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There are fantastical stories with actual transgender characters, some for whom that is central and others for whom that isn’t. And there are stories without transgender characters, but with metaphors and symbolism in their place, genuine expressions of self through such speculative fiction tropes as shapeshifting and programming. Transgender individuals see themselves in transformative characters, those outsiders, before seeing themselves as human protagonists. Those feelings are still valid. Cisgender people can never quite understand this distancing. But though the stories involve transformation and outsiders, sometimes the change is one of self-realization. This anthology will be a welcome read for those who are ready to transcend gender through the lens of science fiction, fantasy, and other works of imaginative fiction.
K. M. Szpara, in his introduction to Transcendent, explains where this anthology came from: a submission to Lethe Press’s Wilde Stories 2015, their year’s best of gay speculative fiction. As a result of that, Steve Berman of Lethe Press gave Szpara a call, and asked him to edit a similar anthology, but trans themed… to which, thankfully for us and for history, Szpara said yes. Collecting the year’s best trans speculative fiction must be an incredible challenge, and to narrow that down from however many submissions Szpara received to the fifteen he eventually chose must have been a monumental task; I don’t intend to comment on all fifteen stories, but to highlight those I think are best – and those that I think don’t fit so well into the collection, for whatever reasons.
It’s hard to pick out the best stories to talk about in a collection where the standard is so high; but one of the best is E. Sexton’s ‘The Librarian’s Dilemma’, which is barely speculative fiction (and increasingly mimetic as time advances), and that is absolutely brilliant. It’s a relatively short story that draws on queer love to help boost the tension felt by its central character between preserving texts and ensuring access for as many as possible; Sexton walks that tightrope without ever providing an answer to the titular dilemma, and the transness of the central character matters but isn’t what the story is about.
Transcendent is full of stories like that; Bogi Takács’ story ‘The Need For Overwhelming Sensation’ is a queer, kinky space fantasy that looks at assumptions, power, and politicking, whilst also being about a beautiful and sweet queer sub-dom relationship. The presentation of nonbinary gender is natural, as one might expect from eir work, and the way e challenges assumptions about kink is fantastic, but the transness of the story is almost incidental. The same is true of A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Where Monsters Dance’, in which the protagonist’s girlfriend is a trans woman; the story is largely about parental abuse of the protagonist by their step-father, and the psychological protective mechanisms one builds to deal with abuse, among other things, and it is a fascinating, powerful, and moving story.
A few of the stories in Transcendent are very directly engaging with being trans. The volume opens on one, ‘The Shape of My Name’, by Nino Cipri. Their story is a fascinating take on time travel and on the emotional complexities it can lead to, with the mixture of certain fate and changing destiny a major theme; Cipri writes about being trans powerfully in the story, and is interested in the circularity a time travel narrative can allow. Everett Maroon’s ‘Treasure Acre’ also plays with time travel, but rather more simply; it’s a very short story, about the way that the struggles we have to face as trans people make us who we are, and although we could wish them away, it might not actually be better to not have them. Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s ‘Everything Beneath You’ is the most personal to me; it engages directly with the wish to be neither male nor female, and the possible consequences of that, whilst also telling a tragic love story in a very mythic fashion. Stufflebeam’s embrace of myth is powerful, and her use of mythic motifs works excellently.
One theme I singularly dislike that runs through a number of these stories is nonhuman, magical transformations as a metaphor for trans experiences; this is strongest in Alexis A. Hunter’s ‘Be Not Unequally Yoked’, but Transcendent also sees it occur in ‘The Thing On The Cheerleading Squad’ by Molly Tanzer, ‘into the waters i rode down’ by Jack Hollis Marr, and ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ by Holly Heisey. Each of these stories has their own strengths, and some of them, notably Marr’s, also have trans characters outside their metaphors, but at the same time, it is still frustrating to see selected as some of the best trans fiction stories that conceptualise being trans as essentially not human.
