Cloaked In Shadow, edited by W.H.Horner (Fantasist Enterprises, 2004)

Cloaked in Shadow is the first themed anthology offering from the relatively new Fantasist Enterprises (www.fantasistent.com). With almost two dozen stories featuring the darker side of elves and fairies, it definitely has a little something for everything, though in general, what you’ll find here tends to hew towards a dark fantasy bordering on outright horror, thus proving that elves don’t always have to be happy and shiny.
I have to admit, I was unfamiliar with many of the authors present in this collection, so I really didn’t know what to expect from the stories within. It’s an interesting mix, with some rather memorable stories, some which really convey a lingering dark feeling. Three of them – Erin MacKay’s “Diminishing,” H. Turnip Smith’s “Evil Lives, Vice Eats Simplicity,” and K.D. Wentworth’s “Bad Company” – all deal with mortal police running afoul of elven crimes or mischief, though MacKay’s story is a homicide investigation, Wentworth’s involves a murder on the job, and Smith’s is … hard to explain. In all three cases, things don’t go well for the human involved. In John Sullivan’s “Under Distant Hills,” a woman makes a fateful deal with the elves, sacrificing her future to insure her success in the present, a deal which works out well for the long-term-planning of the elves. J.R. Cain’s “The Suitcase” reads like a cross between True Romance and Tam Lin: when a loser finds a suitcase full of money, he and an old friend and her baby are drawn into a bizarre plot involving elves, cat-fairies, and lots of gunplay. “Rotten Blood,” by Murray Leeder, looks at the last moments of immortality for one race of elves, as the true implications of unchanging eternity are brought to light. Stephen D. Rogers gives us “Laume’s Lesson,” a rather short, viciously-to-the-point story of how elves reward kindness and punish greed.
All in all, Cloaked in Shadow succeeds in delivering some rather dark, disturbing tales involving the elves, mixing science fiction, fantasy, and urban fantasy to produce an interesting assortment. An overuse of pseudo-Gothic lettering used in the font for the cover, table of contents, and page headers does make it occasionally hard to read the names of stories or authors, and I’m not entirely sure what the half-naked elf on the cover is doing with the sword, or what exactly he’s actually wearing, so I do have to subtract points for the presentation. Hopefully future anthologies will have a more polished appearance as the publisher establishes more of a presence in the marketplace. This collection is worth picking up, however, if you enjoy dark fantasy or the nastier side of elves.

Rotten Relations, edited by Denise Little (DAW, 2004)

Just in time for the holidays, we have this lovely anthology, which puts the matter of family into a whole new perspective. Think you might have trouble with your drunken Uncle Gary, who retells the same old stories every year? He can’t stack up to Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, who murdered his brother and married his brother’s wife … or so the story claims. How about that mother your dad married, who tries too hard to be your friend? She’s nothing compared to Cinderella’s stepmother … or is she? Fifteen stories in all retell some very famous fairy tales, fictional accounts, and fables from the viewpoint of the previously-maligned.
In Pauline J. Alama’s “Home for the Holidays,” a father and son attempt to find common ground, amidst the father’s workaholic schedule and the son’s teenage rebellion. The twist here is that the father is Santa Claus, who’s taken on more work than he really needs over the centuries, and quality time with the family has suffered as a result. A clever story, it updates the Santa myth with some modern sensibilities to fit in with the 21st century. “With A Face Only A Mother Could Love,” by Jenn Reese, revisits Grendel from the viewpoint of the monster and his mother, likewise turning it into a tale about an estranged father and son. In “Switched,” Nina Kiriki Hoffman, always good for an introspective, quietly magical story, retells Cinderella, though she turns the tables on both protagonist and “wicked” stepsister. “The Trick of the Tricksters Tricked,” by Josepha Sherman, is a retelling of a classic Coyote story in which the chaotic trickster god runs afoul of a spider trickster and his wife, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who will prevail in a war of pranks.
Bill McCoy turns Sleeping Beauty into a political satire/courtroom comedy with “Dynasty,” a quick story with some very familiar faces to be found. Meanwhile, Cinderella gets a makeover from the viewpoint of the stepmother, in Bradley and Susan Sinor’s “Serpent’s Tooth.” The third and last exploration of the Cinderella story comes in “After the Ball,” by Pamela Luzier, in which the wicked stepmother and her worthless daughters try one last time to get what they think they deserve out of Cinderella’s happy circumstances, and end up in an entirely different predicament by the end. Devon Monk’s “Peggy Plain” is a highly imaginative look at some old nursery rhymes, set in a magical place called Las Fables, where anything goes and everyone’s looking for an angle, or a rhyme.
For a look between the pages of a classic novel, turn to David Bischoff’s “Heathcliff’s Notes,” a metatextual adventure written from the viewpoint of the champion brooder himself and former star of Wuthering Heights. P.N. Elrod attempts to exonerate Claudius and prove who really killed the King of Denmark, in “King of Shreds and Patches,” and the answer may not be who you think it is.
As with any themed anthology, there’s a wide mix of stories to choose from. Happily, I’d have to say that in general, the stories in Rotten Relations do a great job of finding new things to say about their source materials and inspiration. It’s definitely worth picking up, especially if you’ve enjoyed previous DAW offerings like Little Red Riding Hood in the Big Bad City, or The Magic Shop.

