Despite containing several stories I loved, this collection was a disappointment to me. Sedia is clearly a talented writer, but too many of the storie...moreDespite containing several stories I loved, this collection was a disappointment to me. Sedia is clearly a talented writer, but too many of the stories either took risks that didn't pay off or remained completely opaque to me, even after turning to Google to see if I was missing references. I was also confused by the inclusion of two distinctly non-Russian stories; one is a retelling of a Japanese folktale, the other is a pseudo-African folktale, and both seemed completely out of place in the collection and lacked the depth of history and mythology that Sedia brought to her Russian-set stories. And while Sedia has been lauded as a feminist writer, concerned with the place of women in the world and the power dynamics between women and men, these stories more often than not positioned their female characters as victims. Not agent-less victims, I will grant, and victimized more often by the patriarchal machinery of society as a whole rather than individual men, but still victims. Several of the stories also positioned fatness as grotesque and malignant, and there were hints of cultural appropriation and classism that made me uncomfortable.
Still, when Sedia was writing in what appears to be her comfort zone, magical realist and fairy tale influenced stories set either in modern-day Russia or among Russian immigrants elsewhere in the world, she was quite impressive. "Citizen Komorova Finds Love," "Tin Cans," and "You Dream" were all incredibly evocative, packing both significant thematic and emotional punches into not very many pages. None of these three are happy stories -- actually none of the stories in the entire collection is happy -- but they resonate the way short fiction ought, illuminating little corners of much larger worlds.(less)
This is a surprisingly diverse collection. It features women with the large breasts, butt and hips that I expected going in, but it also features wome...moreThis is a surprisingly diverse collection. It features women with the large breasts, butt and hips that I expected going in, but it also features women whose largeness manifests in less expected ways, like strongly muscled legs; there are stories of trysts between near-strangers, between people in heterosexual or homosexual monogamous relationships, and one featuring a polyamorous triad; the characters are mostly white but there are few interracial couples and couples where both partners are non-white; and while most of the sex is vanilla there are a few kinky stories involving BDSM and voyeurism. All that variety is in some ways a mixed blessing: on the one hand, at least one story is sure to please any reader; on the other hand, I'm pretty sure every reader will encounter some stories that are complete misses. Unfortunately for me, Bussel placed most of my favorites toward the beginning of the anthology and all of the ones I disliked at the end, causing me to end up liking the anthology as a whole less than I think I would have had it been organized differently. Still, the quality of the prose was consistently good, resulting in an eminently readable, decidedly sexy anthology that I'd certainly recommend.(less)
I found this collection extremely uneven. There were several stories I absolutely hated, which is unusual for me in short fiction: "The Tradeoff," "Th...moreI found this collection extremely uneven. There were several stories I absolutely hated, which is unusual for me in short fiction: "The Tradeoff," "The Right Stuffed," "Nemesis," and "Sharks and Seals." But there were also several that I loved deeply, passionately, without reservation: "Cartography, and the Death of Shoes," "Flesh of My Flesh," "Davy," and "Lift." What surprised me even more was how my tastes broke down by genre: I found all but one of the fantasy stories good to great, and disliked or hated all but two of the science fiction stories. Also surprising (and a little disappointing to me) was that there wasn't a single story where the protagonist liked her body. Still, on the strength of those four stories that I loved I would recommend this collection, and I am grateful to Crossed Genres and the editors Kay T. Holt and Bart R. Leib for making it.
Given the pedigree of the authors included in this collection, I expected much more magic. Unfortunately, most of the stories were frankly mediocre: e...moreGiven the pedigree of the authors included in this collection, I expected much more magic. Unfortunately, most of the stories were frankly mediocre: either completely mundane or simplistically horrifying. There were a couple standouts: Sherman Alexie's "A Strange Day in July" was wonderfully bizarre; Cory Doctorow's "Another Place, Another Time" was pure magic and surprisingly bittersweet at its core. Chris Van Allsburg's own contribution felt right (obviously) but annoyed me with its extremely outdated gender roles. But beyond those stories, the entire collection was sadly forgettable.(less)
This was an extremely uneven collection of short stories. The best of them were absolutely stunning, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking. The worst...moreThis was an extremely uneven collection of short stories. The best of them were absolutely stunning, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking. The worst were clunky, unsubtle, and lost their power (for me at least) as a result. All of the stories had some sort of fantastic element; unfortunately, the fantastic element seemed more likely to weaken the story than strengthen it. Still, good and bad, it's a collection very much concerned with power dynamics within families, between men and women, between poor and rich (or sometimes only less-poor), and between blacks and whites; themes I am always interested in and happy to see explored in fiction.
