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Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Rogues: A diverse and satisfying collection
Rogues, a short-story anthology by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, is a marvelously diverse collection of stories and genres, tied together by those scoundrels, those tricksters, those rascals, those rogues that you can’t help but love. I listened to it on audiobook and loved the experience, especially because a few of the readers were actors from Game of Thrones.
When I picked this up, I was most excited to hear two stories in particular: “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back,” by Neil Gaiman, and “The Lightning Tree,” by Patrick Rothfuss. Each of these took me back to a world that I already knew and loved.
Gaiman’s was a return to the London Below of Neverwhere, telling us a little bit more about the Marquis de Carabas, the suave, unflappable conspirator from that book. In this short story, however, he is a little less suave and a lot more flappable — and also more human. His self-creation (the Marquis de Carabas is not a person so much as a part he plays, down to his French accent) is motivated by a heady mix of vanity and sibling rivalry. In “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back,” we get to see more of the Floating Market, the mushroom people, and denizens of various London districts. The Marquis comes head to head with an old enemy, the Elephant who rules Elephant and Castle. After escaping the Elephant (he thinks), he ends up plunging both of them into deeper trouble with an even more sinister enemy — the Shepherds of Shepherd’s Bush. Ultimately, they escape the Shepherds, and the Elephant forgives the Marquis his debt. It’s basically Pulp Fiction, if Marsellus Wallace was an elephant and L.A. was filled with weird, often violent creatures who seem like they sprang from a hallucina… okay, so, it’s Pulp Fiction. And it’s great.
Rothfuss’s novella, “The Lightning Tree,” returned us to the world of Kvothe and Bast from the KINGKILLER CHRONICLES. In this story, we get a birds-eye view (that’s a joke, if you’ve read the story) of a day in the life of Bast, sometime before the Chronicler appears at the inn. He goes about his day performing different chores and tasks, always returning to the titular Lightning Tree, which is an unofficial meeting spot for the village’s children. In return for secrets, favors, and gifts, Bast helps the children with their problems or answers questions they have for him. Some of the problems and questions are simple. “How can I get out of trouble with my mum?” “How can you tell girl cats from boy cats?” etc. But some of the problems and questions require both vulnerability and ingenuity from Bast. One boy wants to know more about the Fae in return for a secret about where the second-most beautiful girl in the village takes her daily bath (Bast’s sexual encounters in this single day of his life number at least three). Bast’s answers about the Fae reveal more than they conceal, and I get the sense that even the boy walks away wondering if Bast is entirely human. Another boy wants help getting rid of his abusive father; Bast plays a trick that gets the father out of town for good, while also leaving the mother open to his sexual advances. Oh, Bast. Jo Walton wonders in her review if this story would be comprehensible to a reader not familiar with Rothfuss’ trilogy. I admit I wondered the same thing, but ultimately, I think it would. While there’s not a strong plot-based thru-line, the scenes with Bast are interesting and suggestive enough to make the story enjoyable even for those who haven’t spent a couple of days in Kvothe’s company. Rupert Degas narrated, making Bast sound even more sexy, mischievous, and detached.
While I enjoyed both of these stories a lot, my favorite from the collection was not set in a world from a pre-existing series. Scott Lynch‘s “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” was funny, imaginative, and thrilling; I hope Lynch writes more with these characters, because they’re great. His heroine, Amarelle Parathis, is the leader of a gang of retired thieves. By angering a local wizard, she gets roped into doing one last job. But the job proves more tricky than anything she’s done before — and she’s stolen the Death Spiders of Moraska, and mailed them postage due to her enemies. The wizard Ivovandas asks her to steal a street. Before it’s over, we get a glimpse of magical cocktails, hypnotic toads, a spring-heeled were-jackal, and some truly lovely cursing, courtesy of Amarelle’s friend Sophara. “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” is a classic heist story where thieves outwit their employers. Gwendoline Christie (aka Brienne of Tarth) narrated it, and she was wonderful — especially her acting of the fruity-voiced villain, who sounded like a noir femme fatale.
Two others in this vein — also completely enjoyable but not quite as memorable as Lynch’s contribution — were Joe Abercrombie’s “Tough Times All Over” (also read by Gwendolyn Christie) and “Tawny Petticoats,” byMichael Swanwick.
I also loved Phyllis Eisenstein‘s story “Caravan to Nowhere,” which follows the troubadour Alaric on his journey across a desert with a caravan in search of a mysterious and dangerous drug. Alaric himself was not as interesting as either the setting full of caves, oases, and mirages, or the caravan master’s drug-addled son who chases after illusory cities always on the horizon.
Another story I really enjoyed was Cherie Priest‘s “Heavy Metal,” set in a small mining town in Tennessee. The miners have unleashed something — a deadly toxin, a trapped spirit, or a little bit of both — and our mysterious hero calls upon both his Christian background and his pagan beliefs to subdue the threat and bring the land some peace. Eco-fantasy is fascinating to me, as is the intersection between religion and magic, so this story was very satisfying. Priest’s imagery was poetic and evocative, especially in the climax of the story when she describes the pagan spirits, leaving just enough to the imagination.
Because the anthology was focused on “rogues” as a concept and not on a particular genre of fiction, it included some wonderful stories from non-fantasy genres — westerns, spy thrillers, detective, literary fiction. Gillian Flynn’s contribution “What Do You Do?” genuinely terrified me while being, at the same time, solidly based in the mundane world of the real. Each of the characters seemed both believable and incomprehensible. In typical Flynn style, I never knew what was going to happen next and I loved it. Julia Whelan’s narration only added to the fun; she struck the right balance of irony, intelligence, and self-awareness, making the first-person narrator really relatable. I also really enjoyed “Bad Brass,” by Bradley Denton. It was a story about a sousaphone theft, which is probably the most interesting kind of theft I’ve read about since I read China Mieville‘s Kraken, and Gil Bellows narration left me with sympathy and admiration for the tough but tender-hearted main character. Finally, the story “Diamonds from Tequila” by Walter Jon Williams was a fun listen, mostly because the main character was such a strange guy. A successful but ugly Hollywood actor, famed for playing toughs, unravels the mystery of his girlfriend’s shooting, tracing it back to a Colombian drug cartel and a 3-D printer. The character was completely (and self-admittedly) narcissistic but it was fun to be in his brain for a little bit.
Finally, I did not actually like George R.R. Martin‘s contribution, which read like an encyclopedia entry on a historical character from Westeros, Prince Daemon Targaryen. Perhaps it would have worked on the page, but as I was listening, I longed for dialogue, setting, and direct action. Instead, it was a long-winded explanation of past events, breaking the classic writer’s rule “show, don’t tell.” While the backstory he’s created for his world is extensive and impressive, this story felt like it was just taken directly from Martin’s world-building notes.
On the whole, however, I loved the anthology and can’t wait to read more short fiction curated by Martin and Dozois. I think my next selection will be their collection, Dangerous Women.
*This review originally appeared here at FantasyLiterature.com, where I gave the book 4 1/2 stars.