Sword and Sorceress XXI, edited by Diana L. Paxson (Daw, 2004)

With this volume, the groundbreaking anthology of feminist fantasy created by Marion Zimmer Bradley reaches twenty-one, thus making it one of the longest-running anthology series in the field, as well as allowing it to drink legally in the United States. This is a landmark volume in another way, being the first in the series not to bear any of Bradley’s hand’s-on influence. Rather, her influence is seen here only in the legacy she’s left behind, and in her chosen successor, Diana L. Paxson, who does an admirable job of hewing to the standards established in previous editions, while looking to the future and the long-term viability of the series. The first Sword and Sorceress appeared in 1984, when the fantasy field looked quite different from it does now, and two decades later, it’s impressive that the series has persevered. While the necessity of the Sword and Sorceress franchise may be questionable these days, given that you can’t swing a dead Evil Overlord without hitting a strong female protagonist (such as Jacqueline Carey’s Phedre), and it’s even spawned a humorous response (in Esther Friesner’s Chicks in Chainmail series), it’s nice to see there’s still a place for short fantasy fiction with a female perspective.
However, I found myself somewhat underwhelmed by this particular collection of stories. It’s not that they were bad; rather, very few actually appealed to me in terms of tone or theme. Paxson may have tried a little too hard to stick to the criteria first established by Bradley, and some of the stories came off either bland or generic, taking themselves way too seriously. Some did catch my attention, though. Jim C. Hines’ “Spell of the Sparrow” looks at domestic bliss gone awry, as a spellcasting interloper threatens to shatter a family forever, unless the protagonist can save her husband through quick wits and timely action. Naomi Kritzer returns to the setting of her first book, Fires of the Faithful, in “Kin.” A war-weary mage is forced to choose between the magic that is her life, and the orphaned infant whose life depends upon her, a choice that could haunt her for the rest of her days. Jenn Reese turns in an intriguing story about vengeance and family and a woman possessed by a very demanding bear-spirit in “Ursa.” Kit Wesler’s “Red Caramae” examines the lengths to which one frustrated would-be magician would go to in order to gain revenge on those who rejected her. Lee Martindale’s “Necessity and the Mother” is an entertaining look at what happens when a town relies too strong upon its magicians, and offends the mercenaries who normally keep it safe. Terry McGarry returns to the land of Eiden Myr in “Kazhe’s Blade,” telling an untold story of a forgotten, tired heroine.
. While almost all of the contributors to this volume are Sword and Sorceress veterans, or alumnae of MZB’s other endeavors (such as the sadly defunct Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine and the Darkover series), newcomers such as Marie Loughlin and K.A. Laity prove the door’s still open to fresh blood. Ultimately, Sword and Sorceress XXI is a worthy addition to the series, with some rather nice stories standing out from an otherwise satisfactory mixture. There’s a little something for everyone here, and it’s good to see the series still has life to it.