That said, of that set of stories, Heisey’s ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ really does convey powerfully and movingly a lot about the experience of transition and the reactions to it of different people; the three parts of the story are fascinatingly written with different approaches to transition, with the last being cathartic and heartbreakingly beautiful in its simplicity.
There are also a couple of stories which are simply not up to the same standard as the rest of the anthology; Benjanun Sridungkaew’s ‘The Petals Abide’ has the potential to be a fascinating piece, and the way she uses gender in the story is important in its straightforward acceptance of a variety of gender identities, but the whole thing should have been about half the length, and the literary quality of the language is such that it tends to tip into convolution and self-parody rather than beauty. E. Catherine Tobler’s story, ‘Splitskin’, feels like it isn’t sure quite what it’s trying to be; somewhere between a circus tale and magical realism about the gold rush, it never really works as a piece of fiction until the very ending, which is beautifully written.
The anthology closes on a very interesting story which brings together multiple themes discussed above; Penny Stirling’s ‘Kin, Painted’ in one sense is a metaphorical discussion of being trans and trying to find one’s gender, and in another sense, given the explicit inclusion of trans characters of a variety of genders, is not about that at all. Stirling’s story is a fascinating meditation on art, and how art derives meaning from its context; ou writes about growing up, discovering oneself and one’s community, and about the idea of family, whilst also having built an incredibly queer world in the background.
Transcendent isn’t perfect, as no anthology can be; I think there’s too many stories which treat being trans as a metaphor, and some which just aren’t up to scratch in here. But overall, Szpara has done a fantastic job of selecting stories to showcase a range of trans narratives and voices, and his work should be applauded.
Disclaimer: I am a friend of Bogi Takács, one of the writers in the anthology, and of K. M. Szpara, the editor. Transcendent 2, also published by Lethe Press, is forthcoming, edited by Bogi Takács.
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Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time is a collection of indigenous science fiction and urban fantasy focusing on LGBT and two-spirit characters. These stories range from a transgender woman undergoing an experimental transition process to young lovers separated through decades and meeting in their own far future. These are stories of machines and magic, love and self-love.
Love Beyond Body, Space & Time occupies an important place in science fiction: not only centring queer voices and narratives, but also centring Indigenous voices and narratives, a group all too often left out of discussions of the genre. Not all the writers in the anthology are themselves Indigenous, a point Nicholson acknowledges in her Editor’s Letter, but all the stories feature Indigenous characters, cultures, and themes.
Love Beyond Body, Space & Time opens with three nonfiction pieces. Nicholson’s opening letter is largely a disclaimer about this not being her story to tell, but the others are more interesting; a piece on two-spirit stories as survivance stories in science fiction by Grace L. Dillon, and a piece on the historical and present day role of two-spirit people in Indigenous communities by Niigaan Sinclair. Both are fascinating essays, situating some of the things the anthology is doing in a wider cultural discourse and a wider social model, and providing multiple possible frameworks with which to approach the stories within.
There are a couple of absolutely outstanding stories in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time. Daniel Heath Justice’s ‘The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds’ reads as a fable, with a very obvious moral; it’s well written and beautiful, as the best fable are, and with the poetic style and lack of specificity that much living myth has. Its queerness is explicit, varied in kind, and powerfully central to the story, and to the model of diversity in which Heath Justice is invested in the tale.
In stark contrast, ‘Né Łe!’ by Darcie Little Badger is straightforward science fiction, albeit with mythic resonance; it’s also a sweet lesbian romance story, that is impressively moving in its simplicity and with very strong characterisation over its short length. In similar vein is ‘Valediction At The Star View Motel’, a lightly fantastic story of young love, passion, and memory; Nathan Adler takes on the racism faced by the Indigenous community, including some of the racist policies applied to them, whilst also keeping at the core of the story the simplicity of young love.
