Blood by Roddy Doyle
Doyle’s story is a tragicomic tale of vampirism; it’s played, in some ways, campily, and in others, horrifically, as a self-declared (and repeatedly re-assertedly) ordinary man has increasing cravings for blood. It’s an odd, strange little story, without really much substance or power to it; on the other hand as a piece of light and fun entertainment, it’s a decent piece.
Fossil-Figures by Joyce Carol Oates
Oates’ story is a slow disturbing one; quite an odd concept, the E. Waldman twins are a pair of opposites, explicitly invoked as complementary throughout the story. The whole thing is quite macabre and gruesome, with no real character for either of the twins ever created beyond a very, very simplistic two-dimensional pseudo-character enough to drive the story and create a motivation; but the gothic horror of the story offsets this, to make it, if not satisfying, at least not bad.
Wildfire in Manhattan by Joanne Harris
Harris’ story hits all the right buttons here; the combination of Norse mythology, a powerful sense of fun, suspense and horror, whimsy and laughter, danger and joy together really do work to make this a great story. The characters – Lucky, Brendan, Arthur and Sunny – are fun, with Lucky an abnormal portrayal in modern culture; and they’re also real people, in the ways that matter. This is a really fantastic, fun story.
The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s is, unsurprisingly, another fantastic entry into this anthology; a folkloric Scottish clan tale, it has strong characters (MacInnes and the nameless narrator) and a compelling narrative and mysterious element; some parts of the plot are held in reserve by Gaiman right up to the conclusion, though foreshadowed at the start, and the whole story takes on a very different feel after you finish it. A really fantastic piece of work.
Unbelief by Michael Marshall Smith
Smith’s story is a really quite odd one; quite fun, not terribly insightful (once more we see the conventional psychopath portrayed, without any more depth). The build up, without any real suspense – the course the story must take is obvious – and the characters really should leave this as a simple bit of fluff, but Smith’s writing style and poignant, dramatic ending give it some emotional resonance that really does work well. An odd piece of work.
The Stars Are Falling by Joe R. Lansdale
Lansdale’s story is… surprisingly poignant, in its way. Whilst it has his usual concern with sex, the gore is generally missing, and the viscera has almost totally vanished (which given the settings, is really surprising). The characters are well-written and fleshed out effectively into real people with real motivations, and the reader can see the necessary outcome with horror even as the characters themselves fail to do so; it’s a dark, strange and disturbing, but quite brilliant, and very serious, story.
Juvenal Nyx by Walter Mosley
Mosley’s story of vampirism is not, by any means, a strong story; indeed, I would argue it is quite weak – the sexualised element, the hopelessly romantic element, the oh-so-sad-and-limited humans, the pointless emoting, are all so overdone and overblown simultaneously that it really loses any emotional punch it might have attempted to have; it’s a clichéd, poorly-written story with very simplistic, poor characterisation.
The Knife by Richard Adams
Adams’ story is short, which is something to be grateful for; so substanceless as to be pointless, it attempts to add depth to a story with basically no weight of any kind (it substitutes telling for showing throughout, and appallingly so) with a question that attempts to make you think without really doing so at its end, and the whole thing is just so characterless and substance-free as to feel boring.
Weights and Measures by Jodi Picoult
Picoult is not known for having a light touch, emotionally, and this story demonstrates that quality quite strongly; however, Abe and Sarah are powerful characters, and reading this story did make me choke up on more than a couple of occasions. The plot is quite neat – not massively strong, but interesting, at least, and the emotional punch as we see more and more backstory and more of the characters is incredibly powerfully played, undermined only slightly by a few occasional, and minor, inconsistencies.
Goblin Lake by Michael Swanwick
Swanwick’s story is about characters in a story, and the odd differences between story and life (not universal ones – there are a number of books, for instance, wherein characters read, not least Among Others). Goblin Lake works really well by subverting expectations and referencing other fictions, so that it really does become meta-fiction: fiction about fiction, and thoughtful, with interesting (if intentionally archetypal) characters to drive it along well. Swanwick’s is a truly fantastic, and very thoughtful, story.
Mallon the Guru by Peter Straub
Straub’s story is odd; I have mixed feelings about it, because whilst the strange, and unexplained, element of fantastika is brilliantly played, the lack of clarity and the nebulous beginning and ending of the story make me feel like this is little more than an excerpt from a longer piece than a self-contained story; if that was what Straub was aiming for, he’s got it perfectly, but otherwise this feels unfinished, incomplete, and therefore flawed…
Catch and Release by Lawrence Block
Block’s story is by far the most sinister of the collection so far; brilliantly written, the nameless main character (really, sole character, though other people intersect briefly with him) is a deeply strange personality, powerfully effective and with a series of subversions of expectation – each one scarringly well done, creating a really unsettling, disturbing story that gives one a prickle of fear as we finish the story. Utterly devastating in its skilful execution.
Polka Dots and Moonbeam by Jeffrey Ford
Ford’s story is a fun one; there’s layers of meaning in there that I freely admit to missing – I think they’re cultural references I’ve not got the background to get – but there are great characters, Ade and Dex especially although all the others too; and the odd, slightly whimsical, very fantastical, nature of the story’s setting also works effectively, with the strange events well-written and well-styled. A fun, interesting piece.
Loser by Chuck Palahniuk
Palahniuk’s story is a really chaotic, strange one; written as if on drugs, it really does read like some chaotic and senseless imaginings. The pop-culture references and gameshow settings simply date the piece, the rape-joke at the start of the story sets it off to a bad start, and the way its structured and the characterlessness of the whole thing makes it not unreadable, but uninteresting, which is much worse. A real trial to get through.
Samantha’s Diary by Diana Wynne Jones
Jones’ Christmas story is quite hilariously brilliant; by turns romantic, silly and serious, the combination of tradition and science-fictional concept, as well as the realisation of a Christmas carol, all combine to really drive home some points about how silly certain romantic notions are. The characters are well written – although Samantha is not likeable at all – and the whole story trundles along beautifully. A really fun piece.
Land of the Lost by Stewart O’Nan
O’Nan’s story is somewhat unsettling, a really good demonstration of how obsession can completely change a person. Well-written and developing in a realistic, powerful and inevitable way, the character development and the trajectory of the story power on to a finish that packs a strong punch; the writing style keeps things from getting too bogged down on one detail or another, but we really do get a picture of the character at the centre of this really well.
Leif in the Wind by Gene Wolfe
This is not, despite the title, a Norse fantasy; it is instead a strange, poignant, disturbing and beautiful piece of science fiction – with Lovecraftian elements. The characters are disturbing, in their way – their approach to human life and to each other is not quite right, because of their environment; and the powerful descriptive elements of the story are just beautiful and prosaic as any saga. Indeed, Wolfe’s style animates a story that otherwise might founder on its own concept, but instead rises phoenix-like and flies, powerful and unsettling, into the heart and mind of the reader.
Unwell by Carolyn Parkhurst
Parkhurst’s story really does seem quite odd; there are a number of points at which the characterisations and styles seem to be very much pastiche, others at which they are contradictory, and we’re asked to believe some incredible things; about people, and about events. The whole thing really does fall apart, especially because of a couple of stylistic tics that really drive home the utter unreality of the whole story.
A Life in Fiction by Kat Howard
This is another story similar to Goblin Lake: a story about, in some sense, stories, although in this case more about writing and the art of writing. As a first piece, it seems odd, since it involves some ideas that tend to come out in interviews with established, rather than new, authors; but the powerful strangeness of it, the fantastical nature, the stylistic simplicity, and the credulity of the story as to its events all keep the reader very interested; a powerful, and interesting, meta-story.
Let the Past Begin by Jonathan Carroll
This story is quite an odd one; a well written, culturally distinct story that has elements of horror and of “literary fiction”. The characters are powerfully communicated, and the darker side of the story is an undercurrent even in seemingly lighter moments; as we have further and further revelations of the more supernatural and strange elements of the story, and as events continue, Carroll draws us into his tale masterfully. This is one of the better literaryish stories here.
The Therapist by Jeffrey Deaver
Deaver’s over-long story is not blessed with a surfeit of virtues; whilst the main characters are strongly developed over its 40 pages, the nature of the story is quite appalling, what with its lack of research into the nature of psychology, its rather obvious “twists”, and its confusion about what’s going on. Deaver’s style is florid and purple without any real sense, and the general flow of the story is quite poor… a really bad showing here.
Parallel Lines
by Tim Powers
This strange story is well-written and stylishly executed, with the implied development of BeeVee through the background of the story; the twists and turns of the story are quite brilliantly dealt with as the plot slowly develops, in a mixture of more and less tragic ways. The characters of Caroleen and Amber are powerfully developed, but backgrounded by the absent BeeVee, and Powers’ use of the supernatural is effective to create a great story.
The Cult of the Nose by Al Sarrantino
Sarrantino’s story is a story that sets itself up as, and continues for its bulk to be, amusingly whimsical and silly, but with disturbing elements, which at the last moments sheds all whimsy and amusement. The fact that Sarrantino executes this complete reversal so perfectly and expertly, whilst not contradicting or changing what has gone before, whilst developing the characters and plot further yet than they had gone, is what makes it so effective and brilliant; a stunning dénouement.
Human Intelligence by Kurt Anderson
Anderson’s story is a mixed one; whilst the main character, Nicholas, is written not appallingly, he is also written far too humanly, and Nancy is a simply badly written character: her motivations and actions don’t match. The whole thing is really set up for a joke, and goes on too long, leaving some really interesting and fascinating concepts unexplored, in favour of playing out that joke; it is simply a waste of a great concept and brilliant potential.
Stories by Michael Moorcock
Moorcock’s story, about human relationships, about the art of writing, about the differences between genres, about, really, the British art-SF scene of a couple of decades ago (in a fictionalised way, though with reference to some very real writers), is well-written and fantastic; about all the sorts of things that literary fiction is about (sex, relationships, sex, midlife crises, sex, the middle classes, sex, with less sex), Moorcock adds a certain genre focus and turns the whole thing on its head brilliantly. A story that really rips down the boundaries, Stories seems to be the sort of thing this collection is all about.
The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon by Elizabeth Hand
Hand’s story is moving, indeed, heartbreaking, and powerfully well written. She displays a control of narrative and character that really does work to make this relatively simple tale all the more incredible. The lightly fantastical elements are brilliantly worked into the narrative so that they’re seamlessly integrated, and the references – such as to MST3K and a combined reference to the Star Trek reboot and to another anthologist – are worked in simply and neatly. A great piece of work.
The Devil on the Staircase by Joe Hill
This is the first story in the collection where layout and typography reflect the nature and events of the story; this slow-burn horror story is a fantastic fantasy where character, landscape and intolerance run into each other in a strange, powerful way to create a fable which doesn’t need to belabour its moral too strongly in order to convey it. The use of strong characters and a strange, half-mystical setting combine to really give this the sense of a timeless tale, although the ending grounds it firmly chronologically, and Hill’s story really does create a fine end to this collection whilst being by no means its strongest entry.
As an attempt to rehabilitate and blur the boundaries between genre fiction and literary fiction, this is a signal failure as an anthology; as a rule genre authors handle the genre elements well, literary authors either don't or ignore them entirely.  There's no coherence or cohesion to the stories, there's no commonality, and the quality is far too mixed.  Whilst some stories are truly outstanding - Swanwick and Moorcock deserve especial praise here - others are rather more mixed, and some are just downright bad. I would say, if you buy it, choose carefully what stories in Stories you choose to read...