Turn the Other Chick, edited by Esther Friesner (Baen, 2004)

I find it fitting that I review this particular book in the same column as the newest Sword and Sorceress, given that the Chicks series is, in some ways, a direct response not only to the feminist focus of S&S, but the much-mocked “chainmail bikini” theme that become such a staple of the fantasy field for many years. Happily, it looks as though there’s still a call for humorous female fantasy fiction, as this volume marks the fifth in the series. You’ll find no shrinking violets here, no delicate damsels in distress, no fainting flowers of femininity. Rather, these heroines shatter expectations and violate conventions gleefully.
You want oversized heroines? Try Lee Martindale’s “Combat Shopping” or Yvonne Coats’ “She Stuffs To Conquer.” How about senior citizen heroines who refuse to settle down and grow old gracefully? Try Jim C. Hines’ “Over the Hill.” A heroine whose sense of honor extends to protecting whoever asks her properly, even if that would-be client is a cat? Jody Lynn Nye’s “Defender of the Small” is the place to look. Eric Flint skewers the sexist stereotypes of the Norse myths in “The Truth About the Gotterdammerung.”
Several stories are unofficial sequels to much older works of fiction: Laura Frankos returns to Shakespeare’s faeries in “A Late Symmer Night’s Battle,” while Esther Friesner revives the tale of David and Goliath with a major twist, in “Giants in the Earth.” Michael Turner’s “Psyched Up” is an unusual take on the “actor is mistaken for the character they play” theme, and John Hemry takes on the “writer follows their Muse” theme that most editors would rather kill than see again, in “Mightier than the Sword.” Luckily, his take on the whole thing is fresh enough that he gets away with it.
For most unusual heroine, turn to Catherine Shaffer’s “The Gypsy Queen,” where the heroine’s identity is at distinct odds with her true nature. In “I Look Good,” Selina Rosen’s heroine is an evil sorcerer’s minion whose lack of job security causes her to take drastic measures. For best title, the award is tied between “Hallah Iron-Thighs and the Hall of the Puppet King” by K.D. Wentworth, and Robin Wayne Bailey’s “Princess Injera Versus the Spanakopita of Doom.”
Harry Turtledove’s “Of Mice and Chicks” reimagines a literary classic with a female fantasy twist.
However, while the vast majority of the stories in Turn the Other Chick are highly amusing, and certainly entertaining, it’s the published debut of “Very Secret Diaries” author Cassandra Claire that really adds the cherry to the sundae. “The Girl’s Guide to Defeating the Dark Lord” truly captures the book’s mission: to turn all those old fantasy cliches inside out and look at them in a new, humorous light. She may very well have turned in the ideal “Chicks in Chainmail” story. I look forward to seeing Cassandra Claire’s future published works.
I quite happily recommend Turn the Other Chick. It’s a hardcover anthology – a hardcover humorous fantasy anthology – that’s well worth the cover price, with hardly a letdown in the lot, and some top-notch authors having more than their fair share of fun in the process.

Murder by Magic, edited by Rosemary Edghill (Aspect, 2004)

As with Powers of Detection, which I covered several months ago, Murder by Magic mixes the fantasy and mystery genres for some interesting results. Twenty authors present their characters with magical, murderous dilemmas to solve, divided into five categories: modern, fantastical, historical, genteel, and unclassifiable.

Jennifer Roberson’s “Piece of Mind” teams a tired ex-cop with a woman possessed of an unusual affinity for animals to solve not just an old murder, but a secret that’s haunted the narrator for much of his life. It’s an intriguing setup for future stories, and I hope she’ll expand on the idea. “Special Surprise Guest Appearance by…” by Carole Nelson Douglas takes a look at the strong rivalry between several Las Vegas magicians, and the secrets one utilizes in her act. In “Doppelgangster,” Laura Resnick mixes the supernatural and the Mob for a somewhat tongue-in-cheek effect. If certain wiseguys are getting whacked, how can they be seen, alive and well hours or days later? And who’s killing them to begin with? Josepha Sherman’s “The Case of the Headless Corpse” introduces Raven and Coyote, agents of the Magical Bureau of Investigation. When they attempt to delve into the cause of death for the titular victim, their investigation leads them to a most unexpected culprit. The partners work well together, with a great sort of chemistry, and hopefully this won’t be their only appearance.

