Review: “Strange New Words,” by Ari Marmell

Pros: Very enjoyable collection of oddity tales
Cons: Some engaged me more than others; some were more predictable than others
Rating: 4 out of 5

 

Ari Marmell’s Strange New Words: Tales of Heroism, Hi-Jinks, and Horror is an enjoyable collection of mixed-genre tales. This is always a tricky undertaking—there’s likely to be something for everyone inside such a collection, but there’s also likely to be something that isn’t for any given person, making it hard for the book to feel ‘perfect’. Don’t let this dissuade you from reading “Strange New Words” however, as the tales you’ll enjoy are well worth the ones that might not suit your tastes.

 

The Cemetery Wyrm: A creepy tale of a man’s obsession with a sculpture of a dragon—a cemetery monument—and the question of who lies interred beneath it. A slow, wandering tale that wraps up very satisfyingly.

The Purloined Ledger: A gangland detective tale heavily laced with magic; not my favorite style of story, so I can’t judge it well. Still, I enjoyed the basic howdunit.

The Shaman’s Tale: In which a foul-mouthed Orc shaman tells a tale that explains to his people why their race serves instead of ruling. It’s a nice upending of some fantasy tropes, with plenty of personality.

Railroad Spikes: A steampunk/Western tale, one of those tense thrillers in which someone has to make their way through a deadly set of traps. This is a type of story that’s hard to do well, but it kept me on my toes beautifully.

The Rubies of Olun-Zeth: This one has the feel of an old-style pulp story crossed with D&D-like fantasy adventure. Some of the characters nicely avoid stereotyping, but others don’t. Some twists work well, but overall the tale felt predictable to me. It’s the ‘not for me’ entry of the book.

Big Apple, Small Serpent: A tale of an Egyptian cobra, determined to escape from her captivity in a zoo, and the ancient power she calls upon. I love this tale; it’s sweet and unusual.

Reaver: A ragged, abandoned ship appears from the mists of a river to haunt a village. The horror that follows is well-executed and inexorable, and the characters have enough depth to carry it off well.

Twenty-One-Oh: A cyberpunk chase story, with plenty of twists of fortune, crazy stunts, and a suitably entertaining ending.

Tithe: Another tale-told-within-a-tale. While it isn’t my favorite conceit, it suits this story well. It’s a haunting tale and one I won’t soon forget.

Than to Serve in Heaven: Lucifer is commanded to return home to Heaven, where a most unusual arrangement awaits him. And while I really do wish that the ending had been more explicit, at the same time… I don’t. It isn’t an easily wrapped-up tale. It isn’t cut-and-dried. But it is fascinating.

The Ogre’s Pride: A quirky tale of a semi-reformed ogre and a brief quest he sets himself upon. I like the lack of black-and-white good-and-evil characters here.

In Deepest Silence: A sub sets out on a rescue mission, only to have it all go sideways when they come across something impossible, and impossibly horrific. Lovecraftian horror is difficult to do well, but I enjoyed this one.

One Solitary Scale: The final tale of “Strange New Words” is the other side of “The Cemetery Wyrm”. It’s another tale of obsession and horror, and I loved watching it unfold.

 

My favorites were the connected bookend tales (“The Cemetery Wyrm” and “One Solitary Scale”) with their air of creeping horror. I particularly found “Railroad Spikes” and “Big Apple, Small Serpent” engaging and absorbing. But “Than to Serve in Heaven” was the most intriguing of the tales, and stuck with me the longest.

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