Feet of Clay by Nina Allan
Allan’s story is quite a disturbing one; for a book about tolerance and anti-fascism, there’s more than a little fascistic overtone (fighting violence with violence, for a start) in this story and that really is odd. However, it’s a powerful one – in part through invocation of the Holocaust, and in part because it combines a number of emotional elements into one person – and one that has a mixed, uncomfortable ending which really can’t be quantified. An odd, poorly-chosen opening story, I think.
Volk by rj krijnen-kemp
krijnen-kemp’s slightly unsettling story, set apparently in Nazi Germany (a number of references give that sense), is a really strange horror story; it doesn’t seem to go anywhere, provide resolution or answers, or even make a huge amount of sense, but what it does do is seem to be a warning against… honestly, I’m not sure what, but apparently largely against challenging the status quo and the state (no, really). It’s got decent, though not terribly well-formed, characters, but otherwise, I don’t have much to say about it; it doesn’t seem to have enough substance to really critically discuss.
In The Arcade by Lisa Tuttle
This is a strange and powerful story; Tuttle’s is the first one that really puts something across, pushes a message. The strange setting, the increasing weirdness, the darkness of the story and the fantastical feel suddenly transformed at the reveal at the end of the tale all build into something that really does get the message across about the importance of seeing the Other as unreal in order to truly Other it; and about the necessity of seeing the Other as real people in order to truly hate it. A dark, strange story, not perfect but worth reading.
A Flowering Wound by John Howard
Howard’s story is another good one; set in a nebulous early 1930s Germany-style Romania, it sees the process of Othering and the difficulty it can create for those who know the Other as people (or indeed love the other). The darkness of the story, and the complete realism of it (there’s nothing truly science fictional or remotely fantastic here), add up to a powerful warning about the problems of the nationalist ideology and the racism that so often attaches to it, especially in personal terms. Howard’s is really moving story, despite some minor worldbuilding problems and stylistic issues that make it a little jarring at times.
Sense by Tony Richards
Richards’ story is quite a disturbing one; putting a Jewish protagonist in the position of the bystanders in 1933-9 Germany, but with a setting of near-future Britain, and the whole thing taking on very clearly the structure of a Niemöller poem. Richards makes this work effectively and believably (though why he chose to use the NBP rather than be honest and say BNP is beyond me), and the creeping fascism of the story is, whilst obvious to the reader – especially one with my politics – not so clear to our protagonist, with the ending not so much a twist as an inevitability. Blunt and well-written, this is a outstanding (and uncomfortable) story.
In On The Tide by Alison Littlewood
Littlewood’s story is a strong one; not remotely fantastika, but a powerfully resonant story, with its Scottish setting, its simplicity, and its underlying bleak darkness. The character of Dan is trapped between two worlds, two factions, and it’s a moving story – as he tries to make the right choice, and fails, again, and again. It’s got some really powerful, resonant moments, and has some dark truths about segregation and integration, adding up to a disturbing tale; a blow against racism, hard struck.
Decision by R. B. Russell
This is an odd, unresolved story; personally, I’m not quite sure that I or Russell was quite certain where it was going or where it needed to end up, and the characters all fall a bit flat, in part because of the lack of resolution and in part because we never really get to know them at all. It’s a simple and plain story, and the ending just throws in some basic “look! Fascism!” imagery without really tying it into the main story or making sense of anything; this is something that really, really doesn’t achieve anything.
South of Autumn by Mat Joiner
Joiner’s urban fantasy story of a post-dystopian society and the power of the lasting scars of fascism – both on its obvious victims and its perpetrators – is powerful and moving; the character of Tadeusz is well-written and shows a conflicted, confused personality. The slow introduction of the supernatural is handled well, and subtly, with some elements relatively obvious and others much more gently handled; either way, it’s a powerful story of reconstruction and the post-fascism process.
Survivor’s Guilt by Rosanne Rabinowitz
This 1930s story is a very good one; very gothic, in some ways, it’s also very political, steeped in the socialism and antifacism of the 1930s that fought Hitler and Franco. Rabinowitz creates a strong, nameless first-person narrator who is both passive and active, and a great viewpoint on the passion and politics of the period; there’s a little simplification in the story but there’s also a great deal of power and truth, and that gives it a little extra strength and wonder. One of the most enjoyable, strong and inciteful stories thus far.
Rediffusion by Rhys Hughes
The fact that Hughes is using the BBC and licence fee as his basis for a reductio ad absurdum for fascism is warning enough that this story is going to be silly and really politically untenable; that Hughes goes on to involve strange science fictional concepts, mock the idea of the BBC, and essentially view it as a purely fascistic enterprise, whilst his viewpoint character never really learns anything or develops as a character, whilst the silliness of the story fails to make any impact, makes me think that he doesn’t quite understand something essential – though what, I’m not quite sure. Overall, this is a really misplaced story, to my mind.
A Place for Feeding by Simon Kurt Unsworth
Unsworth’s story is really a feminist piece – it’s about societal control of women, after all – but with a far wider reach; the policing of women’s approach to motherhood is taken as the basis from which to jump to more absurd, active kinds of policing of that same thing, and by implication to other fascisms. Not fantastika by any means, Unsworth’s story is deeply disturbing on a visceral level – possibly because of the parent/child bond being brought into play – and strongly illustrative; an incredibly powerful story.
Night They Missed the Horror Show by Joe R. Lansdale
Once more, I read Lansdale and am disappointed; he is regarded as a leading light in certain genre circles, yet this story simply seems to showcase disregard for human life, an attitude that fighting racism – for whatever motive, however base – is futile, a glory in brutality and baseness, and an ugliness like nothing else I’ve read. The storytelling is basic and simple, the moral an entirely negative one, the image of people two-dimensional and starkly appalling, and the “humour” in worse taste. This story just seems… on every level, wrong, and not in a good, or useful, way.
Ghost Jail by Kaaron Warren
Warren’s story is clearly a horror story, but I’m not wholly sure who for; we’re seeing two sides of a coin, suppression of free speech and interfering in a native culture here, so that the proper liberal response is confusion. Either way, Warren’s created a disturbing, horrifying tale of repression of speech and of dark purpose that has strong characters and an interesting core concept; it’s disturbing, and enticing, and rings true despite its fantastical nature. A really fantastic tale.
The Torturer by Steve Duffy
Duffy’s story is quite a disturbing one; it’s a karmic tale and, in some senses, a fairy story – the torturer is not a nice man in his life (dictatorial, casually cruel to his wife and family) and is tortured himself in his sleep. That this rings untrue does not detract from the tale itself, which does manage to create a claustrophobic horror and a darkness that penetrates to the heart of the nameless torturer we follow; but it does strip away some of the verisimilitude, replacing it with wishful thinking.
Methods of Confinement by Gary McMahon
McMahon’s story is of the smash-the-system variety, taking it as read that the world we live in is already fascistic and thus violence is the only appropriate response. As such it’s deeply disturbing in its sympathy for a sociopathic act of violence against an individual, but as a story it does work well, if you can overlook that – the problem is that the elephant in the room is larger than the room for most readers; McMahon’s attempt to justify and make sympathetic David’s actions simply don’t work against the nature of those actions. A very mixed, bluntly political story that goes straight for the extremes without thinking first.
Damned If You Don’t by Robert Shearman
Slow, creeping evil… Shearman’s story is deeply disturbing, about the way that a man can, by his choices, become evil, but also about how what happens to one influences those choices; we’re made by the world around us, and we can be made evil. It’s a dark, horrific tale, also looking at the inversion of hatred – if a group hates another group, that hate becomes reciprocal, and then what? – and a really strange one, especially for dog lovers. One of the most effective tales so far in this collection, I think.
Machine by Carole Johnstone
Johnstone’s story is reminiscent of The Wave, insofar as it’s about being caught up in the moment, about recreations of fascism and explorations of it getting out of hand; it also recalls a scene from History Boys, a discussion of the idea of school trips to Auschwitz and Belsen. Johnstone handles a difficult and touchy subject decently, giving rise to seriously disturbing and awful imagery and horrors in an effective (though perhaps somewhat unfocused and messy) manner; playing with fascism is not to be taken lightly, and Johnstone’s story does not do so, handling the idea reasonably well.
After the Ape by Stephen Volk
This story, the aftermath of King Kong, is a powerful, emotional, moving one; a blast against all kinds of things, it highlights the tragedy of lost love, of a world that refuses to understand, of an isolation. It’s a beautiful, painful story to read, despairing and raging all at once, attacking humanity as more beastly than the animals; and it makes its point strongly and well with one of the most well-known cultural stories around. Volk’s is a really brilliant inclusion.
s War by David Sutton
Sutton’s story is a tale, perhaps supernatural, perhaps not, of a soldier’s guilt – oddly, the greater evil appears to go unpunished, here. It’s a disturbing, painful and moving story, as we follow Zulu’s flashbacks into their inevitable conclusion, and as we see the effects his actions have on him; illustrative of the problems of the soldier, it also seems to be stripping away any possible defence – Zulu himself cannot defend his actions, or does not, which seems a little strange. A climax not satisfying, but effective, serves to make this a good anti-war story.
Death of Dreams by Thana Niveau
Niveau’s story is a really horrific one, a dystopia that is all too believable in many ways – the press attention, the government project gotten out of hand, the misinterpretation and tabloid-baiting politicians. The effects on Leann, and her child, are also all too believable; a self-fulfilling prophecy brought about by pressure and the evils of the pervasive media, this is not a warning about fascism as we usually understand it (clamping down on freedom) but about how it is slowly creeping into existence (clamping down on privacy, especially by the press); a timely, and effective, warning.
Beyond Each Blue Horizon by Andrew Hook
Hook’s story slowly builds its strange horror up, focused on Ludio and his obsession with Khali in the midst of an election going on around him. The power and strangeness of the government and its actions are played up into something fantastical by Hook, and its effects on even a foreign student is demonstrated through this strangeness; and the importance of engagement and resistance is played up and argued for. Hook’s writing makes this very believable and powerful.
The Depths by Ramsey Campbell
Campbell’s story is about, as far as I can tell, the way we treat criminals and dehumanise them, and what this does to us; the societal idea of scapegoating, an evil practice when applied to members of the society, is given literal and powerful psychic form and there’s a serious darkness implicit in this story. Campbell also leaves much to the imagination, powerfully so, meaning that nightmares Miles suffers are those we insert ourselves; and of course, Miles is a damaged, frightened character perfect for channelling all this through.  Some really excellent elements and some much more mixed, giving an overall positive impression at the end.
Malachi by Simon Bestwick
Bestwick’s story – set in the UK, in an alternate near-past – is a moving one; the uplifting (of a sort) end, to which there is a build up and explosion into, is powerfully and emotionally drawn, and the dark (though perhaps now unrealistic) emotions and feelings implied by the story (and its BNP-alike party) are portrayed starkly, with ghettos and the sort of social restratification we know happens within them. A very strong closing story, and an inspiring one.
Given the worthy cause this anthology is raising money for, and the fact that it is raising awareness of some major issues in this country (especially with the rise of the EDL), I would like to be able to give it a really good review.  However, the fact is that it is clumsy, heavy-handed and a very mixed selection; whilst a minority of stories are really excellent, many seem to lack focus or coherence, and some are simply far too blunt and obvious about being message-stories rather than stories first and message second.  A really, really flawed anthology, to my mind, and sadly so; hardly the literary Rock Against Racism it sells itself as.
Slow as a Bullet by Andy Duncan
Duncan’s story is quite brilliant; I have no idea how to categorise it, and it’s got some lovely characters – Cliffert and our nameless narrator being the only two we really know, but they’re done vividly and well – and the plot is strange and a nice mix of deeply serious and deeply funny. Duncan’s got a somewhat whimsical idea and gone even further into whimsy, but there’s a hard edge in there, too; this strange story is beautiful and brilliant.
Tidal Forces by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Again we’re confronted with a hard-to-categorise story; sitting somewhere in the interstitial between science fiction, fantasy and romance, Kiernan’s beautiful, powerful tale works on a number of different levels. The characters are powerful and the strange, jumpy, non-linear narrative style lends a strange power to the story; it’s a story, in some ways, about stories, and a very effective and interesting one, well-written and creative, diving into the gaps and playing with them powerfully and beautifully. Moving stuff.
The Beancounter’s Cat by Damien Broderick
This story is a slightly mixed one (the message at the end is one that I really despise, in some ways…); the characters are well-written, the science fictional setting imaginative, innovative, strange and weird but believable, the mysticism that imbues the story with a sheen of fantasy slowly stripped away as the whole thing moves further from the simplicity of the beancounter’s cat. Broderick’s story works well, and powerfully, but its message has two parts and, for this reader, one dilutes the other, casting a slight pall over an otherwise excellent work.
Story Kit by Kij Johnson
Johnson’s (very, very meta) story is a really deeply interesting and moving one both about process and about pain. It brings in passages from a number of short stories (not, I think, real ones) and focuses on the author and on the Aeneid, or rather on Dido, and in that there’s the heart of the story; it’s about loss, and about an author working through that loss, about the author’s response to it. It’s a strange, affecting, weird story (that requires a decent amount of classical knowledge to really get the intricacy of) and its interstitiality really fits this collection.
The Man in Grey by Michael Swanwick
Again this is an oddly interstitial story (I think we can take that as read hereon in unless I say otherwise…), and a rather wonderful one; Swanwick’s philosophical take on solipsism is a strange, and unusual, story that really does place huge emphasis on free will and the uniqueness of mankind, but also on the question of why things happen and how we should respond to them; Swanwick’s managed to create a powerful, interesting story with an amazing force behind it to make the reader think about reality and what is.
Old Habits by Nalo Hopkinson
This is a very up-front, honest ghost story… and yet it’s still creepier than any other ghost story I have ever read. That’s because it manages to mingle together some powerfully dark elements of the human mind with some really interesting, new ideas in a ghost story; the prey of ghosts is not humans, but even more disturbing in some ways, and the creepiness of the story is enhanced by characters like Baby Boo, and the emotionally resonant, appalling ending. A really creepy, spooky story.
The Vicar of Mars by Gwyneth Jones
Jones’ story is quite an odd one; it’s about a priest, and shaken faith, and the power of nightmares. Science fictional to the core, and with some interesting religions and concepts at that, it has a whole universe behind it showing through quite clearly, but the focus of the story is on a single alien priest and an old woman, and it’s a powerful, interesting, disturbing story that really does push the bounds of science fiction with excellent characters and odd events mixed together in a new conjunction that has the power to frighten.
Fields of Gold by Rachel Swirsky
Swirsky’s story is another afterlife story, far less creepy but in its own way just as disturbing as Hopkinson’s; Fields of Gold posits an afterlife that is, at the same time, paradise and hell, in its ever-changing nature, in its blunt honesty. Dennis is a man-child (I’m not a huge fan of Swirsky’s portrayal of him, it seems a little… unfair, really; rather like the portrayal of Karen is too sympathetic, taking the sympathy that Melanie deserves, in some ways) and the arc of the story is one of revelation, discovery and, really, dematurity of Dennis, making him into that child (not emasculating him, but de-adulting him). A very, very mixed story, in my mind; strong and effective, but I’m not personally a fan.
Thought Experiment by Eileen Gunn
Gunn’s story, a science fictional masterpiece, is absolutely brilliant. The ending is a perfect twist, completely unexpected though foreshadowed throughout, and the main character – the slightly confused Drumm – is so innocent, and yet so intelligent and in some ways brilliant, as well as being relatable, that the story works perfectly. It’s an interesting thought experiment and idea, and a well-explored one, so that the whole thing works beautifully (if having a really weird set of implications…), leaving us with a thought-provoking, well written and interesting story.
The Double of My Double is Not My Double by Jeffrey Ford
Ford’s story is weird and fun; a semi-subversion of the idea of the doppelganger, it manages to be playful and serious at the same time, with really disturbing moments mixed with the poignant romance that intertwines with the events of the story. Ford’s tale is quite a fun and weird one, really not making a huge amount of sense if logically thought about rigorously but enjoyable and likeable, which is what, in this case, appears to be the intent; touching and humorous, with a little action thrown in for good measure.
Nine Oracles by Emma Bull
This one’s a simple, neat science fiction story, but not in a huge way; it’s about people – not what happens, but who it happens to. The titular oracles are nothing supernatural, on the surface of it – but they’re defined by relationships, common humanity, and a sort of shared nature. And I love every one of the nine; they’re beautifully written, similar and different, powerful, eliciting a variety of responses, wonderfully written and a slap in the face of those who think genre fiction can’t be character study. Because this is, in the best way possible.
Dying Young by Peter M. Ball
Ball’s Western story, with a very Western moral, is an interesting piece; a science fictional Western, albeit in a very (very) different mould to Firefly and its spawn. The characters are strong and well-written, with the clairvoyant and nameless narrator an interesting figure who undergoes serious development as the story goes on and the strange dual-morals of the story (one of which, in fact, is strongly reminiscent of Good Omens). This fun, rollicking and at the same time serious tale is a very nice and enjoyably piece.
The Panda Coin by Jo Walton
Walton’s story is quite nice, and very traditional, science fiction. The core concept is something that wouldn’t surprise the average reader of thrillers and spy novels, but the application to science fiction is done effectively, and allows Walton to let us see a variety of people’s lives and their daily doings; it gives us a cross-social view of the world that Walton has created, with snippets from the daily lives of a number of people, enough to have a little knowledge but still leave us wanting more. This is a setting on which a novel could be built, and a short story like this is perfect for giving us a glimpse into the worldbuilding behind it as well as creating a set of little, brief character interludes.
Tourists by James Patrick Kelly
Kelly's story is a strange, moving and powerful one; he manages to bring together themes of colonisation, human nature, romance and love, and it's a combination made stronger by the deft skill with which these themes are woven together.  The characters - Mariska and Elan especially - are well drawn, with those in the background demonstrating a far greater depth than can be fully shown in the appearances given to them, and they're sympathetic and interesting people with their own thoughts, minds and issues.  The whole thing really does create a beautiful and moving emotional odyssey.
Strahan's editing is among the best in the genre, based on this anthology; Eclipse 4 is a brilliant selection of different, strange stories showcasing some various talents of all kinds - science fiction, urban fantasy, horror and fantasy share space in a demonstration of the breadth of the genre and the different styles that its umbrella covers, as well as the various different foci that stories can have. I am now going to be seeking out Eclipses 1-3, and I recommend you all do too.
Malak by Peter Watts
This is quite an interesting and deeply unsettling story about the effect of giving military unmanned craft a “conscience” and autonomy, but with human override; Azrael is an interesting “character” (it’s an odd term to use, because Watts is careful to never allow Azrael true consciousness) and the story is strange and unusual, very well written and thought-provoking about cost/benefit analysis in conflict and the nature of war.
Watching the Music Dance by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Rusch is… a terrifying writer. This story is painful, emotionally wrenching, to read, because Suze and Nils are so powerfully written; and because it’s so immediate and painful, the impact of the mother on the child, and the father’s attempts to deal with it. Rusch creates a near-future which is horrifying in its plausibility, especially the no-supermen element, and the characters are so immediate; I finished this with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, and I suspect it would hit parents even harder. This is really powerful, and really strong.
Laika’s Ghost by Karl Schroeder
Schroeder’s story is a strange one, especially in a hard SF anthology (the Red Mars aspect of it – giving new meaning to the term, too – is unmistakable); imaginative, and with some wonderful characters and a near-future world no one would want to live in really, it’s a well-written and interesting story, but it does seem to break the science quite a lot. On the other hand it does also make an interesting tale, and one that is thought-provoking, so it is a good one, and a good piece of specfic.
The Invasion of Venus by Stephen Baxter
I quite like this one; it feels more like it belongs in Is Anybody Out There? in some respects, but it’s a good story, with fantastically explored implications (albeit not in the same direction I would have thought, but that’s part of what’s fascinating about it). It has a sense of the universe and humanity’s place in it, and it also has a lot of interesting discussion about intelligence and communication and futility; a thought-provoking, well-written story.
The Server and the Dragon by Hannu Rajaniemi
This is the first truly awesome story of the collection; Rajaniemi works on a scale and level way beyond that of any of the other authors so far. The idea of the server, the dragon, the baby universe and the events that happen within the story have so many implications and such a level of familiarity and strangeness that awe is the only appropriate reaction, and Rajaniemi really lets the story work on its own merits, and brilliantly so.
Bit Rot by Charles Stross
Stross’ story is a rather strange one; it mixes science fiction with scientific concepts in an easy and free manner, blending them together to the point that they are indistinguishable. This particular piece combines AI with zombies to come up with a brilliant horror story with unfolding strangeness; it’s a far-future story, akin to Rajaniemi’s, with space travel and interesting ideas (accurate science? I don’t know enough to say) but at most basic characterisation and a poor execution; the style doesn’t quite work, giving mixed results.
Creatures with Wings by Kathleen Ann Goonan
Goonan’s story feels like it should have a strong emotional punch, but it really, for me, doesn’t; it feels rather divorced from reality, with the character of Kyo somewhat strangely unsympathetic despite all attempts to make us empathise and connect with him. The plot of the story is equally odd, with religious meditations combining with psychophilosophical considerations to form a strange and semi-comprehensible whole that, unfortunately, really misses the mark…
Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone by Damien Broderick and Barbara Lamar
This is a seriously weird story that, to me at least, really is inexplicable and nonsensical; it seems to involve a lot of complicated quantum theory that resolves into chaos (or possibly devolves from order into ordure, as the main character would have it).Whilst the characters are relatively well-written, they too devolve into the chaotic and impenetrable final part of the story that really makes this a strange unreadable morass…
Mantis by Robert Reed
This feels less like science fiction and more like philosophy, but the near-future setting, brilliantly realised, gives us two sets of first-person viewpoints and narratives, linked, to follow; Reed manages to make the story work brilliantly, leaving questions hanging in the most fantastic way and making the characters, and the story, linger in the mind with the unfinished nature of at least one half of the narrative powerfully incorporated into the story. This is seriously cool.
Judgement Eve by John C. Wright
Paradise Lost meets The Evitable Conflict here, in Wright’s science fictional Miltonian story of justice and pride; it starts shakily but gains strength and momentum as it continues, building and building to an inevitable, powerful, brilliant confrontation that is written with great soul and humanity. Hard science fiction this is not, but it is thought-provoking, interesting, well-written, and what science fiction aspires to be: about what it is to be human.
A Soldier of the City by David Moles
This is a somewhat unusual story; Moles builds a science fictional culture and setting, and doesn’t really explain how or why it would (could, should) work. It seems to draw on things like the SG-1 prominence of ancient religions, and on mythology, with Ish as a well-written and interesting character, but the plot is a little disjointed and there’s not enough information there to understand the story properly; I’m left with very mixed feelings.
Mercies by Gregory Benford
Benford’s time-travel story is quite brilliant; combining quantum, serial killers, and futuristic technology, we have a story of justice and mercy brilliantly told with well-written and interesting characters, obviously focused on Warren but also bringing in serial killers and other characters from the future, in such a way that we have a really well-told conception of justice, and indeed, of inevitability; a really good story, with an unsettling moral.
The Ki-Anna by Gwyneth Jones
Jones’ story is a really good one; it’s a cultural, human exploration of some really odd, interesting themes that we see through the eyes both of a member of the culture and an outsider, a human. The story as a whole is interesting in its refusal of the liberal shibboleth of cultural liberalism whilst also being nonjudgemental – it’s an anthropologist’s story, and a crime story, and all in all, fascinating and thought-provoking reading.
The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees by John Barnes
I… like this story. It’s strange, and happy, and romantic, and sweet, and deeply scientific and geeky, and uses terms like panspermia, and synthesises all these disparate different elements into a cohesive and coherent whole with sympathetic, brilliant characters, a number of issues – including the autonomy and humanity of “humaniforms” (androids, ish) – treated, and an avoidance of a single “concept” as the basis of the story. Barnes’ story is a brilliant closer for this anthology.

I have to say that Strahan's made a slightly mixed selection here; there are some fantastic stories in here, and some far less good ones, but overall the quality was high and the majority of the stories were decently applied to the theme, but it did seem to be a little too scattershot at times, with some of the stories ending up just messy meditations rather than actual stories. A good, but not brilliant, selection.
Shedding Skin; Or How The World Came to Be by Jay Lake
This creation-story, mixing native American coyote-narrative to Genesis, is quite strange; told in such a way that it gives us something of a sense of a culture, the narrative voice shifts a little too much to make it work well, and the stock characters really don’t break out of that mould. However, Lake does make the story work quite well in its moral and its style; and the culture it evokes is interesting, if not entirely coherent.
The Jackdaw’s Wife by Blake Hutchins
This story really doesn’t know what it’s trying to do. The use of a traditional tale in the mode of Frankenstein (about not messing with what we don’t understand – the wrong moral of Shelley’s novel) is combined with anthropomorphic animals (how, exactly, can a jackdaw do engineering? It has no thumbs… and therefore no grip!) and steampunk/magic in a traditional feudal fantasy setting to create a generic, not-terribly-good mess of unoriginality and lack of creativity.
The Student and the Rats by Jess Nevins
This prequel to Frankenstein isn’t bad, though the heavy-handed moral it ends with I a little clichéd and not really inherent to the text; its take on the Prometheus-myth and its elegant stylings work effectively to create a scene and a sense, before going on to use that in a story that doesn’t really have characters but does have a plot, an archetypal one, and that is reasonably well-told.
The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar by Shweta Narayan (reread, first read in Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded)
Narayan’s story, on a repeat reading, still retains the mysticism and the beautiful Arabian Nights quality of the first read, but the complexity of the story – fables with a fable, stories with a story – and the beauty of the prose and imagery is even more powerful; Narayan’s style is a strong, interesting and compelling one that ensures that the message stays with the reader.
Kay’s Box by Marissa Lingen
Lingen’s story – like too many, a fable – is nicely told and sweet, but without any real substance; it’s a little too obvious, with the characters very basic and some very odd elements that don’t really seem to fit into the tale, but it does work reasonably, if imperfectly, to interest the reader and get them to pay a little attention.
Otto’s Elephant by Vincent Pendergast
This story is rather a nice subversion; we have stories within a story, which are fantastic and wonderful, and we have a trite and overdone moral to finish the tale (albeit for once not explicit); Otto is a good character, and the use of historical reality to create fictive steampunk scenarios is well done, but the story is let down by its overly telegraphed ending.
The Monkey and the Butterfly by Susannah Mandel
Mandel’s story is a rather odd one; whilst the style attempts a Victorian feel, it falls short of it and overreaches it in equal measure in different ways, and the characters are far too basic (the brutish British – a stereotype that appears alive and well) to serve the story that Mandel wants to tell, but there’s also a beauty in there, and a childlike sentiment (all the different animals getting along, the dogs courting a cat, all with their humans knowing). It left me unmoved, but not cold.
Message in a Bottle by James Maxey
Maxey’s story is a really strange one; it seems to combine real history – in space as much as anything else – with a strange Vernian science fiction of moon-travel. It’s a very mixed story – none of the characters really have a character – and a very odd concept, but fun, and decently executed in the worldbuilding department (though a little more description would have been nice at times).
The Clockwork Cat’s Escape by Gwynne Garfinkle
This is a short, simple piece; it’s nice and sweet, well-written, interesting, and moving. Garfinkle sets things up rapidly, and takes us through, in the space of a side and a half, to the conclusion of the story, in such a way that it packs in a huge amount. Nicely done.
The Wolf and the Schoolmaster by James L. Cambias
This one’s very nice; the steampunk elements are handled well, the message of the story is powerfully conveyed, the princess is a much more complex character than the reader expects, and Volka is absolutely brilliant. I’m not sure about the deeply anti-revolutionary message (actually, I am: I don’t like it) but overall, this is a well-written and fun story.
A Garden in Bloom by Genevieve Valentine
Valentine’s story is beautiful and brilliant; it’s evocative, powerful and very visual, with some wonderfully creative descriptions and ideas. The natural motifs are well-used and the level of description is stylish; similarly, the characters come through very well and neatly. The sting in the tale, and funny, unexpected ending are incredible, however, above and beyond the rest of the story; this is fantastic.
And How His Audit Stands by Lou Anders
This is a really nice story (and Anders’ use of phlogiston is brilliant); it has some well-done surprises, contains so many of elements of the Western, and has a powerful resonance with the reader. The well-written characters are very effective both as motors for the story but also as people, allowing us to have an emotional connection to the events; Anders shows some serious short-fiction chops here.
The Story in which the Dog Dies by Sara Genge
This is an odd, apocalyptic story; not really clockwork, though perhaps so in some sense, it’s an odd tale that shifts its narrative viewpoint like an agitated snake and that manages to never really get off its feet. The style is problematic, and the nature of the story is a little odd – it’s hard to know what Genge is trying to do at times – and it all leaves the reader more confused than satisfied.
A Red One Cannot See by Barbara A. Barnett
I’ve got mixed feelings about this story; whilst Philibert is a wonderful idea, and an interesting character, Barnett’s story really fails to actually portray him as what she tells us he is like; there’s times when he just gives up too quickly to be what Barnett has told us he is, driven. It is, however, an interesting story and a nice view of a world.
The Fishbowl by Amal El-Mohtar
This is quite a nice one; it’s well-written and stylish, with a fascinating concept at its heart and an interesting image of the world – very informed (perhaps too much so?) by modern environmental concerns. El-Mohtar creates interesting characters and a nice mystery, with a slow build up to the well-done sting in the tail of the tale.
His Majesty’s Menagerie by Chris Roberson
Whilst having an obvious moral, and showcasing a wonderful imagination in terms of the steampunk military technology on display, this story is let down by a weakness; its resolution makes no real logical sense. Roberson’s characters are weak and obvious, at best two-dimensional, and the twist at the end is obvious and ridiculous at the same time. I’m left with the feeling that in the world Roberson creates, a much better story could – and should – have been told.
The Emperor’s Gift by Rajan Khanna
This is an odd story; Khanna seems to have imbued it with a certain royalist sentiment that feels very much out of place, and at the same time a sort of crushing sentimentality that really feels claustrophobic to mixed effect; the desperate emotionality of the piece and the mundane horror that it involves is handled to create a moving, terrifying story, but it doesn't quite ever get there - missing its mark somehow, somewhere along the way.
The Clockwork Goat and the Smokestack Magi by Peter M. Ball
This is a rather neat story with a well-done moral about suspicion and risk; Ball’s characters are well-formed and we get the background we need as the story continues. The use of the ideas behind the story and the brilliance of the goat doing what it does are both wonderful, and Ball incorporates them well into a story as a whole that works simply and effectively.
The Giant and the Unicorn by Alethea Kontis
This story is a sweet meditation on friendship, amongst other things; Kontis executes it well, opening with a nice spin on Genesis, and the obvious heart and fairytale qualities of the story really enhance the way it’s told, so that sad and tragic moments have that childlike quality that really makes them punch home harder, whilst the end is all the better for it. A lovely fairytale.
Mockmouse by Caleb Wilson
Hah, this is a brilliant story; Wilson directs our attention one way, so we think we know where it’s going, and the story tends in that direction… until a sudden, brilliant swerve at the end (into far darker territory); it’s achieved neatly and effectively, with some stylish elements as it continues, to achieve a real shock effect at the close.