Diane Duane’s “Cold Case” showcases a policeman with a truly difficult job to do: work with the ghost of an elderly murder victim to determine who killed her and why, so she can move on to the next world. But the cop’s job may be harder than he expected, especially when the truth comes to light. While the way this story plays out wasn’t entirely unexpected, it’s still poignant and well-told, and it lends itself well to further exploration. Laura Anne Gilman seems to be turning up all over the place of late, and I couldn’t be happier. She’s always good for an entertaining story, especially if she’s focusing on Wren and Sergei, the main characters of her first novel, Staying Dead, as she is here in “Overrush.” Someone’s killing wizzarts, those magically-inclined people whose powers have driven them nuts, preying on a part of the magical population prone to accidents, burnout, and untimely ends. But who, and why? It almost pains me to note that Gilman doesn’t so much resolve this story as bring it to a close, leaving plot threads open for future development somewhere down the line. As a stand-alone story, it lacks closure, which is a real disappointment, as it’s otherwise a great effort. I love how Wren and Sergei work with each other, a partnership that threatens to become more, but both Staying Dead and Gilman’s contribution to Powers of Detection are better examples of her work than “Overrush.”

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller turn in “A Night at the Opera,” a clever tale highly reminiscent of the Thin Man series (right down to main characters named Nick and (De)nora). When a noted practitioner of magic turns up dead, with no clues as to who did it, Nick and Nora have to unravel the mystery. However, they may not be prepared for what they find, or how it all plays out, and what it means for the magical society they belong to. Lawrence Watt-Evans gives us “Dropping Hints,” where a young Duke must figure out which of five identical golems brutally killed its wizard master … right in front of him. Even having witnessed the murder, can the Duke tell one suspect from another in time to do any good? Meanwhile, in “Au Purr,” Esther Friesner focuses on a witch investigating the death of her sister by disguising herself as a housecat. It’s a risky maneuver, fraught with dangers mundane and magical. She’ll have to content with everything from rat traps to demons to piece this mystery together.

In “Getting the Chair,” Keith R.A. DeCandido revisits the heroes of his new novel Dragon Precinct, Danthres and Torin. Once again, these two esteemed members of the Castle Guard have a dirty job to do: this time, figure out who killed a certain mage, as well as how and why. They realize just how bizarre a mystery it really is when the only witnesses worth questioning are the pieces of furniture enchanted into life by the mage prior to his death. This is a good, solid story, a police procedural that really takes advantage of the bizarre twists allowed in a fantasy setting while remaining grounded through good old-fashioned human nature. Torin and Danthres bring an everyman quality to their job that remains true no matter what world you’re on.

Mercedes Lackey looks once again at the unusual inhabitants of Victorian London’s Harton School for Boys and Girls, in “Grey Eminence.” Missionary’s child Sarah, and her best friend, native Londoner Nan, are in great demand for their strange abilities, but most of the time they’re able to keep things subtle and under wraps. However, the arrival of a feathered friend for Nan may change that, or it may just save them when things get really bad. It seems to me it’s been a while since we’ve seen this particular set of characters; I hope it’s not too long before they come back again.
All in all, Murder by Magic has some good stories, and a few excellent ones, making it worth picking up. Mystery and fantasy fans alike will find things to enjoy here.

The Faery Reel, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (Viking Children’s Books, 2004)