The strongest story in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time, by my lights, is Gwen Benaway’s ‘Transition’. Benaway writes a transition narrative that deals with the difficulties of being trans in a cis world; the way every day involves armouring up and self-defence strategies to keep cis violence from breaking out against one. It’s also a story of community and history; Benaway builds into the very bones of the story the acceptance of trans people by at least the Indigenous community she chooses to present. The mythic fantastic creeps in around the edges of the story, which is essentially mimetic, and ‘Transition’ emerges as emotionally resonant and incredibly powerful.
At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Aliens’ by Richard van Camp is a frustrating piece, which if the reader accepts and enjoys the voice in which it is told might well work. However, it feels too mannered for the attempt at naturalism it is making, and the treatment of gender diversity as a big secret and major revelation at the end of the story is a frustrating one, playing into a number of harmful tropes and a deeply problematic presentation of gender diversity. Similarly, in ‘Imposter Syndrome’, Mari Kurisato writes a transition narrative that uses an alien transitioning to human as a metaphor for gender transition; seeing human trans people in fiction is powerful, whereas in this collection especially, this treatment of transness felt painfully out of place. Kurisato’s style and characterisation are excellent, and there are some really brilliant ideas in the piece, which makes the fundamental failure all the more frustrating.
Failing in a different way, ‘Perfectly You’ by David Robertson just doesn’t emotionally connect. This attempt to tell a romantic story feels strained and emotionless, essentially empty of real content; there isn’t really enough ground on which to build the payoff Robertson wants to give, and the strongest parts of the story are those in which he is building that ground.
In the end, Nicholson has engaged in an important project in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time, centring Indigenous queer people, but it’s a deeply flawed execution of that project; we need more anthologies like this, but next time, more stories like Heath Justice’s and Little Badger’s, please!
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Welcome to Tremontaine, the prequel to Ellen Kushner’s beloved Riverside series that began with Swordspoint!
A duchess’s beauty matched only by her cunning; her husband’s dangerous affair with a handsome scholar; a foreigner in a playground of swordplay and secrets; and a mathematical genius on the brink of revolution. Suddenly long-buried lies threaten to come to light and betrayal and treachery run rampant in this story of sparkling wit and political intrigue.
Written serially by six critically acclaimed authors, Tremontaine is a tale of intrigue, manners, treachery, and cleverness that will delight readers.
Last month, I reviewed Bookburners, the first Serial Box series to see a physical publication from Saga Press; now, I turn to their second, a very different prospect in a number of ways. Tremontaine, rather than being a world created for the purpose of a series, is a return to a world Ellen Kushner devised in the 1980s: the world of Riverside, of the novels Swordspoint, Privilege of the Sword, and The Fall of the Kings, of some seminal queer fantasy and foundations of mannerpunk. It’s got quite the legacy to live up to, therefore.
The plot of Tremontaine is set twenty years before Swordspoint, the first of the Riverside novels; as a prequel series, it occupies an interesting place in revealing the pasts of several characters we know from those books – although none of their protagonists, who are at most newborns at the time of this series. Unlike Bookburners, this isn’t episodic storytelling; the plot is broken up into discrete episodes, but they’re more like the episodes of The Night Manager than Supergirl, each one telling part of the whole and not really working in isolation. The writers of the episodes have varied ways of dealing with that; some are excellent at slipping in the relevant details to their episode, along the way, for those reading monthly, while others seem to treat the story as if Tremontaine will be read in one go, not including that information.
There are really three plots to Tremontaine, all intertwined. Duchess Diane Tremontaine is trying to recoup the fortune she lost on a failed mercantile venture (the ship went down); Ixkaab is in disgrace with her Kinwiinik Trader family after a catastrophic failure; Rafe is trying to found his own revolutionary school of thinking – and pass his university exams; and Micah… is mostly buffetted around in Rafe’s wake. For having such a complex set of plotlines, they all come together relatively quickly, as the principals meet or interact, mingle, and their interests coincide or run counter to each other. The shape of the plot as a whole is well-controlled, and Kushner’s editorial oversight of the project in keeping things moving is judiciously used, such that seeds are planted earlier for later revelations that one does not see coming but hindsight reveals were always there.