"Walter and the Three-Legged King" -- This starts as a straight piece of horror, about a poor man in a dirty apartment, who keeps spotting a rat that the building super insists isn't there. It succeeded in horrifying me; and then it went somewhere more political. The collection gets its title from this story, and I love the title; but the story itself doesn't do very much with the concept other than lay it out there. ★★★1/2
"Purse" -- This was my favorite story in the collection; I would not change a word of it. It's extremely short, so I can't really say anything about it without spoiling it, but it's visceral and gruesome and tragic. ★★★★★
"I Make People do Bad Things" -- And this was my second favorite story in the collection, a period piece about Madam St. Clair and the numbers racket in Harlem in the 1930s. Burke's character development shines in this one, and the horror is psychologically rather than fantastically rooted. (The fantastic element is pretty damn cool, though, and totally essential to the story.) My only objection was that it was structured as a flashback; I felt this was unnecessary and took some of the oomph out of the story. ★★★★
"The Unremembered" -- My least favorite story of the collection. It gives a magical explanation for a girl named Jeli's autism and is fierce on the subject of the Christian clergy's usefulness. Unfortunately, I found the message of the story entirely too heavy-handed, and while the two mothers' characters are well-drawn, that was not enough for me to enjoy this story. ★
"Chocolate Park" -- This story is, in some way I'm having trouble defining to myself, the rawest of the collection. The characters - a trio of sisters, an old woman, and a local thug living in the same inner city neighborhood - are ugliest to each other here, and there is power in that even though I don't particularly enjoy reading it. Unfortunately, it felt split to me; ugly though it was, I was invested in Ebony's thread and was not in Lady Black's; it made me wish Burke had gone a straight-realist route and forsworn the Lady Black character entirely. ★★1/2
"What She Saw When They Flew Away" -- This is another (relatively) straightforward story about loss, like "Purse." I don't think it worked as well, mostly because so much more is spelled out for the reader. However, the central image is absolutely haunting. ★★★
"He Who Takes the Pain Away" -- I must admit, I did not get this one. I could not tell if it was meant to be read as realism or allegory, whether the fantastical element was actually present or a hallucination. I wanted to like it, and its depiction of a cult of death was properly horrific, but without knowing how to read it I can't really assess whether I liked it or not. (Unratable)
"CUE: Change" -- I'm not really a zombie person. That said, there was an interesting twist on the zombies themselves that I wish had been explored more fully, and I thought the first-person narrator was very nicely (and subtly) drawn. ★★★★
"The Room Where Ben Disappeared" -- This is another one, like "I Make People Do Bad Things," where I wish Burke had used a different technique to tell her story. The first-person narrator grated on me in this story, and the fantastic element actually seemed to undercut the horror of the realism (like in "Chocolate Park"). He was the only white protagonist in the collection, and one of only two men, and he seemed. . . minor, forgettable compared to how memorable Burke's other protagonists are. But the piece of his past that he forgot. . . even with the fantastic element erasing the worst possible outcome, the stark realities of being black (and white, really) in the South made me want to scream. ★★★
"The Light of Cree" -- This story felt like a prologue; in fact, several of the stories felt like prologues (I assume that's what Delany meant in his blurb about "intriguingly open endings"). But this one more than the others -- it's about a girl who has just had her first period and discovers that she's different in more ways than that overnight. We see her realize that, and then the story ends, and I was left thinking "And then what happened?" (Particularly because Cree is no Jennifer Love Hewitt. . . and that's a good thing.) ★★1/2
"The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason" -- This is the biggest of the stories, both in pages and in scope. It spans quite a few years and miles, following the powerful titular character through several small Southern towns where she touched down lightly and left chaos in her wake. (No, not chaos; mess, certainly, but a cleaner mess than the one she walked into, if that makes any sense.) I think the story would have benefited from being even longer; there's enough here for a novel, at least. Part of the reason I wanted it to be longer is that it suffers from the same problem many of the stories do: over-exposition. But in this case the exposition was actually necessary for the story to get told, so while it annoyed me just as much as before, I have to admit it was justified. Also again, my favorite moment is a non-fantastic one; there is a single moment of epic tragedy, made all the more poignant because it's so personal, so small. The story itself was just okay for me, and would have been just okay even if it had been expanded; but that moment was awesome. ★★★★(less)