This is a very, very mixed selection; whilst some really good stories - the Valentine, for instance - are included, the overwhelming impression is mediocre at best.  To what extent this is me failing to pick up on the vibe of the collection I don't know, but I think a lot of these stories were clumsy and heavy-handed.
Chance Corrigan and the Tick-Tock King of the Nile by Michael Stackpole
Stackpole’s story is quite brilliant, and fully in the tradition of steampunk; Corrigan is an engineering Indiana Jones, with many of the same impulses and a great degree of the same swashbuckling style. Here, however, Stackpole brings together science and fiction to create a story that is enthralling as much in the engineering details as in the plot, and with a decent grounding in what was possible – though of course, wildly running far beyond that on a whim when appropriate. A good opener for the anthology.

Foggy Goggles by Donald J. Bingle
Bingle’s story of Gavin and Doctor Merganser is an unsubtle global-warming morality tale, with characters mostly there as mouthpieces of the author; whilst the concepts and ideas in the story are pretty well-executed and nicely steampunky, and the emphasis on steam as power is well-done, the extent to which Bingle abuses science roundly in order to present more modern inventions – air conditioning, for instance – as Victorian in order to make a point about climate change is an ugly piece of work; this isn’t a great story, really.

The Battle of Cumberland Gap by William C. Dietz
Reminiscent of Zulu in a number of ways, Dietz’ story is a fantastic one; engineering and counterengineering lie at the heart of it, with military ploys and well-designed attacks built up into elaborate traps for an enemy that aren’t known to the reader until the are sprung, though hints are made. Well-done romantic elements, and the strong character of Landry, drive the story, and ensure that it remains a brilliant piece of science fiction in steampunk clothes.

Portrait of a Lady in a Monocle by Jody Lynne Nye
Nye’s story is nicely feminist and nicely confrontational about the more illiberal attitudes of the scientific establishment of the Victorian era, although she does tend to dampen them down a lot from their real entrenchment and degree. The story is quite wonderful, with some brilliant concepts and conceits; and the characters of Penelope and Finbury are really quite well developed in a brief period, with some nicely dealt with conflict. All in all a fantastic piece.

Foretold by Bradley P. Beaulieu
This is quite a nice story, with science and superstition mixing; the Russo-Greek cultural setting is quite brilliant, with some really nice touches linking Greek mythology with astrology in a new configuration. Equally, Beaulieu’s ideas of fate and the Moirae are wonderful; indeed, he has some really intricate ideas. The plot and characters work really well, with Maks’ and Yevgeniy’s actions and relationship playing perfectly well off the twists that come in towards the end of the story, amazingly timed.

The Echoer by Dean Leggett
Leggett’s story is really sweet; literally scientific romance, or romance through science – wooing a lady by building her an airship is, I have to say, pretty impressive. Brandon, Allison, Kendo and Shelia are really hood characters, adding up to a hilariously mixed group; and Leggett’s eye for a beautiful detail and personal turn of phrase is great, so we really do get drawn into Brandon’s way of thinking in this story by turns heartfelt and hilarious.

Of A Feather by Stephen D. Sullivan
Sullivan’s strange story is quite brilliant, and quite weird; involving dinosaurs, psychics, adventurers, a genius mechanic called Miss Tesla, and evil Russians, it seems to be some sort of Cold War residue madness. It mixes all sorts of elements into the wonderfully imaginative and adventurous whole, with action, romance, adventure, betrayal and scientific exploration; part Indiana Jones and part science fiction, it’s a hilarious romp, which with its fast pace works really well.

Scourge of the Spoils by Matthew P. Mayo
Mayo’s story reminds me strongly of the Firefly episode ‘The Train Job’, and not in a bad way. There’re similarities in some of the concepts, but Mayo’s story is very different – complex, interlinking characters and personal arcs bring conflicting aims into play, with an elaborate set up designed to profit one man at the expense of the others; there’s more than a hint of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in this Western steampunk, with the characters very much stereotypical Western figures but played with in a new, wonderful way.

Edison Kinetic Light & Steam Power by C. A. Verstraete
This story of Thomas and Alva’s very much mixed; Verstraete seems mainly determined to prove Alva was as intelligent and good at inventing as Thomas had she put her mind to it. The fact is, then, that this story seems to miss the point; we don’t have good characters, a strong plot, a real sense of what’s happening or the world that the story occurs in, or indeed much of any great significance. Which strikes me as problematic; this is a really weak story.

The Nubian Queen by Paul Genesse
This is a fantastic steampunk alternate history story; whilst Genesse displays a shaky grasp of elements of ancient history (the divergence, when it is revealed halfway through the story, occurred in 32 BC), the fact is that the fanciful projections he uses are quite brilliant, and indeed he peoples this complex, brilliant and (dare I make the pun) Byzantine story with some wonderful and rounded, realistic characters; the fact that the whole thing fits together so well, with some winking jokes towards the reader, and some excellent ideas, is simply the cherry on the cake. Wonderful stuff.

Opals from Sydney by Mary Louise Eklund
This is mostly a fantastic story, but the need Eklund seems to have felt to inject an action-thriller element at its close really does make it dissolve into little more than a light fancy. The problem is that whilst the concepts and characters are strong, and whilst the romantic and scientific elements are well-done, the action and its consequences are not only largely offscreen but also too neat; there’s a sense of “And…?” pervading the whole thing, as the end is too easy, and too pat. Not a story I terribly enjoyed.

The Whisperer by Marc Tassin
Tassin’s story is brilliant; I’m turning over the ending in my mind, not entirely sure I’ve understood, but the concepts and characters – or rather, Avery, as sole true character in the story – are really well done; Tassin rapidly creates, peoples, and applies his world and concepts in order to ensure that the reader is drawn in and understands what is going on – and indeed, how mundane it is to inhabitants of that world. Whilst there’s a little bit of an over-saccharine message involved, and whilst it’s not exactly got the most three dimensional cast in the world, it’s still a pretty good story.

Imperial Changeling by Skip & Penny Williams
This is quite a nice steampunk faerie story; the Williamses develop it from a rather bog-standard and mediocre tale of the fey interfering in the world into a far more fascinating, adventurous tale of technology versus magic and intrigue. Indeed, the mixed plots and wonderful characters that people the story really work well in concert, with their collected intelligence and knowledge; the whole story is really rather fantastic.

The Transmogrification Ray by Robert E. Vardeman
This story of a scientific search for the alchemist’s goal of turning lead to goal, and the consequences of all kinds of that search, is fanciful but well done; Vardeman keeps it fast-paced and interesting, with meditations on life, on what science can do, on the importance of making sure everything about an experiment is understood, and on one’s drive to success is fabulous; the understanding he shows is wonderful, and the character of Francis is great, as is Fulton, who develops more and more as the story goes one. Wonderful work.