That’s not to say that the writing is necessarily even. While most of the episodes are excellent, and Kushner’s own ‘Arrival’ makes a perfect pilot for Tremontaine, there are a couple which don’t work quite so well. Joel Derfner’s ‘Shadowroot’ takes a long, convoluted journey to get to its destination, and telegraphs from the very start what takes a long time to come, without much really to justify that time. Some of the most complex chapters are the best though; in ‘The Dagger and the Sword’, Alaya Dawn Johnson uses a nonchronological approach to intersperse two timelines in a really brilliant way that reminds the reader of TV heists like Hustle, and that really spark along and advance both plot and character.
Unsurprisingly, Tremontaine has a lot of those hanging around; across thirteen episodes involving storylines revolving around three (or four?) principals, a certain number of background characters are going to be necessary. The principals themselves are well realised; from Kushner’s introductions of each in ‘Arrivals’, they’re clearly distinctive and distinct characters, each of whom has a different agenda and set of priorities, and the way those play out across the series is beautiful. From Diane’s increasingly desperate grip on control of the Tremontaine fortune, to Kaab’s torn loyalties between her romantic entanglement with the beautiful forger Tess; from Rafe’s burning need to create a new institution of learning to Micah’s pursuit of mathematical certainty, they’re each vivid and fascinating. Micah is also that rare thing in fiction, a well-portrayed autistic character, who is also a viewpoint character; the authors between them really did a lot of work to try to accurately portray life as someone neuroatypical amongst a neurotypical crowd who don’t know what makes you different.
The background characters are all just as vivid; Tremontaine is like a TV series that not only cast great actors in its main roles, but also used every character actor it could find in the background. They have distinctive voices, mannerisms, and approaches to the different characters; they have individual motivations which we either see from their point of view or through observation. If there’s an exception, it’s in House Tremontaine’s second swordsman, Reynald; while a little of his character is revealed, throughout all his appearances it remains essentially flat, and none of the authors really give us enough to get to grips with to care much about him.
Tremontaine is a real triumph of Serial Box’s and of Ellen Kushner’s; this expansion of the Riverside universe really shows us sides of it we hadn’t seen before and expands it beautifully. I’m looking forward to the second season omnibus.
Disclaimer: Ellen Kushner is a friend.
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Magic is real, and hungry. It’s trapped in ancient texts and artifacts, and only a few who discover it survive to fight back. Detective Sal Brooks is a survivor. She joins a Vatican-backed black-ops anti-magic squad — Team Three of the Societas Librorum Occultorum — and together they stand between humanity and the magical apocalypse. Some call them the Bookburners. They don’t like the label.
Supernatural meets The Da Vinci Code in a fast-paced, kickass character driven novel chock-full of magic, mystery, and mayhem, written collaboratively by a team of some of the best writers working in fantasy.
I’ve been looking forward to this since Serial Box first announced the Bookburners project; as someone who struggles to read fiction in a non-paper form, it’s been a long wait for it to come out in a paper form, even though that is a 780-page monster hardback from Saga Press. The whole thing is both a fascinating experiment – serialised storytelling using the form of television, with a writers’ room, rather than more traditional ways of serialising? – and a brilliant concept, albeit one that is at first glance unoriginal (see, Warehouse 13, The Librarians, et al.)
Bookburners is, as with all Serial Box’s output, structured in the same way as a television series, and written with a televisual approach to plot: each novella has a “monster of the week” as well as tying into the overall arc of the season, and Gladstone even went so far as to include a mid-season finale in the structure. I’m going to review the season as a whole and pull out elements of specific episodes to comment on, rather than reviewing each episode individually, because that seems like the better approach given how I consumed the season (binging! It’s the culture-consumption mode of the modern world!)