Each of the stories in this collection is bright and sharp, honed and polished like a diamond. They are filled with telling details and unexpected sha...moreEach of the stories in this collection is bright and sharp, honed and polished like a diamond. They are filled with telling details and unexpected shards of pain. I have my favorites ("Babies on the Shore") and those I really would not have minded missing ("On the Loose" and "Under the Scalpel"); but those emotional reactions are based not on an objective assessment but rather on which set of images appealed to me in the moment. I'm sure the ones I disliked are the favorites of other readers, and my favorites likely totally missed for others, because the quality is amazingly even (and high) across the entire collection of thirty stories. The only flaw, really, is that each of the stories hits a very similar note: desperate, broken people doing their best to fit themselves into a world that is not shaped for them. It made reading more than a couple stories at a time dreary, and the one day that I tried reading quite a few back to back that dreariness devolved into tedium. The collection needed a few more stories that ended on a hopeful note to leaven the pain. But as long as I remained disciplined and rationed the stories out day by day, they were both heartbreaking and impressive.(less)
This is a substantial work. It consists of five stories of varying lengths, a preface, and an appendix. The preface and the appendix profess to be aut...moreThis is a substantial work. It consists of five stories of varying lengths, a preface, and an appendix. The preface and the appendix profess to be authored by a K. Leslie Steiner and a S.L. Kermit respectively, but it is fairly clear that these people are characters in the metafictional work, as is Delany himself. The appendix is titled "Some Informal Remarks Towards the Modular Calculus, Part Three," indicating its place as the third entry in another series of Delany's which starts with Trouble on Triton, a science fiction novel that is also (thematically at least, though maybe also through some bending of space and time; I have not read that work so I couldn't say for sure) a preface to the Nevèrÿon tales. And the structure gets no easier within the tales themselves; they follow Gorgik and Norema alternately, but as narrative is an important theme (THE theme, really) of the work, there are threads of other peoples' stories weaving throughout Gorgik and Norema's sections.
I think that reading Catherynne M. Valente (In the Night Garden) and Octavia E. Butler (Wild Seed) earlier this year prepared me well for this work; if you have bounced off of either of those authors because you found them boring or confusing, I doubt this is for you. Delany sacrifices story to philosophy far more than either of them did, as is fitting for a work of metafiction, but the bits that made my brain hurt are my favorites, so overall I loved this work. I don't exactly know where it's going yet, but I'm positive I want to be along for the ride.
"Return. . . a preface by K. Leslie Steiner" -- This is a demanding piece to start the volume off with. It's very much the sort of preface an academic would write - as it should be, as K. Leslie Steiner is "your average black American female academic, working in the largely white preserves of a sprawling midwestern university, unable, as a seventies graduate student, to make up her mind between mathematics and German literature." Steiner is relevant to the story at hand because she is the translator of the Culhar' fragment ("a narrative fragment of approximately nine hundred words" which may be "the oldest writing known. . . by a human hand")which is the supposed inspiration for Delany's Nevèrÿon tales. I didn't quite know what to make of the preface on first reading, but that's okay -- it's mainly there to indicate to the casual reader that this is no standard sword-and-sorcery epic.
"The Tale of Gorgik" -- This first tale is a much easier entry into the volume, as it hews most closely to sword-and-sorcery tropes. A young boy is born into poverty, ends up enslaved, rises out of slavery through the strength of his character and a hefty dose of luck, and ends up with a respected position heading a garrison of soldiers after a brief stint at court. Of course, in this culture the civilized are dark-skinned and the barbarians (who usually become enslaved) are light-skinned; Gorgik's main duties at court are as catamite to a noblewoman AND her eunuch steward; most of the nobles have been slaves at some point due to dramatic shifts in political fortune (though not all have developed an aversion to slavery as a result); and so on, as Delany plays with the ideas of power and race and class and gender and sexuality. Still, this tale can be read pretty much straight, as the tale of Gorgik's development into the person that stands at the center of these tales. It also serves to introduce us to Nevèrÿon, the titular city on the brink of civilization, which has been playing with the idea of coined money for three generations and has had writing for a bit longer even than that. It is interesting to note that very early on the Child Empress (whose ascension to power resulted in Gorgik's enslavement) changes the city's name to Kolhari, and Kolhari it remains through the end of the volume (and likely further).
"The Tale of Old Venn" -- This second tale is the one where Delany makes his theme of narrative explicit; though it serves as a tale of Norema's childhood the same way "The Tale of Gorgik" is the tale of Gorgik's childhood, it is mainly there for the conversations between Norema and the wise woman Old Venn. This was my favorite tale, as I was fascinated by the way Old Venn explained the central concept and the various examples she used. Those examples also give us a picture of some of the "barbarian" cultures, the ones that are still skeptical of the idea of writing though they seem to have embraced coined money quite well, despite the way it has completely upended the way their societies function.
