Pros: Fantastic execution of a delicious premise
Cons: As always for an anthology: not every story will suit you equally
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Group.
Women, monsters, and ass-kicking—what more could I ask for? A Girl’s Guide to Guns and Monsters, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes, is a collection of thirteen stories about strong women taking on monsters in a variety of settings and genres. The stories proceed in chronological order from the old West to space-faring SF, so you won’t even get mental whiplash along the way.
Jane Lindskold’s The Drifter is a delightful start. Unusual circumstances have forced Prudence Bledsloe to take up a rifle, wear trousers, and travel alone. But for once, the town she enters doesn’t seem to care much about that. They have worse things to worry about, and that’s exactly what’s brought Prudence to their doorstep. She’s there to deal with their monster for them, because their monster is something that hits perilously close to home for her.
Nancy Holder’s Our Lady of the Vampires sees a privileged young girl sent away to a Home for Girls when everything goes to Hell in 1929. She’s forced to confront the question of exactly what monsters are… and what to do about them. The answer is truly beautiful.
Lilith Saintcrow’s Best Friends was the first shining star of the anthology for me, as much as I enjoyed the previous two stories. One girl’s future stepfather has been acting more than a little strange, and Katie is sure she’s finally figured out why. Luckily for her, her best friend, Becca, trusts her enough to believe the impossible—and to help her do something about it.
Jeanne C. Stein’s Elizabeth and Anna’s Big Adventure is another of my favorites from this volume. A man breaks into the house of the prosecutor who sent him to jail, and finds only the man’s young daughter, Elizabeth. It’s Elizabeth’s craftiness that gives her babysitter, Anna, time to show the thug what a REAL monster can do.
I think it’s inevitable that every anthology, by nature, will have at least one story in it that doesn’t suit each reader. With so many different authors and takes on the topic at hand, how could it be otherwise? For me that story was Anton Strout’s Lupercalia. The tale finds us with two college roommates, Helen and Leis. Leis is on a crossbow-wielding rampage looking for her ex, and Helen’s trying to talk some sense into her. As it turns out, Leis has some reason to be upset—her ex is a bit of a trickster in human guise when it comes to the love department. The ideas behind this one are funny, and inventive, but the short story length didn’t do it justice. It ended up feeling rushed and a bit flat, without enough depth to Leis or her ex to make them come alive as characters.
Before I started reviewing a handful of anthologies I don’t think I’d heard of Kristine Kathryn Rusch, which is a true shame, as she’s easily the most talented author in all of these anthologies. Every single story by her utterly wows me. This time the tale is Murder, She Workshopped. Rusch must have had the same thought I did when watching all those episodes of Murder, She Wrote as a kid: since murder follows the writer everywhere she goes, maybe she has more to do with it than we think! In this case, an amateur writer and professional assassin has been sent to a writers’ conference to take out a target—only that target is far nastier, and far less simple, than an ordinary killer.
My other favorite tale in this selection is Jim C. Hines’s Heart of Ash. In his book The Mermaid’s Madness, we met a bawdy and beautiful dryad that turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of the book for me. Clearly the dryad concept hasn’t worked its way out of Hines’s system, and thank goodness for that! In this tale he presents another view of how a dryad might make her way in the world, and the consequences for her of intermingling with humans. I got thoroughly caught up in this story’s events, and couldn’t put it down until I’d finished every last word!
Elizabeth A. Vaughan’s Jiang Shi is a delightful and unexpected diversion that came as an utter surprise to me after reading some of her less whimsical novels. In it, a very unlikely hero in the form of a middle-aged woman is shepherded to her destiny with the aid of a sword-wielding mouse and his allies. It also has some bits of dialogue in it that utterly delighted me:
“Kate … You are the Wise One, Bearer of the Scale, chosen of the Emperor Dragon, Lord of the Dragon Kings, Ruler of the Weather, and the Waters of the World.”
I stared at the small talking mouse on my coffee table for one solemn moment, and then reality came crashing in. “Bullshit. … Tell me again how the Emperor Dragon has chosen a fat, middle-aged woman from Toledo, Ohio. Go ahead, I dare you.”
In Tany Huff’s No Matter Where You Go, I think the plot is best summed up by another piece of dialogue: “So a teenage girl opened a portal to another reality on the wall of a mausoleum, went through with her friends, Vicki followed them, and then the portal closed—is that it?” Vicki, naturally, is a vampire, meaning it’s the monster who’s going to have to save the kids from the terrors of the realm they’ve gotten themselves into. It’s definitely an adrenaline-filled rush of a story.
PR Frost’s Signed in Blood introduces us to a somewhat more inadvertent “monster,” and to Tess, the woman who has to deal with him—and who might suffer some unfortunate consequences as a result. Mickey Zucker Reichert’s Broch de Shlang was another story that I liked in concept, but couldn’t entirely get behind in execution. It explores a single mother’s attempts to care for her disabled daughter, and the family curse that kicks in to make things all the harder. Alexander B. Potter’s The Wooly Mountains is an unusual take on a world populated by “mythical” beasties that have come out of the woodwork, with a good sense of humor and delightful characters.
My final favorite, however, is Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s Invasive Species. It’s a funny and weird science fiction story with some utterly delightful twists to it, and a wonderful main character.
On the whole, I’m quite happy with the quality of A Girl’s Guide to Guns and Monsters. Even the stories that didn’t bowl me over were still enjoyable to read, and there are some absolute gems in here!