Rabe and Greenberg have collected a set of stories that, whilst all steampunk, showcase some of the less normal aspects of the genre; whilst there's a number of overlaps with the more normal elements of the style, for instance goggles and female engineers crop up regularly, the generally American setting already changes things, and the almost total lack of care for Victorian style and manner even when the setting is in that period really does seem odd. However, the stories are generally strong - with The Nubian Queen deserving special mention as truly brilliant - with a couple of duff notes, making this a decent anthology to purchase, even if not the best out there.
Goats of Glory by Steven Erikson
This is pure swords and sorcery brilliance, the creepy keep, the grim soldiers, the Western-style ex-booming town… a dark, horrific, and incredibly brutal tale of slaughter and death, it’s got a suspenseful start which suddenly changes into an action-packed, fast-paced, main body of the story, with blood and guts everywhere. The characters are intense and relatively typical of the genre, but Graves is a nice touch – as are the specifics of each of the five mercenaries. Plus, it’s always good to see sword and sorcery stories acknowledging the possibility of women being equally good at both the sex and the fighting as the men…
Tides Elba by Glen Cook
This is a fantastic tale of the Black Company, the complete Annals of which I really want to lay my hands on. Full of intrigue, suspicion, investigation and politicking, but only on a small, internal, company-level scale as opposed to the grand scale of epic fantasy, Tides Elba shows a very different kind of S&S fantasy to Goats of Glory: a more subtle, military, less violent kind, but still equally brilliant. Even those without the pre-existing connection to the Black Company will get on with Goblin, One-Eye, Elmo, Croaker and the rest; they’re a brilliant group, really well portrayed, and the story works brilliantly.
Bloodsport by Gene Wolfe
This is a fantastic story. With its use of a sort of living chess as a central concept, combined with an eternal conflict between two forces – perhaps slightly amorphous and representative, I’m not sure – Wolfe’s married S&S sensibilities and style to epic fantasy narratives, yet in practice the epic fantasy is only possibly there. This is a quiet, gentle story; it has violence and action, and those are portrayed hard and fast, yet our narrator has a gentility to him that pervades across the whole story brilliantly, giving it a very different feel. Really well done.
The Singing Spear by James Enge
Enge’s story is quite brilliant; it’s got so many touches which I just love, most of all the character of Morlock Ambrosius, Morlock the Maker. Having a magical artisan past his prime as the hero of the story is quite brilliant, and the awesome way he’s portrayed is wonderful: he leaps off the page as a real character and one we could grow to love. The story hangs together fantastically, drawing on the style of Leiber and Howard with some real innovations original to Enge, to give a tale we’re drawn into and which grips us by the scruff of the neck right the way to the fascinating end. I want more Morlock Ambrosius, and I want it as soon as I can buy more books!
A Wizard in Wiscezan by C. J. Cherryh
The wizard of the title isn’t the one we expect, and Cherryh’s writing carries the reader through the story inside the mind of Willem, whose coming of age tale this is. It is a true S&S story, what with a swordsman and a sorcerer; it has everything from demons to wicked sorcerers and rulers, through to noble kings and good insurgents. Cherryh keeps the clichés fresh and new, though, with a writing style and a depth of feeling and clarity that makes sure the reader doesn’t notice when things are obvious – there’s no twists in this story, just linear narrative, but because we’re so wrapped up in Willem, we don’t care. As a character piece and as a piece of S&S, a tour-de-force.
A Rich Full Week by K. J. Parker
This one’s a nice one; not typical S&S, but really fun as a story, which is more important. The nameless viewpoint-character is a really well-drawn figure, conflicted and with low self-esteem, that lets Parker create a wonderful story with a brilliant series of twists as it ends. The magic-system is well-portrayed and complex, and the stunningly well-written world is amazingly detailed for such a short story; we see so little but discover so much through the narrative and reflections of the viewpoint character. Parker’s story is fantastic, and I cannot recommend it enough.
A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet by Garth Nix
This is in the same world and vein as the last Nix story I read, and is just as brilliant; recalling somewhat Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones and also the Greek pantheons and their outcasts, Nix creates a fantastical and fantastic world with enforcers of the gods’ will banishing various beings. Sir Hereward and Mr. Fitz are both amusing, strange characters, with so much mystery around the latter, and Nix’s by-turns-amusing, by-turns-straightforward S&S is a great piece.
Red Pearls by Michael Moorcock
Moorcock’s Elric piece suffers a little if you don’t know your lore, which I don’t, but it is a fantastic tale of swords and sorcery, of violence and sibling rivalry, of travel, derring-do, and madness. Elric is in typically fantastic, amoral and fatalistic form, and the world is brilliantly, beautifully lush and strange; Moorcock’s not bothered with half-measures in this exotic and unusual setting, revealing more about the Melnibonéans and their heritage than I believe was previously know. The whole story hangs together really well, the sudden fast-paced scenes of violence as vivid and lush as the more languid moments; this is yet another demonstration, as if it was needed, that Moorcock really is the living master of swords and sorcery.
The Deification of Dal Bamore by Tim Lebbon
This is a fascinating story; Lebbon’s set up some really interesting dichotomies and problems here, with religion and politics mingling in a horrific, dark story that tends towards the truly vile and graphically disgusting at time – but in the service of a cause, the cause of making the story work properly. Our two main character, Bamore and Jan Ray, are very different people with conflicting and conflicted motives; that conflict drives the story to its ultimate, powerful, deadly conclusion, utterly strange and utterly unexpected in its brilliance. A wonderful twist, to finish a strong piece.
Dark Times at the Midnight Market by Robert Silverberg
This scifantasy story is hilarious, brilliant, and very different from traditional S&S fiction. It has alchemy, it has chemistry, it has magic and science mingled and mixed in a most intriguing fashion, and what it has above all is the air of a mediaeval romance – court politics and love mixing in a most inappropriate fashion, leading to unintended consequences. Silverberg brilliantly brings out the character of Ghambivole Zwoll, making him a clear figure of mixed character, very different from the traditional focus of S&S; and the whole story hinges on Zwoll’s character rather wonderfully. Finished to perfection by the final paragraph, this is a fantastic story.
The Undefiled by Greg Keyes
Keyes’ characters are conflicted, interesting characters; Fool Wolf is a twisted, strange human with some serious problems, and his inner dialogues with Chugaachik are fantastically well-done. The horrors of his possession is well-shown, portrayed in a fascinating manner especially as things change for them over time – indeed, Keyes demonstrates how things change over the brief course of the story really well; and the plot is brilliant, with a stunning twist at the close of the story. A decent, different S&S story.
Hew the Tintmaster by Michael Shea
Shea’s addition to Vance’s canon of the Dying Earth is wonderfully true to the original; Cugel is his normal amoral self, the magic and situation of the world is the same strange, exotic, unpredictable and mixed-up world, the whole plot is beautifully weird and inexplicable, and all kinds of strange and whimsical species exist. The humour of the tale is quite wonderful, and the beauty of it – the idea of the power of aesthetics – is also rather nice; indeed, Shea really does seem to have captured the sense of Vance’s Dying Earth perfectly…
In the Stacks by Scott Lynch
Lynch’s story is absolutely brilliant. I thought I felt the hand of Pratchett on my shoulder as I read this story, with the library being incredibly reminiscent of the Library at the Unseen University (albeit with different librarians…); but Lynch does something rather different with it, taking a concept that Pratchett makes semi-safe and turning it into something very threatening, populating it with all sorts of awful, insane monsters – brilliant creations of the imagination – and dark, grim people. It’s a brilliant, wonderful, amusing and whimsical story by turns, which comes together into an absolutely brilliant masterpiece.
Two Lions, a Witch, and the War-Robe by Tanith Lee
Lee’s story is a proper swords and sorcery tale of a quest and two bravos, with magic playing all sorts of roles, positive and negative. The play on Lewis in the title is not continued within the story, which is rather more Howard or Leiber than anyone else, as might well be expected from S&S fiction; the characters of Zire and Bretilf are sound, decent(ish) sword-swinging bravos brought into political complexity against their wills and forced to act as pawns, and the tale plays on that note rather well, with an interesting semi-philosophical running throughout and dealt with in full at the close.
The Sea Troll’s Daughter by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Kiernan’s story is influenced by both Irish myth and Beowulf, that progenitor of all English literature. The use and subversion, by turns, of all the tropes and themes of the Beowulf myth is fantastic and fascinating; Kiernan turns various elements on their head in order to give the reader a series of false leads and expectations, which she delightfully subverts. The characters of the hero and the lover they take, and of the sea-troll’s daughter, are all wonderfully well dealt with; and the story hangs together with a kind of rugged beauty, like the landscape Kiernan paints.
Thieves of Daring by Bill Willingham
This is Conan, pretty much purely and simply; a thief breaking into the house of a mage, guarded by magical defences, and finding himself trapped by those same defences. It’s brilliant in the faithfulness to the spirit of Conan as written by Howard, with the character of Septavian having virtually the same personality and dislike of sorcery; the major difference is in having him less of a brute and less of a barbarian, more trained and with tricks up his sleeve. Good, solid, traditional S&S.
The Fool Jobs by Joe Abercrombie
This is pretty typical Abercrombie fair, with Craw taking the place of the disillusioned, depressed, self-doubting mercenary captain dissatisfied with his place in the world and the jobs he gets, and the other members of the cast falling into the usual Abercrombie roles.  The fact is that whilst Abercrombie plays within a very specific area of fantasy, he does it well, and that's what this story is; another example of Abercrombie doing what it is he does best, writing blunt, cynical fantasy of a rather S&S-style, with a stock set of characters and a certain trope to continue. Workmanlike prose adds to the impression that this is just how it is, creating a solid piece of work.
The selection of stories chosen by Strahan and Anders for this anthology ranges far and wide within the modern resurgence of swords and sorcery fantasy.  Whilst I disagree with their premise that it died for a while - Cook and Moorcock, with their continued success, might be decent counterarguments - they've clearly taken a look at the field as it stands today and chosen some of the best authors, and the fact that these are all original pieces only makes me all the more happy; the different takes and styles mesh together really well, and Strahan and Anders are both, clearly, master anthologists.
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Chiang's story is an absolutely brilliant tale of entropy, but also of what it means to be human, the extremes of scientific curiosity, and what life is. Indeed, the expressions of the Laws of Thermodynamics - not in an obvious way, but still clearly underlying the story - give so much humanity to the nameless viewpoint and to the alien "other" who is speaking that Chiang's empathy is clearly absolutely fantastic; indeed, the detail and intricacy of the story, the thoughtful complexity of it, the completeness of the world and the alieness of it is all really incredibly wonderful. I am envious, and more, of Chiang's ability to write, but I am so glad it exists, so that I can read what he produces...
Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear
The title is not the only brilliant thing about this story. Bear's tale of a black professor in 1940-ish is fantastic, and the implications of the shoggoths' enslavement and his own grandparents' experiences combine to create a wonderful dilemma and set of implications up the conflicted character of Harding. Brilliantly written, the background detail is fantastic, and Harding's academic character is absolutely crystal clear; every action he takes is intelligent and makes sense given his personality, and indeed the whole concept of the story is incredibly creative and well-done. This is a fantastic story, more than earning its inclusion in any best-of anthology.
Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel by Peter S. Beagle
This is a really moving, touching and very Jewish story - Beagle must be himself Jewish, because he's got the mindset and religious life so perfectly it's brilliant. There's a wonderful sense of the divine pervading the story, and it contains one of my favourite lines ever. Duvidl, Chaim, Rifke, and the rabbi Shulevitz and brilliant creations, as is the blue angel herself; Beagle's got a really deft hand for character, and the amount he packs into a story of only 30 pages is incredible. It's an intense story, evoking a range of emotion but at the end leaving one with "fear and trembling", to steal the Kierkegaardian phrase; absolutely standout fantastic and incredible.
Fixing Hanover by Jeff VanderMeer (reread, originally read in Extraordinary Engines)
In the past I've given this story relatively short shrift, perhaps a little unfairly. It is actually better than I've given it credit for, read in this context rather than as a steampunk story, and one without the hallmarks of much of VanderMeer's work - which is, in this case, a definite strength. Fixing Hanover is a story of loss, of discovery, of slow revelation, and of painstaking process; it's a fascinating tale with complexity, humanity and morality coming together to create something truly interesting, and indeed the slow revelation of the past and the world is timed incredibly well. I am, on reflection, rather a fan of this story.
The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi
I'm not a big fan of Bacigalupi, in general, but this story does seem to be pretty good. Mixing the fast-paced news welter of the modern world with extrapolations to a near-future which shares similarities with The Windup Girl, this is far superior to that; it's a discussion of what's valuable, and valued, in a society, and whether those two can ever become the same thing. It's a fascinating story of exile and redemption, with perhaps a touch - or more - of schadenfreude, but it comes to a fantastic understanding of the character of Ong and the world in which he lives, as well as the world of Lao from which he has come; really good, thought-provoking stuff.
The Dust Assassin by Ian McDonald
McDonald’s story is a weaker selection than the previous ones, to my mind. It is a fascinating, complex, interesting, wonderful, thoughtful and intelligent story, but it doesn’t suck the reader in; whilst the world-building, the near-future tech, is complex and well-dealt with, whilst the nutes are rendered in stunning Technicolor detail and bluntness, whilst the setting is brilliantly realised and explained to the reader, the characters are a real problem: they’re not sympathetic enough. McDonald makes them rounded and human, but I can’t like any of them, even when I can see their point of view; and for me, that’s a problem. However, this is still a great story, just not a pleasure to read.
Virgin by Holly Black
This is a really depressing story, and really dark. Black’s take on the Fae has always been a more traditionalist and grim one, but this reflects worse on humanity and our smallness, our pettiness, than probably any other fiction I’ve ever read; it’s a tale of cruelty and banal evil, rather than of grand schemes and great deeds. Black’s made it moving and soul-destroying, intense and powerful, and at the end of it it hurts to have read the story. A strong, painful piece…
Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel
This combination of Frankenstein and Pride and Prejudice, intimated in the title and set some years after the latter novel, is a rather brilliant story of manners and of evil; it really does combine, in incredible style, the prose of Shelley and Austen in quite remarkable fashion. Making Mary the central character, and somewhat different from her role in the Austen novel, is quite a nice touch; she’s reasonably likeable and very much akin to the Austen original. The whole affair, and encounter, is brilliant, and really well worked; Kessel’s Pride and Prometheus really is fantastic, and stands out from the crowd of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies-style works fashionable at present.
The Thought War by Paul McAuley
This is the first truly duff story of the anthology; it has major flaws in style and execution, and manages to avoid really being interesting. Whilst steeped in scientific and "historical" information, the 6-page piece is a single long infodump; it doesn't raise compassion or caring, it doesn't excite horror or fear, it doesn't produce sadness or despair, it doesn't elate or create happiness. It is an informative, rather than a moving, piece, and that is a domain I tend to dislike my fiction moving into; inform if you wish, but make it entertain as well. Reminiscent of the first story in the anthology, Chiang's Exhalation, without the humanity or heart, this is an inclusion I could have done without.
Beyond the Sea Gates of the Scholar Pirates of Sarsköe by Garth Nix
Nix's story, despite the childlike name and general YA air of the opening, is probably not a story I'd give to a YA. It's a brilliant story, there's no denying that; the changing focus and nature of it, the rapid world-building and character creation, the twists that come not-too-fast but relatively thick, the sense of pervading horror and strangeness, the odd rules that obviously govern things, and Nix's slow revelations of the truth of what's going on are really well done; equally the speed and fury of the final confrontation are brilliant, really well handled... all in all a great story.
The Small Door by Holly Phillips
Phillips is a really weird author, but this is a fantastic tale; reading it left me with a lump in my throat for the darkness of its end, but also some hope - for the same thing, actually. It's brilliant at making the reader feel for Sal and be moved by the events of the story, hurt and wounded and mournful; it's also great in the way it manages to balance contradictory things, in an incredibly human way. Phillips' imagination has some really subtle elements interwoven in this story, and her ability to draw in and hold onto the reader in such a subtle, quiet, understated tale is wonderful. Really quite harrowing and at the same time uplifting.
Turing’s Apples by Stephen Baxter
Baxter's story is an interesting and moving one; in the same sort of line as Chiang's and McAuley's, it focuses in a large part on scientific concepts and acts as hard SF in a somewhat old-fashioned way, but stands apart from each in using it as a jumping off point for a very human story, and in mingling it with some very alien - literally - elements. Like Chiang's, the realisation and effect of the concept is huge and dealt with in a very skillful, very human way; but unlike it, there's more of a feeling of human conflict in here, the scientific implications being filtered through interpersonal relationship, until Turing's Apples (not the first one you might think of, though...) are all eaten away... This makes me even more convinced I need to read the Xeelee sequence, because it's a brilliant advertisement for Baxter's ability.
The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates by Stephen King
King's story is another of the less obviously fantastic ones, and as seems to be normal for King is infused by religious concerns - in this case about the afterlife and about humanity. It's a really moving, touching and almost painful story to read, and once more I was left with a lump in my throat reading it - there's a desperate sadness and love infusing the piece, such a sense of mourning, especially the almost anticlimactic and at the same time awfully pathos-inducing ending. King's created a character with whom we deeply, deeply sympathise and feel for - indeed, sympathy becomes overturned by empathy, and that is the mark of a truly great writer; this story is wonderful in how touching it is, and even if it does include a moment or two of cliche, those are rather overriden by the pathos of the piece. Moving and fantastic.
Five Thrillers by Robert Reed
Reed's series of connected short stories - or rather, Reed's long short story told in five acts - is a fascinating piece of science fiction, meditating on the effects of an utterly amoral genius if he chose to turn his actions towards the good of mankind. It's a really rather interesting far-future that Reed posits, with space travel, genetic mutation, &c, and he's an absolute genius at constructing actions and reactions of people; Carroway, in his actions, is really well and disturbingly portrayed, not at all sympathetic but utterly brilliant and ruthless, and that works; we're drawn into the story to see where he's going and what he's leading towards, and when we discover it, it's incredibly horrific. A brilliant, awful tale.
The Magician’s House by Meghan McCarron
McCarron's story is similar in tone to Black's, in many ways - that use of sex in terms of magic, that pessimism about human nature, that basic underlying theme of the awfulness of life. This one seems to have an active anti-sex message, however, in many ways, which I really find problematic; on the other hand the characters and emotions of the story work really well, one little moment aside (it's too graphic and not really integrated into the story properly, as well as being just plain odd). It's a well put together piece, and the emotions are all there, it just doesn't click properly, for some reason, in my mind; perhaps it's just a little confused about itself...
Goblin Music by Joan Aiken
Aiken's story is a really quite interesting, indeed, fascinating one; replace goblins with Travellers, and it is also terribly socially relevant. It's a moving, but also dark, piece, with a mixture of English country conservatism and warm-hearted kindness portrayed absolutely beautifully, with characters very much like those of a small village - albeit perhaps more accepting, overall. It's a fascinating piece of social history, in some ways, about a past that never truly existed; but it's got a strong message for the present, as well as strong, interesting characters and some wonderful thought behind it. Really good work.
Machine Maid by Margo Lanagan (reread, originally read in Extraordinary Engines and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded)
Langan's story, on its third read, loses something; perhaps the suspense and surprise, the twists and changes, are necessary; perhaps its the unexpected or unforseen character growth that's needed to drive the story. It's still an interesting story, and still has a much darker view of steampunk and Victoriana - as well as sex, which it treats terribly negatively - than people expect, but it's not got the spark that makes a story great. It's functional and more than adequate in painting a picture of the torments of the viewpoint character, as well as in describing a bleak, awful Australia, but again... I'm not sure how far it goes. Rereading, in this case, makes the heart grow colder...
The Art of Alchemy by Ted Kosmatka
This is a fascinating, fantastic story; reminiscent of the Ben Elton novel Gridlock in its premise – indeed, the premise is namechecked, intentionally or otherwise – it’s a wonderfully interesting take on corporate responses to perceived threats, the problem of the profit motive for innovation (and it is a big problem), and on the nature of chemistry; it’s also a fascinating character study on our two main figures, who are interesting, complex, contradictor and altogether very human figures who keep the story moving and working. It’s a really brilliant piece of work.
26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss by Kij Johnson
Johnson’s story is sweet and touching, and definitely fantasy: it simply accepts, rather than even trying to explain, what’s happening in it. It explores the nature of humanity and how wide that is, with sympathetic characters – it seems dry and factual, with little dialogue and very flat description, but the reader still connects incredibly strongly with Aimee, because Johnson’s description is so incredibly evocative and powerful despite its seemingly basic nature; and the monkeys… well, read the story to learn about the monkeys, and they’re worth it. All 26 really are.
Marry the Sun by Rachel Swirsky
This has the most fantastic first line of a short story I have ever read. It’s stunningly brilliant. Swirsky’s story matches that first line; a romance, and an exploration of humanity and pain, and an examination of the reality of the relationship between gods and mortals, it touches on so many subjects and is incredibly powerful and painful. Swirsky’s versions of the Greek gods, and her creation of Bridget, are all so very human, so very believable; they’re real people, who we can understand, whose motivations are real and basic. It’s an absolutely fantastic, brilliant story.
Crystal Nights by Greg Egan
Egan’s story is, perhaps, something of a precursor to Chiang’s Lifecycle of Software Objects novella; both deal with the emergence of AI, and in very different ways, they see how humanity can nurture such developments, and more importantly how individual humans will shape that AI. Indeed, it is an incredibly well-written piece that, from a very different perspective, sees humanity as a much darker force with much different imperatives; it’s a fascinating story of character and of Darwinism, brilliantly written, and does, in a brief aside, include Chiang’s idea of the coming of AI. Brilliant.
His Master’s Voice by Hannu Rajaniemi
Rajaniemi's story is quite a weird one, really; following two characters - uplifting animals, a dog and a cat, the nature of their uplifting unclear and uncertain - it's a tale of risk and recovery, bravery and loyalty, and finding sentience. It's a tale of the far-future, I think, but that's not clear; it's a strange one, with a plot that is straightforward but characters and concepts that are rather mixed - especially the cat and the dog, who vary in their capabilities and whose intelligence is similarly somewhat variable. The writing style is good and it does power along nicely, but some elements of the story could - should - have been better cleared up, and overall I have mixed feelings about this one.
Special Economics by Maureen F. McHugh
 McHugh's story has a soundtrack, a mix of hip-hop and the country song Sixteen Tons.  The near-future it posits is now one we're safe from, with the passage of bird flu from potential pandemic to blip on the radar, but the concept remains the same; post-epidemic economics will indeed be different, and this suggests a really interesting model for what that difference might look like in China.  It isn't a terribly optimistic story whilst at the same time containing its own solution, shades of grey mixed with a wistfulness for the long-gone days of black and white revolutionary versus reactionary... a really good, political, left-wing story.
Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment by M. Rickert
 Rickert's story will be incredibly difficult to talk about without getting angrily passionate and political, and that's a good thing; indeed, I suspect it's her intention. Starting off with a quote from Randall Terry (the third one down), Rickert displays the horrors, the awful dystopia, of that world in a very Orwell way: from the perspective of someone touched by it, who accepts it. It's a horrific scenario, a bleak and black world, ugly and appalling, and its justification is just vile; the whole story exposes the hypocrisy of a certain kind of "pro-lifer", and is incredibly powerful and effective, as well as moving. Really grim.
From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled… by Michael Swanwick
 This xeno-tale is quite fantastic; Swanwick creates a whole alien civilisation and culture, and at the same time a whole human civilisation and culture, to explore an oft-neglected "science" in science fiction: economics, in human terms. Information and trust economies are explained and understood, built up and worked with; the myth of original sin and its value is dealt with; and the powerful uncertainty of the end of the story is brilliant, indeed. It's also got a touch of Sixteen Tons about it again - that's not overstated, but plays as background to the human character; and those characters are reasonably strong, explicitly subverting the cliches of this kind of story. It's well-told and well-dealt with.
If Angels Fight by Richard Bowes
 This is a fascinating story which slowly developes across the piece, with slow revelations controlled by Bowes about Mark Bannon and the Bannons as a whole. It's a New England Irish-American political family, and Bowes plays with that idea, bringing in the Kennedys and Kennedy-esque elements; he also makes sure the reader knows what's happening to a limited extent, slowly upping the supernatural elements, the strangeness of the story as it goes along. There's also a fascinating level of insight into US politics in the story, with its infighting and double-dealing; again, Bowes has a real level of insight and character-building, with the whole cast terribly vivid and human, really well displayed as people. Brilliant, and with an amazing ending.
The Doom of Love in Small Spaces by Ken Scholes
 Scholes' story is a really sweet and touching on, about a burgeoning of love in a weird dystopia, a strange and unclear world of bureaucracy and officework. It's a very strange story, but what shines through are the characters of Drummond and Harmony, thrown together, both with their secrets - revealed in an utterly unexpected twist at the end - and their personalities; it's a beautiful, passionate, odd story which works really well, in its execution, as it powers through towards an end utterly unexpected. The vividness of the decaying world and the strangeness of it all is beautiful, crumbling as we read it, and adds to the odd, gothic atmosphere of the piece. Great stuff.
Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link
This set of intertwined narratives, each with their own cliffhanger, is brilliant. It starts out with hints of Twilight and other YA sparkly-vampire fiction but grows progressively stranger and darker, the narratives growing more gothic in their own, understated ways; the characters are similar and yet different, and you can see the way they parallel the actions of each other, with a strange inevitability about the ending (which is brilliantly, wonderfully played by Link, who displays an absolutely incredible genius in this story) whilst letting it also be a surprise.
This selection of short stories is varied, complex, widely-selected, and incredibly good overall; whilst a few duff notes are struck, the anthology hangs together well, covering all kind of corners of the SFF, with moving political pieces, brilliantly vivid character portraits and settings that leap off the page and draw the reader in.  With a mix of new and established authors on the scene Strahan's wide gaze has brought together a collection of stories that everyone will find something to enjoy in.
A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman
This is quite a brilliant one, especially the final twist that comes right at the end – that really bites the reader, given the play on our expectations! The world of the 19th Century set up by Gaiman, with what he tells us and the little snippets of advertisement (increasingly mythical and literary), is really brilliant and the Study in Emerald very much is reminiscent of A Study in Scarlet. Really well done, and another demonstration of Mr. Gaiman’s place as one of the top authors of today.
Tiger! Tiger! By Elizabeth Bear
Whilst very much a tale of the 19th century, this is hardly a Holmes story, despite the presence of Irene Adler; a tale of a hunt in the far reaches of the Empire, it’s well-written, fast-paced, mysterious, and of course incorporates some iconic Lovecraftian imagery, but overall it’s not a terribly Sherlockian tale. I do enjoy Bear’s writing, and her character-creation and use here is wonderful, however.
The Case of the Wavy Black Dagger by Steve Perry
Perry’s story is a little problematic. Not in its portrayal as a casually misogynistic Holmes, and nor in its portrayal of someone as brilliant as Holmes (though that IS a little problematic, because she doesn’t always act in line with that); in part it ignores Holmes’ abilities, and in part it doesn’t really fit with the Holmes mythos. However, it is a great story in terms of detection and counter-detection, and works rather well on its own terms; enjoyable and intellectually interesting.
A Case of Royal Blood by Steven-Elliot Altman
Altman’s story of the Old Ones crossing wits with Holmes through the Dutch Royal Family is quite remarkable, not least in its brilliant use and characterisation of H. G. Wells as a stand-in for Dr. Watson. The tone of the piece is really well-done, managing to balance the impulses to indulge in Lovecraftian, Wellsian and Doylesque prose with a more modern sensibility, and the plot is rather brilliant; not too obvious but still the reader can, with a little familiarity with Lovecraft, work out what’s happening. Rather wonderful.
The Weeping Masks by James Lowder
Lowder’s story of Watson’s Afghan experience is very much in the tradition of Lovecraft, especially in the non-white people in the story being the cultists of the Unknown. However, it’s a fascinating tale – it’s got some really good moments, and the discussion of logic and so on is really well played with, especially in the context of that which cannot be logical according to Lovecraftian canon. All in all, a fantastic tale – and the final lines take on a new, and interesting, twist if you know your Holmesian history.
Art in the Blood by Brian Stableford
Stableford’s story is the first that really takes note of the disjoint between Holmes’ and Lovecraft’s wordviews, and it brings in Mycroft as a sort of bridge between the two. It’s a horrific, terrible tale, told largely by two characters, one of whom is Sherlock himself and the other the client of the story; it’s got a creeping, insidious awfulness, and the use of Mycroft’s intellect as a reassurance for his brother is dealt with really well. The final parts of the story are awful and strange, and Stableford’s created a really good tribute to Lovecraft here.
The Curious Case of Miss Violet Stone by Poppy Z. Brite and David Ferguson
Brite and Ferguson’s story of Holmes’ investigation is a mixed one. Whilst it has some typical – indeed, stereotypical, to the point of overdone – elements of Holmes stories in, and whilst it does give an interesting account of the relation between Watson and Holmes, too much of it relies on Watson going against all his instincts, and on not showing us but telling us what’s happening; a large part of it is exposition, and there’s never any real feeling of threat. Not a great story.
The Adventure of the Antiquarian’s Neice by Barbara Hambly
This is the first really, truly creepy story in the anthology so far, and it really does get under the reader’s skin. Hambly’s story, drawing on New Weird and Old Weird styles more than it does on Doyle in parts, has two sections to it, really; the Doyle and the Lovecraft. But the two sections mesh and blend wonderfully, reason giving way to madness and strangeness, and the very strong writing style and ability of Hambly is wonderful – there’s terrific control here, and it makes for a fantastic, utterly creepy, story.
The Mystery of the Worm by John Pelan
This is another one that really does hit the mark on combining Lovecraft and Doyle, in leaving the end open-ended, with the hint of horrors to come. Pelan’s story is told magnificently, with build-up, subtlety, exposition and experienced horror mingled and mixed in such a way that the reader really feels what’s happening; indeed, Pelan makes the horror immediate and there’s a feeling that it could just leap out at the reader. Fantastic.
The Mystery of the Hanged Man’s Puzzle by Paul Finch
Finch’s story is a perfect Holmes story, reminiscent in its start of the recent film despite being several years its senior. It’s a fantastic tale of deduction and action mingled together into a brilliant, awful whole with a real punch to it, and the combination of action and intellect is nothing short of brilliant. The premise is well-done, and the characters are excellent, straight from Lovecraft; for all that, unlike the previous two stories, this is much more Doyle than Lovecraft, and benefits from that contrast and variety.
The Horror of Many Faces by Tim Lebbon
This story incorporates elements of the Ripper mythology into the Lovecraft-Holmes duology. It’s a terrifying, shocking story that builds and shifts and morphs as the reader progresses through it, with Lebbon constructing a true sense of awful and appalling horror in the reader whose target for said horror changes as the story goes on. It’s a really freaky tale, this one, and its ending is possibly the single most haunting one so far in the anthology.
The Adventures of the Arab’s Manuscript by Michael Reaves
This story’s less strong, on some levels – in part Reaves leaves Holmes a clue or two that actually don’t work (the famous Hamsa, or Hand of Fatima, rather undermines some of the deduction Holmes does), and in part it’s a matter of how it’s just a bait-and-switch on Watson. Reeves seems to have some idea of how to do Lovecraft, and some of Doyle, but this story really hasn’t come together well, and is significantly dull and largely without the strengths of either writer.
The Drowned Geologist by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Kiernan’s story is rather wonderful. It’s subtle, gentle, and not overtly horrific; indeed, the suggestion of horror is much stronger and indeed more effective than the depiction would be, especially in terms of some of the matters mentioned within the story. Kiernan’s got a wonderful character in Dr. Logan, and she uses him, as narrator, really rather well; indeed, it’s a letter that really packs a significant punch to it, telling a strong, compelling and disturbing (and impossible) tale to Watson. Really rather good.
A Case of Insomnia by John P. Vourlis
This is quite a nice one. It seems a typical Holmes case, and Vourlis certainly treats it as such, with evidence gathered, travel, people questioned, and a series of possible explanations ruled out; further, Vourlis withholds from going down the full Lovecraftian squamous route, rather going for a more strange but investigable opponent for Holmes. There’s a brilliant note of whimsy struck at the end of the story very reminiscent of Doyle but tinged with more than a touch of Lovecraft, than really gives the story that extra push to make it brilliant.
The Adventure of the Voorish Sign by Richard A. Lupoff
This one’s not so great. Lupoff abuses Watson something dreadful, and I really do dislike the slow companion portrayals common to so much post-Doyle Holmes-lore. There’s also a really unhealthy use of gypsies, not just bordering on but actively deciding to revel in racism. However, the story does have its moments, and Watson himself does have a couple of occasions to display some skill; but overall this is not a terribly good story, with little really to show the strengths of either the Lovecraft or Doyle which influenced it.
The Adventure of Exham Priory by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre
MacIntyre’s story is rather excellent, incorporating standard Lovecraft tropes and lore with the characters of the Holmes tales; Moriarty is excellently portrayed and used, with his strengths and weaknesses clearly highlighted, and both Watson and Holmes are shown in a good light (Watson gets to do some deducting for once!). Indeed, this story is one of the strongest so far for Watson; MacIntyre portrays him as intelligent and curious, and a good companion to the aloof Holmes. This is, then, a story that is creepy and malevolent in atmosphere and excellent in execution.
Death Did Not Become Him by David Niall Wilson and Patricia Lee Macomber
This is a fantastic, fascinating story mixing Holmes, Lovecraft and Kabbalah (in the form of the golem). Wilson and Macomber’s tale of mystery and the intrigue strikes me, in some ways, as not terribly Lovecraftian, but on the other hand it not only incorporates that mainstay of the Mythos, the Necronomicon, but also has settings reminiscent of Lovecraft – an abandoned asylum especially. Indeed, the story really does work well as a combination of the two styles, with a very different take on it as any previous work in the volume.
Nightmare In Wax by Simon Clark
 This is a fantastic story, told in the first person by three different voices, with an obvious twist marring an otherwise brilliant story (though, I suppose, both twists are both obvious and intended to be so, so perhaps not so much marring as altering).  Clark's story once more captures the essence of Moriarty perfectly, as well as of Holmes; indeed, Holmes' weaknesses are very much central to the story, as is Moriarty's personality and arrogance.  This is a more interesting story than many of the others both in its style, how its told, and in the content, in its descriptions and explorations; it also seems less dark, in some ways, though with an incredibly dark end.
Reaves and Pelan have put together an anthology that, whilst a little mixed at times, tends towards the better end of the spectrum; the mixture of stories, in terms of style, period, focus, and execution is a good one, with different aspects of Doyle and Lovecraft both coming to the fore, and a variety of different ideas about who Holmes himself is being presented too, which is of some interest.  I'd say that a fan of Doyle shouldn't really be too attracted to this purchase, as all too often Holmes breaks away from canonical interpretations of him towards a more mystical version, but fans of Lovecraft will want to own this anthology.
Illimitable Domain by Kim Newman
This creeping tale of cultural and cinematic domination by Poe is gothic, strange, and overblown – indeed, it really is very Poe! Newman takes the Poe-based films of the 1960s as a starting point for his cultural zeitgeist takeover, which becomes increasingly total – and increasingly gothic, as the language of Poe seeps through into the story; and the mingling of fact and fiction to the ridiculous and insane conclusion is brilliant. This, with its underlying (and sometimes less-underlying) comic element and its overall melancholy gloom, is brilliant storytelling.
The Pickers by Melanie Tem
Tem’s story is imbued with the kind of melancholic grief and gothic unrealism of Poe’s works, the conceptual imagery redolent with Poe’s ideas – The Raven especially playing a large part. The actions of D and Toni, the loss of Matt, the dead dull emotions and the horror of the story as it develops to its ultimate gothic ending is very much in line with Poe’s mournful poetry, and Tem’s ability to keep that air in a prose work is incredible. A really good story.
Beyond Porch and Portal by E. Catherine Tobber
This is a strange story of Poe’s death, a fantastical and macabre story that involves parallel worlds, fairy lands, Rip van Winkle-style relativity, and some other odd elements; it’s a strangely gothic and stately affair whilst also being full of squalor and ugliness. The combination of the reality of Poe’s death and the whimsical inventions of Tobber works very well, as does the importance of Poe to the whole thing; it’s a strange, quite grim tale, and decently done.
The Final Act by Gregory Frost
This one’s a strange one – a very Poe ghost tale, grim and macabre, with it being unclear that it is a ghost story until the end. The psychological horror and manipulation, the use of an unreliable narrator speaking to our viewpoint-character who is himself perhaps an unreliable narrator, the sick sense of dread pervading through the whole piece all build up to the final shocking conclusion and denouement; it’s a really terrifying and strange tale, but quite brilliant in its gothic horror (and very, very Poe).
Strappado by Laird Barron
Barron’s story is quite strange, and very sensual; it’s also very horrific, and has some subtle Poe references (subtle, and quite excellent). It isn’t simply a reworking or pastiche of a Poe story, but it does draw very much on certain narratives by Poe for its events; the hedonism and sensuality is reminiscent of The Masque of the Red Death especially, and the eventual conclusion, grim, horrific, shocking, insane, is incredibly well done. It builds slowly to its psychological, and indeed unspecified, conclusion, and then continues on to the awful effects of that conclusion; really horrific and gothic.
The Mountain House by Sharyn McCrumb
This is surprisingly uplifting for a story in the style of Poe, and yet the haunting beauty, the strange spiritlike natives (perhaps a touch of Magical Negro here, albeit with rednecks?), the dark sense of death hanging over everything, and the slight degree of foreboding and melancholy that infuse the piece all rescue it from being utterly unPoeish. The characters are wonderful – the dead Liam, who we understand more and more as the story continues; his nameless partner, who is central to the whole thing and the viewpoint-character, and who is an incredibly well-rounded personality; and the spirit of NASCAR itself. McCrumb’s story is Poe, with a bleak sort of optimism; a brilliant read.
The Pikesville Buffalo by Glen Hirshberg
This one’s a really quite sad, incredibly moving and affecting tale; Hirshberg’s storytelling is utterly fantastic, and powerful. The whole story has an air of unreality, and whilst not necessarily fantastical has a sense of the fantastic about it. It’s melancholy and downbeat, and has some incredible characters; the whole story is very Jewish, in some ways (explicitly and in its attitudes) as well as being incredibly characterful and emotional. I’m really impressed and moved; it’s a really, really good piece.
The Brink of Eternity by Barbara Roden
This is a really good story; until I read the afterword I couldn’t work out if it was fictionalised reality or realist fiction, but it’s the latter. It’s a fantastic piece, with the mixed styles – strangely abstract, scholarly and simple fiction – building to create a multifaceted portrait of a man giving himself over to an obsession; it’s that obsession that forms the focus of the story and its central point, and drives everything within it. In that regard, amongst others, it’s a really good piece of work as the obsession is transmitted to the reader whilst also being used to hang aspects of the character of Wallace on. Readable and brilliant.
The Red Piano by Delia Sherman
This is very much a gothic romance in the way that Poe wrote and developed them; macabre, supernatural, horrifying, and with heaving bosoms and preying men. The theme of music – intimated by the title, made explicit in the story – works really well with the tale, as it combines to form an interesting, well-wrought underlying rhythm to the tune of the characters’ interactions and emotions. As a whole it works really well together to create a creepy sense of unknown horror at the start which fades and returns in full force; Sherman is very much in control of what she’s writing, to create a gothic symphony worthy of Within Temptation…
Sleeping With Angels by M. Rickert
This is a really macabre story; with murder, child abuse, horror, ghosts and death as central aspects in the life of a child for one summer. There’s a mysterious element that’s never addressed head on and never explained, one which is horrific in its implications; there’s a lot of the supernatural and strange; and indeed, Rickert preserves an air of gothic horror very worthy of Poe with powerful and affecting characters and a simple, moving story. Simple gothic, and very fine.
Shadow by Steve Rasnic Tem
I’m not sure what to say about Tem’s story; I really enjoyed it, and was spooked by it, but it’s a little hard to explain why – something about the second-person narration, drawing the reader into the story in a very strange way; something also about the element of personal threat inherent to the whole tale; perhaps also Tem’s use of someone talking to the viewpoint, who is the reader, and the final conclusion, which combine to create a really horrific self-image. It’s a brilliantly creepy and spooky tale with a nebulous threat hanging over it all; really well done.
Truth and Bone by Pat Cadigan
This is a really spooky story; Cadigan’s tale of a family with certain strange traits, and of a member of that family, and the consequences of one’s actions, and the inevitability of fate, involves themes common to Greek tragedies (the Fates cannot be thwarted!) and a strange, disturbing and awful sense of the weird. Cadigan’s story is spooky and macabre, the start somewhat uplifting and happy (though with an odd note in there – Loomis); it descends then into the macabre, gothic majority which is where it revels and shows its true excellence. I loved the story, and I love the messages in it; really good work.
The Reunion by Nicholas Royle
Royle’s story is centred on a location that is as strange as the content. I’m not a huge fan of the story, but it is undeniably well written; the strangeness of the hotel, the oddness of the events of the story in its location are all built to be as creepy and weird without being actually horrific as possible. However, there’s just something that I dislike about the story; it has a certain disconnect and a certain lack of coherence that don’t really work terribly well, I think… I guess it’s a mixed execution of an interesting concept.
The Tell by Kaaron Warren
This story is quite spooky; it’s about Poe’s death, in a way, and also about the power of nightmares and horror – their addictive quality, almost. Warren’s story involves a combination of magic, normality and art in a trifecta that manages to be both original and expected, in the best sense of each term; the characters are well-drawn and develop unexpectedly throughout the novel, and their horrors are personal and different – indeed, it’s an odd story and rather a damning one, but incredibly Poe. A brilliant work.
The Heaven and Hell of Robert Flud by David Prill
Prill’s story combines elements of The House of Usher with a little of The Tell-Tale Heart; the sense of decay and the macabre, the death inherent in the whole tale, the terrible sense of the American Gothic that pervades the piece are a sort of modern Poe. There’s a build-up of the inevitable over the course of the novel as it moves towards a more and more horrific sense of death; it’s ugly and decaying and dead, and Prill is awfully good at the darker side of Poe…
Flitting Away by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Rusch says of this that it is an ordinary crime, quoting Poe on Marie Roget; and she’s right. That doesn’t make it any less horrific – she sets up a crime (a murder) and plays it through, and uses it as a starting point to reach forward and backward into the life of the victim of that crime; and the effects of the crime are as horrifying as the crime itself. Rusch’s story is incredibly well-written, and filled with a passion and horror derived from Rusch’s own reaction to the crime of the story, and it’s a very much ordinary horror story from Poe…
Kirih’quru Krokundor by Lucius Shepard
This is the second story in this anthology I’m unimpressed by, and I’m unimpressed on multiple counts. Shepard’s story is very much Death By Sex, and also has problems of morality (there’s a very explicit judgement in the story against sex and against Nubia for her sexual behaviour, as well as against homosexuality); it also doesn’t have the sense of gloom, or any hint of the macabre, or really any element whatsoever of Poe’s fiction. It’s an odd selection, then, on all these counts; and not a terribly well-written story, to my mind.
Lowland Sea by Suzy McKee Charnas
This story, a take on The Masque of the Red Death combined with modern celebrity culture but also with a certain powerful air of its own, is a brilliant piece of work. Obviously infused with the sense of Poe, the writing style has the same air of inevitability to it, and the sudden twist away from a straightforward retelling of the original Poe inspiration is unexpected and really well performed. Charnas’ story has a great deal of depth and originality to it, aided by strong characters and a sense of humanity that is wonderful, and the outsider status of our viewpoint character only helps that. A really good tale.
Technicolor by John Langan
Langan's take on the Masque of the Red Death is an interesting one; it starts out a bland college lecture on the story, moves into a more (fictional) historical analysis, and eventually takes on a very different - and unexpected - significance.  Langan's persona as lecturing proffessor is articulate, learned, and contemptuous of his students - a very honest and open image of the average university lecturer, in my experience! - and this lends verisimilitude to the story.  The more spooky and strange elements build up through the story but the reader is brought far enough in that they seem almost normal, and the sudden change in the final part of the story to a more supernatural, strange ending is brilliantly done.  A fantastic closer.
As with her selection in Lovecraft Unbound, Ellen Datlow makes an almost universally excellent selection of short stories here - there is indeed significant overlap of authors between the two anthologies - and also has the same aim of collecting tributes rather than pastiches, an aim very much fulfilled.  The different kinds of story, all very much Poetic, taking on different parts of Poe's oeuvre, are well-selected and varied; whilst The Masque of the Red Death crops up a few times, each occasion has a different take on the story, rather well done and different in each case.  An excellent anthology, and very gothic.
The Walker in the Cemetery by Ian Watson
This is a very Lovecraft story; perhaps a little too anti-science, a little too obvious, and a little too formulaic to be very good perhaps. Cthulhu’s back and apparently likes to play with his food – which is an interesting conceit; that note of originality is the shining part of Watson’s tale, the psychological horror drawn out by the cruelty of the Old One. It’s a bit of a bland, emotionless tale, too obviously intending to invoke horror to manage it and too crude to really be serious. Not a great start.
Sanctuary by Don Webb
This is a much better story than Watson’s; Webb’s story of a town in the time of Cthulhu has the potential to be brilliant, and with the discussion of what happens to rationality and Christianity in the time when the Old Ones return is fascinating. It’s also got some wonderful ideas about where they are – really creepy and almost believable ones. Overall, indeed, Webb’s story, with some excellent characters, is relatively good; however it also indulges in some clichés and folly that really don’t work… especially in regards to the priest; and the crudity takes a lot away. Not terribly good, overall.
Her Acres of Pastoral Playground by Mike Allen
This strange pastoral story is really disturbing; whilst centred on a family and, indeed, quite fascinating, it has really dark under- and overtones, which build to a brilliant conclusion. The inevitability, madness, and strange occurrences are quite wonderfully Lovecraftian, and the slow revelations of more and more that has happened are incredible – as is the post-madness element, absolutely genius. Allen’s story is undeniably both the most Lovecraftian so far and the most brilliant.
Spherical Trigonometry by Ken Asamatsu
This story’s quite good, about the madness induced by the return of the Old Ones and the inevitable failure of measures to seek safety from them; Asamatsu’s vision of the return of the Old Ones is a grim one, but based very much in the post-Lovecraftian works and esoterica; it also brings in some fascinating ideas. However, the ending is far too neat in an annoying, happy way which really doesn’t fit the essential hopelessness of his story… let down by that, it can’t be called great, but at least decent.
What Brings the Void by Will Murray
 This one’s a fantastic tale, actually; Murray has a brilliant sense of rising and creeping dread, of inhumanity, of imminent annihilation, and indeed the sense of a world only just gone mad is incredible. His use of the remote viewing experiments of the US government are quite fun and add to the atmosphere of unreality, although they do take from the realism of the story. In the end, the creation of the character and the understanding, both of the Lovecraft mythos and of the Old Ones themselves, is incredible.
The New Pauline Corpus by Matt Cardin
This is a strange one; Cardin takes theology and aligns it to Cthulhu – through madness and a lens of unbelief, admittedly; he imagines the Catholic Church being forced to realign its doctrines in the face of the appearance of the Old Ones, and that concept is what runs through the story. It has a disjointed prose style which makes reading it confusing, and it is very unclear (as well as actually theologically pretty weak and incoherent…); all in all, whilst the concept is fascinating, Cardin fails to effectively put it into practice.
Ghost Dancing by Darrell Schweitzer
Schweitzer’s story is decent, though hardly fantastic. It captures the panic and chaos that the return of the Old Ones would produce, and it captures the idea of a world gone mad with religious fervour – to make the Old Ones leave; however, it also has rather too hopeful an element in it, and indeed the Old Ones themselves seem strangely absent from the story except as names. On the other hand the characters are excellent and this makes the story actually rather good.
This is How the World Ends by John R. Fultz
This is quite a well-written story; it captures the horror and claustrophobia of Lovecraft, involves a Mad Max element in its post-Apocalypticism, and has a transformative element that’s a brilliant twist. It’s a dark and horrific tale, with characters whom we come to identify with only to be thrown by twists dropped in over the course of the tale. However, it fails to really give you a sense of anything – even those characters to whom we are drawn are very sketchy. Good, but sparse, perhaps?
The Shallows by John Langan
This is quite an interesting piece – though really it has nothing to do with the Cthulhu Mythos or return of the Old Ones, which simply act as a background element; indeed they are largely irrelevant to the human narrative of the piece, and that human narrative is not a terribly well-written one either. Indeed, Langan’s whole story is rather out of keeping with the anthology and not terribly exciting; whilst it is definitely well written – or rather, the monologue is – the other events are not so well done, with their slightly purpling prose being more pastiche of Lovecraft than tribute.
Such Bright and Risen Madness in Our Names by Jay Lake
This is a decent story; it starts slowly and unpromisingly, to my mind, but Lake’s actually got something really impressive going here. The world built around the rise of the Old Ones and their return, and the idea of them as careless, “narcoleptic” masters of the Earth, is less fascinating than the split that Lake foresees in humanity – a split I can’t help but agree with him on; and the idea of that split, and what it would lead to, is the truly fascinating element of the story – as is the simple humanity of people even in the face of the Old Ones. Great stuff.
The Seals of New R’lyeh by Gregory Frost
Frost’s story is brilliant. It’s a heist tale (yes, a heist, after Cthulhu’s ascendance!) and yet it is also, somewhat, about an attempt to resist the Old Ones; the characters are typical of the heist drama, and all in all it’s a great combination of humour, bumbling incompetence and brilliance. It also manages to get in the numinous and nameless terror that is so sadly lacking in much of this anthology; Frost really does pull off a great piece of work here!
The Holocaust of Ecstasy by Brian Stableford
Stableford’s tale is utterly strange – utterly, utterly so; he creates a weird vision of the post-Cthulhu world that’s actually rather, indeed, incredibly beautiful, and so very alien. The authorial hand shows itself in the thoughts of the viewpoint-character, but it works incredibly well; discovering the world with him, peeling back layers of Mythos and mythology, uncovering the truth over time. It’s a brilliant, beautiful and intensely unsettling story, and I think it is the highlight of this collection.
Vastation by Laird Barron
This is a strange story, and not one I’m a fan of. It’s more VanderMeer than Lovecraft, with a fungus-focus, and the central character is unlikeable, unsympathetic and more than a little insane; indeed, the whole story could be described in those terms. Whilst an interesting concept – and indeed with interesting futurism – Barron’s story fails to capitalise on those elements and lacks a certain clarity, or sense, or even plot, really; in the end it’s a failure as a story, to put into practice an interesting concept and world.
Nothing Personal by Richard A. Lupoff
This is quite a good story; it explains what the Old Ones are, and where they come from – in terms quite alien to Lovecraft, in no small part because they hadn’t been invented then – and also has a really incredible character and setting of far-future SF with a cosmonaut. It’s actually a really well-written and well-told story and Lupoff marshals his concepts incredibly well, keeping hold of the essentials all the time; perhaps the most brilliant element is the end and the thinking that drives it. A really good psychological piece.
Remnants by Fred Chappell
Chappell's story is a really rather brilliant one; it has psychological insight (indeed, the description of the autistic mind and thought-process is incrdibly insightful and wonderful) and it combines this with a plot that, whilst actually vastly reducing the threat of the Old Ones, still leaves them dangerous, and indeed, universe-threatening; it's a brilliant tale, well-told and suspenseful, with a real power to it and a really interesting idea - both of what the motive of the Old Ones is, and of how they act.  A stand-out story.
Having just read Lovecraft Unbound and the excellent selection made by Ellen Datlow, Schweitzer's anthology is much more disappointing; whilst there are strong stories included, and indeed some really excellent ones, it's a much more mixed bag, with a stronger feel of pastiche than tribute; of simply recycling Lovecraft, rather than using him as a jumping-off point. There is, at times, a sense of horror and suspense; and the unknowable horrors of the Old Ones are actually there in some of these stories, but what this anthology mainly drives home is that, in not telling us what happens when the stars are right, Lovecraft was doing something very clever: he wasn't forcing himself to dilute the pure horror of the unknown, as these are.  I wouldn't recommend it, honestly.
The Crevasse by Dale Bailey & Nathan Ballingrud
Bailey and Ballingrud use the same frozen setting as Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness to build up a nameless frozen horror in the mind of the viewpoint-character, Garner; the three main figures, Garner, Connelly, and Bishop are really well-drawn and characterful, with Garner’s history as bleak as any Lovecraftian wounded figure. In the end, the numinous, un-fleshed-out and unknown horror with physical and mental horrific elements combined is brilliant; as an opening story, it’s utterly Lovecraft and utterly stellar.
The Office of Doom by Richard Bowes
This is just a really spooky one. Bowes uses the Necronomicon straight from Lovecraft – and indeed includes mentions of Lovecraft’s work explicitly in the story; perhaps The Office of Doom could be described as metafictional, and indeed Borges-influenced as well as with Lovecraft bearing down on Bowes. The story is really well-written, what with our librarian narrator and the other characters, disturbing implications and all; this slow thriller is a brilliant story.
Sincerely, Petrified by Anna Tambour
This one’s quite brilliant, Tambour’s story about the power of fear – and perhaps the power of the human psyche to be suggested and opened up to self-sabotage – really matching with psychological theory. Her concept is brilliant, and the story’s development and growth from humble beginnings to a wonderful, awful denouement is absolutely stunning; especially the writing style, with switching viewpoints and the various styles of communication involved. Really creepy.
The Din of Celestial Birds by Brian Evenson
This is a really weird and freaky one, and again very Lovecraft – right down to the racial (though, unlike H. P., Evenson avoids a racist) element. Evenson’s story builds and builds with a slowly increasing horror and series of revelations, and with transformations and strange infectiousness that is very much reminiscent of some of Lovecraft’s work; and the named horror, a trapped evil accidentally released, is very H. P. indeed. This is a great story.
The Tenderness of Jackals by Amanda Downum
Downum’s story, somehow, doesn’t strike me as Lovecraftian; or not typically so. On the other hand it should – the monsters, the horror, the awfulness, the sense of history and of place; indeed, the very atmosphere, despite the German setting, is incredibly Lovecraftian. Perhaps the ending, which would never happen in the works of H. P. himself, and perhaps the slightly different take have combined to obscure it; either way, this is an incredibly strong and powerful piece.
[N.B: It also reminds me of the Crossbow Cannibal case this year – some really strange parallels!]
Sight Unseen by Joel Lane
Lane’s story needs the explanation at the end to really work, but once that’s been read, it clicks into place; it’s about the growing isolation of one man from the world – seen through the prism of the isolation of another man from his family and the same world. It’s a creepy, spooky story at the end, building up slowly to a sudden climax; overall not terribly well told, although very detailed, but relying (for me at least) too much on the explanation to work. Not bad, but hardly great.
Cold Water Survival by Holly Phillips
We are once more back At the Mountains of Madness, with a tale on an iceberg; it’s a really strange one, slightly near-future SFnal I suppose, but the sense of creeping, dawning, growing, maddening horror is absolutely real and essential. Phillips’ story builds incredibly slowly, despite having a powerful moment early on – and the structure aids that building as we see things happen and change day by day. It’s a really disturbing, creepy story.
Come Lurk With Me and Be My Love by William Browning Spencer
This is a strange, somewhat odd story; it seems to use the idea of the Deep Ones and the Elder Gods, and even the devouring, in something of a novel way – plus it has a great twist on the idea of intelligent design. However, it’s not really horrific as a story – indeed the sense of strange terror and horror pervading much of the anthology so far is strangely absent here, and its lack is telling. It simply isn’t as good as the preceding stories, I think.
Houses Under the Sea by Caitlín R. Kiernan
This Dagon-based, marine story is utterly brilliant; Kiernan’s is one of the strongest of the collection so far, powerful and vast in its scope yet intensely human, emotionally moving, and brilliantly written. The writing style matches the narrator-character, the events are simple and small in scope with huge implications, and the mixture of elements is excellent; it builds slowly and achronologically coming to its final climax. Wonderfully subtle, horrific, and – if I may appropriate the word – numinous.
Machines of Concrete Light and Dark by Michael Cisco
Cisco’s story is rather akin to Downum’s, or at least there’s a thematic resonance there; but Cisco’s is a much darker, stranger affair. He spends a long time building up an atmosphere of horror, and indeed impending doom – which pays off in the end. The incredible aesthetic and descriptive power Cisco demonstrates creates a wonderful atmosphere fitting the horrific conclusion perfectly. Great stuff.
Leng by Marc Laidlaw
This story reminds me significantly of Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen and Finch in its fungus-centric tale. However, this is far more inhuman, horrific, and old weird; Laidlaw uses a nameless power, a dark and disturbing buildup. There are no Old Gods or Dark Ones in the conventional Lovecraftian sense but there is a power, and it is an awful one – and the ending of the story is brilliant, with its pseudo-conclusion. It involves beauty, scientific detail, and works perfectly.
In the Black Mill by Michael Chabon
Chabon’s tale of human horror, involving industrial evils, Dark Gods in a very Lovecraftian sense, and anthropological/archaeological research is a brilliant synthesis of so many themes of H. P. It’s an ugly, slow tale, which builds up in a dark way to a wonderful conclusion; the human element is mixed in its goodness and evil, and also in its approach to life. The bleak, grim conclusion is perfect for the story, and works incredibly well.
One Day, Soon by Lavie Tidhar
Tidhar’s story is quietly brilliant. Influenced by his Jewish heritage – there is Holocaust-imagery here disguised thinly at most – and directly challenging the racism of Lovecraft, Tidhar brings together this world and an alternate history in which the Germans invaded Palestine in 1942; the mix of thin walls between the worlds and evil wreaked by a book is incredibly Lovecraft, and the sense of a mental illness affecting only one person at a time is quite strong. It’s really brilliant work.
Commencement by Joyce Carol Oates
Oates’ story is not one I’m a fan of. It takes a long time to build up and create the sense of the ordinary that the final sections pervert totally, and it uses Masonic symbolry to foreshadow the strange rituals involved. In the end, it is a ridiculous story; it takes too long to build up, uses the psychology to that end in a contrived way, and – whilst juxtaposing some interesting things, mainly civilised/savage and future/past – Oates fails to achieve much.
Vernon, Driving by Simon Kurt Unsworth
Unsworth’s story is a realist, rather than fantastic, tale, unlike everything else in this collection so far. It’s a horrific story of humanity, with a brilliant direct Lovecraft pastiche in the form of Jay; it has some fantastic psychological insight, the build-up of personality and psychology in the story is great, and the gothic, brilliant sense of awe Unsworth creates is incredible. This is one of the best stories in this collection despite being one of the furthest, except in its claustrophobia, from Lovecraft himself.
The Recruiter by Michael Shea
Shea’s story, involving resurrection, inhumanity, and a nameless, numinous and marine Old One is very Lovecraft. He creates a sense of inevitability and powerlessness that is absolutely incredible, and the futility of everything is brilliant; however, Shea collapses everything with the hopeful ending and that rather betrays the Lovecraftian power involved. Shea’s story, then, is wonderful… until the last paragraph, when it betrays itself completely.
Marya Nox by Gemma Files
The Christian overtones to this story, and the wonderful historicity of the pagan/Christian synthesis, is something I can’t help but love; and the fact that it’s involved in a fantastic story by Files, a small-scale tale of an unknown, nameless power replaced (sort-of) by Christianised worship is brilliant. Indeed, the format of the piece – an interview, retrospective – lends it a certain power; and the whole thing is just amazing.
Mongoose by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear
This is an odd tribute to Lewis Carroll in science fictional form, with Lovecraftian overtones; really brilliant work by Monette and Bear with a build-up of the background to the world, a sense of evil, and a great degree of ugliness and things-from-Beyond incorporated into it. However, it’s the characters which work best and the story is character-driven in an incredible way; it’s a great piece of work, though with far too happy an ending for a Lovecraft story.
Catch Hell by Laird Barron
This one’s disturbing, strange, Lovecraftian, pagan, and very very Christian. Barron’s story involves the Devil – no holds barred Old Bill – and it’s a slow build up to a conclusion far from inevitable and, indeed, very strange; it seems to be one of the weirder and more disturbing stories in the collection, very vivid in its imagery and also very horrific. It is also a little prurient, but we can leave that aside in favour of noting its overreliance (in an H. P. story) on a very Christian morality. Good, but not great.
That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable by Nick Mamatas
This is another one of the stories here which mentions a Lovecraftian monstrosity by name, though again, only one; it’s a post-Mythos story, in the sense that it’s after the return of the Old Ones, too. It’s an interesting, well-told story, brief and well-constructed, hopeless and inevitable; claustrophobic, hopeless and faithless too. All in all very Lovecraft, and very disturbing, though not that strong – above average at best.
Datlow’s selection of stories for this anthology is incredible; despite a few stories I didn’t enjoy, and a couple more I thought were merely good, this is an actually honestly outstanding collection. The best element is that it isn’t a series of pastiches; it might include one or two, but as a rule the authors and stories Datlow has included simply use the Lovecraft canon and Mythos as a jumping-off point, rather than the be-all-and-end-all, instead writing tributes to Lovecraft. Honestly, for fans of the Mythos and others, this is highly recommended; incredibly so.
The Gernsback Continuum by William Gibson (first read in Burning Chrome)
Gibson’s story of an unnamed photographer breaking through an almost numinous presence in America and seeing the ‘30s vision of the ‘80s – the ‘80s-that-weren’t, as it were. The terror and glory of the story, and the strange retrofuturism of the description, and the retreat into the glory of the mundane that closes it, are all really well done, and Gibson’s contribution to this collection is a strong – and atypical – opener for a steampunk anthology.
Great Breakthroughs in Darkness by Marc Laidlaw
This story is told rather well through the interesting style of a series of linked encyclopaedia entries, each expanding on or continuing the story – with one notable exception, which comments on that fact. Laidlaw’s story is very steampunk, with an element of the weird about it layered in there; and it’s well-told and stylised, but retains a powerful punch, making the reader think and, indeed, fear.
Dr. Lash Remembers by Jeffrey Ford
This is quite a fun story of a steam-borne pandemic, one involving delusions amongst other symptoms. The idea of the response being driven by economic necessity, and the Marxist underpinnings of the story, are really wonderful – I say that as a socialist – and the character of Dr. Lash is brilliant, doing as he does and being honest about why. It’s a great, really intense and intelligent tale.
The Unblinking Eye by Stephen Baxter
This cross-cultural steampunk tale of an alternate history is quite interesting, imagining what the world would have been like if, whilst the world was forming, it had been expelled from the Milky Way. It’s really well written and thought out, with Baxter’s hard-SF chops coming to the fore as he posits alternate developments in human history; it’s a fascinating, and indeed brilliant, story.
The Steam Dancer (1896) by Caitlín R. Kiernan
This story gives the lie to Charles Stross’ recent rant about steampunk; Kiernan avoids sentimentalising the 19th century American West, allowing for human love and good things but also being brutally honest about the grimness that the majority of life held. The steam dancer is a wonderful, beautiful and multifaceted character, strong and well-written; reading the story, one falls a little bit in love with her. The story works incredibly well, the mingling of sentiment and darkness fantastic.
The Cast-Iron Kid by Andrew Knighton
This story – based, I guess, on the Edisonades – is quite a good one, with its dark ending and the build-up to it somewhat obvious. It’s a grim story of the Old West, lawless and cruel; and it involves some archetypal figures from the Westerns along with the characters of Knighton’s own creation, such as Johnny. It builds up to a brilliant, if not wholly unexpected, conclusion, and is a stunning piece of work really.
Machine Maid by Margo Lanagan (first read in Extraordinary Engines)
In my original review of this story, I made an assumption – a rather false one; this Australian story, focusing on the seamier, grimier side of life, the isolated wife of a gentleman forced to endure his boorishness and the role society forces her to play, breaks out and takes her fate into her own hands. Lanagan tells it elegantly and stylishly, with a touch of the macabre at just the right moments; indeed, she writes the story disturbingly and hauntingly. Spooky stuff.
The Unbecoming of Virgil Smythe by Ramsey Shehadeh
This is quite a nice story. Not very Victorian, or steampunk, in some ways it’s more just science fiction with a touch of Orient Express romanticism; however, the characters, aesthetics and style of the piece make it firmly Victoriana and, therefore, firmly steampunk. Shehadeh’s story is a beautifully constructed piece of excellence, especially it’s exploration of temporality and the consequences of manipulating it. Good stuff.
The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar by Shweta Narayan
This retelling of a traditional Eastern epic myth is an interesting, beautiful story of mechanical beings, fable and myth intertwined with the typical story-within-a-story structure, and of course, it’s lavish, lush, beautiful and wonderful. It’s an amazing, brilliant story, intense and powerful with a strong moral and a beautiful arc. Really wonderful stuff, and I especially love the Artificer bird’s intelligence. Narayan’s one I want more from.
O One by Chris Roberson
This story is, as implied by the name, about a few things, including computing, tradition, humanity, and inevitability. Roberson’s characters aren’t exactly sympathetic, but they are really well drawn and individual people; they also interact quite impressively. Perhaps more so, the imagery – of their thoughts, of the setting, of the alternate-history – is all incredibly exquisite and beautiful in a very formal way. Really cool story.
Wild Copper by Samantha Henderson
This story – a story of the fae and of Coyote, of folklore and mythology – is a strange one for inclusion. I’d say it isn’t really steampunk, as a story, and is “simply” a telling of a Coyote-tale; but for all that, it is still a good, well-written, well-built and interesting, indeed, beautiful story. Much as it is out of place, it is well written and Henderson creates really incredible characters; great work.
The Bold Explorer in the Place Beyond by David Erik Nelson
This story’s quite an odd one; it’s mostly a story within a story, wonderfully science-fictional (talking squids! In steampunk undiving suits!) but is definitely steampunk – mostly in it’s background of a civil war won by Union automata. It’s quite a fun, indeed a very fun, story; whimsical and told in a brilliant voice, a very Southern one, it’s a characterful and interesting, well-wrought story.
Lost Pages from The Encyclopaedia of Fantastic Victoriana by Jess Nevins
This brief excerpt from The Encyclopaedia is a fascinating look at the history of steam-powered vehicles in reality and in Nevins’ own imagination, a mingling (as best as I can tell) of the fictional and the real into a brilliant and wonderful combination to create an entry on steam devices with all the veracity of truth but a feeling of fiction. Wonderful stuff.
Tanglefoot (A Clockwork Century Story) by Cherie Priest
This is a strange, weird and macabre one; the characters are brilliant, and Priest’s portrayal of a brilliant mind lost to dementia is absolutely heartrending and painful to read. The various characters interact well, and Edwin and Dr. Smeek are incredible creations. The story moves slowly but develops well, with hints of other stories to come, and Priest has a horrific, brilliant creation here.
A Serpent in the Gears by Margaret Ronald
Ronald’s tale reads like a gaming experience – and, given her blurb about it, probably is one! It’s a really good fast-moving story, with revelations about the nature of the characters and world slow and kept close to Ronald’s chest rather than being revealed instantly. Indeed, those revelations are one of the best elements of the story – they’re repeatedly gamechanging, completely turning things on their heads. Absolutely stunning work.
The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday by G. D. Falksen
This story’s quite a fun one; an original and new take on blogging and the opinion pages of the broadsheet press, Falksen’s setting is a mingling of steampunk with a factual take on approximately 1920s Britain. It’s a good, funny story – indeed, for someone who is a blogger themselves, it’s incredibly amusing; and the characters work really well, Max and Cerys both. Great work.
The Persecution Machine by Tanith Lee
Lee’s story is a strange one, a mix of internal-fiction and madness. I will admit I wasn’t overly impressed; the concept is a slightly confusing, overly pointless and meandering one without really being focused, and the execution is a little bitty, with the pacing ramping up and down without heed for any consistent flow. All in all, indeed, Lee’s story isn’t a great one; an off note in an otherwise, so far, excellent anthology.
Balfour and Meriwether in the Adventure of the Emperor’s Vengeance by Daniel Abraham
Abraham is, as usual, an utterly brilliant author; this story, which combines Neil Gaiman’s Eterenals, Transformers, and steampunk, is a great example of that. Abraham’s imagination has provided automata from the ancient world, secret conspiracies (of Jews, no less!), and Egyptology in a Victorian setting; the final note of the story is beautifully subtle and yet clear; and the characters are really incredibly vivid, given that he only has 20 pages to play with. Incredible stuff.
As Recorded on Brass Cylinders: Adagio for Two Dancers by James L. Grant & Lisa Mantchev (first read in Weird Tales)
This story, of love and time and betrayal, is a beautiful, moving, affecting one – really wonderfully written, with some amazing moments in it; absolutely incredible. Grant and Mantchev have created two characters in a scenario that really does shine, in so many ways – the interactions are so naturalistic and human, and the concept and description wonderful. This is an incredible, brilliant story.
Flying Fish Prometheus (A Fantasy of the Future) by Vilhelm Bergsøe, trans. Dwight R. Decker
This story could equally fittingly have been included in Mike Ashley’s Steampunk Prime; written in 1869, it looks a century into the future and predicts a lot of scientific and political advances – some with a high degree of accuracy. Bergsøe was clearly interested in the science behind things, and his career as a naturalist shows its influence heavily; the concerns of his time are also reflected in this story by turns amusing and simply fascinating. Given its 19th century date, it’s amazing how well it fits in with this anthology.
The Anachronist’s Cookbook by Catherynne M. Valente
Valente’s highly political tale of the darker underbelly of Victoriana, which she seems to believe no one else has addressed (The Difference Engine, for instance, notwithstanding) is regardless a rather excellent story. The development of Jane Sallow as a character, and of her history, is well done through both the pamphlets interspersed in the story and the main body of the story, and the pamphlets are really pretty true to the period’s political styles. A great piece of work.
Lovelace and Babbage: Origins, With Salamander by Sydney Padua
This graphic short story, excerpted from a webcomic, is quietly brilliant; well-drawn and well laid out, the script is amusing (if also weird) and the joy taken in telling, and then completely rewriting, Lovelace’s life is quite brilliant. There’s not much to say since it’s relatively light, but it is a good teaser…
A Secret History of Steampunk by The Mecha-Ostrich
This final fiction in the collection is depressing akin to the stories in Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, and especially the appendix thereto. Whilst it has some decent qualities, the paranoia and ridiculous furtiveness, as well as the construction of meta-real fictions, is an annoying facet of a story that is simply not well constructed; the shared world is interesting and could be much better explored, but in the end, it falls apart rather messily and impressively. Not a good end to the stories in this excellent anthology.
Which Is Mightier, the Pen or the Parasol? by Gail Carriger
Carriger’s little nonfiction essay on the link between written word and fashion reflects my own experiences with steampunk, from a different angle. Well-written and well-argued, Carriger reflects on the antecedents of steampunk, its rise as a fashion movement, and its increasing influence in the mainstream world; an intelligent piece.
At the Intersection of Technology and Romance by Jake von Slatt
Slatt’s meditation on the way technology has become removed, remote, and harder to understand is, whilst interesting, I’d suggest rather flawed; he argues that the steampunk movement is simply a resurgence of the electronics hobbyists, and a Maker movement. As someone brought to it by the literary aspects, it always annoys me to see them denigrated, and here Slatt simply ignores them. The argument is, however, well-presented from an American point of view, although it rather falls down on being exported overseas… Not a fantastic essay, but thought-provoking.
The Future of Steampunk: A Roundtable Interview
This set of short essays is interesting for its diversity of opinion and thought on what steampunk is – literary subgenre, literary aesthetic, physical aesthetic, anarchistic movement or heading for the mainstream; it’s fascinating in the array of opinion on where steampunk is going. The selection of authors is good, taking people from various corners of the genre, and that makes it an excellent conclusion to the book.
The VanderMeers' follow-up to the Steampunk anthology is, indeed, an excellent sequel to that work; the collection and selection of stories here is incredible, taking in a wide view of what steampunk can be, and comprising of a set of different tales that work really well together.  The Vandermeers have also applied a very critical eye to the genre and therefore taken a strong selection of stories, almost all incredibly good, to build this anthology; whilst there are some duff notes, and whilst the nonfiction essays at the end focus overmuch on the non-literary aspects of steampunk, this is still an incredible and fantastic exploration of the genre as it is today.
Teb Hunter by Allen M. Steele
This isn’t a funny story, but it’s vaguely amusing – a story of a hunting trip which, for the reader, goes suddenly weird part way through. Interesting, in its own way – the portrayal of Jimmy Ray (who’s even more of a redneck than the name makes him sounds) is amusing for its stereotypicality – Steele’s story’s short and to the point.
Coyote Goes Hollywood by Ernest Hogan
This whimsical Disney-meets-Coyote tale is a rather fun piece; the slow development, the revelations, the writing style all work so well as to create this wonderful atmosphere and the sense of inevitability – indeed, there aren’t many twists but there is a definite inevitability about the ending – isn’t a letdown so much as a laugh. A good, and amusing, story.
Spicy Detective #3 by Jeffrey Ford
This one-sentence (and one-page… it’s a long sentence!) story is a sort of stream of conciousness; it needs to be read a couple of times because it’s quite hard to follow, but does make some sense – really good on the atmospheric front, but a little bit of a letdown on the plot and amusement sense. Good writing, if confusing, but to my mind not a good story.
Auspicious Eggs by James Morrow
Where the wit comes in this story I don’t know; Morrow’s tale of a grim dystopia obsessed by religious doctrine and relentless increase of the population is a horrific image, and – of course – very well written. The characters are excellent, and the spin on Catholic doctrine’s creative; the jokes and references are well done, but overall, the tale is damning, depressing, and horrific. Really good, but not, somehow, appropriate to a wit-themed antho, I think.
Timmy and Tommy's Thanksgiving Secret by Bradley Denton
This is a rather amusing one; it keeps secrets and twists in reserve over the course of the story and slowly lets them out. Telling it from the perspective of a child allows those twists to be dealt out slowly, and without the adult reader really knowing what’s going on; all in all this is a really well done, simple and hilarious story.
Savage Breasts
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
This… is a weird and funny story; rather misogynistic in many ways, it imagines women as sex objects and little more – with sentient breasts. It’s an odd tale, and the developments throughout are a little strange (overall the thing makes no real sense) but it’s humorous and overall not too bad.
I Love Paree by Cory Doctorow and Michael Skeet
This is a rather good – and political – near-future story; with cyberpunk elements and elements of high politics, it mixes all sorts of things into something that is at once deadly serious and terribly amusing. The level of punning and joking doesn’t detract from a plot that involves war, death, and other such topics; and the plot still manages to include elements of humour all its own. A really great balance struck and maintained excellently and expertly.
Arabesques of Eldritch Weirdness #8 by Jeffrey Ford
This is a fun story, very pulp; another stream of consciousness in the same style as Ford’s previous story in the antho, but this time without trying to be anything but pure and sheer pulp, invoking every trope of the genre. Fun and silly.
Seven-Day Itch by Elise Moser
This is a weird one; Moser’s story is disturbing and fun at once, with some strange thought gone into it – Moser’s idea isn’t wholly original, but the treatment is pretty new. And worrying. It’s an amusing piece, despite the sense of horror that pervades in it; a great work, really, with awesome characters.
Scuttling or, Down By The Sea with Marvin and Pamela by William Sanders
This is very much played straight as a Pied Piper tale, with a racist (Marvin), a new-agey wife (Pamela) and a magic Native American (the old man, Pied Piper analogue). It covers themes of racism and bigotry, anger and it’s punishment, turnabout as fair play, and (unfortunately) the idea of genocide as justified response to genocide. Whilst on some level amusing, the serious undertone’s too dark to really work in a story that is meant, essentially, to be funny…
Halloween Like Any Other by Michael Arsenault
Arsenault’s tale’s very well written; short and to the point, it constantly asks the reader to review what he’s seen so far in the light of what’s happening now, so we’re never sure quite what’s happening, and whether the lead character (unnamed as he is) is sane or not, and whether his mission is real or not. Really well played and well-written, it’s a brilliant take on Blade and Van Helsing from a new angle.
Lights of Armageddon by William Browning Spencer
This is another brilliant story; Spencer’s play with the Fey and demons, with showmen and slow suspenseful horror, is simple and brilliant – it’s gentle and light, but with really dark under- and overtones; it avoids too much explicit horror, but it is quietly brilliant. Indeed, the interplay of the characters and the way they’re so roundly and wholly created so briefly is incredible; an amazing piece.
Doc Aggressive, Man of Tin #2 by Jeffrey Ford
This stream-of-consciousness is a play on the superhero genre; ridiculous in the extreme, it leaves no sacred cow unattacked and no trope alone. It’s sublime in it’s ridiculousness, but in not much else – Ford’s wordplay isn’t appalling, but it’s hardly a shining example of brilliance, in these pieces.
Bagged 'n' Tagged by Eugene Byrne
This is a really weird story of revolutionary fervour and dystopia in a Britain of the near future; indeed, such is the technodystopia that it’s simply a development of modern policies in many ways (Tories, take note – this is not a model to follow!). The characters are good and the ultimate climax of the story is built up to well, with things leading naturally to each other excellently; indeed, Byrne has created a well-written and well-crafted believable dystopia in a wonderful way.
Amanda and the Alien by Robert Silverberg
This is a fun story; the real menace is… not the obvious one, though in some ways the tale takes an obvious course. It’s a good, and fun, story which moves at a reasonable lick, keeping the reader on their toes; the alien is portrayed creditably and interestingly, with some really interesting foibles; and the relationship between Amanda and the alien is really well done. A decent tale.
Diary from an Empty Studio by Don Webb
This is a really good story of delusion and counter-delusion; what’s going on is really inexplicable, in many ways, as the reader has to guess at the heart of the story and the true events which are only portrayed through the diary entries of a self-confessed madman. The horror of the story, and the delusion-and-counter-delusion element, are really well balanced; great stuff, all over.
Is That Hard Science, or Are You Just Happy to See Me? by Leslie What
This one’s kind of disturbing; the future of sex prevention put down to science, choice taken from the hands of girls (and young women) and put into the hands of computers. It’s really well done, if confusingly, jumping in time and with excerpts from different “sources” and points of view – but the message gets across in the end.
Six Gun Loner of the High Butte #6 by Jeffrey Ford
This is just getting a little old, by this stage: Ford’s references to various Old West traditional elements are stale, and the whole style of the one-sentence piece has lost it’s novelty rather significantly… rather dull, in the end.
Encounter of Another Kind by David Langford
This one’s a pretty good story, not really science-fiction though. It’s more of a parody of the first-encounter, alien-abduction story that’s a mainstay of certain tabloid-style newspapers, parody in the language, in the style, in the genre-savvyness and in the intricate layers of hoax within hoax. Whilst the reader can make anything they want of it, in the end it’s made clear what’s going on – and is grimly brilliant.
Tales from the Breast by Hiromi Goto
Heh, this is quite a good tale. Right up until the end I was unimpressed, thinking it simply a very straightforward story without any humour but irony, and then it has a very much twisting turn in the final section which really works incredibly well. It takes too long to build to it, but once the set-up’s replaced with punch-line, brilliant.
Science Fiction by Paul Di Filippo
This one’s really just strange, rather than humorous. Di Filippo’s normally deft prose style seems to have been replaced by an almost Dickesque lack of style, as he jerks. From sentence. To sentence. None complete. Just breaking up. The narrative. It really wrecks the flow of the story and one’s reading of it, and stops one properly enjoying the experience. The story itself is creative, though not amusing, and has an interesting conceit at its heart, but the execution really makes this nigh-unreadable.
Mother's Milt by Pat Cadigan
Heh, this is a pretty good story; slowly revealing itself in the twisted, horrific way of the best of that genre. Not really science-fiction, it’s more just genreless, except for the black, bleak humour and brilliance that underlies both the central concept and the execution of Cadigan’s disturbing story.
Deep Space Adventure #32
by Jeffrey Ford
Standard Ford one-page story, one-sentence stream of consciousness. It really is getting quite old and quite annoying, now – building up and down and up and down as you read through the book, the Ford-authored interludes just wreck the pacing and enjoyment of the anthology.
Wild Girls by Pat Murphy
This is a fantastic story, it really is. Murphy’s writing brings the girls to life – and, for that matter, the adults; she writes nuanced characters, with even those who are antagonists or unsympathetically portrayed being intensely human. However, Next and Fox – Joan and Sarah – are the stars of the show, shining brightly and beautifully in the story, wonderfully captured and very vivacious. This is a really brilliant piece of work, with the perfect ending.
Jumping by Ray Vukcevich
This is an odd story. I’m not sure about it – I have mixed feelings, but I don’t think it really lives up to its potential; the unclear writing style, the mixed nature of the story, the lack of characters, setting, plot… it all adds up to a bit of a mess; it really needs to be longer, more fleshed out, better grounded, I think. Basically? Not a fan.
Kapuzine and the Wolf: A Hortatory Tale by Laurent McAllister
This is an interesting retelling of Red Riding Hood – McAllister’s twisted the tale, using the standard elements (“What big ears you have…”) but adding in new ones – a revolutionary fervour, a set of science fictional elements, and yet retaining the fairy-tale feel in a really interesting way. This is an absolutely brilliant story, and indeed a great way to round out the antho.

