I’m pretty much a novice when it comes to short fiction. Because of my lack of experience in this area, I hope that you will bear with me as I try to provide a thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of The Solaris Book of New Fantasy, even if I don’t always succeed. The plan is to first look at each short story individually providing synopses and commentary, followed by my evaluation of the compilation as a whole. So, let’s look at the stories:
1) “Who Slays the Gyant, Wounds the Beast” by Mark Chadbourn. On Christmas Eve in the year 1598 in a world where England is at war against the Faerie, England’s greatest spy Will Swyfte is on a mission of the greatest import — he has until dawn to prevent the Faerie Queen from crossing over to the other side. If he doesn’t, then the Unseelie Court will gain access to valuable secrets that will turn the tide of the war in favor of the Faerie. Success or failure depends on what’s stronger: love or duty to one’s country. I really liked this one. It was vaguely reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but more thrilling, and I thought it was an excellent way to open the anthology.
2) “Reins of Destiny” by Janny Wurts. This one was a bit different. Rather than reading like a short, it felt more like a prologue or preview of a much larger story and world. This makes sense though because at the beginning, the tale is designated as story about The Wars of Light and Shadow — her huge fantasy epic. Since I haven’t read any of Ms. Wurts’ work, I admittedly found the short story a bit confusing at times and the writing style a little jarring. However, I was definitely intrigued by the world, the cultures, and the mythology hinted at and I hope to one day experience this universe in fuller detail.
3) “Tornado of Sparks” by James Maxey. Having read Bitterwood, I probably enjoyed this short more than I would have if this had been my first exposure to Mr. Maxey. After all, “Tornado of Sparks” is essentially a prequel to Bitterwood and features a number of familiar characters including Vendevorex, Albekizan, the hunter Zanzeroth, and the human Jandra as the tale recounts how Vendevorex first became the king’s wizard. For me personally, the short was very rewarding because Vendevorex was a favorite of mine from Bitterwood, but the story’s accessibility should also appeal to readers new to the author.
4) “Grander than the Sea” by T.A. Pratt. Like the previous short, it was easy for me to dive into this story because I was already familiar with Marla Mason and her assistant Rondeau having enjoyed their adventures in the novel Blood Engines. This little tale takes place in Felport — the city that is Ms. Mason’s duty to protect as the Chief Sorcerer — and deals with a criminally insane sorcerer who wants to “raise a dark god from the sea and destroy all human life.” Factor in human sacrifice, doppelganger spirits, homunculi, and Mr. Pratt’s idiosyncratic humor and what you have is a crazily fun, amusing and engaging urban fantasy treat.
5) “The Prince of End Times” by Hal Duncan. Writer Catherynne M. Valente was once accused of “passing off prose-poems as fiction.” That’s what I kept thinking of when reading Mr. Duncan’s short. While the story is beautifully written and wonderfully surreal, the actual plot, what little there is, is pretty hard to follow. About all I could really understand was that it was set in the same universe as the author’s novels Vellum and Ink and that it had something to do with lightprinces, darkartists, and murder. As challenging as the story was though, I have to admit that I loved its language and plan on re-reading the short a couple of times more to further savor the dreamlike experience.
6) “King Tales” by Jeff VanderMeer. It seems like everywhere I look I see Jeff VanderMeer’s name, but strangely, I’ve never actually read anything by the writer/editor apart from his blog and a few articles. So I was pretty excited to check out “Kings Tales” and was surprised when it turned out to be a collection of three short fairy tales about talking bears, cats, and birds that would fit seamlessly in any children’s book. While it wasn’t quite what I was expecting from Mr. VanderMeer, the short was nevertheless delightful and humorous and I hope to discover more of the author’s writings.
7) “In Between Dreams” by Christopher Barzak. I’ve been hearing a lot of great things about Mr. Barzak’s debut novel “One For Sorrow” and his short story definitely lives up to the hype. Elegantly told in the first-person, “In Between Dreams” stars Ai, a Japanese girl working in Tokyo cleaning the apartments of ‘the dreaming man.’ How Ai came to this point in her life, what she’s searching for and who ‘the dreaming man’ is, are all part of the mystery that gracefully unfolds, which includes ghosts, spirits, and a journey of self-discovery and love… Poignant and magical, “In Between Dreams” was a wonderful read…
8) “And Such Small Deer” by Chris Roberson. Like his novel Set the Seas on Fire, Mr. Roberson’s short is a superb blend of historical and speculative fiction that also pays homage to classic literature. For this story the setting is Northern Sumatra in the early 1860s; the characters are doctors Abraham Van Helsing and Francis Arnaud Moreau — narrative alternates between Van Helsing’s journal entries and Francis’ letters; and the plot plays around with evolution, nature and monsters… While this is only the second piece I’ve ever read by the author, I’m extremely impressed by Mr. Roberson and I can’t wait to get started on his next novel The Dragon’s Nine Sons.
9) “The Wizard’s Coming” by Juliet E. McKenna. Set in the world of Einarinn which is the backdrop for Ms. McKenna’s series The Tales of Einarinn, “The Wizard’s Coming” reminded me of Robin Hobb’s Farseer novels because of the conflict between the Caladhrian lords and the coastal raiders of Aldabreshi. Despite the familiarity, the short shines with its lively sword-and-sorcery action, unexpectedly high body count, surprising twists and a cliffhanger that leaves you wanting more. A great introduction to the author, Juliet E. McKenna is now firmly on my “To Read” list.