"The Tale of Small Sarg" -- This third tale was a bit of a letdown for me. Small Sarg comes from an even more barbaric culture than Norema, one without writing or coined money at all. He is a prince in his land, but a slave in Nevèrÿon. A middle-aged Gorgik purchases him and beds him; he has a conversation with a young girl, and the story ends. It felt like a necessary placeholder, and while it too addresses the issues of slavery, gender roles, and sexuality, it just didn't quite satisfy after "The Tale of Old Venn."
"The Tale of Potters and Dragons" -- This fourth tale returns to Norema, now a secretary in Nevèrÿon. She embarks on a business trip for her employer and encounters Raven, a traveler from an Amazonian culture who is by turns amused and apalled at the odd gender roles she has encountered in Nevèrÿon. Norema has a run-in with politics and sees some of the concepts she discussed with Old Venn in action. There's a hefty dose of irony about this tale, and I would not have minded if it had been twice as long.
"The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers" -- This fifth and final tale is where Gorgik and Norema's paths finally cross. Gorgik and Small Sarg have been getting into trouble; Raven and Norema have been mostly staying out of trouble, and the men stumble onto the women's campsite and share a meal. Much is revealed to the reader, rather less is revealed to the characters, and again, the tone is ironic. There is actually some action in this tale, and again, Delany packs a whallop thematically into not very many pages.
"Appendix: Some Informal Remarks Towards the Modular Calculus, Part Three by S.L. Kermit" -- In this final segment we jump back out to the world of academia, where Kermit gives the history of the Culhar' fragment and makes Steiner's role in its translation more explicit. This section brings the theme as laid out in "The Tale of Old Venn" back to the forefront and wraps it all up with an appeal to Derrida. It didn't have any emotional impact, but it did its job well and (just as all the other sections) left me wanting more.(less)
This is a fairly strong young adult fantasy collection. Even though none of the stories is perfect, each one is engagingly written and features a diff...moreThis is a fairly strong young adult fantasy collection. Even though none of the stories is perfect, each one is engagingly written and features a different creature of fire.
The first, by Peter Dickinson and about the phoenix, is marred by sudden shifts in perspective that feel too rough for the gentleness of the story; however, it features some of the most beautiful imagery of the collection and is one of the more unique premises.
The second, by Robin McKinley and about a hellhound, is very much for animal lovers (which I am) and may be slow through the first five or so pages if you aren't interested in horses, dogs, cats, birds, and reptiles. After that (or if you don't mind that) however, it features the best pacing through its midsection, setting up a fairly large cast of characters for a short story and building a well-realized world with perhaps the best sense of jeopardy. The climax felt a little too easy, unfortunately, but the story as a whole may have been my favorite.
The third, again by Peter Dickinson and about the fireworm, was the most peculiar. It started very badly, with Dickinson's fictional Native American tribe feeling about as authentic as Disney's in Brother Bear. It was, however, only uphill from there, and the climax was incredibly moving, and caused me to feel angry in the best way. Its denoument again felt a bit easy, but the story was worth it nonetheless.
The fourth, the last by Peter Dickinson and about the salamander, was the only total miss of the collection. It started out very strong, but the instant its main character (a young slave boy named Tib in a pseudo-Middle Eastern setting) became emotionally removed from his actions I did as well.
The last story, by Robin McKinley and about the dragon, was the most well-rounded but unfortunately also the one with nothing about it that really stood out. It was reminiscent of her novel Dragonhaven in its male first-person narrator and semi-stream of consciousness style, but this narrator is far less self-absorbed than Jake was, making him likable even in his total denseness about his world. The world was interesting, if not quite believable (there has never to my knowledge been a culture that despises healers -- it's just not realistic, because people everywhere will get sick and they can't work if they're sick), the pacing was steady and the ending just right for the story.
All in all, while nothing in the collection is earth-shattering in any way, it is a pleasant read and suitable for late elementary school children and up.(less)
This was an almost uniformly bland collection, which disappointed me, because I quite enjoyed the previous anthology in this series, Wizards. There we...moreThis was an almost uniformly bland collection, which disappointed me, because I quite enjoyed the previous anthology in this series, Wizards. There weren't any stories that I hated, or even particularly disliked, but there were also precious few that had any spark whatsoever; I finished the anthology yesterday, but can't recall more than four of the nineteen stories without consulting the table of contents. And even the best stories were still significantly flawed. Part of the problem, I suspect, lies in how little creativity the authors approached the subject of dragons with -- all of the dragons but two were of the typical European fire-breathing variety (the two holdouts were an ice dragon and a sea dragon), and most were presented as monsters and the thrust of the story was in finding that they are intelligent and not intrinsically inimical to humanity. There was one story that took the full-fledged companion animal fantasy route, but even that treatment brought nothing new to the table. So overall I was a tad bored throughout, and can't recommend this collection unless you are a completist about either dragons or one of the authors included herein.