As a season, then, Bookburners mostly works very well; it doesn’t up the stakes too much in any one episode, but makes clear the mounting challenges that the team are facing, and builds from an introduction to the world in the pilot episode to a really full and complete picture of it by mid-season, including looking at other countries’ approaches to the problem the Bookburners face. It feels like the relationships between the team members are explored and built quite naturally and effectively, and revelations about the strictures they work under and their pasts aren’t given freely – Sal, our doorway into the world, has to earn trust and thus gain this kind of access. Gladstone’s team deftly build in a lot of teasers for later events, suggesting that much of the season was storyboarded before the series began, but there’s a midseason pivot that seems to come out of left-field and rather fails to connect to events in the first half.
The structure of each episode feels very familiar from television series; Bookburners is not breaking any new structural ground. It opens with a pilot where Sal discovers magic is real and is sucked into the world of the Bookburners, followed by an episode where she goes on her first formal mission with the team and learns about them more; these episodes are well-written, and they work very well, drawing us into the world. Bookburners isn’t subtle about this approach; but it carries it off well, with the feeling of the fast-paced TV drama which Serial Box are trying to emulate in literary form.
The characters of Bookburners are a bit of a stereotypical lot. There’s Father Menchu, the liberation-theology minded priest who leads the team, driven by faith; Liam, the formerly-possessed tech geek, whose feelings about magic are complicated and very negative; there’s Asanti, the archivist and nominal team leader, who is essentially a research nerd who thinks researching magic would be better than just confining it; there’s Grace, a Chinese fighter who is supernaturally good at dealing with the supernatural threats the team faces; and there’s Sal, investigator and former cop. Each falls into the obvious role, which can be a rather dull and expected thing come the end; some moments are cliche, but well-written, which lets the writers broadly get away with it, and character development is eked out over the season, with the few sudden shifts precipitated by triggers, rather than coming out of the blue.
Finally, a word of warning. Although much of the volume is inoffensive (and unproblematic), there is a moment in Mur Lafferty’s second episode, ‘Under My Skin’, where a secondary character (not the monster of the week) is revealed as trans. The reactions of the cast are at best problematic, and the villain’s motivation is very much founded on the transness of the character; this reader, at least, found that rather a problem.
On the whole, though, Bookburners is a fun, fast-paced series; it’s structured well and does some interesting things with oft-trodden ground, and Gladstone and his team do an excellent job. A very enjoyable tome!
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Imagine a world filled with fierce, fiery beings, hiding in our shadows, in our dreams, under our skins. Eavesdropping and exploring; savaging our bodies, saving our souls. They are monsters, saviours, victims, childhood friends.
Some have called them genies: these are the Djinn. And they are everywhere. On street corners, behind the wheel of a taxi, in the chorus, between the pages of books. Every language has a word for them. Every culture knows their traditions. Every religion, every history has them hiding in their dark places. There is no part of the world that does not know them.
They are the Djinn. They are among us.
The Djinn Falls In Love is one of those anthologies one hears of long before it ever comes out; containing a mixture of luminaries of the field (Nnedi Okorafor, Neil Gaiman, Amal El-Mohtar) and rising stars, including people whose profile in the Anglosphere isn’t high yet, it crosses a mixture of different approaches to a singular subject matter – although I slightly miss the original title, Djinnthology. But how does this set of stories, themed around the inherently mercurial subject matter of the djinn, come together?
As a whole, the anthology has an interesting shape; opening with the titular poem by Hermes, it balances in the middle with a prose-poem by Amal El-Mohtar, which seems to also be the point after which it shifts from the more mythic stories to the more traditionally Western speculative fiction model. The first half of The Djinn Falls In Love isn’t exclusively the more poetic approach to stories, but it’s certainly a theme there in a way it isn’t in the second half; thus Kamila Shamsie’s beautiful, sad tale, ‘The Congregation’, shares space with the very 1,001 Nights-reminiscent ‘Majnun’ by Helene Wecker, another tale of tragic love with a very different narrative trajectory; both are about identity and what one has to sacrifice for one’s own independent identity, and both are beautifully shaped around a kind of emotional core of personal singularity. J.Y. Yang’s ‘Glass Lights’, on the other hand, is almost more defined by an absence of self; it’s a very beautiful, quiet, subtle kind of tragedy, of selflessness and personal obliteration, amazingly simple and subtle and powerful. The bookend story to this half of the collection, on the other hand, is the triumphant ‘A Tale Of Ash In Seven Birds’ by Amal El-Mohtar, a prose-poem in seven segments, a kind of building beauty and power, with shifting voice and amazingly beautiful writing. It is a stunningly self-contained piece of absolute rising beauty.