10) “Shell Game” by Mike Resnick. Dubbed a John Justin Mallory Story, you could probably file “Shell Game” under the urban fantasy genre as it features a detective who lives in a contemporary world populated by demons, leprechauns, gremlins, elves, cat-people, et cetera. This particular tale — apparently there are many — finds Mallory, partner Winnifred, and their catgirl Felina searching for the world’s last lamia egg which was stolen…from the one who stole it in the first place. Addictively comical and loaded with great characters and banter, “Shell Game” is tons of fun!
11) “The Song Her Heart Sang” by Steven Savile. Lukas Mey is in love. Unfortunately, men in love don’t always make the brightest decisions which Lukas learns firsthand when a miracle gift becomes instead a curse. To right the wrong, Lukas sets out on a fool’s quest into the haunted remnants of Sahnglain in search of a fabled treasure that would win back Lili’s heart. What he finds there is much more than he ever bargained for… Blending elements of romance, horror and fantasy, “The Song Her Heart Sang” was a bittersweet love story that stayed with me long after I finished reading it…
12) “A Man Falls” by Jay Lake. Through the eyes of Peleppos, a Prince of the Law, we’re introduced to an intriguing world where day is ruled by the terrifying Teratornis and their riders, and night is a sanctuary for the denizens of the Wheeled City. Ridiculed by his betters, the boy prince sets out on his own to form an alliance between the two peoples, and instead discovers a shocking secret… As an author of over 200 published short stories, you get the feeling that this wasn’t one of Mr. Lake’s better efforts. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this short.
13) “O Caritas” by Conrad Williams. Not too long ago I read my first Conrad Williams story and was thoroughly impressed with “The Scalding Rooms” novella. One of the reasons I was anticipating this anthology was because of the author’s inclusion and thankfully I wasn’t disappointed. Embodying elements of Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker with the title taken from a Cat Stevens song, “O Caritas” vividly paints a post-apocalyptic London where an earthquake has created a catastrophic breach between a hidden underworld and the Top. Eloquently composed and atmospherically rich, this short strongly affirms that Mr. Williams is one of the best unknown writers out there today.
14) “Lt. Privet’s Love Song” by Scott Thomas. As the younger brother of Jeffrey Thomas whose writings are noticeably influenced by Lovecraft, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Mr. Thomas and was pleasantly surprised by his story. In a familiar setting that recalls 18th century Britain — apart from the magic users and the extraordinary number of twins — Mr. Thomas’ tale starts out innocently enough with Lt. Privet purchasing a love potion from the Deerfield Sisters in order to make the innkeeper’s daughter fall in love with him. As one might expect, thing don’t work out as planned and before you know it Lt. Privet has been challenged to a sword duel to the death by the finest swordsman in the King’s fleet! Throw in a mysterious red ship that shoots invisible cannon and a plot to assassin the King’ heir, and you can see why this short was one of my favorites.
15) “Chinandega” by Lucius Shepard. Chinandega is an actual town in Nicaragua. How accurately Chinandega is depicted in the short I’m not sure, but for the story it is described as “hot and vile and soulless.” Regardless of its bad reputation, Alvaro Miguez of Mayan descent must go there to rescue his sister Palmira who now lives as a prostitute. Once there he will come face-to-face with the mystical Recluse, the divine Queen of Whores and a truth that will forever change him… More of a contemporary tale sprinkled with a dash of mythology and the spiritual, “Chinandega” was a compelling introduction to another author I had never heard of before.
16) “Quashie Trapp Blacklight” by Steven Erikson. Closing out the anthology in style is a wild tale about a whore, an Irishman, a hairless cat with an Aristotelian outlook, a tarantula spy with x-ray vision, an elephant, the last Bhudo priest, a hungry bushman, and servants of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, all of whom — through a series of inane circumstances including a hurricane — converge on the British Honduras circa 1789, in hilarious fashion. As a huge fan of Steven Erikson I admit that I was a little disappointed that the story wasn’t set in his popular Malazan universe, but there’s no denying how much fun it was to read this short and you have to give the guy an A+ for his sheer outrageousness.
Well there you have it! Sixteen short stories and sixteen overviews. I actually ended up liking each short, which was a nice surprise though obviously there were stories that I personally enjoyed more than others like “Shell Game,” “The Song Her Heart Sang,” “In Between Dreams,” “Who Slays the Gyant, Wounds the Beast,” “Lt. Privet’s Love Song,” “Quashie Trapp Blacklight,”and “Grander than the Sea.”
As far as the anthology as a whole, my heartfelt thanks go out to the editor George Mann, Mark Newton and everyone who was involved in putting the book together. Not only does the compilation masterfully celebrate the rich diversity of the fantasy genre, it also showcases a wonderful array of writers, both new and established, who deserve a much larger audience. In fact, the best part of the anthology I thought was its excellent selection of authors who probably don’t get enough credit and I was grateful for the opportunity to meet writers I had never heard of or was only familiar with by reputation. So in the end, no matter what kind of a fantasy reader you are, I believe there’s something in The Solaris Book of New Fantasy for everyone and I hope that Solaris will continue producing these anthologies for years to come.