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BULK OVER QUALITY
on 13 February 2017
I'm not naïve but I guess that I'm still gullible, I know that the publisher has set the second largest print on the cover proclaiming 'George RR Martin' as a hook to draw in those among the many thousands of devotees of Mr Martin's work when, in fact, this book contains only one story by the man himself. In this case, that device was especially galling given the style of GRR Martin's actual story (more of that later).
After a long, rambling and not very interesting introduction by GRR Martin, this volume, epic in its sheer size, contains 21 stories. The book itself makes clear that these are very varied so it's no surprise that some are good, some poor and some indifferent. sadly, there aren't many in the 'good' category, with most falling into 'indifferent' and there simply aren't any that are 'stand out wow'.
My main gripe with this volume is the idea that they are short stories when, with a few exceptions, they aren't. They are episodes. I once read a fascinating article by the mystery thriller writer Jeffery Deaver in which he set out, very accurately in my opinion, what it takes to create a short story and just why it is much more difficult than most folk think. The essence is that a short story must contain all of the elements of a full-sized novel, including a beginning, a middle and an end, such that the whole thing is an encapsulated and complete story in its own right. The problem with most of the entries in Rogues is that they don't do that. Many of them use characters taken from earlier works by the author and others start their stories in the middle, with an apparent back-story that isn't explained. The result is that most of these read like an episode or chapter taken from the middle of a larger book and not as a proper short story. Some are still engaging but there is a strong sense that this book could have so much more.
So, to the stories themselves. Well, as others have said, this is a very mixed bag. I have particular things to say about the first and the last stories but, those aside, my very brief comments on some of the others are:
'What Do You Do?', by Gillian Flyn, is one of the better stories in the book; less episodic than most and with an interesting and engaging story and style. There are also a couple of good twists and it left me wanting to read more.
'Bent Twig', by Joe R Lansdale, is a standard episode from one of his 'Hap & Leonard' series and you'd have to like those to get along with this story. Not to my taste.
'Provenance', by David W Ball, is set in a modern era and, although it becomes very convoluted, it is one of the better stories and worth persevering with.
Both 'Roaring Twenties', by Carrie Vaughn, and 'A Year and a Day in Old Theradane', by Scott Lynch are worth the time spent reading them and have a similar theme.
'Bad Brass, by Bradley Denton feels very much like an episode snatched from another book. It tries, unsuccessfully, to be funny and is one of the poorer offerings.
Similarly, 'Heavy Metal' by Cherie Priest just felt like a waste of my reading time.
Right in the middle of the book, possibly intended as an anchor, is 'The Meaning of Love' by Daniel Abraham. This very popular author has written fantastic stuff and this episode is set in one of the fantasy worlds previously created by DA. One element in here is that the main character of Asa appears early but there is nothing for many, many, pages to suggest the gender of Asa. I don't mean this to be sexist but merely to point out that, when reading, I picture the story in my mind and so being able to accurately draw a mental picture of Asa is helped by knowing the gender. I've read everything that Daniel Abraham has written as I just love it but, although still much better than most of the rest of the works in this book, this isn't his best effort.
The works that follow, 'A Better Way to Dies' and 'Ill Seen in Tyre' are among the poorer efforts.
'A Cargo of Ivory', by Garth Nix, might be episodic but it is still quite engaging.
'Diamonds from Tequila', by Walter Jon Williams stands out for several reasons. Firstly, this is proper short story rather than just an episode. Secondly, it is set in a modern world without any fantasy element at all (apart from a slight stretching of scientific capability). But mainly, it stands out as a really good and engaging plot, filled with movie detail and a good pace. I really liked this.
Although 'The Caravan to Nowhere', by Phyllis Eisenstein, is exceptionally episodic, it is still engaging and worth the read.
The accolade of 'worst entry in the book' goes to 'The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives' by Lisa Tuttle. This is so poor on so many levels that I can't even waste the time to vent my ire.
'How the Marquis Got His Coat Back', by Neil Garman is what you'd expect from such a well respected author; it's engaging and rich in detail and left me wanting more.
'Now Showing', by Connie Willis, gets a mention because, despite it being a proper short story, it's such a thin plot as to be boring. It seems to have been written for teenaged girls who are having a break from watching their 'Twilight' DVDs.
The penultimate story in the book is 'The Lightning Tree' by Patrick Rothfuss. I just don't know what to think about this story as, although it is still just an episode, it is an engaging read. The problem is that the main character, Bast , has some repulsive traits, not least using his powers to seduce every woman to whom he takes a fancy. There are also some quite disturbing elements in the concept of Bast, an adult, using his powers mainly to interact with young children and influence their actions.
And so to the 'bookend' stories. The first story in the book is 'Tough Times All over' by the hugely popular Joe Abercrombie. This is, clearly, intended to get the book off to a good start and, indeed, it does. An episode that sets his character, Carcolf, in the fantasy world that Abercrombie used in his superb 'First Law' series, this is a first rate story. Yet, for me, it had the opposite effect to that intended because this story had only recently appeared in Joe Abercrombie's own collection of 'out-takes', 'Sharp Ends' and I had read this story only a short while ago. A classic example of publishers seeking to claw in added revenue by bringing snippets form their authors together into collections. So I just skipped this story.
That brings us the real meat; the final story in the book by George RR Martin; the only thing justifying the grand dust cover. I've loved GRR Martin's work for many years and, having read, avidly, all of the 'Song of Ice & Fire' series penned to date, was thrilled when, as 'A Game of Thrones' the TV series drew so many more to Mr Martin's brilliance. But this isn't written like any of the other chapters in 'Ice & Fire'. They are written as a third person narrative whereas this story, presented as the recordings of a Meister, are more of a report format and, as such, are far less engaging. Many who have either read the novels or watched the TV series have complained of the complexity of the dynastic structure of the Houses used throughout; a silly complaint really as it is that depth of detail that enriches the whole series so. Yet this story just about proves the point of those dissenters. This is simply a chronicle of 'who's who' in the fantasy world created by GRRM before the main story in 'Ice & Fire' begins. It's like a family tree set into words. Indeed, my guess is that that is exactly what it is; when asked to come up with an entry for this book, I can just imagine GRRM pulling out one of his 'back-story' lineage charts and shaping some text around that. As such, it is hugely complex, confusing and not terribly interesting or engaging. If anything was intended to turn of 'newbies' from reading GRR Martin, this is it. I felt as though I should sit a test after reading this.
So there it is. For me, the 'blockbuster' first and last stories failed to engage and the remainder are a moderately interesting bunch with a few high spots and a few real duds. Reading this was more of a chore than enjoyment. If I had my choice again, I just wouldn't bother.