The Diamond Queen - by Anthony Ryan
This is story that reaches skywards with its epic scope. The opening battle of tens of thousands, is a bloody victory won that would make Nirnaeth Arnoediad look like a minor skirmish (allow me a little hyperbole here). The warrior general Sharrow-met flies into combat astride her blackwing like a Nazgul Lord and none dare come between her and her prey. But the spoils of victory prove elusive and Sharrow-met's past stubbornly intrudes on the present. The Voice that is her master, commands, controls and rewards but Sharrow-met finds mysteries it cannot answer as she strives to complete her subjugation of the last city on the continent.
And when the dust has settled and silence has fallen, I am left feeling I have finished a novel, rather than a short story.
The Farmboy Prince - by Brian Staveley
There is a distinctive voice in this first person point of view tale, the unnamed narrator coarsely dismissive of both noble and ignoble visitors to his home town which aspires - at its best - to be a shit-hole. The noble are reviled as they sit "holding one of Nick's filthy tankards as though he'd filled it up with some pox-victim's phlegm instead of ale, which, considering Nick's ale, was about right." while the ignoble are warned "if you go for your sword in Two Streams, you'd better be ready to drop some motherfuckers"
In short, in this short story, the lives of the people in Two Streams - like the people themselves are short and ugly. Throw into the mix a traditional tale of hidden parentage, dodgy fake names, and a looming national crisis, and it becomes clear that something needs to be done. What is less clear, is exactly what that something is, and who's going to do it but Staveley manages to raise a smile and surprise in the process.
Heart's Desire - by Kat RichardsonThe style is hauntingly strange, like a letter to an absent lover. The narrator sits entwined in the twisted ghosts of fairy stories of old, atop a tower tall enough to have held Rapunzel. There is a wall of thorns such as entombed sleeping beauty. There are helpful talking animals though their purpose and manner is a long way from the timely home helps that assisted Snow White.
Something is awry in this fairy tale world, a story too full of desperation and shadow to lift the reader's sense of foreboding, but the twist when it comes, still cuts to the heart.
The Game - by Michael J. Sullivan
Those of us brought up on the SIMS and World of Warcraft will love the inventiveness of this tale. My second daughter, not the most skilled SIMS player, used to get genuinely upset when - by some accident in playing the first version of SIMS - she managed to set her SIMS on fire and watched them reduced to a pile of ash and then an urn. My eldest, slightly more clinically observant, used to experiment with different ways of killing them off - for example putting them in a pool and then removing the ladder so they could not get out and would eventually die of exhaustion.
In the Game Sullivan plays with the idea of games and the characters that populate them as well as the people that play them. It is cleverly done, so I cannot - in all spoiler-free safety - say much more than that Jeri Blainey, Project Lead for the Realms of Rah - MMPORG is about to have a very bad day.
The Ethical Heresy - by Sam Sykes
Dreadaeleon is an apprentice wizard with more to worry about than his mouthful of a name. Even as they hunt down heretic mages, wielding ice, fire and lightning, Dreadaeleon - in the grip of adolescence - is obsessed with his cooler, taller, more gifted fellow apprentice Cresta. In the midst of death and destruction and the disdain of their grim tutor Vemire, Dread vainly tries to draw some approval from his crush. The prose captures his failures well as Dread tells himself Well done, old man. She dressed you down like a six-copper prostitute, and you simply stood there and took it.
But even apprentices can find danger in this well crafted piece, the backstory of politics and magic system injected seamlessly into the writing - like the fine marbelling of fat within the lean of a high quality steak that gives the whole its flavour. Humour and pathos mix perfectly as Dread finds himself thinking
At that moment what he was going to do seemed to fall along the lines of "die horribly, possibly while crying"
Small Kindnesses - by Joe AbercromieThe story spins around three women and the men who underestimate them. There is Shev the young but retired thief turned smoke house hostess, Carcolf the alluring blond siren from Shev's past still flinging temptation in her way, and there is the unconscious redhead. Though - as facebook told me only this morning - "It takes a special kind of stupid to piss of a redhead and expect calm"
Shev is the central sympathetic character, given to small kindnesses, to protecting others from their own foolishness, from striving to escape the trap of being the best thief in Westport. Maybe there was some stubborn stone in her, like the stone in a date, that refused to let all the shit that had been done to her make her into shit.
Shev, has her share of earthy passions but tries not to let these cloud her thinking too much.
She tore her eyes away as her mind came knocking like an unwelcome visitor. When you live in life's gutter, a certain caution has to be your watchword.
But in a grippingly related day that grows increasingly turbulent, our charming but diminutive heroine discovers that fate neither forgets, nor forgives a small kindness.