Not everything in this first half connects, though. The Djinn Falls In Love includes some mythological stories which feel a little obvious; Claire North’s ‘Hurren and the Djinn’, with its explicit connection to the 1,001 Nights, tells the reader its obvious and inevitable ending way before it manages to actually reach that point. Maria Dahvana Headley’s ‘Black Powder’, on the other hand, just feels like it would work better in the second half of the book… after a substantial rewrite; it tends towards women as objects of violence, not subjects, and feels overextended and somehow consistently fails to connect emotionally across its length.
The second half of the anthology is stories that are much more traditionally in the Western speculative fiction mode, and much less mythological in feeling, on the whole; the exception is Nnedi Okorafor’s beautiful closer, ‘History’, which straddles the line between the two modes fantastically and is a really beautiful little tale of unexpected consequences and of power and choices. Similarly, Catherine Faris King’s ‘Queen of Sheba’ is a brilliant slipstream story, which reminded me of Daniel José Older’s Bone Street Rhumba, where magic appears around the lived experiences of people in marginalised communities, and comes from those communities. Taking a very different approach, Saad Z. Hossain’s ‘Bring Your Own Spoon’ developes from a fun, seemingly quite whimsical story to a very profound piece of writing about living on the edge of the acceptable and respectable, and of community; it’s a powerful story that really does take its whimsy seriously. ‘Reap’ by Sami Shah, on the other hand, starts grimly serious and stays that way; told from the point of view of the team flying a drone over Pakistan, it really drives home the strange way wars are fought by industrialised nations, so divorced from the reality of the people they effect.
Two stories in this section fail in a very similar way; both James Smythe’s ‘The Sand in the Glass is Right’ and Kirsty Logan’s ‘Spite House’ felt like they really needed to establish a much stronger emotional connection with the reader to work. Both are stories about unintended consequences and misdirected wishes, and both feel a little padded, as if they really could have been trimmed and made a clearer, more powerful version of themselves; this is especially surprising in Logan’s case, given some of her beautiful past work that would stand alongside much of the first half of this volume. K. J. Parker’s story, ‘Message in a Bottle’, meanwhile, feels rather like anyone who has read a few Parker stories has read it before; it follows what is now a familiar pattern and model from him, without really deviating in any interesting directions. It’s undeniably well done, but feels a little divorced from the rest of this collection.
Finally, ‘Duende 2077’ by Jamal Mahjoub is the story in The Djinn Falls In Love that really fell apart for me. Set in a near-future world ruled by an Islamic Caliphate, with a Londonistan, regular beheadings of criminals, and a corrupt, hypocritical elite who indulge in haram pleasures they deny others, it felt like a fantasy ripped from a Daily Mail headline; in a longer, more developed work, that might work, but as it is, it feels like the setting is a bunch of Islamophobic tropes slammed together. That’s a shame, because the noirish political thriller plot deserved a lot better.
The Djinn Falls In Love isn’t a perfect anthology; it’s got, like all anthologies, its hits and its misses. But Shurin and Murad have assembled here a really strong collection of stories, and the standouts really are outstanding – this anthology is worth the price of admission for El-Mohtar, Okorafor, Shamsie, Wecker and Yang alone!
DISCLOSURE: This review is based on a copy received for review from the publisher, Solaris, at work. I am friends with Amal El-Mohtar and J.Y. Yang, who each have a story in the anthology, as aforementioned.
