Impressive and, honestly, intimidating this tome of stellar science fiction and fantasy features masters of the genres at their best in twenty four dazzling tales of other worlds. If readers want some of the most impressive recently published tales of the SF/F genres without having to hunt them down through the multitude of anthologies and magazines printed this year this is an excellent buy.
If the first tale, Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", is any indication then this anthology is one to savor like a fine box of chocolates. When a merchant stumbles upon a strange shop in Baghdad that is home to a gateway between the past, future and present he is treated not just to a triad of tales about what other visitors have found inside the gateway, but he also gets the opportunity to travel back to his own past, to find closure to the one event in his life that haunts him. A rare gem of a story it expertly straddles the line between fantasy and science fiction as well as tragic and hopeful.
"The Last and Only, or Mr. Moskowitz Becomes French" by Peter S. Beagle seems to be more of a philosophical study on identity than a tale that's recognizable fantasy. No one knows why, but Mr. Moskowitz began ("from the bones out") to turn French. So much so that even those born in France sought out his approval. Strange and well written, it still didn't capture my interest as much as I'd hoped.
Charles Stross' "Trunk and Disorderly", as one might guess is a humor piece. Completely out of control (much like its lead, "Ralph MacDonald Suzuki... a genuine Japanese Highland Laird from old Scotland...") "Trunk and Disorderly" is a hilarious adventure of debauchery, nobility and robots gone wrong that's best read without any drinks nearby.
"Glory" by Greg Egan sums itself up with a line from its own prose, "There's more to life than mathematics...but not much more." A hard science fiction love note to math, and the sciences that heavily rely upon them, this tale of alien exploration and archeology is at times mind boggling in level and at other times, perfection down to the last little atom. Despite the heavy importance of the math the story is told in the characters' actions, allowing the story to reach the reader and not be lost under the weight of technicality.
Daryl Gregory's "Dead Horse Point" is very personal, heart wrenching and incredibly interesting. Julia is a special woman. Incredibly brilliant she's breaking new ground in science and on the verge of something world changing. But her brilliance comes with a downside. She lives an autistic-like life, completely aware, capable and down right normal one moment and mentally gone, incapable of even the simplest of tasks, completely lost in a mental world of science and unbreakable concentration. Gregory captures the strength and potential inside what many others would consider to be a horrible disease in desperate need of a cure. He also shows the effects it can have on even the most loyal of caretakers, the years slowly wearing them down. It's very exciting to see a well written, thoughtful tale dealing with a neural-atypical mind, another facet of our current world that could easily lend itself to speculative futures.
"The Dreaming Wind" by Jeffrey Ford takes readers into a fairy tale, from its image invoking opening to an end that answers none of the questions. "The Dreaming Wind" is beautiful tale of the intimidating, raw power of creativity that's likely to spark a few strikes of inspiration of its own.
Continuing the streak of fantasy is "The Coat of Stars" by Holly Black. It's yet another beautiful story, a modern fairy tale of a gay man who learns his childhood love was stolen by fairies. In trying to win his love back he must also come to terms with himself and his family. Not moralistic, but the kind of story one can picture being told along side Grimm's most popular, it's stories like these that will become the classic short stories of our generation's portion of the fantasy genre.
"The Prophet of Flores" by Ted Kosmatka takes on evolution, creating a world where it's been debunked and religion rules science. This isn't a horror tale however, but a scientific one, not just about the evolution of life, but about the evolution of religion as well.
Alex Irvine's "Wizard's Six" is a delightfully classic fantasy tale, the kind you forget how much you enjoy after reading more in vogue subgenres like science fantasy and urban fantasy. Paulus, at the behest of a wizard, is traveling across the land to stop an apprentice's quest to collect "his six", six people with magical potential that the apprentice needs to become a full wizard. But this apprentice is dangerous and has been denied by the guild, which would put his six in great danger should he succeed in collecting them, and make the apprentice himself much harder to control once he gained his full power. A true example of the best of fantasy, this is the kind of story that leaves the characters and reader changed.
"The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics" by Daniel Abraham is a tale for the puzzle lovers. When bored nobleman Lord Iron approaches cambist (money exchanger) Olaf he admits that he's just bored, and that Olaf is simply in the wrong place at the right time. Destroying the cambist will provide a momentary distraction. Until Olaf manages to exchange the exotic bills from a tiny, distant, nearly unknown foreign land, stunning and impressing Lord Iron. Of course Olaf's feat of intelligence just ends up getting him pulled into greater challenges, with higher stakes. The last challenge of all lays a human soul bare with enough honesty and need to make readers shiver with its strength. Every bit as human and soul-filled as the first story, Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", this tale is an excellent example of the best of fantasy.
"By Fools Like Me" by Nancy Kress is a tale writers and passionate readers can get behind. A Post-Apocalypse fantasy tale it centers on a young girl's discovery of old fashioned print books (the kind trees were sacrificed for), and the books' power many, many years later, to still entrap the mind. In a world where see-o-two clouds and destructive ash are among the worst hazards, not immediately destroying the books is a moral sin. But the true story in this tale is how the human spirit can corrupt all things, and even rules meant to guarantee survival in a harsh world, can go too far.
Bruce Sterling's "Kiosk" is the first miss so far. This futuristic tale strongly focuses on the socio-political-economic truths of society rather than invoking the universal human feel of the other stories. A midstream switch from telling the story from a close third view of a kiosk owner and savvy businessman to a wide, fast forward, history book feeling approach killed my interest. The story failed to regain it when it focused on the lead character again for an attempt at a tight end. Surrounded with the present day politically poisoned media this tale just didn't offer me the escape I found in other tales.