"Dragon's Deep," by Cecelia Holland: This story was one of the most moving of the collection. It presented dragons in a very classical feudal European setting, and the plot was entirely predictable, but the feudalism was presented realistically rather than with the usual benign Disney-fied fairy tale atmosphere, and the protagonist's conflict of loyalties in the climax had the potential to be wrenching -- if it hadn't felt rushed. The story could have blossomed at novella-length, but the ending was just too abrupt to work.
"Vici," by Naomi Novik: This story will likely be of interest to fans of Novik's Temeraire series, as it details how the Roman military first came to use dragons in combat, setting the groundwork for the English dragon corps; unfortunately, that's all the story does. It's cute, and has one or two slyly humorous moments, but doesn't really go anywhere.
"Bob Choi's Last Job," by Jonathan Stroud: This is one presenting dragons in a modern setting, and it does have a Chinese dragon in it, but that felt like window dressing -- it was totally irrelevant to the story. But then, the whole story felt kind of irrelevant -- it might make sense in the larger scale of some novel by Stroud, but without that background I didn't get the point. I didn't understand how the world worked, nor did I care; I predicted the decision the protagonist made at the end, but never understood why, or again, why I should care.
"Are You Afflicted with Dragons?" by Kage Baker: This story is the reason I bought the anthology; Baker's short story in Wizards was absolutely brilliant, and made me go out and buy all of her novels, and they did not disappoint. So I had high expectations for another short story set in the same fantasy world, and while this story didn't meet those expectations, it wasn't bad. It returns to some characters from The Anvil of the World and shows how they deal with a minor dragon infestation of their hotel; it has enough of Baker's wry humor to be enjoyable, and the ending twist is well set-up and executed, but it was overall fairly lightweight.
"The Tsar's Dragons," by Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple: I wanted this story, which adds dragons to the Russian Revolution, to come to more than it did. It was dragged down by too much literalness, and far too surface-oriented a reading of history. There was no atmosphere, no sense of desperation, and the villains managed to be neither villainy (which might have worked here) nor well-rounded human beings (which I think is what the authors were going for). Too ambitious, I suspect -- all the story made me want was someone else to do it better.
"The Dragon of Direfell," by Liz Williams: This was probably the most unique treatment of the dragon; it also had the feel of a well-developed alternate world behind it, enough to make me wonder if it's set in the same world as one of Williams' novels. Unfortunately, neither the characters nor the plot was interesting, and other than earning a snort for a line in the closing paragraph it left no impact.
"Oakland Dragon Blues," by Peter S. Beagle: This story is probably the strongest technically in the collection; Beagle was clearly in complete control and the story delivers everything it should. It's another that places a dragon in a modern setting, and it has some humor and a nice metafictional twist. If the collection had been more interesting I would have quite liked it. Unfortunately, it was just too slight a story to carry over 400 pages of "meh."
"Human Killer," by Diana Gabaldon & Samuel Sykes: This story spends a very long time doing very little, then has the climax occur entirely off-screen. It is probably the story I liked least, simply because I felt I invested quite a lot of reading time for very little payoff. It's another straight-forward medieval dragon & world, and the characters were all loaded down with too much backstory that never came to anything.
"Stop!" by Garth Nix: This is the second short story I've read by Nix, and both struck me as ugly and pointless. It's very short, and places its dragon in what appears to be a nuclear test zone during WWII, but there were too few details for me to be sure -- about the setting, or any of the characters, or why on earth I was bothering to read it. It also uses "f--ing" a lot, and that isn't my ellision, which annoyed the hell out of me. If it's a YA story and you don't believe you can use "fuck" in a YA story, then don't use it; the dashes are a copout that simply draws attention to your hypocrisy.
"Ungentle Fire," by Sean Williams: This story had the potential to be brilliant, but needed a firm editorial hand. It was set in a steampunk alternate Australia, and there were some beautiful images and beautiful character moments. Unfortunately, the ending was a total clunker, because Williams felt the need to spell out all the stuff he implied so gently just moments before. If it had ended one page earlier I would have loved it, but lines like "He was aware now that the emotional pitfalls he had been skirting during his quest. . ." really dragged it down.