This anthology is such a mixed bag of inspired stories and poor pieces that I can't recommend it, but can't really condemn it either.  There's some really bad and/or annoying things in there - especially the repeated Jeffrey Ford one-sentence streams-of-conciousness - but there are also some absolute gems, such as Pat Murphy's brilliant tale, which really worked incredibly well; all in all, too mixed to recommend, too good to condemn, this is one to dip into for the good stories but not to read through, weighed down as it is by really poor selections.
Mr. Broadbent’s Information by Henry A. Hering
This is a story on the evils of science – or more precisely of scientists; they are cast as the villains in this slightly strange tale. Whether it’s truly steampunk is open to question – whilst using Victorian technology, Hering is more writing a biotech novel, perhaps. The tale’s interesting and quite fun, with some nice joy in the science. A fun, if slightly mindless, opener.
The Automaton by Reginald Bacchus & Ranger Gull
This tale combines the Turk with a ghost story; a mixture of sleight of hand and chess, with the mechanical marvel a sort of bait-and-switch, Bacchus and Gull have crafted a fine tale of suspense. The characters are, perhaps, a little wooden by our standards, and the dénouement a little… expected (very Victorian indeed!), but overall it’s a fantastical and enjoyable tale.
The Abduction of Alexandra Seine by Fred C. Smale
This is a rather… adventurey story; it’s very much in the model of the “Girl kidnapped, is rescued, and look! Cool technology!” that science fiction to this day hasn’t entirely escaped from. Smale’s story is distinguished by being an early prototype, and having some interesting technology, but really otherwise doesn’t stand out from the crowd terribly well.
The Gibraltar Tunnel by Jean Jaubert
This is something of an odd one; a tale about the perils of new technology, Jaubert describes the risks of an electric railway running under the Straits of Gibraltar (apparently in the works…). However, it’s also a triumphalist piece about the eventual success of man and technology over nature. Where it falls down is the love element, perhaps; the romance is terribly Victorian, terribly overwrought. Interesting concepts and decent execution, though.
From Pole to Pole by George Griffith
This is a strange story; it mixes the unscientificity of the Hollow Earth with the utter rigidity of scientific calculation, testing, instrumentation and mechanism. It’s a very steampunky story, with a lot of thought going into the science – the most current of its time – and with a strong and independent female character, intelligent and curious in her own right. Indeed, Brenda is the strongest character of the story. A great piece, and definitely protosteampunk.
In the Deep of Time by George Parsons Lathrop
Ah, will it ever be thus… Lathrop’s futurism is, in many ways, farsighted as an extension of the science of his time; sometimes, however, he’s not seen precisely how those developments will take hold. It’s a very optimistic novel, and very realistic at the same time – Lathrop doesn’t believe the poor will be gone, for instance. It’s an interesting exploration of a future, though the characters are little more than tools to give him an excuse to range wide and far. As a piece of futurism, interesting (if off course); as a story, not so great.
The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings by L. T. Meade & Robert Eustace
It’s clear that Meade was indeed a substitute for Conan Doyle whilst Sherlock Holmes was dead; the story has a lot of the same elements – science, a mastermind villain (though female, here, like Meade) and a convoluted but at heart logical plot. It’s well written and fast-paced, and moves at an incredible lick; a great story, really, very Holmesian.
The Plague of Lights by Owen Oliver
This pre-War of the Worlds story is pretty incredible; the imagination behind it is powerful and strong, the writing is moving and affecting, and the characters are people in their own right to whom the reader feels very much drawn. Oliver’s romance which forms a major part of the story is written well, and the antagonistic lights are a really creepy enemy. Great stuff.
What the Rats Brought by Ernest Favenc
This isn’t so much steampunk as straight horror, but Favenc pulls it off with style and aplomb; a fast-acting plague in concert with vampire bats attacks Australia, and the sense of the desolation, horror and destruction visited on the continent is truly palpable, even if our narrator isn’t terribly fleshed out as a person. Semi-Lovecraftian as this is, it is a great and original story.
The Great Catastrophe by George Davey
At first this seems to be a simple tale of Luddism against electricity, but a closer reading reveals the futurism in a lot of the things described (electric cars… oh, if only!). The terror of the catastrophe is palpable, and the atmosphere of horror surrounding the piece is very much there – it’s written as if in the immediate aftermath, by a survivor and eyewitness. The fact the narrator does survive is, perhaps, a little diluting of its power, but otherwise, a strong and effective story.
Within an Ace of the End of the World by Robert Barr
This is a disaster story of the first order; the science behind it is pretty strong, the inevitability of the disaster bearing down on the world like a freight train, and the scholarly nature of the story (it is told as if a history text) is impeccable. It is a shame, then, that there are no characters to latch on to or sympathise with, but in the end, it remains a good and solidly written piece of false-journalism.
An Interplanetary Rupture by Frank L. Packard
This is a pessimistic(ish) story of the far future – the 3rd millennium, in fact; Packard predicts an empire of Man within the solar system, planets at war with each other. This story is of one such war in all its glory and brutality; the nature of the combat is horrific, and the reader is spared little of the detail. The end is perfectly pitched, and it runs as a brilliant counter to the dulce et decorum… thinking of many of the time. Powerful stuff.
The Last Days of Earth by George C. Wallis
This unsettling story of the last days of the human race is a powerful one, seemingly incredibly well researched by Wallis; it describes the cooling sun, and (even 13 million years into the future) the very Victorian sensibilities and speech-patterns of mankind. It’s a bleak story, and an ending even more so; incredibly well written, it’s a bit daunting to read. Wallis certainly knew that what he wrote packed punch.
The Plunge by George Allan England
Good lord; if I didn’t know the date of this story, I would have pegged it as modern steampunk, except for the characterisation of Romney – as a weak and feeble woman. This is a story of derring-do, adventure, catastrophe and an airship; it’s steampunk precisely as we now imagine it, except it has no goggles. A fantastic, and fantastical tale, it really is a blow in the face of those of any period who talk as if “real men” and “real women” exist no longer. Awesome stuff.
Mike Ashley's done a fantastic job in collecting this set of protosteampunk stories together; whilst some don't really fit the modern conception of the genre, as a general rule they're very much obviously the precursors of steampunk as we know it today.  It's clear he went for variety and indeed found it, as there's all kinds of tales contained within; as an introduction to turn-of-the-century science fiction, this is simply fantastic. I recommend it.
Separations by Jean-Claude Dunyach, trans. Sheryl Curtis
This is an incredibly bittersweet work; beautiful and devastating, Dunyach’s concept and imagery combine to form a very existentialist drama which has one questioning all sorts of things. Dunyach’s characters are, maybe, drawn from common science fictional archetypes, but what he does with them is new and incredibly interesting; the build-up to that awful, beautiful ending is amazing. A powerful story, and a really strong opening piece.
A Birch Tree, A White Fox by Elena Arsenieva, trans. Michael M. Naydan & Slava I. Yastremski
This tale relies on a certain haunting melancholy for its effect; Arsenieva takes speech and company from a cosmonaut and makes them live on, unable to speak for fear of dying, hoping for rescue and also dreading it. We really connect with the viewpoint-character as we delve into the fatalism and the hope battling in his heart, and the wonderful humanity is incredible; a really good tale.
Sepultura by Valerio Evangelisti, trans. Sergio D. Altieri
This dystopian science fantasy story (it combines elements of tribal religion with science fiction) set in Brazil is quite fascinating; Evangelisti’s got some interesting concepts and ideas of how repression and politics could work in future. As normal, it’s terribly downbeat, and terribly everything-is-bad; the end is also an interesting combination of futility and hope, which is nicely pulled off.
The Fourth Day to Eternity by Ondřej Neff, trans. Jeffrey Brown
The characterisation in this story is what’s vital – our viewpoint-character’s sense of futility and inevitability, following him through the timeloop that is (or isn’t?) self-inflicted. Its science-fictional element is varied, and changes through the story; what doesn’t is the world-weariness of the central character, as Neff slowly reveals more about what’s going on. The slow build up pays off well, at the end.
Baby Doll by Johanna Sinisalo, trans. David Hackston
Sigh. Sinisalo’s story’s really just the protests of a writer against the supposed sexualisation of youth, which is always worse in this generation, and always going too far; it’s a rant against permissiveness and sexuality, and it’s a screed against children knowing what sex is. Really, all the issues could have been sorted out by good parenting and more mature children, but instead we get this pseudo-distopia. Boring and bad.
“Yoo Retoont, Sneogg. Ay Noo.” by Marek S. Huberath, trans. Michael Kandel
This story’s an interesting one – hard to read, technically brilliant… but not all that enjoyable. Whilst it is an incredible achievement, and a wonderfully creative dystopia, Huberath’s tale doesn’t really let us connect with the characters, which are rather archetypical and not terribly human; it also presents a rather extreme case, and I think could have been better served by something closer to home. Either way, good, but not enjoyable.
The Day We Went Through The Transition by Ricard de la Casa & Perdro Jorge Romero, trans. Yolanda Molina-Gavilán & James Stevens-Arce
This is a great story; de la Casa and Romero’s story of time travel, romance, and the Transition (Spain’s change from fascism to democracy) is a moving, funny, well-explained piece of science fiction. The explanation of the central conceit is wonderful, and the theories underpinning it only slightly fanciful; the characters are real and our connections to them moving; and as a whole, this is a wonderful story.
Athos Emfovos in the Temple of Sound by Panagiotis Koustas, trans. Mary & Gary Mitchell
This is an odd one; reminiscent in some ways of Chiang, it’s a good story, somewhat fantastical, somewhat whimsical, and yet at the same time deadly serious. Some of the central elements are the weirdest, but it’s still a nice tale; very Greek, and very Balkan, simultaneously. An intriguing tale of the gods and of war…
Some Earthlings’Adventures on Outrerria by Lucian Merişca, trans. Cezar Ionescu
This amusing story is a piece of whimsy, dystopian but rather more concerned with being funny than with being political or serious; though Merişca doesn’t shy from making some points about human nature, of course. We don’t really connect with any of the characters, but that’s ok – they serve their purpose of a little analysis of human nature in crisis, and of humour. If you’re looking for highbrow serious literary SF, this isn’t it; if you’re looking for joyful, whimsical SF, it is.
Destiny, Inc. by Sergei Lukyaneko, trans. Michael M. Naydan & Slava I. Yastremski
This is a far less surrealist and insane work than Lukyaneko’s famous Night Watch trilogy. It’s also far better and more interesting. The central concept – the ability to change and switch destinies – is an interesting one, which Lukyaneko plays with well; he also uses the First Law of Thermodynamics to interesting effect. It’s a well-written, very human story, driven by characters not events, and not weighed down with explanations that would have to be pseudoscience. A great story.
Wonders of the Universe by Andreas Eschbach, trans. Doryl Jensen
Eschbach’s contribution to this collection is a short, moving piece – an astronaut on Europa, isolated and dying, beyond hope of rescue. It’s mostly monologue, internal or messages directed for others; and Ursula’s thoughts are given honestly by Eschbach, creating a real character – flawed, ambitious, brave and despairing. Brilliantly moving.
A Night on the Edge of the Empire by João Barreiros, trans. Luís Rodrigues
Heh, this one’s a good one; Barreiros’ story is amusing and serious by turns, looking at the urge to anthropomorphise sentience and its potential effect on our encounters with aliens. It’s a semi-dystopian future, but not wholly so; it’s also a future that doesn’t see much improvement in cabbies… The most interesting element of the story is the relationship between Ambassador and chirptic; it’s one that stinks of colonialism and internalised oppression, but at the same time is more and less than that. Interesting, fun stuff.
Transfusion by Joëlle Wintrebert, trans. Tom Clegg
This very sensuous story is incredibly dark and grim, growing more so as it goes on. As a first-contact story, it’s a little lacking – but as a story of contact with the utterly foreign, it’s a stellar piece. The character of Barbel is interesting and well-portrayed, and the thing she comes into contact with utterly terrifying; the battle that ensues is really well done. A fantastic, horrific piece.
Verstummte Musik by W. J. Maryson, trans. Lia Belt
This story of a future dystopia, where survival is based on achievement and the population is stabilised, is rather disturbing – Maryson has created a story that is at once beautiful and grimly disturbing, horrific and wonderful at the same time. Maryson’s ideas are interesting and new, and the execution of the story is incredible; it’s a wonderful piece, harmonious and simple.
Between the Lines by José Antonio Cotrina, trans. James Stevens-Arce
This is a very Borgesian tale; it’s not quite SF, indeed, it’s not really anything – except a good, high-concept intellectual story about the effects of seeing the world in a truly, literally intratextual manner… it’s a fascinating idea, really well carried off; the characters are strong and interesting, indeed, sympathetic, and the world is well-portrayed. It’s magical realism, perhaps, and absolutely fascinating.
A Blue and Cloudless Sky by Bernhard Ribbeck, trans. Niels Dalgard
This story is a fascinating one; it's a sort of timeloop paradox story, with some foreshadowing and some really interesting morals to put across to the reader.  Its concept is a dark one, again; one of futility and inevitability combined, strange and disturbing.  Ribbeck's played with temporal paradox wonderfully to create an interesting, confusing and strange story... but a really good one.
The Morrows have done absolutely fantastic work, assembling 16 stories from various European countries in very different styles reflecting, perhaps, the histories - recent and long term - of those countries.  They've also got excellent translations, working incredibly hard to make sure of that; indeed, the introduction discusses the long revision-process on the translations of the stories in the anthology.  In the final product, then, we've got excellent stories, very characteristic and very different from each other; a wonderful selection and mix.  Absolutely riveting, and deserving of a wider audience.
Individual Story Reviews )
Gevers and Halpern have put together a generally strong and generally on-theme anthology here; almost every story has an answer for the Fermi Paradox, and most of them are – though related – different. Equally, they all have a way to discuss it differently. There are some duff notes, but also some standout ones – Morrow and Hughes, for instance – and Arsenault’s story is the absolute gem of the collection. I recommend this for scifi readers everywhere.

