on 6 November 2009
I have a strong liking of fantastical stories set in cities, which made me very keen to read this anthology. I'm glad I managed to pick up an early copy of it.
It's very good.
The 21 cities are all different. They range in technology level from the medieval castle of Forrest Aguirre's "Andretto Walks the King's Way" (which is a darker, more peculiar piece than any other medieval fantasy I've read) to the cyberpunk city of Darin C. Bradley's "They Would Only Be Roads" (in which charms and rites are a hacker's tools).
Some stories could be set in our world, if things were a little different. Vylar Kaftan's "Godivy" is set in the familiar office landscape, except that "the administrators [are] mating with the photocopiers and producing children born for office work." In the wars over photocopiers, the office-men forget that their mates are more than objects. A brief, moralistic tale, well-handled, and delightfully quirky.
Other cities are not of our world. Stephanie Campisi's "The Title of This Story" sees Boy come to half-sunken Skendgrot to have a religious book named, in order that his people can discuss it and that it might become more powerful. The language is dead, and impossibly complex for onomastician Regent to decipher. Campisi gives her moulding city a presence within the story, almost as strong as Boy and Regent -- who consider the significance of naming, Boy of himself and Regent of the book. It's a full story (that's a good thing). And the linguistics details are fascinating.
Hal Duncan makes the city an object of death and rebirth in "The Tower of Morning's Bones," in which the bones of old go into the tower of morning, in the city at the end of time and life: "...a tower of all the bones of morning, falling always and forever into the glorious confusion of the world" is its finishing line, and is an apt descriptor of the story as a whole. Duncan does not write simply. But he does write well; he expects a lot of the reader, but gives to one who re-reads, re-examines. Heady stuff (with the double-meaning intended).
A particularly strange city is Catherynne M. Valente's "Palimpsest": a viral city, passed among lovers who, when they sleep, walk its streets. Newcomers are quartered: four of them, who came to the city at the same time, each told that "you will go nowhere, eat no capon or dormouse, drink no oversweet port that they do not also taste, and they will visit no whore that you do not also feel beneath you, and until that ink washes from your feet ... you cannot breathe but that they breathe also." Lucia, quartered, wanders Palimpsest while passing it onto others, until she meets in our world one of the women with whom she was quartered. This is a sensual, beautiful story. (And a novel, Palimpsest, is coming out in 2009; I can't wait to read it.)
An element of the strange runs through most of the stories in this anthology, particularly so in my favourites. Not every story worked for me, but that's the way with any anthology; I think there were only 2 (out of 21) that I disliked, while I immensely enjoyed many more. Other than the ones already mentioned, stories by Jay Lake (set in the same city as his excellent novel Trial of Flowers), Ben Peek, Cat Sparks, Mark Teppo and Anna Tambour were very, very good. What makes this anthology so strong is its variety. Variety in setting, topics, prose. Among the cities modern and old, familiar and strange, cities where it rains vinegar or where an escape artist captivates the population, a suburbia where toys are threats, underwater cities or a city on people's flesh, every reader is likely to find his or her own favourites. And with the overall quality high, readers of different tastes will not be disappointed.