"A Stark and Wormy Knight," by Tad Williams: This wasn't a bad story, but it kept reminding me of a blog post by John Scalzi in which he talks about the difference between clever and good. This was merely clever, unfortunately it didn't make me laugh, so it didn't work for me. The title is a very good sample of what the whole story is, so if you like the title you'll probably like the story, and if the title leaves you cold, well, there's a lot more of that coming.
"None So Blind," by Harry Turtledove: This is a Milieu story if ever I've seen one; I suspect it's set in one of Turtledove's alternate histories, but haven't read any of them so I can't be sure. It never ends up being more than a travelogue, and the constant repetition that in this world the tropical savages are blonde and the colonial oppressors are dark(er) get really obnoxious, mostly because there's never any reason given for WHY the tropical people would be light-skinned and the people from the cold-climate would be dark-skinned. It also hammers the titular point home, which I did not need.
"JoBoy," by Diana Wynne Jones: This story felt like it was aimed very young. The setting is barely established at all (I believe it's a modern English city) and the characters get only slightly more treatment; the whole story revolves around a very simple mystery and then stops.
"Puz_le," by Gregory Maguire: This was one of the few stories that managed to develop an interesting atmosphere; the dragon and the magic creepy and intriguing. Unfortunately, it read like chapter 1 of some novel or, worse, a treatment for a novel. The instant that the tension was at its highest, another character came in, broke it, and basically said "I have so much to tell you!" The end. It made me want to read more, but simultaneously resent Maguire and therefore want to swear him off forever.
"After the Third Kiss," by Bruce Coville: This very heavily fairy tale influenced story was doing moderately interesting things that looked rather like Robin McKinley's brilliant Deerskin -- until it said outright "no, that isn't happening here," at which point I got bored and started paying less attention. Then (possibly because I was paying less attention, but maybe not) the ending came out of nowhere, and was heavy-handed to boot.
"The War That Winter Is," by Tanith Lee: This is my favorite story of the collection. It is lyrical and epic and (unusual for this collection) exactly the right length. It feels rather like a Norse Saga (this is the one with the ice dragon) and if it weren't for a slight stumble on the dismount I would have loved it unreservedly; as it is, it too fell into the trap of spelling things out just the slightest bit too clearly at the end.
"The Dragon's Tale," by Tamora Pierce: Like Jones' story, this one felt aimed just a little too young for my taste; it has a first-person dragon narrator that veers a bit closer to precious than I would have liked. Other than that, it works well enough; I assume it's set in one of her established worlds (maybe even with already established characters?) and so I felt I was missing some of the references, and the resolution is too easy for the amount of jeopardy the characters were placed in, but it's a decent enough example of a short story for pre-teen readers.
"Dragon Storm," by Mary Rosenblum: This is the story with the sea dragon, and the only one that does the full companion animal fantasy treatment; it suffered from being entirely predictible and having an ending that was too easy for the jeopardy set up just before.
"The Dragaman's Bride," by Andy Duncan: This final story ended the collection on a strong note. It was set in Appalachia in the 1930s and felt authentically Southern -- the Dragaman was not a European dragon transplanted wholesale, but rather what a dragon myth might have evolved into in a new environment (I know little about Southern folktales; maybe it *is* authentic) -- and the mix of fantasy and history was perfectly balanced. (Also perfectly horrifying.) I didn't love the voice, and the villains got off incredibly easily, but this was a good story, and one of the few that got me interested in seeking out the author's other work.(less)
I very much enjoyed the premise for this collection, but unfortunately the stories were uniformly bland. A few had clever ideas, a couple were moderat...moreI very much enjoyed the premise for this collection, but unfortunately the stories were uniformly bland. A few had clever ideas, a couple were moderately thought-provoking, but the only one with any of the emotional punch I associate with the theme of species death was one of the reprints, Avram Davidson's "Now Let Us Sleep." None of the stories were poorly written, but I had half forgotten them the very next day.(less)
This was a mediocre collection. Looking over the table of contents I remember liking quite a few of the stories, and really disliking only a couple, b...moreThis was a mediocre collection. Looking over the table of contents I remember liking quite a few of the stories, and really disliking only a couple, but very little stands out.
"The Listeners" was very engaging, but ended just when things were getting started: it felt like the opening chapter of a fascinating novel.
"The Chamber Music of Animals" by Katherine Vaz and "The Dreaming Wind" by Jeffery Ford were dense with metaphor and style, and almost elevated themselves to poetry, but not quite.
