow. I afraid I was pretty lost by the end.
“Debt of Bones”, by Terry Goodkind
This overly long story gives us Abby, daughter of a local sorceress. Abby has traveled to Aydindril and the Keep to beseech the aid of Zorander, the First Wizard. Abby’s husband and daughter, along with the citizens of her village, are being held captive by an invading army from D’Hara, and are being used as pawns in a war that has been going on for some time. In order to save her family and her people, Abby calls on a debt owed to her mother and now passed down to her. Duty and personal desires clash, for Zorander seeks to end the war, though the ultimate cost might be the lives of those he is sworn to protect. But do the lives of a few justify endangering the lives of many? I like the theme here and the characters were well drawn, but get this guy an editor who’s not afraid to cut. The story is worth reading, but not all the words are.