The Rat - by Mazarkis Williams
A boy, Emil, awaits his great-grandpa coming to stay, hoping for an insight into the past. In this well written tale a backstory of epic grandeur is distilled down to a child's eye view of a simple hut and four people sharing an evening warmed, inflamed even, by fires of history. The title at first seems misleading, the eponymous rodent and its feline huntress little more than shadows on the fringes of the lyrical prose. But by the end the story had put me in mind of the sad fate of the crew of USS Indianapolis, torpedoed in 1945 and left for days floating in shark infested waters, their numbers steadily and inevitably diminished until they were spotted and rescued by chance. A horror like that would etch deep into an old man's memory and so it is with great-grandpa curmudgeonly and distrustful when awake, restless and fearful asleep.
And for Emil the excitement of the new, not just great grandpa but his road companion the musician "young enough to hold his shoulders straight, but he carried snow in his hair." quickly gives way to questions he dare not ask, answers he does not want.
The Siege of Tilpur - by Brian McClellanI had heard of the powdermage series, but this was my first excursion into the world of magic and musketry that McClellan has created. It is a tale of warfare, of a desert siege, of prejudice, class and incompetence. Sergeant Tamas and his squad, serving the aristocratic General Seske are in the classic mould of the infantry lions led by officer donkeys as they bid to take the fortress that has never fallen. It also has shades of the Sharpe novels of Bernard Cornwell, the period feel (if not the generalship) more suited to the Napoleonic era than the first world war.
It is visceral action, but with very human heroes. For a moment I saw a hint of Blackadder goes Forth as Tamas explains his cunning plan to a disbelieving general clad in a silk dressing gown (perhaps one of General Melchett's cast offs?). As with most cunning plans, things do not run exactly smoothly, but then that is what makes the story so entertaining.
Mr Island - by Kristen Britain
A charmingly atmospheric tale of what happens when a strange traveller is welcomed to a small east coast community, all told with a true 19th century period feel by a narrator known only as Mrs Grindle. If Jane Austen and Jules Verne had been inspired by the story of Grace Darling to collaborate this might be the tale they came up with. Of propriety and love, science and shipwreck, mystery and loss.
As the layers of the story are peeled back, and truths are raised - in some cases from the sea bed - several themes enjoy a brief flash of illumination, as though from the sweep of a lighthouse beam. Women's emancipation, commercial advantage, luddite impulses, all flare in this skilful depiction of small town life exposed to new influences. But Mr Island and the woman whose kindness captures his heart form the spine to the story and prove that - no matter how small the space in which you stand - there is no limit to the direction in which you can look.
Jury Duty - by Jim ButcherThere have been many great courtroom dramas since Henry Fonda first swung a jury in "Twelve Angry Men" but when Harrry Dresden - Chicago's wizardly private investigator gets involved in an open and shut case the debate will be won with spells and claws more than words and points of law.
This fresh fast paced story was my first introduction to Harry Dresden and the cynical wit that permeates the writing as Harry first questions "What does justice have to do with the legal system?" and then observes of the judge "This was a woman who had seen a great deal, had been amused by very little of it, and who would not easily be made a fool."
Strings pulled beyond the courtroom threaten to make a mockery of justice, but for a hardboiled kind of guy, Harry has an unusually soft centre; when the lives or happiness of children are at stake... well let's just say you wouldn't want to be at the sharp end of any stake Dresden might be holding.
The Dead's Revenant - by Shawn Speakman
A bit like Delilah Dawson's tale of Monsieur Charmant, Shawn Speakman gives us the point of view of a main story antagonist. For 9000 words we walk with Tathal Ennis as he prepares to bring death and disaster to a sleepy English village. He has a certain amoral charm, an indifference to right or wrong as he draws people in with the spell of his words, or the words of his spell.
There is young Tim Becket "tossing in his sleep, his nightmares darker than the purpling new bruises that mingled with old yellow and green, all delivered by a grandfather who abhorred weakness." Tathal offers him an escape of sorts, not caring whether he takes it or not. There are old sisters and a not so young barmaid who all must yield and give Tathal what he wants lest he takes it anyway.
But Tathal does not dispense death and cruelty for its own sake. There is a darker purpose a deeper quest that he pursues, a destiny sown on a bloody battlefield of long ago. The names Camlann and Myrddin Emrys evoke links to a legend - to the legend - of dark age Britain.
A Goodreads target reached?!
So there we have it - an entertaining anthology by the great and the good. This is the 24th book that I have read and reviewed this year, far short of my goodreads target of 42 ... but hold on, if I treat each of these excellent short stories as a book read and reviewed, then I add 23 rather than just one to my total, and sail past my target with room to spare.
Hmm ... somewhat like that moment when Legolas brings down the Oliphant and all who ride in it in "Return of the King" and Gimli insists that counts as "just one."