It’s taken me several months just to try and figure out what I want to say about this book. Mainly because it’s one of those rare occasions where I’m afraid that whatever I have to say won’t live up to what I really feel. See, I’ve long been of the opinion that you can’t go wrong with an anthology edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow. Whether it was the first sixteen volumes of the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, or the superb series they did of retold fairy tales (starting with Snow White, Blood Red), or even their most recent effort, The Green Man, they’ve constantly put together some of the best fantasy anthologies around. And before this goes any further, no, this isn’t a buildup to me saying something horribly bad about The Faery Reel. On the contrary, it’s so good, I’m almost intimidated. Almost.
Much like The Green Man, this is actually a themed anthology aimed at a more YA audience (though with considerable crossover appeal for adult readers as well). Twenty authors have each contributed their takes on the vast and various creatures of the Fae realms, through fiction and poetry, and the lineup reads like the Fantasy All-Stars.
Holly Black, whose own interpretations of Faerie brought us Tithe and The Spiderwick Chronicles, turns in here a reimagining of Christina Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market,” with a Filipino twist in “The Night Market.” Two sisters, a curse, creatures of myth, and a magical market where anything can be bought or sold, if the price is right. “Never Never,” by Bruce Glassco, is a brilliant look at a certain hook-handed pirate, who must battle with feelings of despair and a crisis of faith, while examining the true reasons for the cycle of violence he’s locked into. It takes a lot to make that particular villain sympathetic, but Glassco goes beyond that: he makes Hook into a truly human figure, a tragic sort of villain caught up in something he long ago forgot how to understand. What secret keeps Hook coming back time and again to battle the boy known as Peter, and how does it tie into the true nature of Never Never Land? Quite simply, I was floored by how this story affected me.
Delia Sherman’s “CATNYP” is a fun, whimsical look at a world that exists between the mortal world and the realm of Faerie, where kidnapped humans – changelings – dwell, a magical shadow of New York with its own set of rules. It’s a story about a library, an adventure, some rules, and a stone lion, among other things. “The Faery Handbag,” by Kelly Link, is the story of a young woman, her grandmother, and a magical handbag which contains wonders and mysteries like no other. It’s an introspective story of love and loss, family and magic, and quirky bedtime tales.
I’m almost out of room, and I’ve barely just begun. I mean, I haven’t even touched upon the stories by Tanith Lee, Katherine Vaz, Gregory Frost, or Steve Berman. Discussing the contributions by Emma Bull (whose War For The Oaks is one of the best faerie novels ever), Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Patricia McKillip, Ellen Steiber, or Gregory Maguire could easily double my column’s length. And then there’s poetry by Charles de Lint (a true master in the urban fantasy field) and Neil Gaiman. And how can I neglect to mention the gorgeous artwork by Charles Vess? His illustrations are dead-on perfect, every time. And lest I forget, Terri Windling opens the anthology with one of her trademark essays, a scholarly look at faeries throughout history, and how they’ve interwoven with our culture and our consciousness, and how we’ve woven them into our stories and myths. She looks at how they’ve been treated in recent decades in film and fiction, making note of many of the best offerings to be found along those lines. It’s no coincidence that a number of the authors mentioned make appearances in this collection. Much like DVD extras enhance the film they’re packaged with, so does Windling’s essay add new dimensions to The Faery Reel.
While The Faery Reel is targeted at the young adult audience, there’s more than enough to appeal to older fans as well. Anyone who understands the lure and appeal of Faerie, who enjoys urban fantasy or fairy tales, who’s delighted in movies like Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal, who enjoys the paintings of Brian Froud, or who’s fallen in love with the work of Tennyson should be able to appreciate this book. Windling and Datlow have put together a top-notch collection, one that shouldn’t be missed. I read a lot of anthologies, and this one is easily one of the best I’ve seen all year, in terms of quality, depth, scope, and sheer magic.

