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Tales of the Emerald Serpent Kindle Edition
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The book features stories from authors Lynn Flewelling, Harry Connolly, Todd Lockwood, Juliet E. McKenna, Michael Tousignant, Martha Wells, Julie Czerneda, Scott Taylor himself, and Rob Mancebo. The cover art is by Todd Lockwood, with interior art by Jeff Laubenstein and Todd Lockwood.
I confess to funding it out of curiosity to see just what was possible on Kickstarter, more an act of research than one of pleasure. However, I finished reading Tales of the Emerald Serpent this past Saturday, and my verdict is that I'm very impressed.
It's worth noting that I funded a second book project around the same time. That one achieved ten times its funding goal this past April, and two months past its estimated delivery goal, has yet to materialize.
By contrast, Tales of the Emerald Serpent made its funding on April 18th and had shipped out all copies of it's digital edition by June 26th. The delivery process was professional and efficient, with daily updates explaining which reward levels were being delivered when.
The book itself (and I've seen the physical edition though I speak here of the ebook edition) is a thing of beauty. Todd Lockwood's cover is absolutely gorgeous, and the cover is reproduced inside the ebook and - most importantly - at a decent resolution. The ebook also includes all the interior art, also at a high level of resolution, and has an embedded back cover. It's a good deal better packaged and presented than a good many books coming out of professional houses.
Also, note the medallions in the corners of the front cover. You'll see that three are in sepia tones, while the fourth, in the upper right corner, is in color. These medallions indicate what era of Scott's enormous history these stories occur in. This is similar to what the Star Wars books do, with the icons on the novels telling you where a story takes place in the Old Republic or the New Jedi Order, etc... It's a device that I've been kicking around in my own head for a while now, considering for a project I'm working on, and frankly I'm jealous Scott's beat me to it.
I would like it if there was some sort of introduction that placed this city in context. Perhaps some notes on how the idea came about (I've heard that it was the setting for a RPG campaign but nothing in the book confirms or denies this) or some background on the world in which the city of Taux resides. A glossary would also have been nice. More importantly, the book has a lot of invented races, the Aspara, the Jai-Ruk, the Kin. Wonderful pencil illustrations of these creatures were included in email updates sent out to the Kickstarter backers, but the book itself would really have been served by including them. I found myself logging on to Kickstarter throughout the reading experience to see who was what, and I imagine someone who wasn't a backer, and thus couldn't access the posted art, might have been even more confused. But given that few "traditionally published" anthologies even have interior art, Tales of the Emerald Serpent still comes out at the head of the pack.
Are there nitpicks? Sure. But speaking just in terms of the professionalism of the product, from its "customer service" to its presentation, I give this one an A-. And that's a very high grade.
Now on to the fiction...
The stories in Tales of the Emerald Serpent don't just share a location, they sometimes share characters. The various events described weave together in much the same way that the tales of Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels do. They weave and wind through the Emerald Serpent tavern, the Silk Purse brothel, and the Raised Market, and events in one story are often alluded to in another. This adds a level of reality and credibility to the setting that makes me long for a detailed map of the city and another of the continent it's set on. What we do know of Taux we have to glean from the stories themselves. Taux is a sort of faux-Aztec or Mayan style city, whose original inhabitants suddenly vanished one day under mysterious, and presumably horrendous, circumstances. The city has been repopulated by immigrants from other cultures, though one wonders about the intelligence of anyone willing to live in a city where the stones whisper. To live in Taux is to convince yourself that whatever happened to them couldn't possibly happen to you. Having spent six years living above a fault line, I don't have any problem buying into this. Meanwhile, the way the book hints at something under the city and the very real possibility that something dire could be coming to a head is just delicious.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the best stories are by the most experienced contributors. Lynn Flewelling, Juliet E. McKenna, Martha Wells, and Julie Czerneda's tales are all excellent--Czerneda's in particular--while Harry Connolly's "The One Thing You Can Never Trust" is worth the price of the whole anthology by itself. His is the tale of Emil Lacosta, a merchant who deals in love potions (and whose best customer is the madame of the aforementioned Silk Purse), who is approached by a client with a very unusual request. I won't spoil it, but this was the story that made me sit up and take notice.