"Singing of Mount Abora" by Theodora Goss is a fairy tale at its heart. It's beautiful in imagery and language and has an exotic feel that's easy to relate to a heroine trying to earn the right to marry her love through cleverness. The story threads a delicate line between familiar and legendary.
"The Witch's Headstone" by Neil Gaiman is actually a chapter from his upcoming release, The Graveyard Book, about a boy growing up in a graveyard. In this tale Bod ventures outside of the graveyard in a quest to get a witch her very own headstone. What he finds instead is human greed and a curiously shaped curse. Gaiman is a master of creating characters readers can relate to, spinning vivid worlds and lining his fantasy with morbid curiosity. "The Witch's Headstone" is no exception.
A tale straight out of an episode of The Universe, "Last Contact" by Stephen Baxter is an exceedingly sad tale of The Big Rip, that is a wormhole swallowing the Galaxy. Told primarily through conversations between a woman and her daughter, both scientists, it's beautifully written and heart ripping at the same time. A very human take, it might be the most graceful story of The Epic End out there.
"Jesus Christ, Reanimator" by Ken MacLeod is a satirical look at the Second Coming. The world's disillusionment in Christ is equally matched by his disillusionment at the world. As he himself points out: "I am the embodiment of the Logos, the very logic of creation, or as it was said in English, `the Word made flesh.' Just because I am in that sense the entirety of the laws of nature doesn't mean I know all of them, or can override any of them." Story events unfold ironically close to the original stories, but most satisfying of all is how MacLeod, like many other authors in this book, adds a level of humanity to the character and events, using the contrast between the possible reality and the version of religion that extremists want others to believe in as a framework for the story.
"Sorrel's Heart" by Susan Palwick is a startlingly dark tale that opens up with a young girl laying in the dirt trying to cut off her own heart. It continues from there morbid bits flung casually at the reader wrapped around a surprisingly powerful love story between freaks and outcasts in a future world where normal people hunt those born different in very obvious ways.
Michael Swanwick's "Urdumheim" is a creation tale every bit as vivid as the stories found in Greek, Norse or Egyptian myths. Strange, and sometimes cruel(though no crueler that the Greek story of a god swallowing his children, or the Norse story of Odin forming the world from the blood and bones of a giant), this is an epic story of how the world came to be, solid enough to base a mythos on.
M. Rickert's "Holiday" takes child pageants to a whole new place with a tale of a murdered pageant queen who begins to haunt (and perform for) a writer who is ill prepared to add the baffling problems of a murdered child to his already struggling life. There's a real sinister mix if innocence and wickedness in this tale. It certainly sticks out even from the others in this book, leaving the reader unsettled and unsure, wondering if they were supposed to enjoy the story at all.
"The Valley of the Gardens" by Tony Daniel combines science and superstition (or outright magic) in curious ways, building a world that is tech heavy, but has every bit of the magic woven into the prior fantasy tales. Here are the twin tales of a man fighting a horrible enemy that seeks to destroy all life in our galaxy and a farmer whose memories are literally tied to the land who falls in love with a woman from the wilds of desert where strange magic/technology grows rampant. The two and their worlds are more closely related than the reader might suspect. This gem of a tale transcends both genres yet is firmly rooted in epic space opera, transporting readers into a magical world far beyond our future.
"Winter's Wife" by Elizabeth Hand is a tale of the strangely exotic set in a small town with something familiar for most everyone, even if they aren't familiar with Maine woods. Justin, friended before birth through his mother, has a close bond with Winter, a modern imagining of the wizard of the woods. The friendship leads to Justin being immediately accepted by Winter's rather unique bride and treated as an adopted child. The close bond leads Justin through several extraordinary events that could make readers believe that magic does still exist in the woods of America.
Chris Roberson's "The Sky Is Large and the Earth Is Small" has exotic down pat with a tale of a Chinese researcher who travels to a prison each day to hear the reminiscent tale of a prisoner who once traveled across the sea to Mexica to study the people there. A tale to remind readers that aspirations and man's imagination and spirit are essential parts of science this one is satisfied to suggest a future of star traveling and leave those imagined stories to other authors.
"Orm the Beautiful" by Elizabeth Bear is sheer magic, the tale of a dying dragon who will take with him more than just his life, but will also relinquish control of the world to men and technology. Here Bear sets the beauty of fantasy to war with the potential of science fiction. But it also shows how the genres can work together as Orm the Beautiful, last of the dragons, goes to the humans to protect his species' memories from other humans. Another sweet-sad tale in this collection the prose in this one echoes in the readers head like a nearly forgotten song.
Finally comes "The Constable of Abal" by Kelly Link, a complex tale of respectability, ghosts and blackmail. Zilla, famous in a society recently struck by plague for making charms that draw ghosts to the fashionable remains of the town, also happens to be using her daughter, Ozma to gather the secret evidence that Zilla uses to blackmail the highest of Abal. Until the day that Zilla, in a terrible temper, kills the constable, sending herself and her daughter into flight. But Zilla's escape is truly a quest, as she drags Ozma and others through strange events in her search for something even she can't put words to. It sets a fitting tone for the end of the anthology, not an end of sadness, such as "Orm the Beautiful" or "Last Contact", but one that can lead readers to feel as if the stories in this book have at last released them to live their life anew.