Two Horror Anthologies From 2004

From the Borderlands, edited by Elizabeth E. and Thomas F. Monteleone (Warner Books, 2004)
A Walk on the Darkside, edited by John Pelan (Roc, 2004)
I’m looking at these two books together because I read them at the same time, alternating stories to the point where the two volumes seemed almost interchangeable. That’s not meant as a slight to either book; rather, it’s an observation that they both offer up the same sort of material: a wide range of horror from some of the best names in the field.
A Walk on the Darkside is the third in the series edited by John Pelan, following Darkside (Roc, 1997) and The Darker Side (Roc, 2002). There’s nothing to suggest it’s nothing more than a general collection of horror stories with no unifying theme, and the result is a mixed bag ranging from forgettable to unnerving. There are a few stories which really stood out, however. Don Tumasonis tells a midnight tale of a deal with some rather dark forces, and the efforts a man goes through to get out of the pact in “Crossroads.” In “Jikininko” by Joseph Ezzo, another man discovers that his new wife has brought some deadly secrets from her native culture with her, and a misunderstanding may lead to something unimaginably horrific. In Paul Finch’s “God’s Fist,” an ex-cop is driven over the edge by the wickedness and injustice of the world, becoming a murderous vigilante with nothing to lose. “Whatever Happened To?” by d.g.k. goldberg is an all too possible story about a one-hit wonder whose post-fame life has spiraled into a bizarre oblivion while her neighbor perpetrates disgusting evils next door.
John Pelan’s own story, “Memories Are Made Of This” blurs the lines between reality and fantasy as hypnotic regression opens up (or maybe conjures up from nothing) repressed childhood memories for a man with a troubled past. Jeffrey Thomas’ “The Abandoned,” meanwhile, looks at the unholy life one woman leads in an all-too-real post-death Hell, where she struggles to hang on to what’s left of her sanity and humanity in a decidedly hostile environment. Brian Keene’s story, “‘The King’ In Yellow” invokes a similiar-named story from the Cthulhu Mythos, infusing it with some pop-culture tragedy and setting it in an out-of-the-way theatre. In the end, A Walk on the Darkside manages to offer up more than its fair share of satisfyingly disturbing stories, making for an enjoyable read.
From the Borderlands was originally published as Borderlands 5, and is also a non-themed anthology, containing a wide variety of horror, suspense, and dark fantasy stories, with the only real guideline being an admonition to stay away from the traditional horror icons. It too has a number of stories that manage to catch the attention. My personal favorite, the first story in the collection and the one that convinced me to keep reading, is Gary Braunbeck’s “Rami Temporalis.” In it, a man who just happens to have “that sort of face” is always being approached by complete strangers eager to tell him their stories. Indirectly helping them just by paying attention, he’s never quite understood just how important his gift is, until a mysterious stranger shows up with the answers, and an offer that could change everything. John R. Platt’s “All Hands” is a deliciously twisted, offbeat story where it’s entirely normal for hands to switch owners overnight, completely at random. You never know whose hands you’ll wear on any given day, and who knows the stories they could tell? Holly Newstein’s “Faith Will Make You Free” is an unusual tale of a couple of nice Jewish boys fighting for freedom and their country during World War Two. Toss in some mysticism and faith, and their lives take a strange turn as the war grinds on.
Adam Fusco’s “N0072-JK1″ defies casual description. On the surface, it starts off as an innocuous, if somewhat odd, scientific study, but as it progresses, it degenerates into true horror. “The Growth of Alan Ashley” by Bill Gauthier conjures up the spirit of Walter Mitty, examining the secret multiple lives of a man whose fantasies threaten to overwhelm his reality once and for all. Brian Freeman’s “Answering the Call” is the story of those people who stand between the living and the dead, ready to answer a phone call from beyond the grave. For an even stranger, more offbeat story, try “The Thing Too Hideous To Describe” by David Schow, in which the titular creature just tries to get along with its nearby human neighbors, people all too ready to form a lynch mob or break out the torches. And of course, we can’t overlook Stephen King’s “Stationary Bike,” in which a simple piece of exercise equipment becomes a gateway into a man’s past, present, future, and nightmares.
While both of these are good horror anthologies, From The Borderlands does seem to give just a little more shudder for the dollar, with a slightly higher overall quality of story and enjoyment. But both books are worthy collections, and go well together as a pair despite their separate origins.

Haunted Holidays, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Russell Davis (DAW, 2004)