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From sorcerous bridges that link worlds to the simple traditions of country folk; from the mysterious natures of twins to the dangerous powers of obligation and contract. Laden with perils for both the adventurous and the unsuspecting, magic is ultimately a contradiction: endlessly powerful but never without consequence, and rigidly defined by rules of its own making.
Award-winning Jonathan Strahan brings together some of the most exciting and popular writers working in fantasy today to dig into that contradiction, and present you with the strange, the daunting, the mathematical, the unpredictable, the deceptive and above all the fearsome world of magic.
Fearsome Magics is the second New Solaris Book of Fantasy, following Fearsome Journeys. It’s a significantly more varied volume, themed around magic in stories, and Strahan has brought stories from a variety of different milieus to bear on the theme.
Fearsome Magics is a much broader anthology but also a rather less diverse one; eight of the fourteen authors are women, although every author is white. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a wide variety of settings here; Strahan has selected stories that invoke the American heartland, secondary worlds, and past times of stage magic. This is an anthology whose scope includes the magic-permeated setting of K J Parker’s ‘Safe House’, a brilliantly told story whose twist is obvious in retrospect and neatly set up, albeit perhaps with a little too much pleasure taken in the glib voice of its narrator; and Ellen Klages’ magicless setting (stage magic aside) in ‘Hey, Presto!’, a beautiful family tale of a father and daughter building a relationship around dedication and effort. The scope of those two really sums up the breadth of the anthology; from the epic creation of a secondary world with history, politics, cultural differences and more, to the telling of a tale in what is very reminiscent of late-Victorian England; from a male agent sent on a covert mission because of his magical prowess to a studious young girl reconnecting with her father; from a story that is glib, funny and wry to a story that is heartfelt and beautiful.
Perhaps the best story in the collection is the least concerned with magic; Isobelle Carmody’s ‘Grigori’s Solution’ is a very quiet apocalypse story, in which a mathematical formula has brought about the end of the universe. Told from the first-person perspective of a journalist, the story is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle in the chaos caused by the end of the world and the interest in the consequences of that, but whereas Vonnegut is also interested in what leads up to that, Carmody is more interested in the quiet individual stories, the personal responses to the end of the world; she takes the reader through the five stages of grief for the world as it slowly vanishes into the blackness, without ever really being interested in how it has happened or what caused it. The use of a single viewpoint telling the stories of many different people works brilliantly, and the conceit of a reporter writing an article that will never be read is extremely well carried off.
The other stand-out stories are about death, in various ways; ‘Aberration’ is Genevieve Valentine’s take on immortality and time-travel, and a painful look at what being rootless and witnessing vast amounts of death would mean. It’s a strange, weird story partially told in second-person glimpses; and is about roots, and homes, and the importance of a full stop at the end of a sentence. ‘Ice in the Bedroom’, on the other hand, is a very personal look at the other side; the griever left behind by the deceased, and the process of grief. Making concrete the process of grieving is an interesting technique, and Shearman’s blurring of the lines between dream and reality is incredibly well done and profoundly moving.
Unfortunately, most of the stories aren’t up to that standard. Tony Ballantyne’s ‘Dream London Hospital’, for instance, is a messy story, without clear framework or plot; while perhaps making more sense in the context of his novel Dream London, shorn of that Ballantyne has written a sort of strange, impossible half-world of dreams and, like listening to the dreams of others people, reading about them tends not to make much sense; this story certainly doesn’t buck that trend.
In a differently messy way, Kaaron Warren’s ‘The Nursery Corner’ is a story that really only needs a few pages to be told, but is instead drawn out in an attempt to add extra depth and pathos in an entirely unsuccessful way; it takes what would be a creepy horror concept and renders it overdone. Christopher Rowe’s ‘The Dun Letter’, meanwhile, opens the collection on a fairytale-changeling story; unfortunately, it’s one that can’t decide what it wants to be, quite, between a story of a girl abandoned and looking after her grandmother and a mockery of typical portal fantasy, and ends up somewhere in between, being neither and achieving very little.
