"After Hours: Tales from the Ur-Bar," ed. J. Palmatier and P. Bray

Pros: Interesting premise; enjoyable stories
Cons: Inconsistent use of premise
Rating: 3 out of 5

Review book courtesy of Penguin Group

 

Many centuries past, an alewife was cursed to tend her bar forever, never aging nor dying. Her only recourse was to find someone who would agree to take her place. When she transferred her duties to Gilgamesh, he accompanied the bar in its transitions from place to place and time to time, always present to shape the destinies of those who stepped inside its doors.


 

After Hours: Tales from the Ur-Bar is an anthology edited by Patricia Bray and Joshua Palmatier. It includes fifteen stories set in and around the bar, touched by its magic and its unusual proprietor. It’s a fertile concept, reminiscent of the “shop of mysteries” conceit in which tales revolve around a store filled with curios and mysterious (often dangerous) items of interest.

Benjamin Tate’s An Alewife in Kish sets the stage. Despite the fact that the basic premise of the book makes the ending obvious, the tale Gilgamesh relates still held my interest.

S.C. Butler’s Why the Vikings Had No Bars is an enjoyable enough tale. It’s a light bit of fare in which Odin tricks Gilgamesh into aiding him in a particularly crafty scheme.

Jennifer Dunne’s The Emperor’s New God is a cautionary tale in which a Roman emperor decides to ask the God of War for aid in conquering the world. It was a tad odd to see Gilgamesh go from unimpressed at the sight of a god in Butler’s tale to deferential in Dunne’s—as much as I enjoy watching multiple authors use a shared gimmick, it’s the little details like this that add a note of discord.

Barbara Ashford’s The Tale that Wagged the Dog seemed very out of place in this volume, and it wasn’t my favorite. The bar is now filled with every castoff legendary name of its time period, including Thomas the Rhymer, Tam Lin, a selkie, and a variety of dead or cursed characters. The main character was incredibly unlikeable despite his inevitable semi-redemption, and the sudden change in the nature of Gil’s tavern pulled me out of the thread that should connect the stories together.

Maria V. Snyder’s Sake and Other Spirits, on the other hand, is one of my favorite tales of this volume. A woman is in hiding from the samurai, passing herself off as a low-class server in Gil’s bar. She can’t hide from them forever, of course, and just as she’s starting to wish she could stop running and settle down, they catch up with her. They’ve been called to the village in which she’s staying to deal with a vicious spirit. But it might take the humility of a woman rather than the pride of a samurai to vanquish the spirit.

Kari Sperring’s The Fortune-Teller Makes Her Will is another tale that didn’t make it into my list of favorites. Many people—primarily women—are being put to death for witchcraft, and a fortune teller knows her time will come. Her only care is that her daughter not share her fate. Unfortunately, I found that instead of simple and innocent (which is how the girl is described by the other characters), she came across as simple and spoiled. It was difficult to understand the great level of devotion she inspired in the woman who must choose to aid her.

In D.B. Jackson’s The Tavern Fire, Gil uses his magic to teach a greedy woman a valuable lesson. As in a few other tales, one or more other characters who are helping out in Gil’s bar provide a nice bit of flavor and interest.

Patricia Bray’s Last Call is an intriguing tale of a monster hunter in search of demons to kill. At first it seemed as though the bar played little part in the tale, but by the end it had a fascinating and crucial role.

Seanan McGuire’s The Alchemy of Alcohol is another of my favorites. Two magical fugitives take refuge in Gil’s bar. And while Gil is asleep for the duration this time around, thankfully the woman tending bar is quite the alchemist in her own right. For such a short story the characters have a surprising amount of detail and depth to them, and they’re quite delightful.

Juliet E. McKenna’s The Grand Tour is a tale that shows the ways in which Gil has shaped some of the major events of our world, with a gentle push here and there. In contrast, Laura Anne Gilman’s Paris 24 shows how some of his works take aim at a single person’s heart.

Ian Tregillis’s Steady Hands and a Heart of Oak is a fascinating story of a man who belongs to His Majesty’s Royal Engineers in 1940, defusing bombs. He has a reputation for an uncanny ability to suss out the internal workings of bombs. He isn’t the nicest of people, but really all he wants is to retire a hero and live well. Unfortunately, just as he gets promoted out of his current post, he finds himself with two major bombs to defuse: a particularly devious bit of ordnance that has never been successfully defused, and a piece of unwelcome news from the girlfriend he wants to ditch. It’s Gil’s magic that gives him a chance to find a path through the danger.

The basic premise of Avery Shade’s Forbidden feels a tad overdone. In the future, an attempt to perfect people’s genetics has resulted in a lack of genetic diversity, and someone has come back in time to collect the necessary samples to fix things. Unfortunately for her, she finds herself becoming addicted to the forbidden luxuries of the present. The milieu and the interplay between the woman and Gil help to give this one a boost, so that it’s an enjoyable tale despite the familiar premise.

Jackie Kessler’s Where We Are Is Hell is a simple, sad tale of a lost ghost, and Gil’s attempt to help her move on.

Anton Strout’s Izdu-Bar is another delight, despite the fact that the twist isn’t too hard to see coming. Outside Gil’s bar lies a wasteland beset by hungry zombies, and only by adhering to strict rules have he and his people remained safe. Of course, rules eventually get broken…

 

After Hours is a solid read, although not outstanding. Several of the stories were moving and original, and most fit the premise quite well.

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