EDIT: The conclusion's been changed thanks to a kind reader spotting a mistake; I attributed the stand-out story Residue to the wrong author. Thanks to the reader, who wishes to remain anonymous.
Smith: An Episode in a Lodging-House
This is an exceedingly creepy story; the horror is subtle and slow, and the supernatural beings involved are never described – they’re left almost wholly to the imagination, which gives it free range to play. Whilst it is somewhat of its time – the doctor smokes a pipe whilst narrating – it also avoids being pigeonholed there; the horrific element, and the plot itself, is pretty timeless, and the language still modern. Creepy and evocative.
The Willows
This is a wonderful story, the joy and beauty of nature over the course of it subverted to terror and evil. The style’s a little dated now, and some of the language has changed in meaning, but the story still gets its point across – and it is indeed a terrible one; perhaps with some Lovecraftian overtones (although I should say, it was written pre-HP - and has a jacket-quote from the man himself). The slow building of the psychological horror and the awful climax are really well carried off, and the story is deeply unsettling. Really excellent.
The Insanity of Jones
Ohhh, this one’s a weird one. What’s going on isn’t clear, especially with the title – is it justice or madness and temptation? Either way, the building sense of weirdness makes strong use of the mysticism of the fin-de-siècle and the manifestations of Eastern-style religion that came into Britain to create something which, to many of that time, would have been plausible. Whilst again of its time, Blackwood seems to avoid becoming dated, and the sense of the strange is all-pervading.
Ancient Sorceries
This story’s rather odd. Perhaps it’s just the fact that it is rather more openly supernatural from the start, and perhaps it’s the strange elements and rather deus ex machina plot points, but it’s not as good as the previous stories in the collection; indeed, it is singularly worse than them. Whilst the building of a creepy atmosphere is still carried out with consummate skill and ease, Blackwood’s actual horror in the story is rather more bland, and the characters react rather passionlessly; it is only saved by the end of the story, which is a nice touch. Not quite a duff note, but not a story of genius.
The Man Who Found Out
This is a really short and to-the-point piece, starting, doing its thing, and finishing. The implications of it – and especially of its ending – are more horrific than the contents, really, but the story does have an element of inherent and inbuilt horror in the question of what the message at the centre of the story is. Unsettling, but a lot more could have been made of the idea, I think.
The Wendigo
This is a spooky piece of horror; taking the Wendigo of Algonquian myth, Blackwood has constructed a story around it to make the blood freeze. The slow tension building up until the Wendigo’s strike, the tensions between the members of the group and their reactions, and the undescribed Wendigo all add to the terror that this creates – it is possibly the creepiest, scariest story thus far in the volume. It also confirms that one of Blackwood’s chief modes of creating horror is the perversion of the beauty of nature, and one of his chief interests is in reaction to horror – the scientific mindset, destroyed, and the superstitious mindset, more flexible but more open to immediate terror. A creepy, creepy piece.
The Glamour of the Snow
This is another nature-as-evil story, which is the definite theme of Blackwood’s horror. However, this time the main character is not set in a scientific mindset; indeed, he is repeatedly referred to as a pagan mind, and he has a more nature-focussed mind than any of the other protagonists. However, this story also shows up one of the shortcomings of Blackwood – characters escape their fates by luck, and chance, and illogical events, rather than their own strengths, which perhaps weakens the story a bit. All in all, good, but not nearly the best here.
The Man Whom the Trees Loved
This is simultaneously one of the best and worst stories in the volume. It’s the best in that the creepiness is best done, and builds slowly, but clearly, and surely, making sense; it’s also the best in that it doesn’t have a sudden “aaaand you’re saved” at the end, which wouldn’t fit with the tale; and it’s best in that the explanation of the horror is the most, well, horrific, and yet at the same time almost sympathetic. However, it is also the worst – the first time a (non-horror) female appears, and she is a dull, weak, impressionable and stupid character; in fact, Blackwood seems to think all women are dull and boring. Almost as bad is his portrayal of faith as so brittle and so built-in; perhaps influenced by his life, but it seems terribly reductive and (if I may say so without being called a hypocrite) insulting of Christianity. A difficult tale, in many ways, as the attitudes pull you out whilst the horror sucks you in…