The big surprise for me was artist Todd Lockwood, who contributes the story "Between." Todd labored under the constraints of having to tie his tale directly into two other stories, but he does an admirable job. More importantly, his character of Torrent (the woman pictured center on the cover above) is marvelous--he can really write character--and I hope he gets to write about her again. Lockwood has long been regarded as one of the top illustrators of our genre, but I suspect, with his recent novel sale to DAW, that he will soon have a reputation as a writer as well.
There was only one story that I felt was below professional quality, though I won't say which one. Finally, Rob Mancebo's story suffers from essentially ending with a big "To Be Continued". It's a set up with no pay off, and I wish the book didn't end that way. But I liked eight out of nine stories in the volume, and that's an amazing average.
I'd highly recommend Tales of the Emerald Serpent. I like what it does and how it goes about it. It's a smart, good looking package with some real gems of fiction inside. I have no knowledge of a sequel in the works, but I'd certainly fund a Tales of the Emerald
It's a fun read full of fun characters, with an unwritten promise in it's many stories: this is only the beginning.
I love anthologies. I have read Robert Aspirin’s Thieves World many times, and it is has become, to my mind, the perfect measuring stick with which to judge all anthology newcomers. I feel that I am an expert on what makes a good fantasy anthology. Beware my reviewers wrath!
Imagine my delight when I opened Tales of the Emerald Serpent and read Scott Taylor’s forward, where he tells us that he “read Aspirin’s tale of the Thieves World and decided that if he (Aspirin) could do something like this, then so could I”. A few sentences later we come to: “we are at the inception of a mosaic shared world anthology that I hope recaptures some of the lost glory of Aspirin’s Thieves World.”.
"If Aspirin could do it so could I"? Now, I’ve read three of Scott’s previous offerings and think highly of his writing, but this is pretty audacious stuff.
At this point I’m thinking how, after reading this book, I will be channeling the great Senator Lloyd Bentsen – “You, Sir, are no Jack Kennedy!”
So I sat and carefully read the nine short stories. One each by Lynn Flewelling, Harry Connolly, Todd Lockwood, Juliet McKenna, Mike Touignant, Martha Wells, Julie Czerneda, Scott Taylor and Rob Mancebo.
I’m not going to provide any spoilers. Each of the stories was terrific. Like pieces of a puzzle carefully laid out on a table to gradually form a delightful finished picture. Exactly like a mosaic.
The biggest surprise was Todd Lockwood’s story. Any Fantasy fan knows who Todd Lockwood is. He is a famous and brilliant artist. But (I assumed) letting him write a short story is something akin to having a politician throw out the first pitch at a Major League baseball game and then counting that pitch toward the final score. Did Scott agree to the short story as a condition to getting the cover art done? It turns out that, not only can Mr. Lockwood actually throw the metaphorical baseball all the way to home-plate, he also has a smoking-hot fastball. His story "Between" is exceptional and was completely unexpected.
So, tonight I shall dine on crow. Scott has undertaken to build a fictional city, curse it, turn it over to folks with the power to destroy it (or make it great), guide the overall project and manage to turn out something exemplary.
Tales of the Emerald Serpent is Scott Taylor’s attempt to recreate Aspirin’s magic and he has hit his mark spectacularly!
You should read this book. It is an outstanding anthology.