"The Fiddler of Bayou Teche" by Delia Sherman; "Friday Night at St. Cecilia's" by Ellen Klages; "The Fortune-Teller" by Patricia McKillip; "Crow Roads" by Charles de Lint; "Honored Guest" by Ellen Kushner; "Black Rock Blues" by Will Shetterly; "The Constable of Abal" by Kelly Link; and "The Other Labyrinth" by Jedediah Berry all had a classic trickster tale feel and were strong enough that I will be seeking out more by the authors I didn't already know and love.
"The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change" by Kij Johnson closed the collection and was the only story that I will carry with me for some time; it was beautiful and tragic and said something about the human condition which none of the other tales accomplished.
I liked the idea that there was poetry collected here as well, but sadly all but one fell flat: "How Raven Made His Bride" by Theodora Goss was a pretty little thing that felt just right.
The introduction (and preface) were informative, though the introduction waxed a little long, but I can't decide if I liked the fact that the author information and the statement by the author for the reason behind the story came after the story itself; with authors I already knew I liked that sequence just fine, but I think it would have been nice to at least have the editor's introduction beforehand for the stories by authors I had never heard of before.
While I loved the theme of this collection, I think most of the authors struggled to find the right feel for a trickster story. Trickster tales are teaching tales in most cultures, and while there were trickster characters in all the stories, only Kij Johnson's felt like it was attempting to explain the world as it is or should be. As a result I can only give this collection three stars.(less)
This is a decent collection, pleasing throughout but not excellent and likely not terribly memorable. Needless to say, I come at it from the fantasy e...moreThis is a decent collection, pleasing throughout but not excellent and likely not terribly memorable. Needless to say, I come at it from the fantasy end of the spectrum, and I suspect that fantasy readers will be more pleased by it than romance readers, for only one of the stories properly delivers the happily ever after ending that the romance genre demands. Still, as mind candy it works admirably well, and I spent a very enjoyable afternoon reading it.
I picked the anthology up for the first story, Patricia McKillip's "The Gorgon in the Cupboard." It is also the best in the book -- so good, in fact, that it was later included in the Science Fiction Book Club's anthology The Best Short Novels: 2005. It is a story about Harry, a struggling painter desperately in love with his mentor's beautiful wife, and Jo, a girl destitute and forsaken on the streets after several hard turns of fortune. The fantasy element comes into play when Harry pulls out a painting he never finished because his model disappeared and paints his mentor's wife's mouth onto it in a fit of despondency that he will never be able to create a work worthy of her; he is understandably shocked when the mouth comes to life and begins to speak to him. That is the only fantasy element obvious in the story (though it is a rather glaring one); the setting is vague and paintings speaking are clearly not a common occurrance. The romance is also very slight. This is because what the story is really about is perception, the ways that we see what we want rather than what is. It's gossamer-light, yet far richer than it seems on the surface, wise and sensitive to the myriad ways life is fragile and bittersweet, particularly for women. It is stop-me-dead-in-my-tracks (reading-wise) beautiful.
The second story, Lynn Kurland's "The Tale of Two Swords," is the one I suspect romance readers will be happiest with, and it made me smile and roll my eyes in equal amounts (often at the same time). It made me roll my eyes for more reasons than I can count -- the self-conscious modern fairy tale narration (complete with "In which [blank happens:]" as the title of each chapter); the combination of hopelessly modern actions on the characters' part even as they speak in hopelessly archaic (and likely inaccurate) dialogue; the fact that the man has just lost his family and his kingdom in an epic battle, the woman has a price on her head, and all they do is frolic in the forest getting muddy. It also doesn't have time to even get to the two swords part of the title -- the story is entirely the romance component (and the true happily ever after ending). I believe the story is something of a prequel to one of Kurland's ongoing series, so perhaps the two swords part is dealt with in one of the novels. However, despite all those things that irked me, I still couldn't help liking the characters and liking their romance, so I suppose Kurland did her job well. (Should I hate myself a little for falling for it?)
