Sunday 6 April 2008

Book Review: The Solaris Book of New Fantasy

The Solaris Book of New Fantasy

Edited by George Mann

(Solaris - 2007)

Another Solaris book, another stunning cover. Fantasy is such a broad genre and Solaris could easily have plumped for - as some genre publishers are doing - a more 'mature' cover. This cover however makes no attempt to hide the fact that the stories within are fantasy stories. In fact, it's almost a proud statement of fact.

It was perhaps a risk for Solaris to publish this anthology. Short genre fiction - while having a long and proud tradition - is nowhere near as popular as the novel. It was important therefore that Solaris picked the right stories, and the right authors. Furthermore, given that the title of the book refers to fantasy as a whole, rather than a particular sub-genre, the collection would have to include stories from across the board.

Rather impressively, editor George Mann does a commendable job. The contributing authors are a mix of established and newer writers. Genre stalwarts that appear include Steven Erikson, Mark Chadbourn, Janny Wurts and Steven Savile. Among the relative newcomers (and those that are perhaps not as familiar to readers) are Scott Thomas, Chris Roberson, James Maxey and Christopher Barzak. Furthermore, a range of sub-genres are covered, such as urban fantasy, epic fantasy and dark fantasy.

Rather than examining each story in chronological order, I'll look at both the highlights and the disappointments of the anthology.

The anthology gets off to a strong start, with Mark Chadbourn's Who Slays The Gyant, Wounds the Beast, which is set in an alternative Elizabethan England that is at war with the Faerie Realm. An enjoyable tale that examines the problem of love and duty, it's over too quickly but is an excellent taster of Chadbourn's work and a solid start to the anthology.

For what Hal Duncan's contribution, The Prince of End Times, lacks in plot, it makes up for in the sheer style of his prose. Obscure, unconventional and often hugely evocative, Duncan's prose is often challenging to read but considerably rewarding. As mentioned above, there is not much in the way of plot in this offering but the atmosphere just drips from every word and there's some beautiful imagery. Easily one of the highlights of the anthology.

And Such Small Deer, by Chris Roberson, features a fresh version of the character Van Helsing who finds himself investigating a gruesome series of killings on a plantation, in a story that highlights the dangers of science. Well-written and engaging, it makes for enjoyable reading. Roberson has a good feel for the time period, lending a veneer of authenticity to his work.

The most emotionally engaging story in the collection is Steven Savile's offering, The Song Her Heart Sang. A bittersweet tale about a man who braves the ruins of an old library in search of an artifact to win the love of a lady, it is by turns unnerving and heartwarming, and very well written. This is the only story in the anthology that I could engage with on a personal emotional level, and for that Savile should be commended.

O Caritas by Conrad Williams takes place in a post-apocalyptic London, where the rich live closeted away in their towers and the rest of the city's inhabitants are engaged in a constant struggle for survival amid the ruins of the past. Williams manages to imbue the piece with real tension at times, and his visceral portrayal of the ruined London is hugely atmospheric.

Lt. Privet's Lovesong by Scott Thomas is a quirky, enjoyable tale about a young man and his misadventures with a love potion. Thomas manages to inject real depth into his characters - not easy when working within the confines of short fiction - and reveals an intriguing world. The story itself is clever, inventive and ultimately satisfying.

In anthologies such as this, you're always going to have a few turkeys and The Solaris Book of New Fantasy is no exception. There were a number of stories that just didn't work for me:

Reins of Destiny by Janny Wurts is a huge disappointment after Chadbourn's engaging opener. Plodding and dull, it says nothing and goes nowhere. Given Wurt's background and bibliography, I was expecting far more than this poor effort.

Jeff Vandermeer has won the World Fantasy Award twice, but with his dire offering - King Tales - it's hard not to wonder how he managed it. King Tales is seemingly an attempt by Vandermeer to tell some quirky stories with the atmosphere and fable of traditional fairy tales. It doesn't work. Compared to many of the stories in the book, this offering just seems hopelessly juvenile, not to mention pointless. I just couldn't engage with it on any level. The worst story in the anthology by some distance.

The Wizard's Coming by Juliet E. McKenna wins the award for worst title. The story itself is better, but far from the excellence of many of the other offerings. McKenna writes competently enough, but the characters, plot and bog-standard medieval setting fail to inspire. The story isn't helped by the fact that it ends halfway through, leaving you wondering what the whole point of it was.

There were two other stories that didn't work for me: Inbetween Dreams by Christopher Barzak (too long-winded and abstract) and Shell Game by Mike Resnick (not necessarily a bad story, but private investigator stuff just isn't my thing).

The rest of the stories in the anthology - Tornado of Sparks by James Maxey, Grander Than The Sea by T. A. Pratt, A Man Falls by Jay Lake, Chinandega by Lucius Shepard and Quashie Trapp Blacklight by Steven Erikson ranged from mediocre to relatively good.

Overall, The Solaris Book of New Fantasy is a success. While there are several stories that don't really deserve to be included, this notion is ultimately outweighed by the fact that there are some real gems in this collection, covering a range of authors and sub-genres.

This book is an excellent chance to enjoy some short fiction and to discover a host of authors that you may not have read before.


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