This story, unsurprisingly, is a story of the forces of nature in a desert. Blackwood takes the Egyptomysticism of his time, and marries it to his standard pre-Lovecraftian weirdness; this powerful combination, expressive of so much of the mood of the early Twentieth century and Blackwood’s milieu, works well with his descriptive skill and the characters he creates. Here, all three – two men and one woman – are individual characters, with traits and personalities; and they act in such a way as to bring about their motives. This isn’t as creepy as some, nor as horrific, but it’s better executed, and a more interesting story, I think. Neatly done.
The Cambist and Lord Iron
This is quite a fun story, certainly one for the economists out there; a cambist (currency-exchanger) is presented with increasingly difficult dilemmas of exchange – pure economic exchange, if viewed in the right way (that’s a minor spoiler, by the by) – and has to solve them. It’s a lovely story, with the characters really well drawn, especially Olaf, the cambist; a great piece, and a really good explanation of a truly arcane piece of economics.
Flat Diane
This is a spooky story; it’s a bit of modern voodoo, I guess, and a tale of unintended consequences. Both Ian and Diane grow over the course of the story, and become strong characters in their own right; similarly, other characters appear and Diane changes. It’s a skilfully told tale, with the worst elements practiced effectively and efficiently; similarly, the best moments are really moving in themselves. A scary, and very different, story.
The Best Monkey
This is a rather Chiang-like story (although I’m thinking Abraham and Chiang belong in a very similar category…) about aesthetics and its effect on science, and on life. It’s a beautiful story, with a wonderful first-person narrator; set in the near future, it’s a piece of investigative journalism by Jimmy, who is old and nearing burn-out. It’s a good piece, and raises some really good questions without trying to solidly answer them – intellectual, without being pushy or obscure about it, and without trying to tell the reader what to think. Great stuff.
The Support Technician Tango
This is a great story of tech support, of tango, of self-help books being self-aware and evil… and of romance. Abraham has a wicked sense of humour, and in this story he really does let it show; the thing fits together perfectly, and whilst there are some genuinely grim and worrying moments, in more general terms its light-hearted fun. The characters are a little two-dimensional and stereotypical, although Sarah the receptionist isn’t; but the plot moves quite fast, and the whimsy doesn’t feel overdone. A hilarious story.
A Hunter in Arin-Qin
This is a good slow-burning tale that works itself towards a climax that, really, is a bit of a blinder. The build-up creates characters, and times, and events vividly without using the pen-stroke too precisely to allow the imagination to work; and the back-story told in the tale is invaluable and incredible. Abraham’s ability to create a story and an enemy is grand, and the climax of this one is unexpected and well-played, moving and yet (purposefully) it leaves one a little cold.
Leviathan Wept
This is an interesting story – very Hobbesian, as the name would suggest (and Hobbes does come up; it bears thinking about…). It’s a story of the near-future and of a Singularity event, perhaps; and about how peace can come. Abraham creates a cast of sympathetic characters and makes them do awful things – as soldiers, after all – whilst also throwing them into a problematic state; he also pushes an interesting and unusual political philosophy through the story. This is a nice little tale, well worth reading – and perhaps distributing to intelligence agencies the world over…
This is a really good one - let down by the beginning, but otherwise one of the absolute stand-outs of the collection. The description in the jacket flap is misleading, and the first part of the story is rather… melodramatic, in some ways, but the rest of it’s really good. Abraham’s discussion of maturity and how to deal with conflict is really interesting, and whilst the scaled-up versions of it are stuck in at the front (without really being explained… it’s a poorly started story, though it continues really well) the human version played out through its 15-20 pages is excellent and moving. Really interesting in this world of social networks &c.
As Sweet
This is a nice, sweet tale of love and romance – and what those really are; about how growing up and growing old are not the same thing; and about what the difference between Romeo and Juliet, and a couple married for years, is. It’s an interesting story, with a nice moral and a light touch; but somewhat heavy-handed in making its point blunt and clear. A sweet tale, though – as sweet as a rose, maybe…
The Curandero and the Swede
America is a land of immigrants, a “border town” as Abraham puts it in this story… and it’s a land of stories; Neil Gaiman’s American Gods demonstrates that well enough, for example. However, this story is more than just a story of America – it is an American story, and an American story in a very particular way. It’s a story about stories, about America, about people, and about all different “immigrants” to the story itself. It’s a really good tale, a wonderful piece of folklore, and really good on meaning and, again, at its heart, about romance. Wonderful stuff.