The third story, Sharon Shinn's "Fallen Angel," is the one romance readers will have the most trouble with, and it may even be hard for fantasy readers that are unfamiliar with Shinn's Samaria series. It's set ten years after the end of Archangel (and even has a fairly toothless cameo by the Archangel Gabriel) and Shinn seems to assume that the reader has enough background knowledge of her books that she doesn't need to explain the slightly unusual way Samaria works. Unfortunately, this has led to some readers calling the story sacrilegous, because they have no context for this tale of angels behaving badly. For those who want to read the story and don't have that context, please keep in mind that the angels are nothing more than humans with wings -- they are not actually the angels of Christian mythology. Even more unfortunately, "Fallen Angel" just doesn't quite work as either fantasy or romance -- as I already mentioned, Shinn doesn't give enough grounding in the fantasy world-building to satisfy those fans, and the romance is decent (if of the "ooo, what a sexy bad boy" variety) only until the ending totally destroys suspension of disbelief with an out-of-left-field resolution that heaps all the evils in the world on one head. Still, I didn't hate the story, because it actually starts to address some of the thornier side of the world of Samaria -- the sort of chaos that can ensue when a ruling class with a free love worldview comes into conflict with a merchant class with very strict rules of propriety.
The fourth story, Claire Delacroix's "An Elegy for Melusine," is a retelling of the Melusine myth. It hews very closely to the story as described on Wikipedia (I wasn't overly familiar with the myth, so I looked it up, lol) and is rendered in serviceable enough prose that the myth's full power shines through. It has a totally unnecessary framing story, unfortunately, but other than that I quite liked it. However, romance readers should again be warned: the myth does not have a particularly happy ending.(less)
This was a deeply disappointing collection for me. It doesn't work for two reasons. The first reason is that, to borrow Jo Walton's phrasing, the init...moreThis was a deeply disappointing collection for me. It doesn't work for two reasons. The first reason is that, to borrow Jo Walton's phrasing, the initial volume in any of Shinn's series always blows me away, then each successive volume is only half as good as the one before. Two of the four novellas in this volume are set in the worlds of Shinn's two longest series, and those two novellas have reached only homeopathically good territory. The second reason is that I just don't think Shinn is capable of writing stories with the sort of thematic freight she attempted here -- the two non-series novellas are drawn from two of her more message-heavy novels, and the two series novellas attempt to address some of the seriously thorny issues inherent but not really addressed in her previous world-building.
Still, it's the sort of volume that if you are a Sharon Shinn completist, you simply have to read it. And since her prose is always pleasant and easy to read it goes very, very quickly.
Flight (set in Samaria, just before Archangel) This was by far the worst story in the bunch. It features the return of Raphael as the Biggest of all Big Bads, doing evil just because he can; a really, really, really clunky and histrionic speech about the evils of a system where women are only valued because they can produce angel babies; and a completely forced romance. I rather wish I could erase my memory of it.
Blood (set in the world of Heart of Gold) The novel this is based on is one of the few by Shinn that I have never re-read; though I don't remember disliking it nothing about it ever stood out enough in my memory that I wanted to revisit it. So this was the one case where I could not tell what information was new for the novella and what was a reference to the novel, which probably made it feel fresher than it would have otherwise. It too features some clunky speachifying on the evils of a patriarchal system, but there is a greater focus on the budding friendship between Kerk and Jalci, a very Hollywood but still somewhat heartwarming set of scenes at a sort of shelter for abused women and their children, and an actual honest-to-goodness moment of heartbreak and moral ambiguity. That moment gets completely ruined a moment later when Jalci recasts everything as black and white, but it made the story worthwhile for me. I think this was the best of the bunch.
Gold (set in the world of Summers at Castle Auburn) I think this novella would actually work better for people who have not read the novel. If you have not read the novel, it's a fairly straightforward story about the dangers of living in fairyland -- not a particularly memorable entry into that canon of literature, but I happen to like those stories with their depictions of dangerous beauty. If you have read the novel, as I have (though not tremendously recently), something about the story just doesn't quite seem to match what came before -- I spent the whole time trying to figure out what on earth happened in the interim to twist the recurring characters' motivations to this result. The story also featured a tremendously whiny teenage girl protagonist, and again the romance seemed forced.
Flame (set in the Twelve Houses, just before Mystic and Rider) Senneth is my second-favorite of all of Shinn's characters (right after Jovieve in Wrapt in Crystal) and Shinn went a fair way to ruining her for me in this story. Here she is wishy-washy and whiny or self-righteous by turns. Because of the difference in her character, I assumed that the story was set several years before Mystic and Rider; I would believe that this teenage Senneth would grow into the wonderful Senneth I so loved. Unfortunately, Shinn then made it explicit that Senneth went straight from the events of this story into the events of Mystic and Rider, so my interpretation was invalidated and I was left feeling merely annoyed. Plus the resolution was completely predictable (which is problematic because the story is set up as a pseudo-mystery rather than a romance) and again there were far too many soapbox moments. (It's bad to burn witches. I know this already.)(less)