RogerBW's Blog

Fearsome Journeys 28 July 2014

Fantasy anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan. Twelve new stories that "encompass as wide a range of types of fantasy story as possible". Nominated for Best Editor (Short Form).

That's a demanding brief, especially in only twelve pieces, and the book inevitably falls short. Strahan claims in the introduction that he aimed to range "from 'traditional fantasy' to 'military fantasy' to quirky, strange tales of the impossible"; he cites the breadth of Fritz Leiber's work, including things like Smoke Ghost and Space-Time for Springers as well as the better-known tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Really, that's not even slightly what we get here. There's quite a bit of military fantasy with attached grimness, plenty more grimness in a non-military context, but barely anything with a light touch or a sense of fun, and certainly nothing that strays out of sight of the safe tropes of a generic fantasyland. The farthest we get are Ellen Klages' Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl, which is highly enjoyable but relies for its punchline on the reader being neither fluent in Greek nor familiar with the etymology of a certain common word, and Ellen Kushner's and Ysabeau S. Wilce's One Last, Great Adventure, which while predictable in its course does at least have an ageing great-thewed hero who's reasonably satisfied with his life (what contrast with K. J. Parker's The Dragonslayer of Merebarton, which is exactly as dark as one would expect from Parker).

There are no lost empires of sufficiently advanced technology here, no decadent and dying elder peoples, just men and women with swords and/or magic in vaguely mediƦval sorts of world (admittedly not always European) who do heroic stuff. But, worse, the tone is all too fixed: too often, grim humourless people doing grim humourless things. There's also a tendency not at all unique to this anthology to cut off early rather than putting the author to the trouble of writing a conclusion (Robert V. S. Redick's Forever People being a particular offender).

If this anthology were representative of the full breadth of the field, I'd worry for the field; but I know it isn't. Apart from anything else I've recently read plenty of short stories, both directly nominated and submitted for the other Best Editor nominees, which would have been significantly better fits for the goal Strahan set himself. Really, just take two or three at random from Ellen Datlow's pack and you'd hugely expand the breadth. In the specific context of evaluating the skills of the editor, therefore, I must consider it a failure: he didn't meet his stated goal. Apart from that, would I be happy if I'd bought it? Probably not; there are some good stories (apart from the ones I've mentioned, Scott Lynch's The Effigy Engine: A Tale of the Red Hats has a sense of humour among the grimness, and Elizabeth Bear's The Ghost Makers has an intriguing world and plenty to say), but there's a lot of dross between the relatively few enjoyable pieces.

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