Ah, October. It’s that time of year, time for the traditional anthology of Halloween stories. Wait, what’s that? Halloween’s not in here! That’s right, Haunted Holidays offers up thirteen stories about every kind of special day imaginable, except the spookiest night of the year, which, to be honest, gets more than its fair share of attention already. That’s why you’ll find everything from Columbus Day to Thanksgiving, from Christmas to birthdays, from Labor Day to Groundhog Day.
As with any theme anthology, the stories vary in tone, style, and approach to the topic. However, some do stand out. For sheer memorability, try Esther Friesner’s “The Dead Don’t Waddle.” It’s a charming little story about a big-time jerk who gets some karmic payback one winter, ultimately learning that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. The really scary part, though, is that we all know someone like the protagonist: self-absorbed, selfish, and callous to the point of cruel, all because they’re convinced the world owes them. The ending, horrible in a disturbingly funny way, is all too fitting.
Julie Czernada manages to hit a subject close to home in “Birthday Jitters.” In one community, the multi-generational Fargus family has dominated for decades. It’s said among the family that if you can survive the tricky thirties, you’ll live just about forever. But there’s a secret behind this strange dichotomy, and it might just mean the end of Bobby Fargus, who’s about to hit his 30th birthday. Having just reached that milestone myself, I know just how he feels.
David Niall Wilson succeeded in making me twitch with his story, “For These Things I Am Truly Thankful.” I don’t think anything he observes in his story is too far off the mark, but at the same time, it’s presented in such graphic, three-dimensional fashion, it can’t be ignored. And for one man, it could mean the difference between sanity and madness. Not only is it one of the most horrifying stories I read all month, it made me afraid to go to the supermarket.
David Levine’s “Brotherhood” is a ghost story of a more traditional nature, looking back at a time when labor was cheap, lives were cheaper, and the unions were fighting a vicious battle for recognition. David Bischoff’s deconstructionist picture of the Yule season, “Die, Christmas, Die!” manages to combine a postmodern fantasy feel with some very basic noir aspects to produce a startlingly interesting story that explores Santa like never before. There’s plenty of potential for expansion here, and I hope Bischoff considers returning to this setting.
Daniel Hoyt’s “New World’s Brave” examines Columbus Day with a new relevance, as the ghosts of the past break down the barriers between the past and present, threatening to rewrite history. Bradley Sinor’s “Season Finale” is a story I genuinely wish I’d written first, about a chance encounter at a convenience store, and a Twelfth Night party with some highly unexpected and uninvited guests. Richard Parks takes us into the future for a look at July 4th as it might mean decades from now, in “Voices In An Empty Room.” Another story with a setting that deserves more exploration, it’s all too relevant in today’s terrorist-plagued world.
Stories by Peter Crowther, Ruth Stuart, Kerrie Hughes, Nancy Holder and Brian Hopkins finish off this collection, which is sure to entertain as much as it unnerves and disturbs. You may never look at the calendar the same way again after reading Haunted Holidays.

Path of the Bold, edited by James Lowder (Guardians of Order, 2004)