All in all, this is a fantastic collection of stories, well worth reading, up there with Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life, and deeply moving... I read them in a day, and it was hard to put them down, even when I needed to.  Few duff notes, and a powerful tour-de-force.
The Dying Earth
This is less a single novella than a set of loosely connected short stories, each a chapter long, in the same setting, some with overlapping characters, others not. Like Lyonesse, there is a feeling of fairytale; and like Lyonesse, a feeling of folklore. However, this is set in the far future – a failing sun, an Earth (our Earth) dying as the sun does. Somehow magic has entered the world (Vance doesn’t explain, except to imply that magic is a result of mathematics and science) and this gives a set of tales some consistency. A good set of stories, in a rather older and now-unused style.
The Eyes of the Overworld
This is, unlike The Dying Earth, a single continuous novella, following Cugel’s mission across Vance’s Dying Earth. Whilst the first novella introduced us to the world, Cugel takes us on a tour of a huge section of it, encountering magic, gods, cults, wizards and pilgrims as he goes, amongst other things; it gives us all sorts of different fantasy cultures and concepts. Cugel is a scoundrel – and not a likeable one – and his mission is a punishment for a crime; at the end we see his idea of justice subverted by his over-self-confidence, and the set up for the next novella is achieved. This is a great piece, typical of Vance, amusing and dramatic by turns, always with a strong hint of unreal and never forgetting the essential fact of the setting: the Earth is dying, and everyone knows it. A great piece.
Cugel’s Saga
Like The Eyes of the Overworld, this is an extended novella – indeed, novel-length – following Cugel’s travels through the dying Earth. Again we see him sent to the furthest ends and, travelling through various lands, by mishap and bad luck and stupidity and criminality, he eventually ends up back in Amery despite it all. The story is, perhaps, a little too long and not terribly engaging; it is also incredibly similar to The Eyes of the Overworld. Not a bad novella, but what with the other works in the volume it doesn’t stand out and is not – even within Vance’s own opus – original.
Rhialto the Marvellous
This is quite a fun tale, about a character somewhat unlike Cugel or those of The Dying Earth; Rhialto is a powerful and clever magician, albeit with a degree of vanity similar to Cugel’s. His adventures are those of a quick-witted man with quick-witted enemies, rather than Cugel’s tale of self-inflicted misfortune; they are also the adventures of a man of power, as Rhialto is better equipped to deal with problems than Cugel. Rhialto is, however, very much arrogant and vain, which gives him a human touch; it seems to be a failing common to many of Vance’s Dying Earth characters. Really, this is the best piece of work in the volume, I think – immensely fun and readable.

All these novellas, then, give us a tour of both Vance's ideas of humanity, and of a setting unlike any other before it (and oft-imitated after it).  Vance has, through this and Lyonesse, earned his place as a masterworker of fantasy.


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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