After the incredibly high standards of Fearsome Journeys, I expected Fearsome Magics to continue the strong showing; unfortunately, Strahan’s second foray into the New Solaris Books of Fantasy simply doesn’t live up to the standards set by the first, despite some outstanding stories.
How do you encompass all the worlds of the imagination? Within fantasy’s scope lies every possible impossibility, from deagons to spirits, from magic to gods, and from the unliving to the undying.
In Fearsome Journeys, master anthologist Jonathan Strahan sets out on a quest to find the very limits of the unlimited, collecting twelve brand new stories by some of the most popular and exciting names in epic fantasy from around the world.
Fearsome Journeys is subtitled as the New Solaris Book of Fantasy; Jonathan Strahan has collected some of the most storied names in fantasy together and taken short stories from them, all under the broad rubric of “epic fantasy”. Unfortunately, Strahan’s model of epic fantasy is quite a narrow one here; while all the stories have differences in tone, they all fall under a broadly swords-and-sorcery model, set in secondary worlds, but without messing with the same basic formula.
On the positive side, though, they come from a variety of authors; half the contributors to this anthology are women, although only one is a person of colour. That shows in the stories contributed to Fearsome Journeys; they are a lot better than much epic fantasy at ensuring they feature rounded, interesting female characters treated on the same level as the male characters, some stories centred on women and some on men. This is most clear in Kate Elliott’s ‘Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine’, an amazing story whose protagonist is a widow with grown children, which avoids the standard violent solutions of epic fantasy in favour of politics, frienships and humanity. It’s a quiet little story but also a wide-ranging one, about heirarchies, status, power and how power can be used; an absolutely outstanding contribution to the collection.
Similarly, Ellen Klages’ ‘Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl’ focuses its attentions on a would-be thief and a tavern-running young woman. The former is not a hero, but rather a clumsy protagonist, while the latter, and her girlfriend, are what this story treats as heroes; not necessarily heroic per se, but at least heroised. The story is somewhere between a shaggy dog tale and a heist caper turned around on the would-be heister; Klages manages the characters well, and keeps her tricks concealed until she deploys them at exactly the right moment. Klages gets the beats exactly right to keep this a light and humourous story; the occasionally lewd humour is funny and well played, and doesn’t remove the fact that there are some interesting sociopolitical discussions going on in this little piece.
At the other end of the spectrum is Daniel Abraham’s ‘High King Dreaming’; this really is traditional fate-of-nations epic fantasy fare, but at the same time, it has an intelligent and brilliant twist. The High King of the title is Arthurian in status, having united a nation and having been prophesied to return in that nation’s time of greatest need; the story is told from the point of his death, as we watch him watching his funeral. Abraham plays with time, moving backwards and forwards to create a story that is about the demands on a ruler, the imperatives on a parent, and the compromises required by politics; he is unsubtle in talking about big themes and large ideas, in interesting ways.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an entirely strong collection. ‘Spirits of Salt: Tales of the Coral Heart’ isn’t one of Jeffrey Ford’s stronger stories; it’s long, slow, and fails to really get anywhere, while trying to be about power and violence. Instead, the story meanders, without any meaningful characters or resolution; it’s frustrating and drawn out, to the point that the reader is frustrated and thrown out of the story. The ideas behind the story could be quite well-written but turn out to actually be glib and trite, with the attempted twists oversimplified. Similarly, Saladin Ahmed’s ‘Amethyst, Shadow and Light’ has a lot of potential, and some fascinating elements in terms of character interaction, but in the end is a predictable story that fails to really engage with its subject-matter; the morality is simplistic and the approach to plot incredibly straightforward.
Fearsome Journeys is a fascinating snapshot of epic fantasy today; it avoids the worst of the worst, the excesses and incredible length of Brandon Sanderson and the racism of Peter V Brett, but does have a mix of the serious and the humourous, the small scale and the grand, the well-written and the poorly accomplished. Jonathan Strahan is an excellent anthologist, and Fearsome Journeys is one of the better anthologies out there; almost entirely strong, moderately diverse, and worth reading.