I have a weak spot for well-done superhero fiction. Done properly, it can capture the best aspects of the comics, while adding a whole new level of narrative sophistication. That’s why I was pleased to see this collection, a followup to Path of the Just, the first anthology based on the Silver Age Sentinels role-playing game. Fifteen stories in all explore a world where four-color superheroic action is an everyday occurrence. Mostly set in the mythical game setting of Empire City, these tales examine superheroes on and off duty, looking at them as icons and as fallible beings. One of the best aspects of this collection, in fact, is that it just as often deals with the effects superhuman beings have on the world around them, as it does with world-shaking crises.
This mixture of stories gives the authors a wide range of themes to choose from. For instance, Dennis Detwiller’s “Real Life” looks at the changes a smalltown superhero with a single, simple power, must make when he moves to the big city and ends up at the bottom of the hero hierarchy. What makes a hero when they have so little to offer? Steve Crow’s “Timelines” asks the same question from a different viewpoint. A man with the ability to study multiple timelines has forseen something tragic, which only he can stop, but the cost may be more than he can handle.
David Snyder’s examination of teenage angst and parent-child relations in “Capes and Corsages” is both entertaining and all too familiar. Take away the capes, and what child of a single parent hasn’t worried about their parent remarrying? Superstrength or teleportion can’t fix that sort of problem. James Lowder presents us with a skewed look at heroes, villains, and the comic book industry in “Fanboy,” a somewhat offputting tale about a young man with too much enthusiasm, an exceptional power, and a distinct lack of patience and maturity.
Whitt Pond delivers unto us a delightfully snarky, if somewhat deceased, heroine and her bizarre batlike companion in “Dead Girl Talking.” The interaction between the two, and with the real superheroes they encounter, is priceless. Lucien Soulban’s contribution, “Forever Young,” adds a strangely literary and fantastical element to a superheroic world, mixing Russian myth with a flying youth named Pan, and shaking things up quite a bit. In “Sidekicked” by Jim C. Hines, a rookie superhero is forced to come into her own when her mentor/partner is temporarily laid up out of action. “Monsters” by Christine Morgan is an introspective tale of someone whose monstrous exterior has given them nothing but a hard life, at least until they’re given a new chance.
Mike W. Barr’s “The Judas Silver” is actually a detective story, a whodunnit, with superhero trappings, and a few red herrings. John Sullivan’s “One Step From The Light” explores the nature of revenge, and the value of vengeance, as well as the impact one life can have on many. Even among superheroes, there are levels of acceptability and accountability. In “The Shield of Little Italy,” Alex Kolker’s protagonist is forced to make some difficult decisions involving his chosen protectorate. For years, The Shield has guarded one small section of the city exclusively, but then he’s called upon to serve a greater purpose. Will he turn his back on his home to save the city? Stewart Wieck’s “Either Will Suffice” looks at the heroes and villains of risen Thule, a newly-resurfaced lost civilization. (This is, I assumed, something described and explained in the game itself, since this anthology doesn’t go into too much detail about its origins.) “Enter, The Eradicator!” is a story about strange alliances by Robert Weinberg, featuring his character Sydney Taine (last seen in Nightside, a miniseries published several years ago by Marvel Comics.) Joe Murphy’s “R.A.O.K.” unites three very different people into a team that is definitely stronger than any of its components. John Kovalic examines the impact real superheroes would have on the comic book industry in “SF,” ending the volume on a rather wry note.
Path of the Bold is stronger than its predecessor, with more satisfying stories, and a better range of exploration in general. It proves that it’s still possible to produce good superhero fiction, hopefully paving the way for more like it in the future. Again, my only complaint is that sometimes I don’t get enough feel for the setting itself, which strikes me as the bastard child of New York and Vancouver, if such a thing is possible. Also, the “signature characters” they allude to on the back sound fascinating, and yet the stories within barely touch upon them, which might be frustrating for a reader who hasn’t also read the RPG source material. That aside, if you like comic books or superheroes, and larger-than-life stories, this is a near-perfect collection.

The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 17, edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin J. Grant (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004)

Like its companion volume, The Year’s Best Science Fiction, the true strength and appeal of this annual collection lies not just in the sheer number and range of stories assembled, but in the essays which precede them. Though this year saw the departure of Terri Windling, and the appointment of Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant as the new fantasy editors, I’m happy to note that the change hasn’t affected the quality of the book one bit. This is still the comprehensive, authoritative roundup, not just of short fiction, but of everything relating to the fantasy and horror fields, for the previous year.
Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant look at every aspect of fantasy, from the top twenty to first novels, from humor to fantasy in the mainstream to poetry, from anthologies to young adult, from magazines to art and even awards. If it came out in 2003, it’s likely to be mentioned here. Ellen Datlow does the same for horror, covering news, novels, anthologies, magazines, artists, poetry, small presses and more. Ed Bryant’s essay examines the role of fantasy and horror in the media, poking at various movies and television shows, music and toys. Notable fantasy artist Charles Vess talks about comic books and graphic novels as they relate to fantasy and horror, producing a thoroughly insightful and educational column on the subject. New to the series with this year’s volume is Joan D. Vinge’s essay on anime and manga, a subset of the field which has seen tremendous growth in America over the past few years. Next, Charles de Lint chimes in with a short essay on music of the fantastic, and James Frenkel finishes off the yearly summaries with a look back at the obituaries for 2003, honoring everyone the field lost in that year. Though my Roman numerals are a little rusty, that’s well over a hundred pages worth of informative, exhaustive essays, making this book well worth picking up even before the 560+ pages worth of fiction and poetry drawn from dozens of sources, both well-known and obscure.
For every big name like Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Ursula K. LeGuin, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, or Terry Bisson honored here, there are lesser-known authors like Philip Raines and Harvey Welles, Dean Francis Alfar, or Vandana Singh. It’s a sure bet that even the most eclectic of readers will find new stories, new authors, and new sources of publication here. Bottom line: if you like short fiction and you like fantasy, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror is the collection to pick up every year. There’s just no excuse not to check it out.