Pros: Delightful stories
Cons: Some variability
Rating: 4 out of 5
I picked up Kevin J. Anderson’s Selected Stories: Fantasy in an ‘epic fantasy’ story bundle, so I was surprised to find that most of these stories would have fit just fine into his horror and dark fantasy collection, and I certainly wouldn’t consider many of these to be ‘epic’ fantasy. That said, this is mostly just a matter of expectations: I find as a reader I enjoy a book more if I’m getting roughly what I expected and am in the mood to read, so I figured you might want to know what you’re in for. While it’s true that, like most anthologies, any given reader is unlikely to enjoy every story (since there’s such variation), overall Anderson’s stories are quite good. I still like his SF collection the best, mind you.
For some reason the first few stories didn’t entirely grab me. The first tale that I really got into was “Loco-Motive,” a Tucker’s Grove story that was definitely more horror than fantasy, about a demonic train out for blood. In “Drilling Deep” a man drilling for a new well in his backyard hits a “bubble” of the past. At first I thought it ended a little abruptly, but on second thought it was perfect in its implications. A piece of flash fiction called “Time Zone” is just right. (As usual for flash fiction, I can’t say much about it without ruining it. You’ll just have to trust me.) “Heroes Never Die” is lovely and poignant. “Just Like Normal People” involves a couple of carnival freaks who try to attend church in Tucker’s Grove, only to find out not everyone is welcome. “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall” is another Tucker’s Grove story, but it didn’t really pull me in. It involves a couple who find themselves observing a past incident through a mirror, wanting to avert a terrible tragedy that they can’t affect.
“Loincloth” (written with Rebecca Moesta), about an enchanted movie prop loincloth, was… okay. It was kind of cute, I guess. “Splinter” (also written with Moesta) is a wonderful story about a pickpocket at a renaissance faire who gets a bit of supernatural comeuppance. It’s simple but endearing. “Sea Dreams” (Moesta again) is a powerful story of two girls growing up amidst fantastic sea imaginings, and I loved it. “Change of Face” (written with Kristine Kathryn Rusch), about a shape-shifting half-darkling, is another powerful one, although there appears to be a glitch with the ebook I got in which several pages are printed twice (oops). In “Dark Angel, Archangel” the Grim Reaper refuses to render the human race extinct, and tries to convince his replacement to listen to his reasoning. “Trip Trap” (written with Sherrilyn Kenyon) may be my favorite story in here; a troll guarding a gate under a bridge runs into a woman and her two kids who are living out of their car, and has some fascinating interactions with them.
There are some interesting “near past” stories in here, some of which I enjoyed more than others (it isn’t my favorite genre). “Scientific Romance” is a kind of a neat story about a young H.G. Wells and what could have inspired “War of the Worlds”. “Camels in the Sand,” again inspired by Wells, seems more SF than fantasy but is interesting. “Final Performance,” involving the famous Globe Theatre, is slow but builds up into a fascinating story. “The Ghost of Christmas Always”, about Charles Dickens, gives us a great look at what might have inspired him.
“The Reign to Come” was the first story in this volume that really felt like semi-traditional fantasy to me. In it, an empire left without a ruler has to pick a new emperor, and the wizards who served under the previous emperor are doing the choosing. It’s a fascinating little nugget. “Short Straws” involves a group of mercenaries drawing straws to see who’s going to go fight the dragon: after all, the reward is the king’s daughter’s hand in marriage, and it isn’t like you can split that kind of loot. It’s a darkly hilarious piece. “Sea Wind” is very heartfelt and powerful. “Mythical Creatures”, involving a priest confronted by a mythical creature that can’t exist, has some wonderful unexpected notes to it. “The Sacrifice” is a piece of flash fiction involving a sacrifice to appease a dragon, and it felt too predictable. “Frog Kiss”, about a young man who’s trying to reverse a curse on some royals in order to collect the reward, is funny and heartwarming. “Cygnus: The Sea Captain’s Tale” (written with Neil Peart) felt inevitable, but beautiful all the same.
I definitely enjoyed this volume, and I recommend it to anyone who thinks they’d enjoy some dark fantasy short reads.