Most excellent cover by Todd Lockwood
Lovely interior illustrations by Jeff Laubenstein, Janet Aulisio and Todd Lockwood
Also, unlike Thieves World's Sanctuary, Tales of the Emerald Serpent's city of Taux is much more of a character in and of itself. The ancient city, clearly inspired by Aztec and Mayan culture, is populated by ghosts, nearly every brick and stone inhabited by the specters of its previous citizens who were suddenly slain in a mysterious magical disaster. Many of the stories center around these ghosts or are influenced by the ever-present threat that the citizens of Taux are both blase about and constantly aware of.
The book includes nine stories, many by well-known authors. They range from the straight-up caper-style story (reminiscent of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser) Three Souls for Sale by Mike Tousignant to the family drama of Lynn Flewelling's Namesake. Harry Connolly's dark The One Thing You Can Never Trust is probably the most disturbing and Twilight Zone-ish of the stories. The artist Todd Lockwood gives us a rollicking and fun tale about a Corsair who meets an old flame and gets drawn into his schemes. Juliet E. McKenna's Venture is a surprisingly sweet story threaded around the warp of racial tensions in a fantasy world.
Martha Wells' Revnants feels exactly like the sort of story you'd expect from the author of City of Bones, mingling heroic fantasy with cultural archeology. It's a good story, but the ending feels a touch abrupt, as does Rob Mancebo's Footsteps of Blood, both leaving the door wide open for sequels or longer treatments.
And then there's Scott Taylor's Charlatan, which does a masterful job of weaving nearly all the stories together. Almost every other tale gets a passing nod in his story of a devious trickster challenged to a duel he cannot possibly win. It's great fun, even if it's a bit abrupt in the climax (though understandably so).
There's not a bad story in the bunch and my favorite is Julie Czerneda's Water Remembers, which gives us a glimpse at those who dwell among the wizards of the Star Tower as well as the ways in which the haunting of an entire city can lead to surprising transformations among what would otherwise be rather mundane trades crafts.
If you're looking for some new good old sword-and-sorcery derring-do and skullduggery, Tales of the Emerald Serpent is absolutely worth your time and treasure. The characters are intriguing and unique, their adventures feel both fresh and familiar, and there's a fun mix of danger, greed, heart, and humor. Here's hoping we get additional glimpses into the days and nights of Taux soon.
The stories each are self-contained, but include a variety of connections to other tales in the anthology, such as recurring characters, scenes, or items. The effect is well-done, giving you a sense that you're seeing various facets of the City of Taux, but - like the characters themselves - never able to know everything that's going on. The stories are in general very good. As is typical in an anthology, the quality varies. A few were especially well done, my favorites being "The One Thing You Can Never Trust" by Connolly, "Between" by Lockwood, and "Water Remembers" by Czerneda. One or two were a bit short of the others, but overall, it's a strong set of stories.
The City of Taux merits special mention. More than any single story or character, it was my favorite part of the anthology. Taux was vacated years ago by the pseudo-Aztec or Mayan people who inhabited it in some sort of catastrophe that no one understands. The current inhabitants moved in later and live in the shadow of whatever doom occurred in Taux, the very stones of the city whispering of what occurred there. Of course, since none know what happened, none know if it might happen again. The Emerald Serpent of the title is an inn that many of the characters visit in their stories (one is reminded of the Silver Eel in Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar's tales). The Meso-American feel of the city is very well done and sets a great tone for the individual stories. It's also very nice to get away from pseudo-European fantasy and explore the fantasy analogue of another culture.
The book includes, in addition to the beautiful cover from Lockwood, who's known for his art, a piece of interior black and white art for each story. These pieces come from Lockwood, Jeff Laubenstein, and Janet Aulisio. The illustrations help set the mood and keep the particular feel of Taux in your mind as you read.
I really enjoyed Tales of the Emerald Serpent, and applaud the well-executed shared world approach to the anthology, as well as the choice to use the myths and legends of Meso-America as inspiration. I recommend it to anyone looking for a fun fantasy read, especially something with a different flavor to it. I definitely plan to read any future anthologies set in Taux.
Note: I received my copy of the book by backing it on Kickstarter.com.