Elizabeth Bear is a graceful, imaginative writer who skillfully illuminates the depths of the characters she creates. While the social relevance for which she often reaches sometimes seems a bit forced, she deserves credit for pushing the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy.
The stories in this collection I liked best tended to be science fiction. My favorite, "Tideline," won a Hugo. It is a poignant and memorable story. Chalcedony, a malfunctioning derelict of a war machine, combs the beach looking for pretty objects she can string together to make necklaces. She needs the help of a boy named Belvedere to carry out her final mission. Bear blends science fiction with one of Lovecraft's monsters in "Shoggoths in Bloom" as a black scientist in 1938 confronts a moral dilemma. This Hugo-winning story explores the ethics of enslaving a species that was created for the purpose of being enslaved. While full of entertaining ideas about future living, "In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns" is primarily the story of a murder investigation, complicated by shifting identities and an engineered cat that seems to have lost its memory. "Dolly" gives a slightly new twist to the "fine line between androids and humans" theme.
Other stories in the collection are less impressive but still worth reading. After she receives a brain implant for pain management, a young girl in "The Something-Dreaming Game" makes herself pass out from oxygen starvation so she can visit aliens who have a use for her implant. A former rock star and guitar goddess -- "The Girl Who Sang Rose Madder" -- while pondering the approaching end of her life, learns the meaning of life and death from dead guitar players. Whether brain repair is a euphemism for mind control is the question asked in "Gods of the Forge," a tale of industrial espionage that ends too abruptly. "Annie Weber" is about parasitic aliens who enjoy drinking cappuccino. An HIV-positive kid must decide whether to live her life as a harpy in "The Horrid Glory of its Wings."
Some stories don't have much to do with science fiction or fantasy but were nonetheless interesting, if unspectacular. "Sonny Liston Takes the Fall" is an odd story about Sonny Liston and Muhammed Ali and the experience of being black in America during the middle of the twentieth century. "Sounding" is about a whale that helps a struggling fisherman find some tuna. "Confessor" is an attempt at a thriller with the addition of genetic engineering.
There are also stories that didn't do much for me. With advice from a witch, "The Cold Blacksmith" tries to manufacture a heart for a demanding girl. A witch also turns up, along with a princess, in "Love Among the Talus," a story about which potential suitor the princess will marry after the battles cease. A dragon named "Orm the Beautiful" negotiates with the Museum of Natural History to preserve his Chord. The last shark eats the last people in "The Inevitable Heat Death of the Universe." In "Cryptic Coloration," three giggly girls stalk their professor who, when he's not teaching, uses his abilities as a magi to track down mythical creatures -- the sort of creatures who prey on giggly girls. In "The Ladies," women have the right to vote and Thomas Jefferson persuades John Adams' wife to run against her husband in the presidential election.
On the whole, while the collection is uneven, the best stories are exceptional and even the stories I didn't like so much are readable. The collection is an excellent introduction to Elizabeth Bear for science fiction and fantasy fans who would like to become acquainted with her work.